You get the feeling that Jeff Uniatowski did a lot of thinking during the years he spent in other people's kitchens. Like pondering how to blend elements of elegance and modernity into a friendly but unmistakably upscale environment. Or how to staff a restaurant so that no guest's needs go unfulfilled. And mostly, you suspect, he spent a lot of time considering how to infuse fresh American foodstuffs with an intensity of flavor and style that is often nothing short of miraculous.
All that thinking has obviously paid off, for Uniatowski's new restaurant, Mise, is a gem. The name (pronounced meeze) comes from the phrase mise en place, a culinary term describing the routine by which a chef ensures everything is in order before he gets cooking. And it's as apt a moniker as any for this well-organized but oh-so-creative place.
Culinary Institute of America graduate Uniatowski says he had his eye on the space, formerly the home of Jeso, for nearly a decade, first while he toiled at Sammy's, and later while he starred as executive chef at Playhouse Square's Ciao Cucina. The room's high ceilings, its flowing floor plan, and the dramatic windows with their view of handsome Clifton Boulevard understandably captivated him. In the months before he opened, he sank a small fortune into covering the walls in deep shades of navy, purple, and gold, reupholstering banquettes in crushed black velvet, turning a smaller side-room into a cushy, leather-filled smoking lounge, and transforming the open kitchen into a slick, stainless-steel showcase for his art. The result is an expansive but remarkably intimate restaurant highlighted by bare black tabletops, a few colorful abstracts by Cleveland artist Jim Morana, and the ever-moving cadre of servers, all turned out in green or gold banded-collar shirts and black trousers.
In clement weather, the action extends onto the pretty brick patio, a cheerful space that draws diners toward the restaurant's front door like bees to the red, red rose. Bedecked with crimson-umbrella-topped tables set amid a veritable garden of blooming potted flowers and wrought iron, the patio is one of the city's nicer spots for alfresco dining.
As for the food, it's a merry blend of all-American ingredients tossed with classical technique, contemporary sensibility, and a pinch of modern Asian influence. Homey pan-seared chicken breast, for example, is stacked up with three big but delicate, goat-cheese-stuffed pierogi, a handful of whole baby carrots, and a verdant shrubbery of baby bok choy, all drizzled with a deeply flavorful chicken glaze. Fat, buttery sea scallops are given a crust of finely ground coffee, piled atop dainty hazelnut spaetzel, and spiked with tomato confit. And plump roasted cabbage rolls are nothing like mama used to make, filled as they are with a blend of finely ground chicken and sweet potato, and kissed with a sweet and salty reduction.
In fact, the attention-grabbing interchange of the sweet and the salty shows up throughout Uniatowski's cooking, from the juxtaposition of a honey-like roasted garlic sauce against a pancake of Stilton-cheese-spiked hash-browns in the outstanding Grilled Beef Tenderloin entrée, to the sweet butter, blended with capers and herbs, that accompanies an assortment of rustic breads. Beyond playing with flavors, the chef also contrasts temperatures and textures to make his culinary point. The technique is nowhere better demonstrated than in an inspired appetizer of Summer Ratatouille, a tangle of warm but still-crunchy zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, and red onion threads marinated in a sweet-and-tangy tomato vinaigrette and topped with a scoop of pink, opal-basil-infused ice: The dish is so unexpectedly delightful that a companion, trembling with evangelical fervor, has to be restrained from commanding people at nearby tables to order it!
Almost as recklessly wonderful is the Grilled Whole Calamari, a thin, smoky wrapper of tender squid, embracing, sushi-style, a filling of shredded duck confit settled on a pair of sauces -- sweet red pepper coulis and a perky soy-scented glaze -- and neatly arranged around a salad of green cucumber "noodles." If the remarkable appetizer has a flaw, it is that it is so rich and earthy, it risks dulling the appetite for the entrée yet to come.
Besides the luscious grilled beef tenderloin and the succulent chicken, main course choices include lamb, veal, and fish, most of which arrive crowned with sprigs of fresh herbs or a colorful, edible nasturtium blossom. A vertical arrangement of peanut-crusted walleye, settled on a cylinder of risotto-like herbed rice and ringed with julienned summer veggies, is wonderfully light-textured, but deeply imbued with flavor from a tomato-and-tarragon- infused oil. Even more intense is a composition of sliced lamb loin floating on mashed sweet potatoes that have been corralled inside a ring of thinly sliced, roasted potatoes and studded with pearly little onions and tiny florets of crisp broccoli, then set ashimmer with a savory black-currant glaze. Admittedly, these are busy plates; but Uniatowski's deft touch edges the multitudinous ingredients toward a blessed, and full-bodied union.
Like their boss, Mise bartenders aren't tight-fisted with the flavors. A Tanqueray and tonic is big, robust, and made -- just as we requested -- with an extra shot of Rose's Lime, for zing. A Mise martini, with Ketel One and Stilton-stuffed olives, makes us feel as sophisticated as Fred Astaire; a powder-puff-pink Cosmopolitan, with Cointreau, Absolut Citron, and cranberry juice, almost has us dancing on the tabletops. Besides the generous mixed drinks, which somehow strike us as the best match for the concentrated flavors coming out of the kitchen, a concise little wine list offers an international assortment of reds and whites; prices range from $19 to $65 by the bottle, and $6 to $9 by the glass.
Uniatowski's flair for the intense and innovative continues with the evening's desserts, his tongue-in-cheek version of Coffee and Doughnuts now taking its place among the things we dream about at night. When Mise opened this past spring, the "coffee" was a demitasse filled with a light and creamy espresso mousse, and the "doughnuts" were three hot and sugary triangles of deep-fried dough. But now that warmer weather has arrived, the "coffee" is an icy cylinder of rich espresso semifreddo sided by a half-dozen bite-sized pieces of sweet fried dough. A perfect pairing of gustatory yin and yang, the dessert is a meditation on taste and texture.
A Black Forest Ice Cream Sandwich is also fun, with black-cherry-studded ice cream resting between two thin disks of fudgy, flourless, chocolate cake, topped with whipped cream and given height by two long, semisweet chocolate "chopsticks." However, the Mise version of a root beer float requires a more mature palate, with its slab of dense milk-chocolate cake topped with sharp and peppery ginger gelato, then doused tableside with a blend of vodka, rum, and ginger ale. The one-two punch of ginger and booze momentarily takes our breath away, but we recover in time to eagerly spoon up every drop and crumb. A carafe of French-press coffee, as dark and smooth a brew as ever warmed a cup, is the perfect foil.
Service here is worthy of the food, with a team of knowledgeable, enthusiastic staffers happy to do whatever it takes to ensure satisfaction. As a result -- despite the sometimes risky-sounding menu items and the slick decor -- Mise has the welcoming feel of a neighborhood restaurant. And, in fact, the still-new establishment already seems to have more than its share of regulars, ranging from young professionals to sophisticated seniors.
Obviously, they all know a great place when they see one.
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