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Balancing Act 

Press brings the best of two worlds to Tremont

Not since Symon and Herschman ran dueling bistros across the street from one another has this end of Professor been so lively. But Mojo closed in 2003 and much of that energy went with it, despite the presence of some very good restaurants in its wake. All that changed with the opening of Press Wine Bar, a boisterous bistro with zero seats to spare.

Press is a "wine bar" in name alone as the breadth and quality of the food bares little in common with what typically passes as grub at others in the genre. Here, chef Rachael Spieth – formerly of Georgetown (nee Three Birds) – delivers a full bill of fare that literally runs from soup to nuts.

That wasn't always the plan, says co-owner Sherman DeLozier. The original strategy was to aim for the middle of the road food-wise, he told me, but then Spieth came on board and upped the ante. The result – an eatery that slides in comfortably between high-end and lowbrow – seems a much better fit for both block and neighborhood.

Judging by how hard it can be to nab a seat here, many apparently agree. A no-reservations policy means diners are seated on a first-come, first-served basis. On one visit, our party of five lucked into a communal high-top by the wine rack – the last seats in the house. On a separate Friday night, the joint was so packed two of us couldn't even squeeze in at the bar – so we split and returned on a weeknight. Of course, a place with this much glass and that many people and no carpet can get pretty stinking noisy – if that's a problem for you.

If and when you do sit down, look over the wine-on-tap list – the longest in town at eight selections – and pick one. While no less expensive than wine poured from the bottle, keg wine is considerably more dynamic in flavor and freshness. We've enjoyed both whites and reds, including a Napa cab ($9.50) and a French chardonnay ($9.50). An even meatier wines-by-the-glass and bottle list, plus an all-Ohio draft beer list, are conspiring to make this one of the busiest bars in Tremont.

Booze-friendly definitely is the theme when it comes to the grub. Ale-steamed mussels ($10) – the sweetest, plumpest I've enjoyed in months – come with plenty of grilled bread to soak up the herb, tomato and butter sauce. A zippy spice blend in the whipped yolks really kicks up the flavor profile on a platter of deviled eggs ($6). Each is garnished with a wee shrimp, pickled radish and a shower of microgreens. Whether or not you care for the seared tuna starter ($9) will depend on your fondness for or aversion to Asian five-spice powder, a divisive spice if ever there was one.

A meal could be made of the charcuterie board alone ($13/$20), a sprawling spread that includes five meats, five cheeses, plus spreads, nuts and crackers. Inspired topping combinations manage to divert attention from a lifeless crust on the flatbreads. The Pear ($12.50) is a riot for the senses, with earthy roasted pears, tangy blue cheese, crunchy almonds and sweet figs. The Pig ($12) is like the pizza version of a charcuterie board, with tender pulled pork, pickled red onion, sliced cornichons, and sharp mustard sauce.

A compact entrée selection has precisely one of everything: veggie pasta, finfish, shellfish, chicken and beef. A rosy-red sirloin steak ($23) is big and beefy, enriched by a flavorful demi. Prosciutto-wrapped monkfish ($21.50) succumbed to the usual hazard of the preparation – namely, the fish was overcooked. While autumnal in spirit, the braised cabbage and apple accompaniments matched well with the pork wrapper.

One of the dishes that made the biggest impression was, surprisingly, a sandwich. The crab burger ($12) is largely a crab cake in a bun, but the cake is light and crabby, the bun soft and buttery, and the slaw crisp and bright. Also a winner is the hot, toasted mortadella sandwich ($12), with griddled slices of meat, melted provolone, arugula, and sweet and spicy brown mustard.

Since my visits, Press has moved onto to its spring menu, meaning that you will very likely discover that some of the above-mentioned dishes are no longer available.

There's a lot to like about Press, but perhaps its most appealing quality is its lack of pretension. In Cleveland in general and Tremont specifically, diners are often forced to choose between fancy and sedate or fun and inferior. Here, a person can both dine well and have a blast while doing so.

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