Positively Cleveland should be grateful for what chef Ellis Cooley is accomplishing at Amp 150.
The tourism bureau markets Cleveland's world-class dining scene by organizing culinary tours and posting food-based itineraries on its website. But many business travelers never step foot out of their hotel room except to attend meetings. If those travelers are holed up at the Airport Marriott, they'll still leave town convinced that our food scene rocks.
Ignoring a restaurant because it resides in a hotel is not only unfair — it's unwise. Some of the best bistros in the world are housed in inns. Granted, those lodgings tend not to be situated in the flight path of descending airliners approaching a major airport.
Amp 150 replaced the aging Jack's Steakhouse in September 2009. It's the crowning touch on a $20 million makeover of the entire building: The hotel's owners not only redesigned the restaurant; they reconfigured the lobby so that the two entities seamlessly connect. Guests checking in at the front desk now have an unobstructed view of diners in Amp's lounge, and vice versa.
Airport hotel restaurants typically are more concerned with arrivals and departures than with carving out their niche in the city. But ever since landing in Cleveland — following eight years in New York City that included stints at the Hotel on Rivington and the New York Palace Hotel — executive chef Cooley has strived to become a part of the local food fabric. He and his restaurant volunteer at area fund-raisers. The kitchen routinely uses local ingredients. And the chef is becoming a regular on regional network television.
Best described as contemporary American, Amp's food is modern, original, clean, and focused, with the occasional pleasant surprise. The lengthy menu is split into sections for sharable items, small plates, entrées, and sides. And while the practice of dividing and subdividing menus can grow tiresome, the model works well at a hotel, where guests pop in at all hours of the day in groups of one to many. Items start as low as $4 for a plate of yeast-dusted house-fried potato chips and top out at $19 for a bone-in tenderloin. Most dishes, however, fall in the $8 to $15 range.
It's not uncommon to see airline employees in the lounge sipping local craft beers while sharing cracker-thin flatbreads ($10) topped with oyster mushrooms, Ohio goat cheese, and celery leaves. Other delightful starters include silky chicken-liver mousse ($6) paired with hearty grilled bread, and mussels ($8), braised in a kicky ginger- and lemongrass-spiked broth. A Latino-style chicken soup ($6) features a fortified broth garnished with avocado, jalapeño, cilantro, and irresistible corn dumplings. Better still is Amp's velvet mushroom soup ($5), named for this dreamy whipped bisque's ethereal texture.
At Amp, one needn't spend a lot to enjoy luxe seafood dishes. The "small bites" section of the menu offers elegant entrées in miniature, like copper-colored glazed cod ($9) served in a smoky onion broth dotted with edamame and bok choy. Scallop fans will go nuts for Cooley's take, deeply seared and presented with pea shoots, pickled ramps, and a seductive coconut cream.
Because the kitchen relies as much as possible on local ingredients, the menu undergoes frequent tweaks. In fall, a chunky pasta ($15) was enriched with fork-tender braised rabbit and wilted autumn greens. Heralding the arrival of spring, morel mushrooms gilded a remarkably flavorful roasted free-range chicken ($15); pairing the dish with a warm potato salad offered a fitting seasonal bridge between winter and summer. Of all the items we sampled, the only downers were a gamey, fatty flank of braised lamb ($15) and a filet of arctic char ($16) that was too mild, its flavor receiving no help from a timid saffron broth.
Given its breadth and depth, Amp's menu is murder on fickle foodies. Our suggestion? Leave the driving to Cooley by ordering the four- or six-course chef's choice tasting menu. Priced well below market at $30 and $45 respectively, the feast allows diners to enjoy a wide range of the kitchen's talents without calling a single shot. Ours ended with a sinfully delicious milk chocolate panna cotta, layered with salty caramel and crunchy hazelnuts.
At slightly more than half a year old, Amp 150 continues to upend stereotypes. The so-called "airport hotel" is in the midst of installing a quarter-acre garden that will supply the kitchen with sun-ripened herbs, fruits, and veggies. At this rate, Positively Cleveland may soon be sending hungry tourists back to the airport.
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