Café Society 

Fountain splashes Euro style on Moreland Hills

What an absolutely nonsensical idea, we all agreed, when we first learned of Fountain. Described as a European-style café, the spot planned to serve coffee in the morning, light lunch by day, tapas in the evening, and cocktails and dancing by night. Clearly another half-baked scheme by a virgin restaurateur, we figured Fountain was destined for the dustbin in under a year.

Not so fast ... Seems the market for European cafés is stronger than we assumed. Morning, noon, and night, this Fountain bubbles with life, proving that the concept may just be wacky enough to work.

If there's a better people-watching perch than Fountain, pour me a cocktail and point the way. Our foursome had an absolute blast one evening lounging on plush sofas just inside the front door, surveying the diverse sampling of humanity. Tipping finely crafted Pimm's Cups ($9) and Moscow Mules ($9), we spied young families, well-heeled empty nesters, slicked-back foreigners, and mature singles on the prowl.

When hunger struck, we ordered a few snacks from our server, who always seemed present. Over generous platters of charcuterie, mini cast iron crocks of savory lamb meatballs, and succulent braised-beef-filled ravioli, the four of us sipped, chatted, and nibbled. Later, we tacked on orders of house-made chorizo-stuffed crêpes and glasses of crisp Austrian Gruner ($10). Never did we feel compelled to order more food, relinquish our seats, or pay our tab.

And therein lies the charm — and the objective — of Fountain. Like the namesake water sculptures that grace the heart of every European village, Fountain aims to serve as an informal gathering place for neighbors and friends. It is the personal vision of Iris and Steve Wheeler, East Siders who met in Munich and pined for the lazy café lifestyle they so enjoyed in Western Europe. The fact that they chose a vanilla strip in Moreland Hills as the site of this café — and that it seems to be thriving — is the most astonishing part of the story.

During a weekday lunch, I stepped off the parking lot and into a pine-sheltered front patio complete with gurgling fountain. Fresh roses graced the tables, and the outdoor furniture would have looked at home in Randy Lerner's backyard. When lunch arrived, my companion, a noted food stylist, remarked on the beauty of her dish: a perfect wedge of salmon torte composed of alternating strata of rosy house-smoked salmon, pale green avocado cream, and lemon-yellow crepe, as pretty as Tiffany stained glass.

The only thing that would have made my Croque Madame any better was if it was free. Built on plush brioche, with smoky Black Forest ham and melted gruyère, the French toast-like sandwich was capped off with a perfectly runny (local) egg.

In charge of the menu is chef Donna Chriszt, a veteran of the Cleveland restaurant scene. That she is able to turn out such lovely, delicious food from her ill-equipped kitchen — one that lacks even a range — is a testament to her ingenuity.

That kitchen is also the source of one of the restaurant's true faults: its limited scope. A light breakfast of German sausage, soft pretzel, and café au lait is fine for mornings. Salads and sandwiches are naturals at midday. But to truly build a diverse and satisfying dinner here would be a challenge, and an expensive one at that. The four of us found ourselves divvying up three-piece dishes like drunken surgeons. And regardless how plump and perfect a shrimp or ravioli might be, nobody wants to spend $17 or $13, respectively, for a trio of them.

Those high prices seem at odds with Fountain protocol. Guests are encouraged to linger all day over a single cup of coffee. The ratio of staffers to customers puts tony private schools to shame. And clearly no expense was spared in reproducing an Old World café and furnishing it with fine china. Don't skimp on quality. Just give diners more reasons to dine — and stay.


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