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DRESS AND IMPRESS 

Bodega was always stylish. Now it boasts a substantive menu too.

At one time, people actually dressed up to go out to eat on Coventry Road. These days, it's all flip-flops and sports jerseys.

With Bodega, Said Ouaddaadaa hoped to reverse the trend, to create a place where a guy in a tie wouldn't look like a dork. He transformed a lower-level space, formerly an art supply store, into a stunning South Beach-style restaurant and lounge. Going against Cleveland convention, he crafted a creative menu of Mediterranean small plates. He rounded out the plan with 150 martinis and 200 wines. And just like that, people began to dress up again on Coventry.

Despite what we've come to expect from a bodega (gritty corner market peddling 40s), this grotto was designed with a Miami state of mind. "I love South Beach," Ouaddaadaa tells me. "I go there all the time and spend money. I thought, why not bring Miami to Cleveland?"

Set a few steps below street level, the mod space welcomes guests with a sleek waterfall, spectacular crystal chandelier and gauzy linens. There are specific zones for dining, sitting bar-side, or kickin' it South Beach-style on plush banquettes. A backlit bar fills the room with a ruby-red glow, a striking contrast to the white drapes, white tables, white chairs and white-granite bar top.

As appealing as this formula was, there was still room for improvement. Bodega's original menu lacked focus, included more than a few duds, and its execution could be hit or miss. But thanks to a new chef, new menu and new crew, Bodega clearly is hitting its stride. Talented young chef Demetrios Atheneos, formerly of Bella Lucca and Giovanni's, has reworked the menu, giving it both a renewed clarity and broader appeal. And because this is Cleveland, after all, he added a section for entrées.

The menu is divided into categories for tapas (both hot and cold), short plates (salads, odds and ends) and entrées. Diners are always griping about tapas, not quite sure where they fit in the appetizer-entrée-dessert paradigm. Here, they are essentially large appetizers, with more than enough food for four to sample and share.

Though big enough to share, I largely enjoyed the crispy chicken livers ($8) all by myself. The chef dusts the livers in flour and pops them in the fryer, giving them an addictively crisp shell. He perches the livers atop creamy polenta, splashes them with a sweet glaze and tops it all with fried shallots. On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, the tuna tartar ($9) is bright and bracingly tropical. Finely diced sushi-grade tuna is layered above creamy avocado, sweet mango and pert arugula. A fragrant sesame oil and mild chili sauce add some depth.

Asian accents appear throughout the menu, like in the case of the absolutely killer calamari ($8). The meaty rings are coated in a sesame-seed-studded breading, fried up golden brown and squirted with a sweet-spicy honey-wasabi aioli. Providing only a slight twist on the French classic, the chef coats a pair of bone-in lamb chops ($12) with mustard, herbs and panko before roasting them off. They are nestled into whipped potatoes and drizzled with a wine reduction.

The "Short Plate" section offers a sort of pit stop between starters and mains, featuring mostly salads and spreads. There's a romaine salad ($6) with applewood bacon, grape tomatoes and creamy blue-cheese dressing. Then there is the wonderful grilled halloumi cheese ($10), a nod to the chef's motherland. A thick wedge of the pleasantly salty Greek cheese is sautéed until warm and deeply caramelized. It is paired with tapenade and served with warm pita.

Entrées, while tasty, are less exciting than many of the small plates. For beef eaters, the steak dianne ($31) is a luxurious treat. Two good-sized tenderloins are seared and sauced with a dark mushroom-studded wine sauce. Pasta lovers will doubtless enjoy the shrimp ravioli ($24), which pairs large shrimp with pillowy pockets of mushroom ravioli in a light cream sauce.

Like the room around it, the plates that hit the table are highly conceived. As delightful to look at as they are to poke with a fork, the food is artfully arranged, garnished and plated. Most are crowned with a generous handful of fancy Chef's Garden greens. Desserts are even prettier. It's obvious the chef takes pride in his work.

Despite all that splendor, I think the restaurant would be wise to add some more affordable options. Out of two dozen small plates, only five are priced less than $8. Most of the entrées are north of $24. As hard as Ouaddaadaa might try to change matters, this is still Coventry.

dining@clevescene.com

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