Sometimes it seems that "upscale" chain restaurants -- those squat brick fortresses of glossy illustrated menus, Tiffany-style hanging lamps, and cookie-cutter meals -- are threatening to take over Northeast Ohio's casual dining scene. True, the chains' ability to deliver predictable meals at moderate prices, in a clean, not to say sterile, atmosphere, makes them a low-stress alternative for these high-anxiety times. But those same factors also help to "dumb down" the dining experience, minimizing the influence of regional and seasonal cuisine, reducing the opportunity to educate and inform the palate, and dulling what is ideally an intimate exchange between diner and host.
Apparently, the good people in Rocky River have figured all this out for themselves, if the near capacity crowd at the Saucy Bistro on a recent Saturday night is any indication. Shyla and Matt Barnes's classy little restaurant, across from Westgate Mall, makes a fine alternative to the spiritual and culinary banalities served up at the ubiquitous chain restaurants.
Instead of paper placemats and artificial flowers, Saucy Bistro gives you white linens, fresh blossoms, and candlelight. In place of a year-round menu of you-could-find-these-anywhere meals, the bistro menu includes fresh, seasonal dishes ranging from crisp-fried quail to Maine diver's scallops. Rather than an anonymous team of cooks slapping together assembly-line meals, at Saucy Bistro you get to watch as Chef Barnes and his assistant chefs, Sarah Lubecky and Paul Harvanec, perform their magic in the restaurant's tiny open kitchen. And in place of part-time hosts and hostesses who come and go with the breeze, diners are treated like honored guests by Shyla Barnes, who is quick to hang up a coat, pull out a chair, or rescue a misplaced umbrella on a rainy autumn night.
This is not to say that the Saucy Bistro is flawless. While dining here has generally been a satisfying and enjoyable experience, several dishes have demonstrated minor shortcomings, and service, at least on a bustling Saturday night, proved to be a hit-or-miss affair.
Our first disappointment came with an appetizer of assorted sautéed wild mushrooms and shallots piled into a light, flaky phyllo shell. Topped with a drizzle of thick, rich balsamic vinegar reduction, the tasty dish had been an unqualified success during our first visit. But on our second trip, and despite the fact that we were sitting so close to the open kitchen that we could feel the heat, some of the sliced fungi were notably cold.
Another letdown came with our special order of a vegetarian meal. Several options already exist for vegetarians on the bistro menu, including some wonderful salads and an interesting-sounding Vegetable Lasagna With Smoked Gouda. But this evening our vegetarian companion was feeling expansive and asked our server if Barnes would prepare him something wonderful as an alternative entrée. Our friendly server never missed a beat and assured us that Barnes would be happy to accommodate our desires. What our veggie-phile was eventually served, however, was certainly nothing special. The unimaginative dish consisted of a modest portion of linguine tossed with lots of bland grilled zucchini and yellow squash, and strips of roasted red pepper, in a mild herbed-butter sauce. (Our server told us it was the menu's Smoked Chicken Linguine, minus the chicken.) And once again, the food was cool when it arrived.
An entrée of red-pepper ravioli had a different problem. The five fat little pasta dumplings were stuffed full of a mascarpone and Gorgonzola cheese filling that was divine on the first bite, but overwhelmingly rich and salty by the third. The aromatic garlic-vegetable broth that cradled the ravioli was also very salty and did nothing to help balance the flavors. Three large tiger shrimp -- the final component of the dish -- were properly prepared and flavorful.
Veal scaloppine -- three modest-sized medallions of veal, pounded thin, dredged in flour, and sautéed -- was good, if not exceptional. Although the veal's delicate flavor was pleasantly enhanced with a subtly sweet Calvados-infused reduction sauce, two of the three pieces of meat were chewy. A side of hearty mashed potatoes, studded with smoky bits of bacon, would have been the ideal accompaniment to a robust steak; unfortunately, its very big taste overwhelmed the dainty veal. A second side dish of thin, crisp haricots verts was much more in keeping with the veal's refined nature, and its fresh green flavor and satisfying crunch added some much-needed dimension to the meal.
Our other complaint was with the wait staff. (On an earlier weeknight visit, service had been fine.) While our server was pleasant and seemed knowledgeable about the food, she was inattentive, leaving many essential details in the hands of the dining room's single overworked assistant. We got our breadbasket (with a pleasant kalamata-olive tapenade that we would have been loath to miss) only when we asked for it as our entrées were being served. We had to repeatedly request water refills and clean flatware. And because the table was never thoroughly cleared or crumbed, we ate our desserts while trying to ignore the errant shrimp tail that seemed to swim haplessly across the white linen tablecloth.
Still, Barnes et al turn out some absolute delights. A signature dish of fennel-crusted salmon was nearly flawless. Coated in an herbed rub and sautéed until crisp, then finished in the oven, the tender filet was settled on a tangle of braised red cabbage and sided with a stack of deliciously thin asparagus spears. A velvety vermouth cream sauce underpinned it all and helped the various flavors merge seamlessly into a satisfying whole.
An entrée of Maine diver's scallops was also wonderfully conceived and executed. The four big scallops -- approaching two inches in diameter -- had been wrapped in sliced pancetta and attentively grilled just until they reached the pinnacle of flavor. Whisked off the fire at the very moment of perfection, they were plated with a swoosh of creamy yellow tomato coulis that had been thickened with goat cheese, and a little mound of braised chard and oyster mushrooms. The sweet, nutty crustaceans were so gently done that they practically quivered, like custard, in their wrappers.
Another outstanding house specialty was the Bittaker Salad, named for a Barnes family friend who invented it. The blend of choice baby greens, topped with lots of creamy blue cheese crumbles and bits of deeply flavored bacon, and tossed with a mild, subtly sweet oil-and-egg emulsion dressing, hit just the right balance of sweet and salty flavors to thoroughly arouse our taste buds. A more assertively flavored spinach, goat cheese, and toasted walnut, pistachio, and pine-nut salad, dressed in a zesty whole-grain mustard vinaigrette, was equally fresh and wholesome.
Besides the sometimes-wonderful wild mushrooms, appetizer favorites have included crisp fried quail -- which visited some of the same culinary territory as Buffalo Wings -- in a novel, uptown fashion. In this case, the tiny fowl had been cut into bite-sized morsels -- two wings, two thighs, and two boneless slices of breast meat -- before being fried and served with braised greens and a rich veal reduction syrup.
A luscious crabcake appetizer, made of fresh Jonah crab, egg, mustard, and a touch of bread crumbs, was also a good choice; attentively sautéed and served with a zippy fennel slaw, the dish was a little bit sweet, a little bit salty, and a little bit sharp. And Lobster and Crab Wellington -- a pint-sized puff pastry stuffed with bits of crab and lobster, and presented on smoky braised spinach with a pretty pink shrimp-infused cream sauce -- managed to be richly satisfying, but subtle.
Desserts at the Saucy Bistro are homemade and include sweets like chocolate mousse cake and carrot cake, as well as satiny ice creams and tongue-tingling sorbets. We especially enjoyed a slice of frozen key lime pie: a powerful helping of cold creaminess with a good balance of sweet and citrus flavors, served in a graham cracker crust on an intricately feathered pool of intermingled kiwi and strawberry sauces.
If not everything is consistently perfect here, the bistro's legion of regular customers doesn't seem to mind. And it's easy to see why. An attractively appointed dining room with a distinctive decor, a menu of interesting seasonal dishes, and hands-on owners who know many of their guests by name can go a long way toward overcoming small lapses. In the ongoing battle with nationwide chains for consumers' casual, upscale dining dollars, places like Saucy Bistro -- authentic, creative, and engaging -- should come out on top every time.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at email@example.com.
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