Gigi's Surprises and Delights: In Which We Learn Never to Judge a Wine Bar by its Parking Situation 

On paper, Gigi's on Fairmount seemed doomed from the jump. Gia Ilijasic and husband James Patsch, both first-time restaurateurs, wanted to parlay a passion for home entertaining into a bona fide business. The optimistic amateurs planned to open a wine bar in a cramped space in an isolated strip with miserable parking. What's more, the former flower shop had never seen a stove and would require a pricey build-out just to get the doors open.

How's that working out for you?

Pretty damn good, as it turns out. Despite opening at the worst time of the year, Gigi's has been elbow-to-elbow most nights of the week. Squeeze through the door and you enter a magical little cocoon that feels a bit like a teen girl's dream bedroom. There are crystal chandeliers, mile-long mirrors, flickering candlelight, fluffy pillows, Mylar balloons and more than a few bright red kiss designs. It's playful, a welcome departure from many somber wine bars.

And that parking? Most of the regular guests are hardy Heights residents, many of whom ditch the wheels in favor of a puffy coat and a pair of all-weather boots. Those who do drive park nearby on a side street and brave the cold, knowing that a snug respite waits for them at the end of the short walk.

The proprietors here were wise to bite off no more than they can capably chew – and no more than their tiny kitchen could handle. The all-day menu starts with wine-friendly platters of charcuterie and cheese, rolls into soups and salads, and tops out with bruschetta and panini. For those who want something more substantial, two chef-driven features are always available – that is, until they no longer are.

Diners have their choice of a bread board ($4) with olive oil and balsamic – oddly not provided by next-door neighbor On the Rise Bakery – a charcuterie platter ($15) or a cheeseboard ($16). If there are three or more in your party, go for the "all of the above" ($24), which translates into a sizeable spread of olives, nuts, pickles, chicken liver pate, salumi and cheeses. For a wine bar with a limited menu, I'd like to see a more exciting assortment of cheeses than straightforward Brie, bleu, cheddar and Manchego. The charcuterie also could stand to be sliced a little thinner.

Given the time of year they opened, Gigi's has been doing a brisk business in soup. Over the course of a few visits we enjoyed hot and hearty bowls of chicken with saffron rice and beef mushroom barley. Other recent brews include butternut squash, white bean with kale, and potato, leek and bacon (all $6). There are a half-dozen well-crafted salads, ranging from a spring mix with pickled red onion, croutons and white balsamic vinaigrette ($7) to a classic frisee, complete with bacon lardons and an egg ($9).

Nearly half the menu is reserved for bruschetta and panini sandwiches. Warm, pressed and crunchy panini are filled with house-roasted turkey with brie, apples and fig chutney ($10), or Ohio ham, gruyere and honey mustard ($9). A signature item here is the bruschetta board, a pick-and-choose affair where diners select four varieties from a list of 12 ($17). The gourmet finger foods make the ideal accompaniment to a glass of sparkling rose or a bottle of Italian red. We enjoyed trout pate with radish and egg, and white bean spread with olive tapenade.

Makeshift kitchens often dispense makeshift food, but Gigi's manages to muster a pair of solid choices a night. While pricey, entrees like braised osso bucco with porcini mushroom risotto ($26), lush roast sea bass in a puff pastry crust ($28) with hints of lemon and truffle, and al dente cavatelli ($18) in a rich, meaty sauce are delicious, well crafted and seemingly designed around the limitations of the space.

Speaking of limitations: Gigi's tops out at roughly 45 people, and when full, which is the case most weekend nights, the small space can feel cramped. Despite the close quarters, servers manage to tightrope between tables, providing dependable service in a challenging setting.

Given that the bistro doesn't accept reservations, diners sometimes have to wait for a table, and the only place to do that is the tiny lounge in the rear of the dining room. Fortunately, it's as good a place as any to start drinking wine. The good-size list has plenty of unique options by the glass and bottle, and helpful tasting notes make pulling the trigger a breeze.

Speaking of Gigi's On Fairmount, Cleveland Heights

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