Frank and Malisse Sinito's 14,000-square-foot restaurant on the banks of the Cuyahoga River opened in January and replaces the former Lockkeeper's Inn, which was located a few hundred feet down the road in a historic if somewhat dilapidated building. The new restaurant is sort of the Cary Grant of Cleveland dining rooms -- handsome, refined, and, yes, charmingly old-fashioned, with a masculine arts-and-crafts decor and a big menu of upscale American-dream foods ranging from foie gras and caviar to prime rib and porterhouse steak.
The Sinitos' longtime executive chef, Pamela Waterman, fondly recalls a summer spent working at a two-star restaurant in Provence before she went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, and her classical orientation shows. Ingredients are top-shelf, preparation is painstaking, and presentation is artful but rarely ostentatious (the exception being the fanciful desserts, where whimsy is part of the fun). Sauces and reductions, like the rosemary jus beneath an extraordinarily succulent rack of lamb, are intense but sparingly applied. Fresh herbs and vegetables are employed to pique the palate. And composition -- the interplay of flavors on the plate -- is kept simple and unified.
Take the kitchen's almost spartan treatment of foie gras, for example. While sensible diners know that this fancy liver dish is most opulent in its simplest form, too many kitchens feel the need to tart it up with weird and competing flavors. But not so at Lockkeepers. Here, it is simply dusted with a bit of powdered almond, briefly pan-seared until a tissue-thin shell develops, then slipped into a shallow pool of translucent amaretto-flavored reduction that enhances but never masks the dish's perfect pulchritude. On the side, a bit of white raisin and Granny Smith apple chutney is tucked beneath three or four slim dried apple slices. Those crisp but pliable slices come in handy to urge every last speck of fruit and reduction onto a fork, while the foie gras actually melts on the tongue.
Like the food, the ambiance is sophisticated but restrained. Vast expanses of cherry paneling sheath the walls. Lighting fixtures seem to have come right out of the Frank Lloyd Wright design manual. And floor-to-ceiling windows provide a view of the Cuyahoga; it's just too bad that, lined with flotsam, jetsam, and construction equipment as it is, the river looks so dreary this time of year.
Despite the restaurant's impressive size, its three ground-floor dining areas feel relatively intimate. Tables are double-draped in ivory cloths and set with oil lamps, monogrammed service plates, and white napkins. Circular booths and banquettes provide much of the seating, and even when the place is packed -- which seems to be much of the time -- it is possible to carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice.
The upstairs portion of the building includes the Sommelier Room, a small private dining room lined with wine racks. This room, along with the comprehensive, expensive wine list, is a visible reminder that the restaurant takes its wine program very seriously. Indeed, master sommelier John Unger was a visible and congenial presence during both our lunch and dinner visits, offering quiet assistance and impeccable wine service, right down to providing a darling little white porcelain "tray" to receive the cork. Still, we couldn't help noticing that local radio personality John Lanigan and his party, seated beside us on a Saturday night, got even more attentive treatment: Unger poured their wine into a crystal decanter, so it could "open up a little," before he served it. "Humph," grumbled my man in a suit, "I know our wine is cheaper than theirs is, but that doesn't mean it couldn't use some 'opening up,' too."
But even if one isn't a celebrity, treatment is gracious and welcoming. Complimentary valet parking is a nice touch, as is having the host hurry over to assist with one's coat upon departure. Servers are knowledgeable, if perhaps a little chatty, and the pace is relaxed, albeit sometimes almost tediously so. (If you have after-dinner deadlines, it would probably be wise to alert your server.)
Besides foie gras, a warm Roquefort Torte made a fabulous first course. A neatly layered creation of chopped walnuts, a mousse-like combination of whipped blue and cream cheeses, and half a port-poached Seckel pear, the torte was a rich but not heavy riff on classic pairings. Salads, too, are worth consideration, with many of the dinner menu's side salads appearing as entrées at lunchtime. A Boston Bibb salad, for instance, built around a wedge of the pale, buttery lettuce, was a dazzling dance of textures, with its topping of roasted onion and applewood-smoked bacon and its light but savory Maytag blue-cheese dressing. And a springtime salad of baby spinach, bits of reed-slim asparagus, strawberries, and lush duck confit, in a lemon-poppyseed dressing, was flawless.
The only disappointment among the salads was a neat, lunchtime arrangement of greens, roasted tomato, grilled portobello mushroom, and goat cheese: While each individual ingredient was beyond reproach, in concert they lacked pizzazz. (But we perked it up by adding a spoonful of olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade, a robust, Provençal-style spread that came to the table with a selection of freshly baked breads.) The lunch menu also includes enticing-sounding entrées such as beef tenderloin pot pie, as well as a handful of plate-sized sandwiches. A sesame-crusted "burger" of ground tuna, red pepper, and shallots was packed with flavor and enhanced by grilled mango, a mustard glaze, and the scallion-flecked brioche bun. And a massive ground sirloin steakburger, served with slender, freshly cut french fries, was juicy and well seasoned.
At dinner, a lush rack of lamb (two thick, double-boned chops) was revved up by a zesty herb and mustard crust. And although the accompanying roasted garlic bread pudding was a trifle dry, it proved just right for inconspicuously soaking up the flavorful rosemary jus. However, the kitchen fumbled our porterhouse steak. Ordered medium-rare, it came out a dry, dusty medium. Loath to squander such a potentially fine meal, we asked to have it replaced. "It won't take long," our server assured us. But, in truth, it was nearly a half-hour before the new steak arrived; by then, the dinner had lost its momentum, and the steak came home in a box.
For dessert, pastry chef Anton Yeranossian's creations look as good as they taste. He turns a dense, dark chocolate soufflé, topped with a scoop of frozen champagne sabayon custard, into architecture by accenting it with a soaring spire of sesame-seeded wafer. And he constructs toothsome towers from saffron crème brûlée, caramelized pear, and a wheel of bittersweet chocolate mousse in his Winter Pear Tart Sablé.
To mark the changing of the seasons, Waterman and her team plan to debut a new menu featuring lighter, warm-weather fare. When greenery once again embraces the riverbanks and balmy nights return, it will be a happy pleasure to dine here on seasonal luxuries such as asparagus and strawberries, morels and pea pods. Oh, all right, I'll admit it: It beats eating pizza in my PJ's any day.
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