You've got to admire the concept behind Pickwick & Frolic, entrepreneur Nick Kostis's ambitious new establishment on otherwise-shabby East Fourth Street: Give the region an exciting entertainment venue -- complete with a restaurant, cabaret, comedy club, and chic martini bar -- and you'll not only provide a unique diversion for amusement-starved Northeast Ohioans, but in the process, you just might pump some life into the faintly beating heart of Public Square.
A degree in urban planning isn't required to appreciate that goal -- or to be impressed by Kostis's willingness to invest $5 million and five years of his life to bring it to fruition. And while only time will tell if his great expectations will lead to long-term success (the place has been open only since September), it's clear that Pickwick & Frolic has already struck a chord among trendinistas. Sure, in the downstairs cabaret on a recent Saturday night, a perky girl group sang "Jingle Bell Rock" to an audience of no more than five, and the 10:30 p.m. show at Hilarities (the 425-seat comedy club, successor to Kostis's original in the Warehouse District) was somewhat less than packed. But weekday lunch hours in the restaurant have been consistently hopping, Saturday late nights in the martini lounge are jammed, and the midnight bustle at the entrance off East Fourth is nearly as electrifying, in a Midwestern sort of way, as Times Square on New Year's Eve, just before the ball drops.
It's all good fun, from the valet parking and the little gift shop to the wandering magicians and the nationally known comics. But first and foremost, management says, Pickwick & Frolic is all about the 185-seat restaurant: That being the case, we only wish the kitchen served up more sizzle and less fizzle.
Although Kostis credits Charles Dickens's comedic Pickwick Papers for providing much of his inspiration, don't expect anything even vaguely Dickensian about the restaurant's two comfortable dining rooms, smart open kitchen, and long, granite-topped bar. Rather, the expansive space is something of a stylistic hodgepodge, with elements -- embroidered upholstery, crystal chandeliers, and velvet draperies, say, versus boldly colored European advertising posters, sleek black tabletops, and cobalt-and-crimson halogen pendant lamps -- that ping-pong between Ye Olde Opulence and pared-down contemporary cool.
That sense of "design by committee" extends to the food, a far-ranging collection of steaks, seafood, pastas, pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and gussied-up bar noshes, and it's not surprising to learn that the menu of "rustic American cuisine" was developed over the course of several years by Kostis and the manufacturers of the kitchen's signature stone oven and wood-fired rotisserie grills. While several professional chefs have provided consultation, this is clearly a kitchen whose identity hangs on the use of its wood-burning equipment, rather than on the proclivities or interests of any one particular chef. Certainly, that makes a lot of sense for a large-scale operation like this one, where a change in key personnel could otherwise leave the kitchen in a tizzy. Unfortunately, it also may explain why the food often seems soulless and impersonal -- on a par, say, with Applebee's or T.G.I. Friday's.
Too frequently, meals are marred by oddly conceived, poorly executed, and bleakly seasoned dishes that can leave a diner shaking his head in dismay. In a spectacularly egregious example, the kitchen somehow transformed a gorgeous-looking, spice-encrusted 16-ounce rib steak -- a cut that should have been shouting with flavor -- into a mute and lifeless piece of meat. How bad was it? We actually found ourselves dipping it in ketchup to choke down a few bites. "It's been 30 years since I put ketchup on a steak," a companion rightly groused, "and never before have I done so with a $27 one!"
Then there were the bland fillings in an amply sized appetizer of chewy stuffed-and-fried wontons (the Pickwick Purse Sampler): the chicken-filled wonton no more interesting than a fast-food McNugget, the finely chopped mushroom one merely recognizable, and the seafood-stuffed purse so indistinguishable that, in a blind taste test, the filling could have passed for cream cheese. Likewise, an app of oyster-and-artichoke fritters -- soft pillows of deep-fried fluff -- carried all the culinary impact of cotton balls; indeed, the dipping sauces of whole-grain mustard aioli and mild horseradish cream were the most interesting part of the dish.
A special of overcooked salmon and undercooked roasted red-skinned potato wedges in a wee droplet of green-pea puree was too dull to eat, let alone write about. Desserts -- both an unripe poached-and-grilled pear and a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and stale brownie crumbs -- were a yawn. And even our waitress couldn't distinguish between the kitchen's milky cream of potato soup and its milky ham-and-cheddar ale soup: When a companion and I finally realized that we had been served two bowls of the same type of soup, rather than one bowl of each, as we had requested, our cheerful server explained the error by saying, without a touch of irony, that she simply wasn't able to tell the two apart.
There was more of a flavor punch in a wood-grilled street taco (marinated flank steak, roasted pepper, and mild white Chihuahua cheese wrapped in a grilled corn tortilla, sided with a juicy grilled lime and sour cream, and served at both breakfast and lunch). But here, the texture of the grilled tortilla -- too rubbery to cut with a knife, too limp to eat out of hand, and too chewy to complement the filling -- was a miss. We eventually just plucked out the goodies and pushed the empty hull to the side.
A lush-sounding prime-rib sandwich, with slices of rotisserie-grilled beef, sautéed mushrooms and onion, and melted mozzarella and Gruyère cheeses folded into a hearth-oven-baked loaf of flatbread, was equally ho-hum. It wasn't so bad, actually, that it turned out to taste a lot like Mr. Hero's Philly cheesesteak. What was annoying, though, was the way the scant amount of filling got lost inside the huge expanse of bread.
Yet if the lackluster food was a disappointment, not so the annotated wine list, a user-friendly collection of reasonably priced, approachable vintages from around the globe, crammed with tasting notes, food-pairing suggestions, and interesting tidbits about the wines and their makers. Besides being a well-organized, entertaining read, the list is also one of the few in Cleveland to promote wine flights: three 2-ounce pours of wine related by varietal, style, region, or producer. For instance, an Italian flight offered a Pinot Grigio, a Barbera, and a Super Tuscan for $6.50; an R.H. Phillips Dunnigan Hills sampler served up a 2000 Chard, a '99 Merlot, and a '00 Cabernet for $6. It's an example many other local restaurants could do well to follow.
So sure, head over to Pickwick & Frolic for a Hilarities show and have a few laughs. Afterward, throw back a chi-chi martini or a glass of wine in the martini lounge, and revel in the newfound sense of magic on East Fourth Street. The glow of excitement here is real. But until it eventually finds its way into the kitchen, you may want to make your dinner reservations elsewhere.