Sometimes a few slip-ups in the kitchen can almost seem like a good thing -- particularly when they help shine a light on gracious service.
Take our recent Saturday night visit to M Bistro, Peter Diamantis and George Voutsiotis's well-dressed, 220-seat Westlake dining room, which used to be Mosaica. It began with the tale of the tardy pizza, wherein the backed-up kitchen took a good half-hour to produce our snazzy little wild-mushroom, fontina, and thyme number, ordered as a starter for two. It helped enormously that, once it arrived, the rustic, wood-fired flatbread proved worth the wait, with a chewy-crisp, cornmeal-dusted crust and a slather of earthy toppings imbued with subtle smokiness. But what really made the delay a non-issue was our waiter, David Scott, a true professional who saw to it that our martini glasses remained full and that plenty of bread and dipping oil were provided. He also delivered frequent updates on our pizza's progress, so we never once felt slighted or ignored.
And then there was the saga of the short-changed salad, an evening special that Scott had described for us in mouthwatering detail: There would be smoked salmon, thinly sliced onion and, best of all, plums, tossed with greens in a light vinaigrette. It sounded wonderful, and when it arrived, it tasted pretty good, too -- except for the plums, that is, which turned out to be AWOL. (Okay, so we didn't notice the omission until much of the salad was merely a happy taste-memory; that's the downside of all those pre-dinner martinis!) It took just a casual mention of the missing plums to send Scott off to consult with a manager; as a result, the price of the à la carte offering was deducted from our tab.
A commitment to gracious service isn't all that makes the former Mosaica impressive, though. Minor snafus aside, the food is very good -- far better, in fact, than when we first visited 18 months ago. At that time, the menu was a lengthy collection of ambitious, expensive, and labor-intensive oeuvres like seared foie gras, white-cheddar-stuffed veal chops, and warm oysters on the half-shell, garnished with creamed leeks, vermouth, and American sturgeon caviar. Appetizer prices soared as high as $15, and 3 of the 17 or so entrées boldly shattered the $30 barrier (above which most Midwesterners develop a severe case of fiscal indigestion). And while even free-spending diners would rightly expect such prices to purchase superlative meals, we found too many misses among the fancy dishes coming out of the kitchen.
Perhaps in response to some of those problems, last October saw Diamantis and Voutsiotis installing well-credentialed Californian chef Kurt Steeber in the kitchen; the new chef quickly set about infusing Mosaica with a kickier, more contemporary West Coast sensibility. Then, in April, management took the next step in the process of repositioning the restaurant, abandoning the pricey, "special-occasion" menu in favor of sleeker, more modestly priced bistro fare, and changing the restaurant's name to better announce the transformation. (Never mind that a 220-seat "bistro" is an oxymoron.)
As it turns out, Steeber parted ways with the restaurant shortly before our mid-June visits, and Diamantis, an alumnus of the kitchen at Johnny's Bar, took over the duties of executive chef. Happily, he and his staff hit the ground running: Food items, ranging from sandwiches, gourmet pizza, and cheddar-and-Guinness fondue to walleye, roast chicken, and hanger steak, are composed of quality ingredients, handsomely presented, and infused with massive flavors.
The taste and tenderness of the various meats coming out of the kitchen particularly impressed us. Milky white veal, the star of a classic Marsala dish (a weeknight special), had a silken texture just shy of butter. Rivulets of juices ran freely from two thick, roasted pork chops. And nothing sharper than a fork's edge was required to cut into a succulent hanger steak.
The kitchen often leans on chutneys and fruit sauces to add sweet contrast to the savory meats. The pork chops, for instance, fired in the wood-burning oven and sided with a creamy polenta cake, were slathered with a compote of sun-dried cherries; a vertical stack-up of herb-crusted hangar steak, sautéed spinach, and roasted potato wedges was anchored to the plate by a heady jam of roasted shallots and dried, chopped apricots.
The delicate glaze that draped the veal Marsala also reiterated the sweet-versus-savory theme: neither cloyingly sugared nor stridently boozy, it was one of the best-balanced Marsala sauces we've come across. A topping of sautéed wild mushrooms added dark, woodsy notes to the exceptional dish, and a pouf of creamy mashed potatoes was just right for absorbing all the rich flavors.
Flawless trimmed flat-iron steak, with a juicy cranberry-and-veal reduction, a crisp topknot of shredded and fried potatoes, and more of those mashed potatoes, was sturdy and satisfying fare, although the kitchen could have used a heavier hand when applying the steak's crushed-peppercorn crust. But a clever reinterpretation of homey walleye, potatoes, peas, and carrots -- now composed of a pearly filet of succulent fish, atop a crunchy-edged potato cake, in a precisely divided pool of orange carrot and green pea purée -- left nothing to be desired: Simple and wholesome in concept, yet sophisticated in execution, the dish deserves to become a house specialty.
Since the restaurant opened in 2001, its opulent decor has been a study in simulated splendor, with Corinthian columns, cherub-painted ceilings, painstakingly aged frescoes, and rustic stone floors, and the look -- a sort of movie-set re-creation of an ancient Mediterranean temple, incongruously perched near the shores of Lake Erie -- remains mostly unchanged. But while we generally prefer less artifice in our surroundings, it must be said that, with its white tablecloths, candlelight, fresh flowers, and burbling central fountain, the interior has charm. And taken as a whole, with the flavorful food, wallet-friendly prices, and gracious service, the setting helps make a meal here feel special while reinforcing the sense of value. (A large, landscaped patio should be debuting any day now, too.)
The revised wine list, neatly bound in a three-ring folder (all the better to accommodate frequent updates), includes plenty of interesting choices, priced at less than $30 per bottle; we were also pleased to find a small but solid listing of options by the half-bottle and by the glass. Generously sized mixed drinks, such as a burly Bombay Sapphire martini, up, with blue-cheese stuffed olives, or a dainty-sounding Stoli Orange martini, with grenadine and a slice of fruit, were potent enough to kick serious butt; priced at less than $8, they were considerably less expensive than the ones served up at other trendy West Side watering holes.
Two classic fondues also have added to the M Bistro menu. The first, a companionable appetizer for two or more, found us sweeping florets of steamed broccoli and cubes of chewy-crusted bread through a pot of thick, sharp, cheddar-cheese sauce, mellowed by the addition of smooth Guinness stout.
If possible, the second fondue option -- a dessert offering -- was even more delightful, with its blend of warm, semi-sweet Belgian chocolate and heavy cream, pillowy puffs of marshmallow, and oversized, but slightly under-ripe, strawberries for dipping. The sauce was so unctuously sleek and indulgent, in fact, that once we'd polished off the marshmallows, we pushed aside the too-tart berries and had at the remaining chocolate with a spoon, a detail that apparently didn't escape the notice of our watchful server: When our check arrived, we saw that he had knocked two bucks off the dessert cost to make up for the sour berries.
Tart tastes notwithstanding, service that good is downright sweet.