Mel Rose, the Taverne of Richfield and the old Coliseum will forever be linked by an ill-fated love triangle that ultimately resulted in the death of all three. For nearly 20 years, Rose operated the historic restaurant that feasted on the business spilling out from his high-profile neighbor. But when the Cavaliers split town and the Coliseum crumbled, Rose's beloved Taverne limped along for two years before doing the same.
After a 13-year hiatus, the Taverne of Richfield is back, opened last fall by virgin restaurateur Craig Johnson. A retired telecom executive who grew up in the area, Johnson aims to restore the glory days of the Mel Rose era.
"I know I have big shoes to fill," he says. "Everybody is always saying how great and busy it was back when Mel owned it."
The way Johnson sees it, recent trends give today's Taverne of Richfield better odds of success than even the original had. Scores of new residential developments have replaced the in-and-out visitors of Rose's day with full-time neighbors. And those residents, many of whom are well-off empty-nesters, are seeking the same caliber cuisine found in bigger burgs like Cleveland and Akron.
Who better, then, to satisfy those big-city cravings than a big-city chef? Most recently at Touch Supper Club in Ohio City, Jeff Fisher knows a thing or two about attracting diners to a "challenging" location. He does so by cramming huge flavors into modern yet approachable dishes. He is an advocate of local, seasonal foodstuffs, and his appetite is well fed by the farms and farmers of the nearby Cuyahoga Valley.
It's safe to say that Rose's Taverne never served items like deviled eggs ($6) plucked from the nests of local free-range birds. Spice-dusted whipped yolks are piped back into the whites, and the split eggs roost atop slices of zesty chorizo. (On one recent visit, all the dish lacked was the promised greens.) Korean sliders ($8) — intensely flavorful marinated beef slipped into soft white buns — come three to a plate. Pickled veggies add the snap; soy-ginger mayo adds the lube.
Available as an appetizer ($8) or married with lobster to form a lavish entrée ($26), Fisher's housemade ricotta gnocchi is an opulent treat. As a starter, the bouncy nubs are tossed with roasted tomatoes, arugula, basil oil, and plenty of parmesan. The kitchen also turns out appetizer portions of beer-steamed mussels pomme frites ($12), herb-dusted grilled flatbread ($6), and a goat cheese tart ($9) baked with Lake Erie Creamery cheese.
Entrées are a mix of yesterday and today, with contemporary dishes sharing menu space with conservative chestnuts. In deference to the old-schoolers, Fisher explains, items like veal schnitzel and chicken parmesan have been updated rather than expunged. That schnitzel ($16), for example, now arrives bearing a lingonberry gastrique. Straddling the line between old and new is a hefty one-pound bone-in pork chop ($20), topped with soy-braised mushrooms and a drizzle of spicy aioli. The chef's grilled scallops ($23) might best be described as timeless, sporting a good sear and laid to rest in a buttery smoked-tomato sauce with bacon, leeks, and corn. In the au courant column is braised oxtail ravioli ($19) perfumed with truffle, lemon, and parmesan.
Perhaps the most dated feature of the menu — apart from the grim wine list — is the custom of pairing each (and every) dish with the same starch and vegetable. Granted, Fisher's decadent potatoes au gratin and farm-fresh green beans are delicious, but nothing screams blue-hair like the phrase "All entrées come with the starch and vegetable du jour." And while we're on the topic of dated: Something needs to be done about the filthy dining room carpet, which very likely was walked upon by Rose himself.
But evenings at the Taverne end on a high note — especially for those who order dessert. We savored every bite of ours, a dense orange-scented olive oil cake ($7) crowned with homemade goat cheese ice cream. At once sweet, tart, and savory, the dessert left an absolutely delightful taste in our mouths and minds. Another, the almond panna cotta ($7), is garnished with a chunk of local honeycomb.
Like musicians, chefs maintain a portfolio of work, and it's not uncommon for them to reprise their hits at future gigs. Fisher, at least for now, seems to be relying too much on performing his classics rather than writing new tunes. A full third of the menu comes straight from his days at Touch, right down to the free-sushi Fridays. But judging by the crowds, which locals say are the largest since Big Mel himself ran the joint, this band may be here to stay.
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