One Cool Cat 

Tremont's Fat Cats finds an adventure on each plate.

Fat Cats: Better than a saucer of milk. - WALTER  NOVAK
There are no more than a dozen tables inside Fat Cats, Tim Verhily, Ricardo Sandoval, and Franco Boffice's tiny Tremont restaurant, and none of them is a good one. The seats in the front room, near the dark wooden bar, are lashed by the cold night air each time the door flies open. Sit in the back room, and you feel left out of all the fun. And in the middle room, the shadowy illumination from candles and year-round strands of Christmas bulbs is pierced by harsh fluorescent light seeping out of the sort-of-open kitchen.So how come everybody is having such a good time? Well, duh. Give us hungry Clevelanders an ever-changing menu of interesting and generally successful dishes, price them moderately, and throw in brisk, attentive service, and we're likely to be contented kitties, no matter where you set us down. And after all, the space isn't so bad. What with its electric blue and Kool-Aid orange walls outlined in wide bands of dark varnished woodwork, the Christmas lights and the lava lamps, not to mention the poster-like abstract art and the hypnotic recorded music, Fat Cats always summons up happy if unfocused memories of off-campus housing, circa 1970. Except, of course, the food's a good deal better.

In fact, the menu at the almost four-year-old restaurant seems to be a constant work in progress, persistently padding back and forth between the traditional and the trendy. In its current incarnation, it's a frisky blend of traditional Italian and Mediterranean flavors, tweaked with more than a little Asian and Nuevo Latino spice. For the most part, the results -- like a beefy pan-seared flank steak marinated in sweet-and-spicy hoisin sauce and garnished with roasted corn salsa and cilantro chimichurri -- are well-balanced and flavorful. However, the kitchen isn't above turning out some duds, like a flaccid Pasta Primavera (overcooked shells tossed with bland sliced veggies and no trace of the promised goat cheese or white wine), an entrée as dull and leaden as an Ohio sky.

It's hard to reconcile that lifeless dish with exciting little numbers like Sandoval's foie gras: a buttery bit of seared duck liver paired with three bite-sized caramelized-apple turnovers, then finished with port reduction, a touch of Frangelico caramel, and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts. We purred our way through the dainty morsel, which was savory enough to be a first-rate starter, but decadently sweet enough to nearly qualify as dessert. Equally complex and tightly balanced was the Tuna Tartare, a cylinder of velvety sashimi-grade tuna topped with a little crisp seaweed, a touch of smooth wasabi cream, and a few specks of salty caviar, then garnished with sweet soy and ginger oil and four crisp lotus root chips.

Seviche (or ceviche), a traditional Latin American dish of chopped raw fish marinated in citrus, is another welcome addition to the kitchen's repertoire. While it's wildly popular in Ecuador and Peru, as well as in the top restaurants of New York and Chicago, the dish is a seldom-seen treat here in the heartland. As is the case with many ethnic specialties, the ingredients in "authentic" seviche vary from region to region, and the texture ranges from souplike to something one eats off a plate. The Fat Cats version had a consistency approaching gazpacho and was served in a martini glass with an oversized soup spoon for ladling up the meaty chunks of chilled shrimp, sea bass, and tuna, and their effervescent broth of lime and tomato juices, black olives, green onion, Tabasco, and a hint of jalapeño. However, the best seviche is always marked by a subtlety of flavor; here, we thought the taste of green onion predominated, masking the delicacy of the seafood. Still, the dish was far from disappointing.

After such boldly seasoned appetizers, our à la carte salads made fine palate cleansers. An arugula salad with little crescents of red-wine-poached pear, crumbs of Gorgonzola, and bits of toasted pecan was crisp and astringent. Juicy torn romaine, with a paper-thin slice of fried prosciutto and some sliced strawberries, was brushed with a refreshingly light lemon-Chardonnay dressing. And the house salad -- a toss of mesclun, roasted red pepper ribbons, chunks of artichoke hearts, a dab of fresh mozzarella, and a toasted walnut or two -- was clean-flavored and bracing. Still, if we had picked the salads as starters rather than as interludes, we would have liked to see more of the goodies mixed into the modest portion of greens, especially for the price. We had no such complaints about the cannellini bean soup, though, with its hearty blend of beans, basil, a touch of housemade marinara, and garlicky, cheese-topped croutons.

For such a tiny spot, Fat Cats has a surprisingly lengthy wine list, with a particularly large selection of Italian reds, including sturdy Tuscan Chiantis, fragrant Sangiovese/Cabernet blends, and lots of Piedmont Barolos pressed from the Nebbiolo grape. Not that white-wine drinkers are forgotten. Californian R.H. Phillips EXP Viognier and Bonnie Doon Riesling are two affordable choices especially well suited to some of the dinner menu's more spicy world cuisine. By-the-bottle prices are pegged at $20 to $68, with plenty of choices set at $30 or less; while we didn't spot any bargains, pricing seemed generally fair. We do wish, however, that the wine list included vintage dates: They make it much easier to be certain you are getting what you paid for.

Besides the East-meets-West Hoisin Flank Steak, other good main events were a well-constructed Chicken D'Agnese and the robust Veal Saltimbocca. The first featured an exceptionally moist sautéed chicken breast in a crisp egg-and-flour breading, resting on a portion of creamy risotto and topped with a spoonful of fruity cranberry compote; three thick stalks of tender-crisp asparagus, in a creamy lemon butter, made the finishing touch. For the second -- a classic pairing of salty, sharp prosciutto with mild milk-fed veal -- the kitchen upped the ante by brushing the plate with a sage-infused veal sauce and topping it off with satiny wilted spinach and a pile of roasted fingerling potatoes.

Among the six or so housemade dessert offerings on the night of our visit, we especially liked the creamy Chocolate Torte, a multilayered wonder with the mellow richness of a top-quality chocolate bar, with a pouf of Chambord whipped cream and set on a drizzle of raspberry coulis. A portion of warm bread pudding, densely packed with sliced banana, walnuts, and chocolate chips, and sided with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, was also sweetly comforting.

Plump felines thrive on attention, of course, and Fat Cats has gotten some big-time strokes from Bon Appetit magazine, which included the restaurant in an April 1999 feature on Cleveland's "exciting new dining scene" and revisited it this September in a review of "favorite neighborhood spots." (Ironically, the magazine included Sandoval's recipe for Linguine Primavera, a cousin to the sad Pasta Primavera we sampled here, as an example of the restaurant's fare. Just goes to show that great dishes require both a good recipe and attentive preparation in order to shine.) Still, the magazine got it right when they described the place as the perfect spot for kickback dining. Always friendly and intriguing, Fat Cats knows how to combine the daring and the refined -- in food as well as in ambiance -- in a balancing act worthy of any tom or tabby.


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