The heat wave begins in the artful first-floor bar, with its fire-engine-red ceiling, flickering candles, and smoky impressionistic mural painted by Cleveland artist Paul Shuster. After sharing some warmth with the often elbow-to-elbow bar crowd, the wave works its way toward the staircase to the intimate upstairs dining room, a cozy space all fired up by Parris's tiny open kitchen.
From this minuscule base of operations, Parris, who joined the staff last April, and Sous Chef Diane Brodnick fan the flames by turning out dishes with a spicy equatorial beat, influenced by Caribbean, Mediterranean, Asian, and Mexican pantries. While seafood, lamb, pork, chicken, and beef predominate, there are plenty of salads, pastas, and veggie-based dishes just right for the health-conscious and the herbivores among us. Fanciful presentation on a variety of bright, oversized platters and plates, and garnishes fashioned from everything from exotic vegetables to spun sugar, make each dish as much fun for the eye as for the taste buds.
And not to fear, you diners with fire phobia -- not everything on Parris's menu is spicy. A juicy grilled chicken sandwich, topped with melted Fontina cheese, arugula, and a garlic-enhanced pesto mayonnaise, was flavorful although plenty mild. Likewise, a big bite of the tasty half-pound Fulton Burger, topped with luscious red-onion "jam" and a slice of melted cheddar, never once threatened to bite back.
Appetizers like the dense, creamy Caramelized Onion-Potato Cakes, made from layer upon layer of wafer-thin sliced potatoes, and the overstuffed Portobello Quesadilla, loaded with mushrooms, greens, roasted red peppers, and Monterey Jack, and served with more red-onion jam and thick sour cream, were also savory, but low-scoring on the ol' heat-o-meter. And an excellent meal-sized Italian Salad of neatly arranged arugula -- dressed with an assertive balsamic vinaigrette and generously topped with thick slices of piquant dried tomato, almost nougat-like cloves of sweet poached garlic, roasted red pepper strips, kalamata olives, fresh mozzarella, crumbled Gorgonzola, and a crisp, chewy Parmesan cheese wafer -- was strikingly flavorful, but not a bit peppery.
But it is in the menu's spicy, full-bodied dishes that Parris best shows his bent for playing with fire. Take, for instance, the delightful Caribbean Seafood "Boolie": a more-or-less classic Mediterranean bouillabaisse, with a decidedly island twist, that finds the traditional white wine and garlic broth replaced with a saber-sharp, habañero-spiked, mango-lime sauce. Hot stuff? You betcha. But even those with delicate palates would have to admire the chef's ability to balance the full flavor of the ingredients against the fierce habañero kick, so that the heat becomes just another player on the Taste Team, rather than the dish's entire raison d'être. In fact, a hot-blooded dining companion called the creation -- with its ample serving of perfect mussels, succulent scallops, juicy shrimp, and chunks of unfortunately overcooked tuna, all underpinned by four fat, fresh black-bean ravioli -- one of the best-balanced and most flavorful meals he'd eaten all winter.
An appetizer of Sugar-Cane Skewered Grilled Shrimp, with a garnish of candied and fried lotus root chips, was also apparently designed to keep the internal flames burning. While the centerpiece -- four large, tail-on shrimp sprinkled with housemade garam masala and grilled to succulent perfection -- were sweet and mild, the thick underlying chutney of banana, sweet-sour tamarind paste, and mango chunks, flavored with a kick-ass mango-jerk vinaigrette, was a real attention-grabber. And a Sweet & Spicy Soba Noodle Salad (spaghetti-like buckwheat-flour noodles, topped with a tangle of alfalfa sprouts and tossed with quinoa; finely chopped cucumber, red pepper, and scallions; and threads of jicama and poblano pepper, in a spicy sesame-and-red-miso vinaigrette) was a feast of flavors, colors, and textures -- and guaranteed to clear the sinuses in five minutes flat.
To lubricate the well-exercised palate, the downstairs bar provides an assortment of imported and domestic beer on tap and in bottles, including a patiently and properly drawn Guinness stout. A large wine list offers a broad selection of interesting whites, reds, and sparkling wines, many priced below $30.
Other fine -- though less fiery -- food choices include the New Zealand Lamb Chops: three thick, bone-in rib chops that were lightly seasoned with a black-pepper and garlic rub, and grilled, as ordered, to a moist medium-rare. The tasty chops were sided with a salad of mizuma (a mustard-flavored Japanese leafy green), tossed in balsamic vinaigrette, and sprinkled with sharp and creamy goat cheese. The dish, at $11.95, was listed as an appetizer, but surely would have made a satisfying dinner for all but the heartiest appetites.
An entrée of seared Pasta-Crusted Salmon, served with one of those savory caramelized onion-potato cakes and a small salad of mizuma and blue cheese in a slight amount of red-wine vinaigrette, also deserves mention. In a moment of temporary insanity, my companion had asked that the fish be "done through," and it arrived as ordered, still quite flavorful, but a little dry. If ordered to a moister "medium," the dish probably would have been outstanding.
One of our few disappointments involved an entrée of Wild Mushrooms & Butternut Squash Ravioli, which found four firm, slightly sweet but lonely Ohio City Pasta ravioli buried beneath a savory avalanche of finely chopped mushrooms, garlic, roasted red pepper, teensy black Beluga lentils, and a blanket of thickly sliced portobello, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms. The vegetarian dish was a filling blend of delectable flavors. Still, for $14.95, we had hoped to find another ravioli or two at the bottom of our bowl.
A Marinated Angus Sirloin, at $15.95, also surprised us by proving to contain only about a half-dozen strips of fairly bland though tender beef, fanned out over a thick garlic-onion jam and a mound of garlic-mashed red potatoes. Again, we didn't leave hungry, but in light of the price and the menu description, we can be excused for expecting more meat.
Sweet endings here, however, burn brightly in our memory. On their black triangular plates, garnished with clouds of thick whipped cream, dainty fans of golden spun sugar, and a piece of solid milk chocolate, the housemade desserts were a festival of shapes, colors, and textures. A tall crescent of Key Lime Pie on a graham-cracker crust was notably citrusy, with an invigorating tang and a creamy, smooth texture. A portion of Malted Chocolate Cr&eagrave;me Caramel -- served like a flan -- was rich and deliciously malty. A warm, tender Liquid Chocolate Cake oozed with gooey chocolate sauce when we cut into it; and since chocolate cake always demands ice cream, we ordered it with a big scoop of creamy vanilla-bean ice cream. And two dainty "pots" of milk chocolate, filled with thick, luscious banana-coconut cream, melted in our mouths like little dreams.
Maybe it's due to its small size, but the dining room, with eight polished-wood tables, comfy -- if slightly short -- upholstered armchairs, votive candles, and white napkins, seemed to teem with friendly servers and attendants. As you would expect, then, service was generally prompt, and if a waiter or waitress sometimes overlooked a soiled plate or a missing fork, he or she made up for it with a sincere desire to please. Case in point was a waitress who was clearly impressed by the enthusiasm that our "boolie" eater showed for his spicy fare. "If you like that," she confided, "try our chocolate-chipotle brownie for dessert. It's not on the menu, but it's really good!"
While there are purists who will hoot that the combination of chocolate and chilies is just a culinary gimmick, remember that this pairing is a classic in dishes like Mexican mole and the original Central American version of hot chocolate. Furthermore, peppers are well-known for their ability to stimulate taste buds and heighten the appreciation of delicate flavors. So of course, we bit at the offer of the unusual dessert. And then we bit again, into the warm, fudgy brownie, with a delicate flavor that gave way, within seconds, to a wave of hot pepper. Between each delicious bite, we scooped up spoonfuls of creamy vanilla-bean ice cream, savoring the contrast between warm and cold, and spicy and sweet, and washed it down with giant, steaming mugs of freshly brewed coffee.
One final reason to cheer for the Fulton: Although at the time of our visits, smoking was allowed throughout the establishment, owner John McDonnell recently set aside the upstairs dining room as a nonsmoking area. The change is welcome, since it gives guests an opportunity to better savor the aromas and tastes of Parris's cooking, which clearly deserves diners' undivided attention.
And anyway, who would insist on having a cigarette at the Fulton after all? Parris's smokin' fare -- some of the best in the city -- provides all the oral stimulation that anyone could need.