In September, when most of summer's gardens were fading into fall, that place just off University Circle that used to be That Place on Bellflower was setting down new roots. Now, in the dead of winter, the colorfully renovated, rechristened Flower has grown into a budding beauty.
Flower's cultivation is the work of new co-owners Tracy Januska, Roberto Rodriguez, and James Altomondo, who purchased the business in July (former owner Isabella Basile is still involved as a silent partner). Under the trio's care, the restaurant's four intimate dining rooms and the small, centrally located bar have been swathed in luscious shades of raspberry and lemon, trimmed in golden oak, and filled with locally made artwork, ranging from the blown-glass blossoms that sparkle on each tabletop to the larger-than-life oil paintings that punctuate the old brick walls. Large, important-looking menus are handsomely bound (the international wine list in Italian-style marbled paper, the lunch and dinner menus in gunmetal-gray faux snakeskin), their covers illustrated with a single bloom. And your entrée -- rosemary-marinated lamb, slow-roasted chicken, or prosciutto-wrapped grouper -- arrives at the table garnished with an edible orchid.
The artful Flower is sheltered inside a rambling old carriage house within walking distance of Severance Hall, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the botanical gardens. While some tables are nestled up against a crackling fireplace and others have an enchanting view of the landscaped patio (lovely even in January, with its snow-filled urns and trees trimmed in white minilights), the most romantic seats are planted in the redesigned "garden room," a serene space that's flooded with natural light by day and at night shimmers with a golden glow fit for a fairies' bower. Here tall, translucently shaded windows look out across the good, strong bones of the wintry terrace. An evocative painting of a dreamy countryside, done up in misty shades of lavender and green by local artist Sunny Sunninghill, seems to float right off its pale yellow background. A wall-mounted grid of flower-filled bud vases, each resting on its own thick block, sparkles like a giant rhinestone lapel pin.
Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is the restaurant's executive chef, presiding over an internationally accented menu of contemporary American cuisine. (The multitasking chef is also head kitchen man at D'Vine Wine Bar in the Warehouse District and owns and operates Orale, a Mexican-food stand at the West Side Market.) At lunch, globetrotting possibilities range from bacon-and-mozzarella-topped burgers to blackened ahi tuna, grilled chicken quesadillas, and vegetarian lasagna. Dinner appetizers, meanwhile, journey from panko-breaded chicken kebabs to lobster-stuffed mushroom caps spiked with cilantro and jalapeño oil, and entrées trek from cabernet-glossed veal to pork chops with a glaze of ancho chiles and honey.
At its best, the kitchen turns out dishes that are intelligent, imaginative, and zesty. A main course of pan-seared halibut was buttery, barely opaque, and ingeniously set against a salty-tart sauce of capers, kalamata olives, and orange, and topped with a tangle of shredded zucchini and carrot. Less imaginative, perhaps, but still perfectly executed, was a melt-in-your-mouth grilled veal chop drizzled with a red-wine reduction and sided with silken sautéed spinach and a square of cheesy au gratin potatoes.
These dishes, though, were the high points of our visits. For a kitchen with access to a global spice rack, it was surprising how many offerings left us yearning for more assertive flavors. Two starters in particular illustrate the problem: Beneath their delectably crisp crust, those panko-coated chicken kebabs tasted flat and watery; in fact, if it hadn't been for the smooth, sweet-hot peanut sauce that accompanied them, they could have passed for something from the grocery store's frozen-foods case. And six medium-size grilled shrimp threaded onto wooden skewers were pleasantly smoky, but they were also dry, and we couldn't discern any hint of the promised ginger marinade. Again, the only insinuation of flavor came from an accompanying sauce, this time a not-so-successful combination of oyster sauce, fish sauce, corn syrup, and red-pepper flakes. Factor in the price -- $10 for the chicken, and an impressive (or depressing) $12 for the shrimp -- and neither dish was worthy of a top-notch kitchen.
Meals begin well enough, though, with thick slices of warm onion-and-Asiago bread from Orlando's, accompanied by a tiny white porcelain ramekin holding portions of bland grilled-zucchini tapenade (which Rodriguez says is meant to refresh the palate) and fragrant thyme-and-rosemary butter. On a frigid weekday, when the restaurant was packed late into the lunch hour with orchestra patrons still humming snippets of Viennese waltzes, a bowl of thick black-bean soup seemed like a grand idea; and with a swirl of crème fraîche and a dab of finely diced basil-and-tomato salsa, the reality proved comforting, sturdy, and just sassy enough to hold one's attention. (Incidentally, Flower draws scores of patrons from the nearby cultural venues; reservations are a wise precaution.) An à la carte salad -- an ample toss of fresh baby greens garnished with two untrimmed, out-of-season strawberries -- rounded out the meal. Given the salad's $5 price tag, a few croutons or a crumb of cheese would have added a nice touch and might have helped mellow the piquancy of the too-sharp balsamic vinaigrette.
Other lunch munches included a savory grilled chicken-breast sandwich stroked with melted goat cheese and rich cilantro aïoli. Although the kitchen apparently forgot to throw on the promised avocado slices, the sandwich was hearty and satisfying, and a generous portion of freshly made waffle-cut fries with crisp edges and soft, chewy centers made an indulgent go-with. A vegetarian calzone generated less enthusiasm at our table. The mélange of melted mozzarella, grilled zucchini and yellow squash, a few strips of red bell pepper, and some sautéed spinach, wrapped in a golden puff of pastry and settled on a pool of tart roasted-tomato sauce, needed something more zesty -- olives? pesto? some sun-dried tomato? -- to up the flavor ante and give the dish more oomph.
Homemade desserts are the domain of pastry chef Tracy Zarlenga. Her frozen coffee soufflé -- rich, creamy, and studded with grated bittersweet chocolate, on a tender, chocolate cookie-crumb base -- was well worth the caloric splurge, especially when accompanied by Flower's frothy-headed cappuccino. Not so, however, the New York-style cheesecake, a greasy wedge of monotony that even a drizzle of raspberry coulis could not rouse.
A listing of Zarlenga's creations is only part of the dessert menu, which also contains a small selection of single-malt scotches, as well as ports, dessert wines, bubblies, spiked coffee drinks, and designer martinis. Those with an insistent sweet tooth could certainly fare well with such creations as the Chocolate Coffee Kiss ($6.50), with Tia Maria, Baileys, Godiva, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream; or the Chocolate Flower Martini ($8), a high-octane blend of Stoli vanilla, Godiva, and Baileys, in a chocolate-etched glass.
If the food sometimes disappointed, the gracious service never let us down. At dinnertime, complimentary valet parking minimized exposure to the cold and snow. Once inside, hostesses immediately whisked away parkas and smiled even when we foolishly showed up sans reservations. While we waited for a table, the bartenders proved good-natured (nice) and generous (nicer). And servers were actually observed cruising the dining room, looking for ways to be of service!
Such friendly caretakers, together with the lovely surroundings, almost compensate for Flower's occasional culinary blahs. It would be great if Rodriguez could tighten up his team and begin to lay on the seasonings with more gusto and grace. Once that comes to pass, this garden of eatin' could become a blooming paradise.
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