Sarita Opens in Former Players Spot, Though Doesn't Quite Achieve Same Heights 

I had my concerns about Sarita before we even walked in the door. Standing on the sidewalk, peering through the enormous storefront windows, it looked as if every last diner in Cleveland had the very same idea that evening. Fortunately we had reservations, which were honored immediately, but, man, was that joint jumping. A large private party gobbled up the entire second room, both the bar and communal table were 100-percent vacancy-free, and we were seated in what appeared to be the last remaining chairs in the entire restaurant.

In terms of service, my fears turned out to be unfounded. Apart from an initial delay, our server was a champ operating under very challenging circumstances. The food, on the other hand, didn't fare as well. Both the barbecued pork chop ($24) and the miso-glazed cod ($26) entrees were total busts. The former suffered from overcooked meat, crunchy, undercooked onion rings and chilly polenta. The latter was cooked to a dry, crumbling heap and partnered with an oily, soggy vegetable spring roll. The sauce? Sriracha, straight from the bottle. Our server, to her credit, removed the fish from the tab of her own volition.

Diners learned last fall that longtime Player's owner Gary Lucarelli was selling his popular Lakewood restaurant to his longtime chef Anthony Romano. Sarita, we soon discovered, would take its spot. Romano described his fresh concept as a modern, health-conscious, New American bistro with Asian, Latin and Mediterranean influences. Following a wholesale interior renovation, Sarita opened its doors in mid-November.

Sarita, post-makeover, is sharper, brighter and more cosmopolitan than I recall Players being. It's also spare, largely featureless and loud as hell when the dining room is full. Apart from a handful of monotone wall hangings, which I assume are ineffectual sound-dampening panels, the decor pretty much is limited to a Pinterest-worthy silverware chandelier and wall art assembled from tableware.

Given the time of year, we chalked up the initial experience to the pre-holiday rush and gave Sarita another shot. We were glad we did as the subsequent post-holiday, mid-week meal was tranquil, the servers were unflustered and the food was delivered hot, fresh and mostly unblemished. Instead of being the cute new girl at school, Sarita had settled into its familiar role as approachable neighborhood bistro.

After working in the same kitchen for 16 years, Romano might have a different definition of "modern" and "New American" food than I do. Asian-spiced calamari with Napa slaw, blue cheese-encrusted beef tenderloin and horseradish-crusted grouper all might be delicious, but they aren't exactly cutting edge. In fact, many dishes here are not new at all, but rather holdovers from the Players playlist.

Our meals tended to be up-and-down affairs. How can one not devour a cast iron skillet of oven-hot cornbread ($4), served with honey and spice-kissed butter? That bread was all but crumbs in a pan when the roasted beets ($10) arrived, which, despite the appealing name, were simply ice-cold sliced cooked beets sprinkled with some crushed nuts and paired with goat cheese. "You really have to love beets to like this dish," a tablemate uttered matter-of-factly.

Romano's crispy pork belly appetizer ($11) takes some interesting turns, perched as the perfect cubes are on crispy tostones and capped with dollops of cool and tangy creme fraiche. But the meat is so lean, fat-free and firm that it tastes as though it came from a completely different part of the pig. While devoid of any actual lumps of sweet meat, the crab cakes ($12) are perfectly enjoyable renditions of the classic starter.

The most common buzz words associated with New American cooking are "local" and "seasonal," but Sarita buries that bone-in barbecued pork chop beneath a mound of out-of-season corn-tomato salsa. The only complaint I can muster about Romano's wholesome bouillabaisse ($27), a medley of clams, shrimp, scallops, white fish and potatoes in a flavorful broth, is the price, which strikes me as high given the catch.

In fact, much of the menu comes across as steep. Granted, it's a huge portion, but $20 for cavatelli and meatballs in a straightforward marinara doesn't exactly scream value. Sarita's pepperoni and sausage pizza — a doughy Cleveland-style pie that's heavy on the sweet sauce and cheese and light on crunch — weighs in at $16.

At these prices, Sarita feels more like a special occasion restaurant than a neighborhood mainstay that will solicit repeated visits from neighbors and friends, the type of place where attentive and professional servers know and welcome guests by name, the kind of place that survives for decades on good vibes. A place, coincidentally, like Players.


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