Hawaii and beaches, diamonds and gold, shopping and dining: Of all the paired extravagances, that final one, at least, is within our meager means. But we're not talkin' flea markets and fried chicken. When the mood is right -- when nothing less than a splash in the Conspicuous Consumption pool will do the trick -- we head to Crocker Park, with its plethora of hip boutiques and the oh-so-trendy Blake's Seafood Restaurant & Bar.
Located on the northern end of Westlake's new "lifestyle center," near the Regal cineplex and anchoring a miniature "restaurant row," Blake's is one of the newer projects for Twinsburg-based Hyde Park Restaurant Group. (In fact, HPG's newest operation, a Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse snuggled immediately adjacent to the Crocker Park Blake's, just opened in May.)
After launching more than a dozen restaurants in the Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus areas since 1988 -- including the original Blake's in Chagrin Falls and the Metropolitan Café in the Warehouse District -- Hyde Park owners Joe Saccone and Rick Hauck go about their business with a degree of panache and acumen that even Richard Melman (founder of Chicago restaurant juggernaut Lettuce Entertain You) could admire, putting together casually upscale venues that can be counted on to deliver quality, service, and value. The new Blake's is no exception.
While Crocker Park -- like Lyndhurst's Legacy Village and Woodmere's Eton-Chagrin -- is undeniably a faux town, the 200-seat Blake's has been smartly designed not only to fit in, but to project a clean, contemporary, yet comfortable version of the classic coastal fish house, with the bare minimum of artifice and cutesy clutter.
No lobster traps, diving suits, and fishing nets here. Instead, the high-ceilinged interior (broken into three separate but interconnected areas, including the smoking-permitted bar, a main dining room, and an enclosed, window-lined "porch") is a tasteful blend of aged brick, natural woods, and mosaic tile, unified by a wash of natural light, sunny yellow accents, and an atmosphere -- at least during weekend dinner hours -- of well-orchestrated, cheerfully administered chaos.
That engaging sense of bustle is amplified by the enticing open-air bar -- a sort of grown-up version of the Put-in-Bay staple -- which flows seamlessly into a handsome sidewalk café, where guests can pull up chairs to marble-topped tables tucked beneath the shade of market umbrellas of cobalt blue and golden yellow. During warm weather, in particular, those seats are prime property for first-class people-watching, as smartly dressed shoppers pass by toting bags from couture spots like Indigonation, Urban Outfitters, Hollister, and White House/Black Market.
The result is a high-energy blend of urbane style and midwest comfort that -- while entirely manufactured -- still makes a great backdrop for strolling, browsing, and dining out. But remember: It also means that a spontaneous decision to drop by Blake's (or, for that matter, Hyde Park Prime next door) for dinner may well involve a 90-minute wait; to avoid the inevitable toe-tapping, evening reservations are essential.
Meantime, in Blake's well-appointed open kitchen, Executive Chef Doug Fulton oversees a large menu of fresh seasonal fish and seafood. (A few steaks, pork chops, and a chicken dish round out the evening offerings, while a handful of sandwiches and entrée-sized salads share the midday bill of fare; there are also a dozen or so brunch offerings on the Sunday lunch menu.) If the kitchen's repertoire of simply prepared wood-grilled fish and standards like crab cakes, sesame-seared ahi tuna, and beer-battered shrimp contains few surprises, that predictability proves to be a virtue when applied to execution -- which, during our visits, proved consistently attentive and adroit. And if flavors focus on the straightforward, at least such accessibility makes Blake's as suitable a stop for families with children in tow as for dedicated foodies. (A children's menu is available too.)
This by no means implies a bland or tedious culinary romp. After all, what could be more luxurious than the pure, wholesome flavor of succulent Copper River salmon, shipped in fresh from Alaska, lightly kissed with herbes de Provence and freshly ground black pepper, and simply grilled over a wood fire? Or more indulgent than a plump filet of pearly Chilean sea bass, enrobed in a toothsome crust of dried papaya purée, slipped onto a drift of garlic-scented mashed potatoes, and finished with a wisp of lightly fruited papaya butter?
At lunch, a six-ounce portion of grilled yellowfin tuna, finished with a contrapuntal splash of tropical mango and pineapple salsa, and sided with a toss of julienned carrots and summer squash, was just the ticket for fueling a midday shopping spree without adding unwanted inches to the waistline. For those who still have some room to spare in the seat of their Banana Republic khakis, though, we suggest the two-fisted sandwich of beer-battered cod, a perfect yin-yang of lush and crunch, topped with melted cheddar, sliced tomato, shredded lettuce, and a sleek, buttery swoosh of homemade tartar sauce; slender French fries on the side (frozen, but good) were the final touch, perhaps prompting a younger companion to decide, "It's like a Filet o' Fish value meal -- only it tastes really yummy!"
Among the starters, a half-dozen jumbo shrimp tasted pretty yummy too, cosseted inside a thick, firm, and not-too-sweet breading rife with bits of shredded coconut. Yearning for some extra ooh la la? Drag them through the tangy marmalade-like dipping sauce, with its heady notes of citrus and pepper.
Raw-bar options include oysters on the half-shell, peel 'n' eat shrimp, and a classic shrimp cocktail, as well as a lump crabmeat martini -- the mellow, ivory-colored morsels loaded onto a bed of shredded lettuce and sided with a creamy Louis sauce made with mayo, Tabasco, and a touch of Cajun spices.
While most entrées come with a starch, side dish, and/or those simple seasonal veggies, a few additional à la carte add-ons, including coleslaw, rice, and the intriguing-sounding "sweet corn sauté," are available for an extra $2.95. We anted up for the corn during one dinner visit, although we should have known better: Despite the sexy name, the dish was pretty much just plain old buttered kernels, and their flabby texture was an immediate reminder that local ears are still out of season.
Instead, big, cool, à la carte salads -- the Caesar, the iceberg wedge with chopped egg and bacon, and a house toss of mixed field greens with a precisely balanced raspberry vinaigrette -- are probably a better choice for guests eager to get their daily dose of pristine greenery; and while they are priced from $4.50 to $5 at dinner, they go for a mere $3.25 when ordered with a lunch entrée.
In terms of liquid refreshments, Blake's bartenders pull a proper Guinness, mix a potent Tanqueray & tonic, and stock a moderately large, moderately priced selection of international wines, available by the bottle or the glass. While the list is predictably heavy on whites -- including the usual Chardonnays, Rieslings, and Sauvignon Blancs -- take note of the handful of featured Pinot Noirs, priced at $20 to $60 per bottle.
A tidy assortment of desserts ranges from New York-style cheesecake to frozen goodies from local ice-cream impresarios Pete and Mike Mitchell. Blake's version of Key lime pie -- plenty of custardy, sweet-tart filling loaded into a light, crisp graham-cracker crust, and smothered with clouds of heavy whipped cream -- may be the best in Cleveland. For chocoholics, meantime, it doesn't get much better than the enormous Brownie sundae napoleon, an impressive stackup of warm fudgy brownies, vanilla ice cream, and a clean-tasting semisweet chocolate sauce.
Just watch yourself: It would be awful to outgrow all those gauzy baby-doll camis before you even get them home.
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