From its soaring ceilings and sinuous art-glass light fixtures to the handsomely bound menu (which encompasses a frequently changing selection of around 15 starters and two dozen entrées devised by part-owner and Executive Chef Gregg Korney), nothing about this spectacular place -- including the restrooms' artisanal glass sinks -- is ordinary or small. A towering set of elegant metal sculptures, like a contemporary version of classic Asian temple gongs, flanks the entryway. Hardwood floors glitter with inlaid iridescent tiles. Like a frozen waterfall, a 20-foot-tall, textured-glass wall partitions the main dining area and the lounge. And on the white-cloth-draped tabletops, squares of cobalt glass serve as bread plates, votives peek out from inside tangles of amber-beaded branches, and undulating porcelain cups and saucers could have leapt straight from Frank Gehry's sketchbook.
Amid all this art-gallery splendor, black-garbed servers glide like well-mannered ninjas, delivering the beautifully plated courses that roll out of Korney's open kitchen, while constantly on alert for empty water glasses to refill and used plates to remove. We had scarcely begun nibbling on our bread -- fresh, thick slices of cranberry-walnut and white cheddar, from nearby Great Lakes Baking Company -- before a server brought more. Knives and spoons we had never even touched were snatched away and replaced with new ones. And manager-sommelier Mike Tomaselli, whose duties include overseeing the engaging 400-bottle wine list, prowls the room, practically begging for opportunities to be of service.
Since Vue launched only about four months ago, its urbanity and polish are particularly impressive. And within this sophisticated context, Korney's oversized menu of au courant cuisine, with an emphasis on fish and seafood, seems like a logical fit.
A native Clevelander, the self-taught Korney has worked in upscale restaurants and country clubs in both Florida and Greater Cleveland, where he served as executive chef at Giovanni's Ristorante in Beachwood and opened the kitchen at downtown's Sushi Rock. At its best, his eclectic, Asian-fusion-style creations are bold, enthralling, and full of unexpected pairings. Take his warm spinach salad, tossed with slim slices of smoked chicken and brie, a handful of pistachios, a scattering of outrageously plump Bing cherries, and a fabulously fragrant dressing of tarragon and mirin (a sweet rice wine). Sweet, savory, surprisingly rich, and infused with summery overtones of anise and stone fruit, this captivating construction of smart flavors left our taste buds giddy for days.
Almost as memorable was a dinnertime Bibb-lettuce salad, the celadon leaves draped in a gauzy sherry vinaigrette and dotted with brilliant crescents of candied mango, a tiny wedge of brie, and caramel-kissed candied pecans, sweet as pralines.
Insightfully conceived and perfectly executed, a lunchtime lobster club sandwich on grilled focaccia was a winner too. So fresh it seemed to pop, the buttery claw and knuckle meat was a perfect foil for smoked bacon and spicy, sriracha-piqued mayo; combined with the cool counterpoints of leafy greens and sliced red tomato, the sandwich was a samba of sassy flavors. On the side, a shock of freshly cut French fries, gathered in a slender glass like a golden bouquet, added a tasty, playful fillip.
At other times, though, Korney and his staff seem to cross the line that separates "fanciful" from "overwrought," putting so many elements on the plate that flavors become muddled and unfocused. The first hint of this came with a starter of calamari tempura, big slabs of fork-tender calamari "steak" (and a serious set of tentacles) cosseted inside a light, greaseless tempura batter. On the plate, spicy roasted pepper coulis and a drizzle of parsley oil added the necessary sizzle; however, topping it off with four garnishes -- fresh soybeans, tiny smelt roe, a few emerald-green sea beans, and a fistful of micro greens -- seemed more about show than substance.
From that perspective, it comes as little surprise that the names of some of Vue's menu items read like shopping lists, rather than coherent creations -- almost as if the chef himself isn't quite sure what to call them. As an extreme example, consider the following verbatim "name" of a scallop dish, lifted from the dinner menu: "Blackened U-5 diver scallops, chanterelle mushroom, smoked salmon, bay scallop gratin, cauliflower purée." Tough to imagine? It didn't get much more comprehensible when it was set in front of us either.
Sure, it was simple enough to recognize the diver scallops. Maybe there were only two of them, but they were certainly whoppers. (Savvy diners would have expected this, given the U-5 designation, which indicates the scallops weighed in at about five to a pound.) But what was that hummus-like paste beneath them? Neither appearance nor flavor suggested that it was the cauliflower purée, although Korney later assured us that it was. And what was buried under the thick layer of panko and Parmegiano-Reggiano, in the big scallop shell? The menu said bay scallop au gratin, but at least one of us insisted that the meat was lobster, while another voted for shrimp. (Korney later said it was a mix of scallops and lobster.) If there were chanterelles or smoked salmon anywhere on the plate, we couldn't taste them. There was a nice little stack of clean-tasting arugula, with what seemed to be a hint of truffle oil. But with all the varied flavor notes flying across our palate, it was hard to be certain what we tasted or whence it sprang.
Another entrée -- two thick, grilled lamb chops -- was slightly more unified in concept, but no more transcendent in flavor. Glazed in a light, balsamic-based "barbecue" sauce, the chops were served on a pair of smoked-cheddar polenta "frites" that looked like oversized hush puppies. Granted, the polenta's smoky overtones married well with the barbecue sauce, and the pairing was a clever way to reunite those summertime cookout staples. But beyond their unusual smokiness, the polenta sticks were simply dry and one-dimensional. The third element, a little "slaw" of sliced Fuji apples and arugula, carried on the backyard-barbecue theme and added a welcome bit of textural contrast, but did nothing to pull the dish together. As a result, the entire $35 entrée was impressive as a collection of random parts, but not as a unified expression of culinary artistry.
Culinary art, incidentally, doesn't seem like too much to expect, when prices are set as steeply as they are at Vue. For instance, out of 16 entrées on one day's list of daily specials, six ruptured the $30 barrier (the point when all but the most free-spending Ohio gourmets have to pause for a second -- or third! -- thought), and only one checked in at less than $25. Add a couple of appetizers or salads, priced at anywhere from $7 to $16; a bottle of wine (which will be at least $25 and could be as much as $300); and dessert, tax, and tip, and a party of two can anticipate at least a $150 dinner tab. For that type of outlay, they should be able to count on a string of culinary epiphanies and not even an occasional shrug or head-scratcher.
It's not that we don't appreciate the obvious talent and creativity coming out of Vue's kitchen. And in a world filled with chefs cranking out the same old meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Chef Korney's risk-taking is a refreshing change of pace. But somewhere between the mundane and the madcap, there is certainly room for cuisine that is inspired and artful, yet also deeply satisfying.
After all, urbane atmosphere, polished service, and artful appointments only count for so much. What ultimately (and rightfully) draws diners to a restaurant is the quality of the food. Without that, the experience is sort of like reading a book with fascinating characters and no plot: It's interesting, but in the end, what's the point?