Suburban Surprise 

Palate adds muscle to Strongsville's dining scene

We've all heard the old saw about a restaurant's quality being inversely proportional to its distance from the nearest big city. And while there are numerous tasteful exceptions, there is no denying that suburbs generally get the short end of the fine-dining stick.

One chef seems single-handedly bent on remedying that imbalance. For a year and a half, Jeff Jarrett made a splash at Hudson's North End Market, where he elevated that wine bar's menu to new heights. Jarrett's success there prompted him to hang out his own restaurant shingle, this time swapping Hudson for Strongsville.

Taking over the space previously occupied by Le Volte Grille, Jarrett unveiled Palate late last year, looking forward to the heightened visibility he expected to enjoy on this side of town.

From the looks of things, he's getting it. In a neighborhood where the biggest culinary news is Michael Symon's latest B Spot (now slated for a mid-April launch), Palate is running a close second. And it should be: Jarrett's big-city cooking will appeal not only to those in the immediate vicinity, but to anybody who loves great food and an even better value. Billed as seasonal American, the cuisine offers the perfect mix of fine, familiar, and foodie-approved.

Let's dispatch the bad news first (if you can call it that): Strongsville definitely ain't Tremont when it comes to restaurant atmosphere. Though diners will indeed enjoy food every bit as delicious as that served downtown, they will do so in a less than scintillating environment. Dim, quiet, and conservatively furnished, Palate might best be euphemistically described as "romantic."

Cocktails are the second casualty, with our Dark and Stormy ($6) suggesting that the best bartenders apparently stick closer to the urban core. Switching to wine, we fared much better, with an agreeably priced Sonoma County blend ($31 a bottle) as the night's big surprise.

Rare is the fried chicken liver that doesn't find its way to my table, and the ones ($7) served here are finger-licking good. Appropriately crunchy outside and velvety within, the starters are plopped atop a cheesy mound of soft polenta. A drizzle of spiced honey is an unexpected but welcome twist. Candied chiles and a brushstroke of apple butter lend a sweet heat to a pair of wonderful crab cakes ($5 each). A wild-mushroom bread pudding ($6) would have benefitted from more aggressive seasoning, but otherwise the dish was a savory success.

That sweetness is a recurring theme, with fruity accents popping up in nearly every dish. In the whimsically named "mâche pit" salad ($6), tender greens are kissed with honey, pomegranate, and lemony vinaigrette. A slather of toasted meringue added a sugary counter to a garlicky Caesar ($6).

Sticking with the late-winter theme, the kitchen prepares a stunning pancetta-wrapped pheasant breast ($20). Sliced into pinwheels and served with root veggies and winter fruits, the smoky game bird puts chicken breast to shame. Our flat-iron steak ($20) was perfectly beefy, but it was the mac and cheese that vanished first. The wilted green beans, however, failed to make the same impression.

Braised short rib with parsnip polenta ($18), salmon with spaghetti squash ($17): To an item, every dish exceeded expectations and constituted remarkable value.

While another truism holds that service seems to suffer in the suburbs, that wasn't our experience. We enjoyed a level of proficiency commensurate with more urban eateries.

Palate offers a lunch service with even greater value, with gourmet soups, salads, and sandwiches topping out at $9. Same goes for the Sunday brunch, when the kitchen turns out biscuits and gravy, veggie frittatas, and build-your-own omelets.

Thanks to Jarrett, the dining scene in at least one suburb just got a whole lot stronger.

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