Eastsiders have a habit of descending upon new restaurants like participants in a cash mob, and that's certainly been the case at Sweet Melissa, which opened a few months back in University Heights, near the campus of John Carroll University. It's no exaggeration to say that lines usually extend clear out the front door, an issue made worse by a tiny vestibule and no-reservation policy.
Those enthusiastic early adopters might very well be fans of the 6-year-old Rocky River restaurant of the same name, appreciative that the popular west-side cafe has popped up on this side of town. But as is the case with most early adopters, they are paying for their impatience. It's no secret that the new restaurant has been weighed down by service and quality issues, problems I experienced first-hand during multiple visits.
Yet I have confidence that the restaurant will improve to the point of consistent quality — after all, we need only to look out west for proof of that.
In the plus column is an eclectic menu that really does seem to have something for everybody. Like a true American bistro, the menu is a melting pot of flavors and textures, cultures and cuisines. The lengthy script is broken up into categories for starters, salads, sautéed items, grilled items, sandwiches and sides. All told, there are roughly 70 items on the menu, each appealing in description. Even better is the fact that the majority of entrees are priced between $10 and $15.
Stand near the open kitchen — or sit at the small bar adjacent to it — and you'll spot a procession of attractive plates and platters on their way to waiting diners. Some, like the bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($15), taste every bit as good as they look. The fat slab of flavorful beef is planted into a hill of whipped potatoes and smothered in wine-kissed gravy. Also as good as they look are the Roger's shrimp and lobster rolls ($15), a pair of split-top weenie buns filled with a surprising amount of creamy seafood. Shredded veggies and spicy jalapeno wheels add welcome heat and crunch.
Other dishes, like the pulled chicken tacos ($11), not only are a let down, but they're also inaccurate. The difference between slow-cooked and pulled chicken meat versus dry grilled breast is night and day, and sadly these tacos come with the latter despite the menu description. Cold flour tortillas plus cold black bean salsa plus cold sour cream all add up to a chilly reception from our table.
Eating at Sweet Melissa isn't unlike a ride on a roller coaster; just when you've experienced a high, you should prepare yourself for the inevitable low that follows. The kitchen manages to cram an ocean's worth of shellfish flavor into the hot, rich and crimson-colored lobster bisque ($5), but the King Cobb salad ($13) that followed was all show and no go. An insipid vinaigrette and that same dry grilled chicken resulted in most of that big, bright and beautiful bowl going to waste.
One meal started off with a bang thanks to an unexpectedly delicious appetizer ($8). Four crispy fried rice pancakes are each topped with a cooked shrimp, a dollop of spicy marinara, and a shower of cilantro (but no scallions as promised). When I hear the phrase "brick chicken," I conjure images of a flat, charred, butterflied whole chicken. Melissa's "brick chicken" ($15) consists of a pair of — you guessed it — dry grilled chicken breasts.
Some issues can't be blamed on the kitchen, like a server who puts in orders for starters and main courses at the same time, resulting in an overflowing table of food. Instead of patrolling the dining room, where he'd likely encounter diners begging for attention, the manager stays glued to the host stand. We were thrilled to immediately snag seats at the small bar one night, only to discover that the bartender also was waiting on a large party elsewhere in the restaurant.
And some things just leave you scratching your head, like the wine list that arrives in the type of flimsy plastic sheet protector that gets inserted into a student's three-ring binder. But even that was better than the beer list, a sheet of printer paper marked up with black and red ink marks that only our server could understand.
The good news is that it's not difficult to end on a sweet note. Sweet Melissa offers a large supply of house-made pastries, which are on display in an adjacent hall space. Do like we did and order some cheesecake ($5) and mini cupcakes ($1) to go. That way, you'll free up your seats for the next diners.
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