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Taming The Bistro 

L'Albatros Is The Right Brasserie At The Right Time

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Not since Michael Symon opened Lola Part Deux has the Cleveland dining scene been so breathless over a new restaurant. With the launch of L'Albatros, owner Zachary Bruell apparently has scratched an itch of such fierce intensity that food fans citywide have uttered a collective "ahhh."

Like every great restaurant, L'Albatros satisfies a longing we didn't know we had. It's as if some benevolent soothsayer peeked into our gastronomic subconscious and delivered the antidote for indifference. This is the rare establishment that astutely marries food with setting, demand with execution, fulfillment with affordability. And yet, the concept is utterly, almost laughably, obvious.

"Opening this restaurant was an absolute no-brainer," Bruell told me, less as boast than confession.

If you can't deduce as much from the name, L'Albatros is a French restaurant. More accurately, it is a brasserie, meaning that it is the kind of place that serves food people really want to eat. This restaurant is by no means this city's first, last or only brasserie, but it unquestionably is its finest. Succeeding where virtually all of its antecedents have not - by being too rarefied, say, or too folksy - L'Albatros rekindles our fondness for bona fide bistro cookery.

Located in restaurant-starved University Circle, L'Albatros has been an unabashed triumph since its mid-December debut. For far too long, visitors to the area have had to make do with an out-and-out paucity of passable dinner options. When Case Western Reserve was looking for a new tenant to take over the historic building that housed That Place on Bellflower, Bruell leapt at the chance.

Completely reworked, the interior will be virtually unrecognizable to That Place diners. Gutted like a fish and rebuilt from the ground up, the contemporary space oozes easygoing sophistication. Upon crossing the threshold, guests practically walk right into the open kitchen. A snug little bar-and-lounge area serves as nucleus.

The menu appears to be airlifted from a Parisian brasserie, populated as it is with pearls like onion soup gratinée, frisée aux lardons, escargot, cassoulet, skate wing and pied de cochon, which is a fancy way of saying pigs' trotters. Fear not, finicky friends; one needn't be a fan of pig parts to adore a meal here. There are enough tantalizing poultry, steak, seafood and pasta dishes to placate even the most diffident of diners.

Bruell's French onion soup ($7) is picture-perfect. Served in a crock glazed with melted cheese, the hearty onion-studded brew is deeply flavorful, no doubt abetted by strands of tender beef. Gilded with lard, speckled with pistachios and topped with grainy mustard, the pork and veal terrine ($7) is as good as I've tasted. And once they shed their chill from the fridge, the shredded pork rillettes ($7) proved an unctuous treat. Salads include the classic frisée aux lardons ($9), a textbook arrangement of feathery greens, chewy bacon nubs and runny poached egg. Like sunshine on a cloudy day, the refreshing radish-and-cucumber salad ($6) features a blissful cr�me fra”che vinaigrette.

Few chefs in town have Bruell's knack for making chicken taste irresistible. L'Albatros' juicy roast-chicken entrée ($19), which includes an airline breast and leg, is made even better, thanks to its buttery parsnip-farfel sidekick. In the soul-satisfying veal short rib ($22), a tender bundle of beef barely clings to its central bone. The accompanying mushroom risotto, boasting fat shavings of quality aged cheese, could stand alone as its own dish.

Still, there are moments when Bruell's penchant for tinkering stands in the way of a dish's success. Escargot ($8) is meticulously doled out by a server, leaving the diner with all of the meat but little of the dreamy dipping sauce. Without question, cassoulet's most glorious feature is its thick mantle of bread-crumb crust. Bruell's deconstructed version ($22) scatters the components in an open skillet, effectively eliminating the crust altogether. Those elements (lamb, duck confit, sausage, beans) are magnificent, but they never mingle as one.

L'Albatros has talent to spare, from chef de cuisine Andy Dombrowski to the culinary-degreed managers. Presiding over the finest cheese program in town is Brandon Chrostowski, a fromager plucked from a top-rated New York City eatery. The stellar wine program is overseen by Rob Rasmussen, a sommelier who knows what you should drink before you do.

The restaurant's name, by the way, refers to a rare three-under-par shot in golf. It also can refer to a wearisome encumbrance. "My intention is the former," Bruell told me. "But I'm sure if I get a negative review, they'll refer to the other."

No risk of that happening here.

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