It's a warm evening in early fall, and Vina Noté; in University Circle is hopping. Jazzman Glenn Holmes is laying it down with fellow members of the Eric Gould Trio, while a table of Cleveland Orchestra musicians, still tuxedoed from a performance at nearby Severance Hall, groove appreciatively in response. How they can hear general manager Gary Sikorski explain the evening's dinner specials is anybody's guess. But somehow, they place their orders and ease back into the mellow, sensuous atmosphere.
The intimate restaurant and jazz venue, inside an ivy-covered carriage house previously occupied by Club Isabella, takes up only a micro-hectare of the University Hospitals campus, where it snuggles into the high-tech surroundings like an architectural vestigial organ. Recently purchased by East Side restaurateurs Sean Heineman (owner of Za Za's Food & Drink on Cedar Road) and Said Ouaddaadaa (proprietor of the nearby Uptown Grille), the place got a thorough cleanup over the summer, but its essential nature as a dark, enigmatic hideaway remains intact. It's an evocative if admittedly odd mélange of time and place. Looking over toward the long wooden bar, for instance, with its mirrored walnut backdrop and neon-pink-and-orange accent lighting, you might easily imagine that you've stumbled into a 1950s roadhouse. Alternately, watching local talents like Ernie Krivda and Eric Gould dishing it out against a background of vintage brick and striking abstract art (a revolving collection, now featuring works by Clevelander Michael McNamara), it's just as easy to pretend you're in an as-yet-undiscovered Greenwich Village jazz club, where record-company execs huddle in the shadows and sultry torch singers drink bourbon at the bar.
If the combination of jazz, art, and architecture creates an intense, almost gritty ambiance, comfortable amenities soften the edge. White cloth-and-paper-topped tables are comfortably spaced -- most with an unobstructed view of the performers -- and set with hefty burgundy napkins, cobalt water goblets, and miniature cobalt oil lamps. A 140-bottle wine list offers a broad assortment of interesting choices, including South African Sauvignon Blancs, Californian Viogniers, French Vouvrays, and Italian Chiantis, mostly priced at $30 or less per bottle. And Sikorski and operations manager Danielle Cunningham set the pace for service that is sincere and eager to please.
It is also a pleasure to discover that the onstage artistry is paired with some pretty jazzy riffs coming out of Executive Chef James Major's kitchen. Major is a Culinary Institute of America graduate and an alumnus of Johnny's Downtown, and he has brought with him both a deft hand and a fertile imagination. Yes, he does seem to rely a bit too much on sharp cheeses -- Romano, feta, Gorgonzola, and chèvre all show up frequently -- to make his point; and occasionally his menu descriptions have only the most passing resemblance to the actual dish. But these shortfalls are easily forgiven in the face of Major's sharp, clever interpretations of the menu's Mediterranean standards. Mild wasabi cream and a drizzle of honey-soy sauce shake up a classical pairing of scallops and lush risotto, for instance. A handful of dried currants and a scattering of caramelized pearl onions enliven a delicate halibut filet. And that emblematic bistro meal of steak, potatoes, and crisp haricots verts seems invigorated after being stroked with a heady red wine, mushroom, and Gorgonzola bordelaise.
The gustatory space between the sweet, the tart, and the salty is where the kitchen does some of its best work. A lively version of chicken tajine paired a juicy boneless chicken breast with lush Israeli couscous, sun-dried tomatoes, and rings of sharp green olives, then laid on bits of preserved lemon, raisins, and sweet-spicy lemon-ginger sauce for a dish of towering flavors and assertion. Likewise, an inaccurately named but well-conceived Caramelized Tart -- really more of an embellished flatbread than a pastry -- matched sweetly caramelized onions, dainty greens, and an intense balsamic reduction against sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and a crisp but pliable grilled flatbread made from grits, flour, water, and salt; the result was a lively jam session of tastes and textures.
Beyond the flashy artistry, Major and his troops also know how to attend to basics. Greens were consistently fresh and crisp. Meats, fish, and seafood were gently handled and well seasoned, so that their flavors danced across the palate. Red-pepper fettuccine, part of a rousing version of Shrimp Santorini with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, feta, onions, and shrimp, was pulled from the water while still delightfully al dente and full of body. The only lapses came in two scallop appetizers, where the seafood's sweet, creamy essence was marred by grit; and in the pan-seared frog legs, where the tiny morsels were submerged in a deep pool of thick, peppery butter sauce: delicious, but way too messy to be finger food and entirely too small to attack with knife and fork. (Still, the kitchen has earned our undying gratitude for being one of the few to remove shrimp from their tail shells, making it possible to savor them in saucy dishes without first having to wrestle the slippery little devils out of their armor.)
Entrées are fairly priced between $18 (for the chicken tajine) and $29 (for rack of lamb), and include a salad of mixed greens and tomato in a flawless red-wine vinaigrette, as well as a basket filled with thick slices of warm Italian bread, with garlic-and-rosemary-scented olive oil for dipping. (Save some of that bread for sopping up Major's delicious sauces.)
The small menu of homemade desserts changes frequently and may include anything from fruit crisps and bread pudding to Black Forest Cake and multilayered tortes. The one constant is his homemade cheesecake: a light-textured variation on the theme, elevated by a freshly made, not-too-sweet blueberry compote. The other end-of-meal treat is Vina Noté's coffee: strong, steaming, and poured into oversized blue and yellow mugs, accompanied by cream served in a pretty white pitcher. It is, in fact, coffee worth lingering over. And, at least until word gets around and this place gets packed, we can think of few places where the lingering is more congenial.
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