Imagine a world where all travel destinations are delivered via Disney. In this Epcot-gone-wild universe, Mom, Dad, and the kids would be able to visit São Paulo without ever leaving Des Moines, while Uncle Stu and Aunt Florence could see Paris from a theme park in Topeka. Obviously, such a world would be anathema to savvy travelers. Authenticity is the hallmark of real adventure, they would claim: Homogenized, sanitized, and simulated "travel" is scarcely worth the appellation.
True devotees of dining feel pretty much the same way about their tabletop adventuring. We don't go to Santa Fe to eat at Taco Bell. We don't head to Memphis to check out Cracker Barrel. But while we scorn chain restaurants for their cookie-cutter food and phony ambiance, we'll allow this much: Familiar dishes, low prices, and a pleasantly casual atmosphere often can mean a lot.
Lucky for us, this is where chef-owner Konstantinos "Dino" Tsarnas and his Cleveland Grill come in. For almost four years, the self-taught Tsarnas has nurtured his little eatery, a two-room compound shoehorned into a squat brick building just south of the intersection of West 117th Street and Lorain Road, where the homes are modest and residents care not a fig about pricey downtown nightspots. A native Clevelander who picked up his culinary chops from his Greek parents and honed them during nearly two decades in the industry, Tsarnas has built his business slowly, eschewing glamorous decor and fancy place settings in favor of generous portions of wholesome, homemade food, at prices that almost anyone can afford.
This no-nonsense approach has won an enthusiastic following for Tsarnas and Mike Boyeas, his partner and sous-chef, and has helped fill the cozy bistro with fans. By last summer, in fact, business had finally reached the point where a little remodeling became an affordable dream -- and with the reconstruction of West 117th Street advancing toward his doorstep and sending battalions of orange barrels marching down the road like stumpy Gestapo, Tsarnas figured the time was right to take a brief hiatus.
While what was supposed to be a short project ended up stretching into a three-month ordeal, the results of the remodeling have been utterly transformative. Formerly plain, white-stucco walls are now a luscious shade of cinnamon. Garish overhead lighting has been replaced by tightly focused halogens, softened by candlelight. Handsome stone, interspersed with areas of chocolate-colored carpeting, has replaced the old battered flooring. And probably most remarkable are the enormous murals painted on the walls, the work of local artist Mondo. Dramatic, colorful, and a trifle enigmatic, the mythical landscapes wrap themselves around diners like a protective shield against the dreary skies of a Cleveland winter.
Much like the city itself, the chef's vast repertoire of dishes, made almost entirely from scratch, is relentlessly eclectic. Feeling a little Greek? There's keftedes and gyros, souvlaki and lamb. Perhaps a tad Italian? Consider the Chicken Marsala or the Shrimp Pomodoro. Scratch an Asian itch with a chicken-and-veggie stir-fry. Apply taco salads and quesadillas to quell a Mexican uprising. Or dabble in the all-American, with shrimp cocktails, a juicy strip steak, or a cheeseburger.
While both lunch and dinner price tags read like something out of the '70s, only a professional wrestler could expect to leave here hungry. Amply sized sandwiches, including one day's thickly sliced roast beef with sautéed mushrooms and onions, come with a towering side of freshly cut French fries, and plate-filling entrées, like Apricot-Dijon Sea Bass, are full-meal deals, with homemade soup, a decent green salad, warm bread, rice pilaf, and a veggie du jour included in the cost.
Although some of Tsarnas's creations occasionally seem like works in progress, such as a Saturday-night special of grilled mahi mahi, topped with juicy, fresh- pineapple salsa and served on twin pools of bittersweet-chocolate "beurre blanc" and emerald-green spinach purée (a combo that Tsarnas admits he has continued to improve upon), most of his dishes are a charming intermingling of the upscale and the down-home -- what Mom might tackle after a weekend spent watching the Food Network. At least that's the image we entertained, as we tucked into another Saturday-night offering -- this time a plump, tender beef filet, perfectly grilled to medium rare, topped with a sweet mushroom-port demi-glace, and served with caramelized onions on a bed of old-fashioned pierogi!
As one might expect, Tsarnas's kitchen seems on firmest footing when whipping up the Mediterranean specialties that dominate the appetizer menu. Both buttery hummus and thick slabs of mild Bulgarian feta, drizzled with olive oil and sided with briny kalamatas, made deliciously rustic counterpoints to warm wedges of pillowy pita bread. Miniature phyllo turnovers, filled with the chef's own rich blend of feta, cream cheese, ricotta, and eggs, were almost unbearably crisp and toothsome. And from the entrée list, a generously sized rack of marinated and grilled lamb -- probably one of the best values in town -- might have been a cooked a few degrees beyond our preference, but was clearly beyond complaint in the realms of tenderness and flavor; better still, in this casual setting, we barely thought twice before picking up the bones for some semi-surreptitious nibbling!
Cruelly overcooked veggies -- broccoli at midday and an evening's sugar-snap peas -- proved disappointing, and both mellow beef-vegetable and pasta e fagioli soups needed a tableside dusting of salt and pepper and a splash of vinegar to rouse them from their slumbers. But we were inclined to overlook those minor blips. As we lingered over thick Greek coffee, served in tiny espresso cups, and enjoyed creamy, cinnamon-dusted rice pudding and dense homemade cheesecake (barely sweet, authentically Greek, and full of fresh dairy flavors), such slip-ups seemed of little importance.
What stayed with us, instead, was the feeling of having dined someplace real, where everything from the menu to the decor not only bore the sometimes-quirky, sometimes-inspired imprint of a particular chef-owner, but also spoke eloquently of this particular place and time. That sense of being grounded "in the moment" is what we call authenticity. And if more diners chose to seek it out, the chains wouldn't stand a chance.
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