The Sauce Is Boss 

Saucy Bistro makes the most of its liquid assets.

Autumn is a-comin' in, bringing lamb shank and - roasted root vegetables. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Autumn is a-comin' in, bringing lamb shank and roasted root vegetables.
Give any fool a spatula and a meat thermometer, and he can probably grill you a decent steak. Direct said fool to a pot of boiling water and a timer, and most likely he can produce a satisfactory plate of pasta. But hand a fool a saucier and a whisk, and ask him to whip up a show-stopping velouté, a righteous reduction, or a festive fruit au jus . . . well, that's just asking for trouble.

As anyone who has ever toiled over a pan of Thanksgiving gravy can tell you, creating the perfect sauce -- well-balanced, properly textured, and complementary to the flavors of the plate -- can test a chef's mettle, the clincher being that virtually nothing can elevate (or ruin) a dish more effectively than finishing it with the right (or the wrong) reduction.

So when Saucy Bistro's chef-owner Matt Barnes boasts at the restaurant's website that "it's all in the sauce!", a visitor to this newly relocated Westlake restaurant can't help but expect some smart eats. And sure enough, that's generally what Barnes and his team (including wife and front-of-the-house manager Shyla Barnes, and Executive Chef Sarah Sherepita) deliver.

Whether we were savoring the sleek-as-satin vodka-cream sauce draped across overstuffed lobster ravioli, an indulgent foie-gras-and-mushroom sauce beneath fork-tender veal roulade, or the nuanced lemon beurre blanc tickling a filet of cornmeal-crusted tilapia, it was easy to see why the five-year-old Saucy Bistro remains so popular among West Side diners.

Even at its smaller, less well-appointed location in Rocky River, the dining room drew a consistent crowd of regulars. And since moving in July to the former Iron Gate location on Detroit Road, the bistro offers even more to enjoy. Not least among its new assets is the spacious landscaped patio, outfitted with chic black market umbrellas, "woven" metal tables and chairs, a fountain, and its own bar. While it's more or less fronted by a parking lot, the alfresco space feels serene and cozy, surrounded as it is by a wrought-iron fence and a line of small evergreens; strings of white minilights add twilight panache, and tall heaters help chase away the autumnal chill.

Indoors, the renovations and redesign have been equally substantial, and the new, subtly sophisticated decor takes its inspiration from wine country -- think Napa Valley or even Tuscany -- with earthy colors, sinuous wrought-iron lighting fixtures, and rustic woodwork. Both the bar and the countertop overlooking the open kitchen (where a fortunate few guests can take a seat to enjoy dinner and a show) are made of granite; tables in the dining rooms shimmer in white linen and candlelight; and inside the Pottery-Barn-pretty wine room, an entire wall is outfitted with selections from the restaurant's award-winning wine list.

Clearly, Barnes and his colleagues are serious about sharing the pleasures of wine with their guests. While the mostly West Coast wine list has impressive heft (with around 225 choices by the bottle, as well as about two dozen by the glass and another 26 or so by the half-bottle), it's well organized, neatly bound, and not too intimidating, even to novices. Recommended wines are identified by little grape clusters; bargain-priced wines, at a mere $7 over retail, are marked with an "R"; and rare bottles, like a 1994 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux, are identified with an "L" -- should the $270 price tag alone somehow not be clue enough to its limited availablity.

To further encourage exploration, as well as provide the opportunity to match suitable wines to every course, by-the-glass choices can be ordered in either three-ounce or six-ounce pours. And if even this is not enough to help a diner make a decision, the black-garbed servers seem knowledgeable and enthusiastic when presented with a plea for guidance. In fact, when our Saturday-night server overheard us pondering the merits of a 2002 Braida Vignis Pinot Grigio, she promptly returned with a generously sized complementary sample for us to try before ordering. Such thoughtfulness is not only a boon for guests, but also a smart sales technique, which other area restaurants could do well to emulate.

On the other hand, our server's enthusiasm also led her to welcome us with a five-minute monologue, covering such topics as the bistro's series of Wednesday-night wine dinners, plans for lunch service (which began October 4), the evening's specials, and her own favorite dishes. And during an earlier visit, a different but equally gregarious server also threw in tidbits about the restaurant's finances and her prior job history! Not that we're complaining, necessarily: After far too many encounters with distracted and uninterested servers, we prefer to think of the Saucy Bistro staff as charmingly animated, not intrusive.

Besides, the service staffers are right to share their pride in the kitchen's good works, which range from chicken and pasta in red-pepper cream sauce to lamb chops, filet mignon, and prosciutto-wrapped scampi. The entrée of delicate tilapia, for instance, lightly dusted in cornmeal and served with properly al dente but ultracreamy lobster risotto in a puddle of lemon beurre blanc, possessed both substance and style. The tender veal roulade -- filled with a fine stuffing of housemade wild-boar sausage and chopped cranberries, served on earthy but cloud-light mashed potatoes piqued with goat cheese, and accompanied by a sheer, voluptuous sauce of foie gras, shiitakes, and portobellos -- was delicious almost beyond words. And succulent little T-bone lamb chops, on the kitchen's signature blue-cheese mac and cheese, gained stature and savor from a contrasting sauce of sweet-tart black cherries.

Compared to such hits, the two misses we endured seem like small potatoes. One, an overdressed roasted-nut and spinach salad, tossed in a too-sharp whole-grain-mustard vinaigrette that drowned out the flavors of goodies and greens alike, was probably just a one-time oversight. But the other -- pan-sautéed chicken livers -- left us scratching our heads. The odd combination of strongly flavored liver, caramelized onion, and hot (temperature-wise) pickled ginger never caught fire for us; and if the promised soy vinaigrette was really there, it did nothing to pull the disparate flavors into a comprehensible whole.

We detected two other areas where Saucy Bistro could add some sex appeal. First, despite repeated references to enticing ingredients such as foie gras, lobster, and duck, the menu itself is a pretty dull read. Maybe it was staid-sounding terms like "Shrimp Dijonnaise" and "Seafood Wellington" that made us yawn, or maybe it was dime-a-dozen dishes like PEI mussels, caprese salads, and peppercorn-crusted ahi tuna. But in any case -- and in light of the kitchen's obvious talent -- the conservative-sounding menu made us wish Barnes and company would loosen up a little and develop a more playful, adventurous persona.

Second, given that we eat first with our eyes, plate composition could use a little more thought. The veal roulade, for instance, was a smartly conceived dish, full of exciting flavors. Too bad, then, that every time we glanced at them, the two veal rolls reminded us of pale Hungarian sausages, and the accompanying "mushroom gravy," mashed potatoes, and green beans completed the greasy-spoon reference. The lamb chops, supported by the fabulous yin and yang of sweetness and salt, were every bit as palate-pleasing as the veal. But wouldn't it have been more pleasing still if the bed of blue-cheese-sauced macaroni beneath them had been denser and more cohesive, so we didn't end up chasing the little individual elbows across our plate with a spoon, through a pool of fruit sauce?

In the end, of course, whether or not such details are worth addressing will depend on just how saucy Barnes and his crew want to be. After all, the place is already packed with apparently happy customers, and the ambiance, decor, and service generally are above average; maybe that's enough. Then again, with just a few more refinements, Saucy Bistro could really sizzle.

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