If executive chef John Kolar worked in oils rather than in foodstuffs, it would be easy to imagine him intently dabbing at the canvas, slowly building up exotic images from layer upon layer of sheer pigments. But even though Kolar's is the artistry of the kitchen, not the easel, that same painstaking process of layering sheer elements is the essence of his work at Lakewood's Three Birds, where his canvas is the plate and his palette holds a dazzling array of aromas and flavors.
Almost like an oversized enclosed porch, the handsome, contemporary Three Birds is snuggled into a U-shaped space between three connected buildings on the Bonne Bell campus; while owner James Bell is a member of the Bonne Bell dynasty, his own passions lie in the realm of food and drink. In fact, as a young college grad, Bell spent five years in Wyoming as a successful restaurateur and chef before returning to Ohio to join the family business. After 15 years as a Bonne Bell executive, he ultimately decided the time had come to follow his heart.
Like a true businessman, though, Bell knows the importance of surrounding himself with talent: In addition to Kolar, for example, he tapped Michael Yih, formerly of Century, Lockkeepers, and Blue Point Grille, as his general manager, and invited Shawn Monday, previously executive chef at The Inn at Turner's Mill, to join his crew, at least temporarily, as sous chef. (Monday is also pursuing plans to open his own spot later this year.) In light of all this ability, it's no surprise that, while it has been open only since June, Three Birds has already developed a devoted cadre of fans, drawn in by the almost irresistible blend of energy, artistry, and serenity that informs the spot.
Undoubtedly, the setting's decorative pièce de résistance is its stunning, landscaped courtyard, surrounded by a brick-and-iron wall, shaded by tall hardwoods, and checkered with sandstone-lined flower and herb beds. Mounds of impatiens still lined the walkways during our late-summer visits, while lavender, basil, and thyme tumbled over the rough stone edgings. Verbena, daisies, and petunias poured forth from oversized urns; and almost as though they were on the payroll, flocks of finches and sparrows warbled from the treetops, serenading the hardy souls who still dared to dine alfresco on the brick-paved patio, beneath market umbrellas and the glow of outdoor heaters.
Happily, indoor diners, too, can relish a beautiful view of the courtyard, thanks to the restaurant's open, tiered floor plan and a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the gardens. Along with the high ceilings and worn brick walls, those windows also lend the space a sense of airy tranquillity that stands in mellow contrast to the dim, sexy lighting, bustling servers, and stylishly dressed guests, who fill the room with talk and laughter -- and who, incidentally, make weekend reservations an absolute necessity.
It doesn't hurt, of course, that Kolar, a Cleveland native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, cooks up a storm. Before joining the Three Birds team, Kolar had the chance to hone his artistry in some highly respected ateliers, including Moxie and Fire, on the local scene, under executive chef Doug Katz, and Vong, in New York City, with four-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Indeed, while Three Birds' cuisine is billed as modern American, Kolar pays frequent homage to the nouveau-Thai Vong in a special appetizer of coconut-dusted shrimp satay, served with thick, spicy peanut sauce, or in peekytoe crab "fritters" (miniature crab cakes) accompanied by a trio of well-orchestrated dipping potions, rich with nuances of ginger, coconut milk, papaya, and cilantro.
However, while Vongerichten's cuisine has been described as "explosively flavorful," Kolar seems to go for intricate intimations and subtle equilibrium. This tightrope act occasionally results in dishes that are vaguely out of balance, such as a bland wood-oven-fired lobster-manchego-and-cipollini pizza hijacked by the domineering taste of roasted garlic. But at its best, as in a magnificent entrée of golden, pan-seared sea scallops -- skewered on licorice root, dusted with cayenne, and veiled in whispers of puréed parsnips, braised fennel, chervil oil, and tomato -- this cuisine's multiple, translucent tastes can coalesce into a dish of almost indescribable depth and complexity.
The kitchen has not attained perfection quite yet. Besides the merely average pizza, an heirloom tomato salad was served sans the much-needed sprinkling of fleur de sel, for instance; and the triangles of underseasoned polenta that accompanied a halibut dish were drear and dull. But most of its work shows impressive potential, and attention to detail marks even the smallest offering. Bite-sized amuse bouches -- one night a bit of duck confit, wrapped in puff pastry and drizzled with dark balsamic reduction; another night, a sliver of lobster, cosseted in a filmy layer of daikon, and goosed with the sassy flavors of ginger and rosemary -- were precise and intriguing. Butterballs, accompanying slices of rustic white bread, burst with essence of toasted fennel and roasted garlic. And we could scarcely imagine a better interlude between starters and main events than the palate-cleansing salad of astringent rocket (arugula), gentled by a scant amount of cherry-infused vinaigrette and finished with dried cherries and Maytag blue cheese.
The dull polenta wasn't the only problem with an entrée of fire-roasted halibut, though. Overcooked until it was disappointingly dry, the mild fish became merely the backdrop for a piquant sauce of kalamata olives, oversized caper berries, and tomato, finished with a lively, unexpectedly fruity counterpoint of green-tomato marmalade. Still, the dish was obviously well conceived, and if only the halibut had been more gently prepared, so that it was lush and moist, the dish probably would have been spectacular.
Overcooking was definitely not an issue in an entrée of succulent duck breast, where the thick slices of rosy meat were so perfectly tender and toothsome that they momentarily left us speechless. Here, Kolar magnified the duck's delicate, preexisting earthiness with tiny, coordinated tastes of bok choy, seared foie gras, fig, pear, and corn (in the form of a tiny grits "cake"), melding each component into a seamless, sense-tingling whole.
We just wish the six-item dessert menu, the province of pastry chef Jody Stephan, had been as consistently interesting as what came before. What we wouldn't have given, for instance, for a Vongerichten-style molten Valrhona cake; roasted figs with honey and port; or even mango rice pudding in place of the menu's ubiquitous crème brûlée, ho-hum Key lime cheesecake, or prosaic triple chocolate mousse. (Bell says new desserts soon will be added.) Still, we did discover an out-of-the-ordinary sweet ending in the kitchen's warm cookies -- an assortment of chocolate chip, macadamia and white-chocolate chip, and peanut butter -- indulgently served with cinnamon-flavored whipped cream for dipping. And guests with a well-tamed sweet tooth will appreciate the sophisticated cheese plate, composed of Camembert, Maytag blue, aged provolone, and balsamic-drizzled chèvre, along with matchsticks of pear, a sliced strawberry, sugared walnuts, and crisp toasted almonds. A concise collection of ports, sherries, and dessert wines is also available.
Despite the crowds, the kitchen's pacing never faltered during our visits, and servers proved enthusiastic, attentive, and knowledgeable. However, management obviously has put a bug in staffers' ears about not leaving soiled dishes on the table, and they have taken it deeply to heart: on one visit, a staffer absconded with our bread, butter, and bread plates only moments after a waitress had delivered them; on another night we got into a tugging match with a staffer intent upon removing our unfinished cheese plate! After years of bemoaning the opposite, though, we hardly dare criticize such conscientiousness.
Sharp-eyed guests will notice several groupings of the restaurant's namesake birds perched about the interior; ask a staff member about the name, and you'll get a tale of owner Bell's belief that good things come in threes. Three Stooges, Three's Company, and Three Blind Mice notwithstanding, in Three Birds the prophecy obviously comes true.
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