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Infatuation? Frustration? Sweet Melissa And I Work Out Our Differences

Restaurants, like people, often seduce us with encouraging first impressions. Eager for a long and happy relationship, we don rose-colored glasses and overlook the blemishes. Inevitably, the more time we spend with the restaurant, the quicker this romance period evaporates, until all we see is the negative. Time spent away can help the diner gain valuable perspective. And, if the relationship is to have any hope of succeeding, it is because the diner returns to the restaurant mindful of its limitations and willing to live with them, warts and all.

If that description sounds like journalistic hyperbole, consider my relationship with Sweet Melissa's. When this restaurant opened a few months back, in the former Max's Deli space in Rocky River, I sneaked in for a quick lunch. My initial report was brimming with optimism - "Sweet Melissa's is a fresh take on an old concept," I wrote in the Free Times. Blinded by a sharply renovated space, bustling lunch crowd and bountiful portions, I discounted shortcomings as youthful gaffes. Returning a month or so later, however, I was disappointed to see that those minor gaffes had matured into unwelcome blunders. It was only after learning how best to negotiate Sweet Melissa's menu that our relationship began taking steps in the right direction.

Run by Matthew Ullom, the former pastry chef of Max's, and his wife Melissa, the café features an all-day menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, entrées and, of course, sweets. The operation focuses more on the quality of ingredients than the creativity of the chef. Management endeavors to source local, sustainable and organic foodstuffs; soups, salad dressings and pastries are made fresh daily; sandwich bread comes from nearby Breadsmith Bakery. By now, that formula has become pretty commonplace. Laudable, but ordinary.

That is why consistency, execution and service are paramount. Sadly, execution and service have been consistently inconsistent. At various times, servers appear overwhelmed or indifferent. Side plates for shared items must be requested. And, when no longer needed, they often idle on the table until replaced by the following course.

For an example of a cute custom that grows into an annoying habit, consider Sweet Mel's water service. When occupied, tables are presented with empty glasses and an attractive glass water bottle. It takes three separate visits before I realize that servers, without exception, refuse to fill diners' glasses. What gives?

Even my love affair with the space has changed after multiple dates. A vast improvement over the former design, the attractive new digs boast shiny copper ceiling tiles, an open and airy floor plan and increased seating capacity. These days, though, my gaze tends to settle not on that snazzy ceiling, but through the wide-open kitchen doors and down to the habitually soiled floors. Close the door or grab a broom.

Still, Sweet Melissa's sandwiches are things of beauty. Really. Holly's Hot Italian ($10) is layered with what looks to be a pound of high-quality salami, ham, turkey and pepperoni, plus fresh greens and veggies, not to mention tasty Italian dressing and two kinds of cheese. Sal's Beef Tenderloin ($10) features large chunks of rosy-red beef, thick grilled onions, roasted red peppers, ripe tomatoes and pert greens. Too bad I couldn't eat either sandwich as a sandwich. Taking into account the brawny two-inch-thick baguettes on which the sammies are built, it was impossible to cram either into my mouth. I've since found relief in the form of Elaine's Egg Salad ($6), which is creamy, dreamy and tucked into a refreshingly soft roll.

I adore an appetizer of crisp, tart fried green tomatoes ($6); I only wish there was more than a thimbleful of the horseradish dressing and less of the cloying cinnamon-scented apple relish. A companion and I gleefully plowed through an entrée-size King Cobb ($12), owing to the salad's warm grilled chicken, finely chopped greens, juicy grapes and pleasantly sweet vinaigrette. Too bad the salad was missing the advertised feta and pecans.

We are bowled over by the size of our pork-chop dinner, a nice value at $16, considering that the dish contains two fat, expertly grilled chops. But apart from poking and prodding, we don't touch the accompanying potato cakes, thin but remarkably absorbent given the amount of oil they contain. I can tell that our crab cakes ($16) would have been divine had they been both recently sautéed and bearing a crisp coating.

Melissa and I have had a rough start, to be sure, but I'm learning to accept her as she is. By focusing on the positive, I feel we may weather these rocky times. I wouldn't say that we've reached a committed relationship, but I'm not ready to kick her to the curb just yet either.

SWEET MELISSA'S: 19337 Detroit Rd., Rocky River, 440.333.6357.Hours: Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.mSunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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