Opening a new restaurant can be a long, hard row to hoe. If you need proof, just ask Doug Berg.
Berg (known to many from his role as mastermind of the popular former West Side dance club, Brillo Pad), along with partner and DJ Mazi Jahi, decided last year to expand their offerings by adding a full dinner menu and live music to the dance-club concept. Armed with experience and ambition, Berg sought out an atmospheric old building on a corner of Lorain Avenue and set to work transforming it into Touch Supper Club, a spot that he hoped would allow him to combine an elegantly retro ambiance with fine dining and exciting bands.
Inevitable construction delays pushed back the restaurant's planned April debut by several months, although the downstairs dance club was up and running in May. Then, on the eve of the dining room's premiere, Berg's designated executive chef, Todd Stein, suddenly became his ex-chef, accepting an alternative gig at Sans Souci. When Touch finally flung wide the dining-room doors at the beginning of June, it was with not one, but two top kitchen magicians, Greg Tushar and Robin Wilkins, and a fairly ambitious menu of steaks, chops, and seafood. A few months later, though, Wilkins split, leaving Berea-born and Seattle-trained Tushar, formerly of Coaches and the Cleveland Chop House, on his lonesome.
Quite the roller coaster ride, that. And besides the changing personnel roster, the physical facility also continues to be a work in progress. A striking backlit bar top of sandblasted glass, along with the stylish sign on the window, didn't get installed until shortly before our first visit in late August. Improvements are still planned for the downstairs dance club; the main floor's rustic restrooms look as if they could stand a bit more sprucing up, too. And ventilation, or more properly the lack of it, was a problem both times we stopped by, with the musty-smelling dining areas growing uncomfortably warm over the course of the evening.
Berg says he thrives on challenges. But overall, you have to figure that this project has presented at least a few more hurdles than he had bargained for. Nevertheless, Berg gets a lot of credit for the mostly stylish and of-the-moment dining space he has carved out of this old Ohio City bank building. Dim lighting, augmented by flickering votives; a steady beat of recorded jazz, blues, salsa, and electronica; and some striking original artwork, including a 41-foot-long, three-dimensional sculpture by local artist Mark McLeeson, mounted across the wall behind the bar, give Touch a hip, youthful feel. Big, cushy 1950s-style chrome-and-vinyl armchairs provide comfy seating. And the handful of tables -- five in the smoking section near the bar, and four in what appears to be the former bank president's glass-enclosed office at the front of the restaurant -- are nattily arrayed in trendy black cloths with brisk white napkins. (A larger dining room is in the rear, past the narrow, open kitchen; our server told us it is pressed into service for "overflow" seating when the restaurant is especially busy, or for private parties. It was empty, both on the Saturday night and on a subsequent Friday night, when we visited.)
The present bistro-style menu, revised after Wilkins's departure, now includes eight entrées ranging from a $10 bowl of macaroni and cheese to a $27 beef filet; a handful of sandwiches in the $8 to $12 range; and a few simple starters, including salads, mussels, and a black-bean quesadilla. On the whole, the food is good, although things could be easily improved with more attention to detail. For instance, an ample portion of the aforementioned macaroni and cheese -- firm penne pasta in an unfortunately watery Fontina cheese sauce, with chopped fresh tomato and abrasively gritty spinach -- would have profited from more attentive preparation. Peach "crisp" -- sliced peaches smothered in mushy oatmeal topping -- was anything but. And homemade butterscotch pudding, served up in a martini glass, really was just like mother used to make: nicely flavored, but rife with lumps!
On the other hand, thinly sliced veal meatloaf, an entrée based on Mama Tushar's family recipe, had a delightfully fine texture and a hearty taste. It was jazzed up even more with robust wild-mushroom gravy and a generous side of firm, savory porcini gnocchi from Ohio City Pasta. A small à la carte salad of delicate seasonal greens with a few crumbs of goat cheese, tossed in a sweet sherry vinaigrette, was fresh and flavorful. And a crunchy quesadilla with a juicy filling of black beans and shredded Fontina and cheddar cheeses, sided with a good, housemade pico de gallo of tomato, cilantro, jalapeño pepper, and onion, was definitely a keeper.
We were fascinated by the menu's Peanut Butter and Ahi Sandwich, whose name conjured up disturbing images of tuna-salad-and-jelly or something of that ilk. But not to worry: The name was a tongue-in-cheek moniker for a yummy grilled tuna filet topped with a small amount of fiery Thai-style peanut sauce, served open-face on a slice of buttery grilled ciabatta bread that soaked up the flavorful juices. A second sandwich, the Touch Burger, was also good, with a moist ground beef patty topped by a slab of cheddar and lots of smoky bacon. However it, too, was served on big slices of grilled ciabatta bread, which made it difficult to eat in the conventional fashion; my grumbling companion eventually decided to treat it as an open-face number and attacked it with knife and fork. Both sandwiches came with a generous scoop of creamy, celery-studded Yukon-Gold potato salad: cool, mild, and delicately delicious.
Two small crab cakes -- an appetizer -- were tasty and well prepared, with crisp, golden crusts and meaty interiors. We especially liked the mild red-pepper coulis beneath them, which offered a nice balance to the properly salty cakes. However, another fish dish, Hazelnut-Crusted Walleye, was less pleasing, with the bland, vaguely dry filet completely overshadowed, flavor-wise, by the crunchy coating of finely chopped hazelnuts. Sides of ho-hum basmati rice and dreary, overcooked pea pods provided no gastronomic relief, although some wispy slices of fresh lemon, draped over the walleye, and a fat roasted shallot showed that the kitchen's heart was in the right place.
The bar carries a modest selection of imported and domestic bottled beers, including the usual Guinness, Harp, and Corona, as well as a few more exotic items. As for the international wine list, it offers perhaps 40 reds and whites by the bottle, at prices in the $20 to $50 range, and more than a dozen selections by the glass. On both visits, our youthful servers were friendly and generally attentive, although inclined to let us linger -- both before taking our order and before finally showing up with the check -- longer than we liked. Still, water glasses got refilled regularly, courses arrived apace, and the staff seemed knowledgeable about the menu items.
No, the road to opening a new restaurant can have more potholes than I-77 in March. But you've got to hand it to Berg: He has already overcome a number of rough spots. Now, if he and Tushar can turn a more critical eye to what comes out of the kitchen, an evening in Touch could be all it takes to get you feeling all right.
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