You tell yourself (over a $21 bottle of crisp R.H. Phillips EXP Viognier, chosen from the solid, sensibly priced wine list) that trendy Treva would fit right into Cleveland's Warehouse District. But deep down, you really aren't a snob: You know that not everything good belongs in Cleveland and will readily admit that your neighbors to the south deserve a hip place like this every bit as much as you do. Besides, if Treva were in Cleveland, would you be able to waltz in on a Saturday night with only a few days' advance notice? I don't think so.
Not that the dining room is somber tonight. Beyond the happy chatter of guests and the background hum of a well-oiled kitchen, a high-tech jukebox cranks out everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Chrissie Hynde and Frankie S. to INXS. We gladly settle ourselves at one of Treva's sleek wooden tables, bare save for plum-colored napkins and oversized wine goblets, and turn our attention to chef-owner Cathy White's large menu, a contemporary blend of styles and ingredients as eclectic as the music itself.
White bought Treva in April from its founder, pioneering Akron restaurateur Diane Robinson. (Robinson has since turned her attention to Piatto, the contemporary Italian restaurant she opened on Main Street this summer.) But White, a graduate of the University of Akron's hospitality program, is no newcomer to the region's increasingly interesting dining scene, having served as Treva's sous chef in the months following its 1998 opening, then taking the top spot at Moe's in Cuyahoga Falls. White's current menu isn't so different from the one originally designed by Robinson, although it is perhaps a bit more daring, straying somewhat further from its Mediterranean roots and a little deeper into Asian and Latino flavor territory.
There's an exemplary duck confit, for instance, sharing menu space with panko-crusted crab cakes. Salmon is paired with chorizo sausage and cannellini beans. Halibut comes infused with essence of ginger and chilies. And grilled flank steak flirts with a roasted poblano relleno. In a room where exposed metal ductwork serves as an industrially chic counterpoint to tufted upholstery and glistening chandeliers, the variety of scents and tastes seems right at home. And while not everything exactly jumps off the plate, the preparations are rarely less than well crafted and are, often enough, simply stunning.
Like that halibut: a thick filet of pearly white flesh baked inside a curvaceous green cabbage leaf. Even before we take a bite, we fall under the spell of its intense aroma -- ginger, sassed with subtle undertones of garlic and chilies. Lush and moist, the fish threatens to melt on our fork, but not before we scoop up a few plump grains of purple rice, steeped in a marvelous sweet-and-sour broth that makes our tongue dance with delight. It's a dish as creatively conceived and as deliciously executed as any diner could wish for.
We also aren't likely to forget the scrumptious Treva Salad, a tangle of tender mesclun greens thrown together with plenty of shredded duck confit, plump dried cherries, caramelized walnuts, and big crumbs of blue cheese, all in a mellow balsamic vinaigrette. The salad is offered as an entrée, but the kitchen graciously accommodates our request to sample a half-order as an appetizer. The same moist confit shows up again in an excellent duck breast entrée, where it adds depth to a fruity rice pilaf, flecked with dried blueberries, cherries, and apricots, underpinning thick slices of quivering rare meat. As a final touch, the dish is finished with a splash of soft balsamic reduction. Mmm . . . wonderful!
Treva's take on calamari is also worth revisiting. Just when you think you've seen everything a kitchen can do with breaded squid, White & Co. come up with something different, here tossing tender sautéed calamari into a big bowl along with rich oil-cured olives, astringent arugula, sliced Roma tomato, and a bit of garlic. In the absence of the ubiquitous marinara, the add-ons contribute just the right amount of moisture, not to mention a burst of robust Mediterranean flavor. Likewise, a generous individual "cheesecake" of creamy goat cheese, spiked with fragrant pine nuts and topped with a savory salad of roasted red pepper, is packed with complementary Mediterranean tastes, textures, and aromas. While both these dishes are listed as first courses, the large portions could serve as an entrée for lighter appetites or be passed around the table for sharing.
Even the two dishes that fail to wow us are by no means failures. They just seem to suffer in comparison to some of the kitchen's more daring ventures. A moist crab cake, with a coarse panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs) crust and a side of fried green tomatoes, is nice enough, but doesn't strike any gastronomic sparks. An entrée of unmistakably fresh wild-mushroom ravioli, in a delicate potato cream sauce with a hint of garlicky truffle oil, is pleasant, but doesn't give us shivers.
What does give us goose bumps, however, are the relatively modest prices, with no appetizer costing more than $9 and most entrées set at less than $20. Consider that the ample main courses also come with an excellent house salad -- topped with a savory spiral-shaped tuille, a crisp little explosion of basil, oregano, and black pepper -- and slices of delicate freshly baked honey-white bread, and you'll understand our excitement: For no more than what we might pay at one of the mediocre "upscale" chains, we can enjoy an evening here with compelling food served in an authentically stylish setting. And while the service isn't entirely top-notch (our waitress seems to know regrettably little about the food or the wines she is serving), dishes arrive from the kitchen apace, water glasses are kept full, and staff members are always nearby when we need them.
At least a few of Treva's desserts, from Pastry Chef Melissa Salmon, are worth saving some room for. The Kitchen Sink, a giant chocolate brownie topped with toasted mini-marshmallows, slathered with caramel, chocolate ganache, and chopped peanuts, then sided with a scoop of banana ice cream, is unusual and heady. A big block of stunningly light, vanilla-scented bread pudding, crafted from that honey-white bread and studded with bits of apple, beckons from beneath a slowly melting scoop of cinnamon ice cream and makes a not-too-rich delight when shared with a friend and a cup of cappuccino. However, we aren't at all impressed with an order of Donut Holes: little balls of ho-hum fried dough served with a cup of chocolate sauce and a cup of blueberry sauce for dipping. Clever idea, we think; banal execution.
But that's a minor enough complaint for such a generally pleasant night on the town. We step out into the rain, tip the valet, and slide behind the wheel for the drive back north. It may not be far to Akron, but it's worth noting how far Akron dining has come.