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Zen, and Now 

Keeping it simple isn't so easy, but Fire's still faring fine.

Doug Katz (left) and Scott Popovic make root vegetables sexy. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Doug Katz (left) and Scott Popovic make root vegetables sexy.
It's been well over five years since Fire first sprang to life on Shaker Square, with a cool vibe and a sizzling menu of contemporary American fare; and despite the Square's own ups and downs over the years, today's Fire is burning brighter than ever.

The changes have been subtle but significant. Chef-owner Doug Katz's American bistro menu -- always a model of decorum and restraint -- has grown slightly larger, with the addition of three or four more apps and a couple of entrées. At the same time, his kitchen has become ever more reliant on natural, sustainable meats and produce, including ingredients culled from local farms and growers. To keep concepts equally fresh, he's brought on board Scott Popovic, former executive chef at the Warehouse District's XO, as Fire's chef du cuisine. And as for the restaurant's current level of popularity, let's just say this: Unless you really enjoy dining at 6 or 10 on a Saturday night, it would be wise to make your reservations at least two weeks in advance.

Among other things, Fire's enduring brilliance just goes to show that lengthy menus, gaudy appointments, and a pantry bursting with truffles, foie gras, and lobster are no more necessary to a dining room's success than mittens on monkeys. Instead, Katz has taken Fire to the top of this town's restaurant heap mostly by embracing that most underappreciated culinary concept of all: simplicity.

Not to get all Bodhidharma on you, but the fact is that attaining simplicity is a good deal more difficult than it sounds, particularly from a culinary standpoint. After all, it's no big deal to make even an inferior ingredient taste good by disguising it in chichi add-ons. Who cares, for instance, if the potatoes are wholesome and fresh, when you're just going to obliterate their flavor with wasabi and black peppercorns anyway? But when a kitchen can take a humble ingredient like a beet, say, and coddle it, love it, and encourage it until the veggie's innate "beetness" becomes a cause for rejoicing, well, that's a kitchen that understands the Zen of cooking.

Which brings us neatly to Fire's roasted beet "brûlée," a crimson celebration of earthiness, elevated by imagination and grounded in classic technique. Created by chef Popovic as one of six salads on the fall menu, the savory brûlée arrives in a familiar shallow ramekin, topped not with whipped cream, but with a cheerful green tangle of watercress, and garnished not with berries, but with toasted pine nuts and crumbs of goat cheese. Peek beneath the toppings to discover the sweet brûlée layer, made from thinly sliced, caramelized beets that melt on the tongue like snowflakes. Beneath that, go on to uncover a jumble of cubed beets bound by a goat-cheese "custard" and tweaked with a touch of honey to bring out the natural sweetness. Finally, spoon up a mouthful, and pause to celebrate how good even humble root veggies can be when treated with the respect they deserve.

That same approach -- giving simple ingredients what amounts to a day at the spa -- can be seen throughout the kitchen's repertoire. The succulent, almost fork-tender, certified Angus beef rib-eye that comes out of Katz's 700-degree tandoor, for instance, has been precisely trimmed, then allowed to luxuriate for hours in a bath of wines, oils, herbs, and spices before taking its trip to the oven. When it emerges -- seared, supple, and wafting deep aromas -- it qualifies as one of Cleveland's Great Steaks.

Free-range lamb from Pennsylvania, fresh Moulard duck legs and thighs from Hudson Valley, and thick-cut organic pork chops from a midwestern farmer-owned cooperative also get that type of painstaking preparation, so what diners taste are true, wholesome flavors, unencumbered by heavy sauces, aggressive garnishes, or oddball seasonings. The same can be said for the imaginative accompaniments sharing space on the plate with each entrée. No batons of undercooked broccoli here. Instead, savor delights like satiny Yukon Gold potato hash, piqued with caramel-like bits of onion; evaporative baby spinach leaves, stroked with an astonishingly subtle fresh-horseradish cream; or a perfect six-onion risotto, each grain of rice bound to its brother by a sheer whisper of mascarpone.

That luxurious risotto formed the underpinning for an entrée of prosciutto-wrapped sea scallops, four sweet little reminders of the ocean's bounty that practically trembled inside their sheer, rosy wrappers. If only, on top, a final flourish of mustard greens hadn't been gritty, a diner could hardly have wished for a more glorious dish.

An oversight marred the kitchen's signature "crispy" duck too. The pair of meaty legs and thighs, cured confit-style and then fired until the skins snapped and popped, had a lovely flavor, but were chewy and dry. Happily, both the dainty sweet-potato spaetzle and a bit of burgundy-based jus beneath them added the lushness that the meat itself was lacking.

Considering the kitchen's classical bent, the dining room's canny, contemporary decor looks unexpectedly hip; although with the cloth-and-paper-dressed tables lined up cafeteria-style in elbow-to-elbow formation, the noise level can be considerable, and blazing a trail to the restroom can seem like an impossible dream. Yet somehow, despite the noise and crowding, the ambiance sidesteps "chaos" to achieve "excitement." And if this makes Fire the wrong spot for an intimate rendezvous, it is the right place to celebrate good food and friendship, to laugh out loud with companions, and to raise a glass or two to the pleasures of the table.

Speaking of which, Katz' wine list, like his dinner menu, has gained some heft over the years. Today, it includes more than 100 wines by the bottle and 20 by the glass, with an emphasis on value-priced, food-friendly West Coast wines that best complement the restaurant's American fare. But while the standard, high-end pretensions like Opus One, Silver Oak, and Quintessa have been passed over in favor of boutique finds, this doesn't mean big spenders can't strut their stuff; for instance, critically acclaimed gems like Ramey Wine Cellars '03 Napa Valley Cab, priced at $163, can give even the heftiest wallet a tantalizing workout. For our own slimmer purse, though, a bottle of Ravenswood's Icon was more than sufficient. A Rhône-style blend of syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache grapes, the Sonoma red was rich, smooth, and elegant from the moment our server poured it into our Riedel stemware to the final sip, and went as agreeably with the duck and the prosciutto-wrapped scallops as with the rib-eye steak. And because Icon retails for around $20, the wine menu's price of $37 seemed entirely fair.

Nowadays, sweet endings are the realm of pastry chef Michael Kittle, a Fire veteran who inherited the position from Heather Haviland when she went on to launch her own Tremont bakery, Sweet Mosaic. Fruits, chocolate, and a well-appointed cheese plate figure prominently among the options, turning decision-making into a delicious dilemma. Ultimately, though, our picks included a beautifully balanced caramel-ginger crème brûlée, topped with fresh berries; and Kittle's version of "coffee and doughnuts," which he presents as a dense, silken pot de crème custard, made with Belgian dark chocolate and served in a demitasse, sided by wedges of warm, cinnamon-sugar-dusted naan direct from the clay oven. While both those desserts were lick-the-plate scrumptious, our loudest oohs and ahhs were prompted by the homemade brownie sundae, an otherwise commonplace sweetie, here elevated by toasted hazelnuts, top-quality vanilla-bean ice cream, clouds of real whipped cream, and an indulgent, Mexican-style hot fudge sauce, piqued with cinnamon. It was more than large enough to share, but so good, who would want to?

Of course, its just another example of how remarkable even a "simple" dish can seem when each component has been coddled. And as long as Katz and his staff keep dishing out the lovin', it's a sure bet that Fire will stay red-hot.

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