Not Even Classics Last Forever

Doomed restaurant still dishes out fine food.

In little more than a year, the silver will be polished, the napkins will be folded, and dinner will be served for the last time as Classics, one of Cleveland's premier restaurants, prepares to meet the wrecker's ball.

The restaurant, along with the Omni International Hotel where it is located, is going to be razed to make way for a larger Inter-Continental Hotel on the same site.

While we Northeast Ohioans are no strangers to the loss of local icons (think: Browns, Revco, and most of the steel industry, for starters), area gourmets are likely to take this one pretty hard. The restaurant, whose name is synonymous with excellence, has been the place to go for a romantic evening of classical elegance for the past dozen years.

Given the sad news, the time seemed right for another trip to this landmark of refined dining. Gathering up three dear friends whom I suspected of owning nice clothing, I arranged for us to enjoy a weeknight treat.

Barbara Rulli, who manages the restaurant, describes it as "a place to celebrate special occasions." And the sense of being someplace special begins as soon as Classics' massive doors swing open onto its gleaming marble lobby. ("You can never go wrong with marble," a fellow diner sighed. "It's so--well--classic!")

The impressive rose-hued marble floors and walls extend throughout the entry, giving way to carpeting and mirrors as guests pass by the bar and into the more intimate dining space, which is divided into several levels and zones.

On this particular evening, our host guided us to an area overlooking the dining room. We oohed over our table, a lovely still life dressed in beige jacquard linens, crystal water goblets, gold-rimmed china, substantial flatware, and fresh flowers. As we reviewed the menu and the wine list, and debated our abundant choices, a pianist and bass player kept up a steady rhythm of sophisticated jazz.

The restaurant's signature appetizer is Chef Dean DiLuciano's Wild Mushroom Soup--so needless to say, we had to try a bowl. We also decided to sample the soup of the day (Corn Chowder), Sauteed Crab Cakes, and the evening's special, Blackened Scallops.

To my mind, mushrooms-- whether they are slabs of meaty portobellos, golden chanterelles with a hint of apricot, or woodsy cloud ears--are food of the gods. So, when the waiter placed before me the fragrant bowl of Wild Mushroom Soup, I was transported. Divinely inspired with generous amounts of finely diced shiitake, portobello, and morel mushrooms, and finished with heavy cream and Courvoisier, the soup played the earthy taste of the fungi against the fresh flavor of the cream, putting me into something approaching a transcendental state.

The corn chowder was also good, if not as intoxicating as the wild mushroom soup. While I've sampled heavy, appetite-dulling chowders aplenty, this wasn't one of them. Instead, the creamy soup took its predominant flavor from the kernels of fresh corn, making it simple and slightly sweet, as befitting a first course.

The Blackened Scallops featured three perfectly broiled shellfish dusted with fiery Cajun spices. Again, the kitchen's skill at blending contrasting flavors was evident: The scallops' sweet, custardy interiors were wonderful foils for the tongue-searing, eye-popping coating.

The kitchen did not do as well with the Sauteed Crab Cakes. Although they were prettily arranged on a bed of endive, wilted greens, basil, and red-curry aioli, no amount of decoration could overcome the fact that they were inexcusably filled with bits of crunchy shell. The unwelcome roughage showed up in nearly every bite, and ruined what otherwise would have been a tasty dish.

After our appetizer plates were spirited away, we were presented with petite salads of radicchio, leaf lettuces, enoki mushrooms, and sweet-tasting walnuts. The impeccably fresh greens were barely dressed in a very mild vinaigrette, allowing the contrast between the bitter greens and sugary nuts to shine through. I thought the salad was wonderful. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit I overheard some grumbles to the effect that the salad needed more dressing.

Following the salads, the refresher course arrived--a tiny ball of tart raspberry sorbet resting in a goblet, garnished with a thread of candied citrus peel.

With our palates re-energized, it was on to our entrees. I had wavered between a double-boned venison chop, roasted duck, Veal Oscar, and the Rack of Lamb Persille. Once I was able to convince one of my companions she simply had to try the veal, I was satisfied to order the lamb.

Another member of our party ordered Steak Diane, medallions of sauteed beef served with a heady sauce of shiitake mushrooms, scallions, brandy, Dijon mustard, demi-glace and cream, and finished with a splash of dry sack sherry. The filet and sauce were prepared tableside, with a minimum of fuss, and whisked away upon completion.

They returned moments later, along with our other entrees, hidden beneath silver serving domes. In the evening's only example of waiterly showmanship, two servers each grasped two domes and simultaneously lifted them, unveiling our beautifully arranged meals with a flourish and a clang.

The Steak Diane medallions were displayed around a mound of piped mashed potatoes, and the plate was garnished with several thin spears of asparagus, softened sundried tomatoes, and a serving of whole steamed carrots. The carrots, about the size of a man's finger, were tender and sweet. But inexplicably, their green "shoulders" and bits of stem remained attached, giving them an untrimmed appearance that was in earthy contrast to the otherwise-sophisticated presentation. When I pointed this out to our diner, he just shrugged. He said he loved the tender beef, the rich sauce, and the buttery mashed potatoes; if the carrots displayed a little extra greenery, it didn't concern him in the least!

Another member of our party, who has spent years around fresh seafood in Boston and in Florida, ordered the Pan Roasted Grouper. The filet was glazed with a fennel-broth reduction sauce and served with black mussels and cremini mushrooms on a bed of cannellini beans. We agreed that the fish was perfectly fresh, well prepared, and delicious. But I couldn't fault him for pushing aside the mealy white beans, which presented an unusual and not entirely pleasant contrast to the delicate fish.

Only later did he realize that the grouper was one of the menu's low-fat "Spa Selections." He was surprised: The fish had been so flavorful that he had never guessed it was healthy, too. Instead of feeling deprived, he declares he wouldn't hesitate to order it again.

I also adored the Veal Oscar. Several melt-in-your-mouth tender slices of medium-rare veal rested upon a bed of white rice and were piled high with chunks of sweet Alaskan king crabmeat. The meat was napped with a delicate hollandaise sauce, and the plate was garnished with slender asparagus spears. It was a good thing I snatched up my sample of the dish when I did. After her second bite, my companion declared the dish "very rich." And that was the last we heard from her until we grabbed her shoulders to keep her from licking the plate.

But we all agreed that the night's top prize belonged to my intensely flavored Rack of Lamb Persille. The rack had been cut into two thick, long-boned chops, coated with garlic, mustard, and spices, then broiled medium rare and served on a slice of the smoothest, most delicious herbed polenta I have ever tasted. The plate was garnished with a ratatouille of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, which had been glazed with a savory red-wine reduction sauce. The bold flavor of the lamb, coupled with the creamy polenta and moist, garlicky vegetables, made a flawless combination.

Rulli says she is most proud of the awards the restaurant has received for its service, and we certainly could make no complaint on that point. Throughout the meal, we found our servers to be unfailingly attentive and nonintrusive, anticipating our needs and allowing our attention to remain, as we preferred, upon the delightful food and charming companionship.

The meal's leisurely pace, as well as the reasonable portion sizes, meant that--hallelujah!--three of us had room for dessert.

And what an assortment we had to choose from! We passed up the flambe items--Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee, and Berries Flambe--prepared tableside for two, and the tempting Mascarpone Cheesecake, Fresh Berry Napoleon, and a goblet of Fruit and Berries in Cream. Instead, we decided upon Creme Brulee, a Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake, and the Warm Apple Tart.

The Creme Brulee--quivering, tender vanilla custard capped with a crisp layer of caramelized sugar--was one of the best we have tasted, bursting with the rich, wholesome flavor of eggs and cream. To add to our bliss, it was accompanied by a raspberry-and-whipped cream-filled cup fashioned from phyllo dough, and the plate was beautifully garnished with dark and white chocolate swirls. The overall effect was gorgeous.

The Warm Apple Tart made a sweet ending to my meal of lamb. A crisp, flaky tart shell was filled with cinnamon-scented baked-apple slices and set adrift on a sea of Calvados-flavored vanilla sauce. Two little scoops of vanilla ice cream bobbed along beside the tart, while tiny dried cranberries drifted by. In a word: yum.

We weren't quite so fond of the Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake: several thin slices of a dense chocolate-and-ground-hazelnut páte, served with raspberries and whipped cream. In contrast to our savory entrees, the confection seemed bland and pasty. Even our confessed chocoholic didn't find it good enough to eat.

By the time our plates were removed and coffee was served, we were inclined to forgive the disappointing dessert and forget the disastrous crab cakes. Our magnanimous frame of mind resulted from what we agreed was a preponderance of excellent dishes, a beautiful setting, and an evening's worth of exemplary service.

It remains to be seen whether the restaurant can maintain this level of excellence as its closing date grows near. After all, nothing--not Euclid Beach, not Mr. Jing-a-Ling, and not Classics--lasts forever.

However, for at least a little while longer, I'll be content to enjoy a good thing while it lasts.

2065 East 96th Street, Cleveland, 216-791-1300. Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday-Friday 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

Wild Mushroom Soup $4.95
Sauteed Crab Cakes $8.00
Rack of Lamb Persille $29.00
Veal Oscar $30.00
Warm Apple Tart $5.00
Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake $8.