Bean There, Done That

Otherwise-worthy Harry Corvairs has garden-variety problems.

Crab Cakes Dijonnaise, one of Chef Kish's many artful creations. - Walter  Novak
Crab Cakes Dijonnaise, one of Chef Kish's many artful creations.
The sun glinted off my minivan's windows like flames bouncing off Xena's shield, as we dodged the boisterous hordes overflowing the streets and drove into the very belly of the beast.

Oh, all right. Maybe pulling into Harry Corvairs's downtown parking lot during an Indians game isn't that dramatic. But it can be a challenge fighting one's way into the restaurant, which is tucked into a corner of the Caxton Building, within spitting distance of Jacobs Field and right next door to the acknowledged "center of the baseball universe" (Pete and Dewey's Planet).

But once we were inside the spare, dimly lit dining room, our battle fatigue evaporated, as we sipped our wine (chosen from an extensive list of American, French, and Italian reds and whites that includes an unusually large selection of wines by the glass) and let the outside world slip by. In fact, so complete was our relaxation that we hardly stirred when the 7:05 p.m. "artillery bursts" from the nearby Jake rattled our silver and made little waves in our water glasses.

But that's just the kind of soothing effect that Harry Corvairs (the name's a play on haricot verts, the French term for "green beans") can have on you. The restaurant's sophisticated, understated decor, complemented by some of the city's most professional and unobtrusive service, seems designed to make diners sit back and relax.

Adding to one's sense of well-being is Chef Jonathan Kish's propensity for surprising guests with just a little more than they had expected. For example, meals begin with the arrival of a tiny complimentary amuse bouche, literally an amusement for the mouth, that not only piques the taste buds but also makes guests feel pampered and well-loved. On one recent visit, the amusant was a postage-stamp-sized piece of rare, pepper-crusted ahi tuna; on another, it was a teensy triangle of firm grouper mousse, moistened with drops of curry-infused oil.

Likewise, the descriptions on Kish's small menu are kept to a minimum so that the kitchen, like a coy lover who never reveals everything at once, can delight guests with unanticipated pleasures. Among our favorite surprises have been nutty wild-rice crêpes stuffed with matchsticks of fresh zucchini, carrots, and summer squash that accompanied an entrée of crispy glazed duck; and the luscious, buttery gratin of tender, smoky, Gouda-flavored potatoes that sided our Tournedos of Beef.

Although the taciturn menu makes no mention of it, a generous house salad also comes with all entrées. A cool, crisp combo of romaine, radicchio, arugula, and more, the mixed greens were tossed with an assertive Dijon-mustard vinaigrette that nearly made us pucker. The sharp dressing got a much-needed mellow note from the few salty crumbs of creamy blue cheese that were sprinkled among the greens.

Kish is known for his surprising but subtle blends of flavors, and the menu's seven hot and three cold appetizers make a wonderful showcase for his style. Most notable was a portion of Wild Mushroom Baklava: two tall triangles of crunchy phyllo layered with a mix of savory fresh and dried wild mushrooms, ground toasted walnuts, and honey, set upon a pink pool of fruity strawberry butter and spiked with drizzles of port-wine reduction. The exciting blend of sweet and earthy flavors was a strikingly unusual but winning combination.

Similarly unusual was Kish's modern take on that classic comfort food, pierogi. Three fat dumplings were stuffed with pungent, creamy Roquefort cheese and toasted walnuts, and topped with a tangle of limp, savory caramelized onions. Enormously flavorful, a bit salty, but far from overpowering, each bite was like opening a tiny treasure chest.

Our cold appetizer selection was a wedge of goat-cheese-and-veggie tart set beside a blend of colorful yellow, green, and red heirloom tomatoes. The tangy ch&eagrave;vre and slightly acidic tomatoes played together surprisingly well, and the overall effect was refreshing and light.

Our server's detailed description of an appetizer special of lobster, escargot, and oyster mushrooms with lobster butter, served in a puff-pastry box, also got our taste buds thumping. And when it was set before us, the reality did not disappoint. The perfectly light but rich puff pastry not only cradled its contents but also soaked up all the succulent juices from the chunks of lobster, whole snails, and vaguely sea-scented mushrooms, and made this a decadently rich and delicious treat.

(This brings me to a particular soapbox that I haven't climbed upon in months, so here goes: As much as I adored the special appetizer, I detest being subjected -- as I was at Harry's -- to a long recitation of the night's specials, complete with ingredients, cooking techniques, and details of presentation. Other than the servers, whose mental agility is certainly praiseworthy, is there anyone out there who can recall and evaluate all that data when the time comes to order?)

While the atmosphere and appetizers at Harry Corvairs have been reliably top-notch, we have been troubled by inconsistent preparation in the entrées. Most distressing were basic problems of execution in a preparation of Lobster Wellington and in the aforementioned Tournedos of Beef.

The lobster dish was a complex preparation of large chunks of firm and nutty crustacean, crisp and sweet julienned vegetables, and a layer of lobster mousse wrapped up in another wonderful, buttery puff pastry and set upon a scant amount of fresh mango sauce. Arranged around what we playfully called our "lobster pot pie" was a tissue-paper-crisp deep-fried basil leaf, and two large, lovely, whole shelled lobster claws. While the pastry-wrapped portion of the meal delighted us, the grievously undercooked lobster claws were a different story. It was bad enough that they were cool to the touch and still gelatinous in the middle, but when we sent them back, the kitchen returned them to us, saying that was the way they were intended to be!

The tournedos -- two petite filets of beef, napped in a robust garlic-flavored jus -- were also improperly cooked. Ordered medium rare, one of the filets arrived well-done, chewy, and dry. The other, more of a medium, had a bit of flavor and juice left, but still was not what we wanted. We did our best with the medium filet, but felt compelled to send the well-done one back. However, the joke was apparently on us, because the kitchen provided us with a new filet that was so rare it probably could have trotted over to the table by itself. Still cold in the center and bloody red throughout, this new piece of meat was no more satisfactory than its ashen-gray counterpart had been. Disappointed, we pushed it to the side of the plate and made do with our tasty potatoes.

Three nights later, however, when we returned and ordered the same meals, everything was perfect. The lobster claws were smaller and more numerous this time, but thoroughly cooked. Similarly, the filets were prepared just as requested, to a rosy but warm medium-rare. In flavor and texture there was no comparing these two tournedos with the unhappy little fellows from the Saturday before.

As for the previously mentioned entrée of crispy glazed duck, the news is also discouraging. Despite the wonderful wild-rice crêpes and a garnish of juicy, fruity dried cherry compote, the dish, sampled on that ill-fated Saturday night, was a disappointment. Far from succulent and, in places, reminiscent of dry Thanksgiving leftovers, the boneless breast and bone-in leg, wing, and thigh left much to be desired.

For dessert, Harry Corvairs will fix you anything you like, as long as you like soufflés. On both visits, our choices were individually sized chocolate, pistachio, or pineapple soufflés. On Saturday night we splurged on one of each and passed them around the table, along with little pitchers of thin chocolate syrup, an understated red raspberry sauce, and a bland yellow mango sauce. Our favorite among the moist, dense soufflés was the tart and tasty pineapple; in comparison, both the pistachio and the chocolate seemed dull.

On our following trip, we revisited the pistachio soufflé, which, this time, was served with a thick, bittersweet Nutella sauce. Whether it was a halo effect from an all-round better meal or the magical qualities of Nutella, I can't say: But in any case, we enjoyed our dessert more this night than we had on our previous visit and concluded our dinner in fine spirits.

Overall, we are quite fond of Harry Corvairs, recognizing, as we do, that all kitchens will experience an occasional "off" night. Unfortunately, as Clevelanders' dining options grow, restaurants may not get a second chance to woo a new customer or delight an old one when things go wrong. Here's hoping the Saturday-night snafus are few and far between at this otherwise worthy restaurant.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].