Old Friends

The best reason to have favorites: going back for a visit.

Like most serious dining devotees, we can't wait to discover the hippest new restaurant or check out the hottest new chef. But sometimes -- especially when summer's pace starts to slow and we have time to catch our breath -- it's fun to reconnect with old friends: some of the tried-and-true restaurants that form the backbone of the region's fine-dining scene.

We recently spent some time catching up with four of our favorites: first-rate places that don't always make the headlines, but which can be counted on to deliver service, style, and generally delicious food.

Although we've dropped by for brief lunch visits more recently, the last time we dined at Craig Sumers and Brad Friedlander's smart East Side bistro was in the autumn of 1999.

Since then, former executive chef Doug Katz has moved on to open Fire, his own little hot spot on Shaker Square, and Jonathan Bennett has taken charge of Moxie's kitchen. Because Sumers and Friedlander have remained true to their initial vision, the menu continues to be a creative compilation of rustic American cuisine, prepared and presented with sophistication and finesse. But because the owners are also savvy restaurateurs, they have resisted the urge to try to make time stand still: New twists, techniques, and side dishes have kept the menu up-to-date, and Bennett obviously has been encouraged to indulge his own passions.

One of those passions surely must be for foie gras, because one of the most striking items on the current menu is the giant JB Burger ($19.50), a peach-juicy slab of ground angus beef, topped with micro-greens, oven-dried tomato, and a lardon of dry-rubbed, house-cured foie gras "bacon." Unspeakably rich and profoundly indulgent, it's a shoo-in for a spot in The Gourmet Burger Hall of Fame. A tangled web of slender frites and a small mountain of thinly sliced, breaded-and-fried onions complete this upscale rendition of the all-American meal.

Salads, too, continue to be Moxie standouts. Among the menu's current sweet-and-savory tosses, our fave is the tangy, nutlike mâche salad, decked out with fresh sliced strawberries and candied pistachios in a plush strawberry-balsamic vinaigrette, finished with sheer crostini and wedges of soft, ripened cheese ($7).

Although the restaurant is approaching its sixth anniversary, Moxie shows no signs of slowing down. Vibrant and hip (and with a newly opened patio), it has maintained its ranking as one of the region's best bets for discriminating diners.

3355 Richmond Road, Beachwood; 216-831-5599. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

When chef-owner Jeff Uniatowski opened Mise in early 2000, he swore that it would be "my last restaurant." And if, by that, he meant that he intended to put his heart and soul into making this sleek, contemporary, West Side spot a standout, he's been as good as his word.

Other than the fact that the servers no longer wear banded-collar shirts, Mise has undergone few obvious changes. The mood is still urbane. The martinis are still big and burly. And bare black tabletops and stunning glass serving pieces still make a striking backdrop for dishes that are a delicious blend of classical technique, contemporary sensibility, and a pinch of modern Asian style.

Still, we sensed some subtle evolutions in Uniatowski's style. For example, while he was never one to disguise his creations beneath heavy sauces or high-test taste enhancers, the chef's focus seems to have become tighter still, until now he routinely coaxes an astonishing depth of flavor out of what, in less skillful hands, could be humble ingredients.

For instance, Uniatowski had us hooked from the first nibble on a $23 entrée of grilled walleye on Asian-accented cucumber salad, with a side of soft polenta tweaked with the slightest suggestion of black truffle butter. And a red-blooded tag team of sliced flank steak and fork-tender braised short ribs ($24) was already so adroitly prepared and attentively seasoned that a few droplets of cabernet syrup and a wisp of balsamic-shallot butter were merely frosting on the (beef) cake.

Inventive, out-of-the-ordinary desserts also remain a Mise signature. For instance, "coffee and doughnuts" ($6) -- warm beignets alongside a tall cylinder of espresso semifreddo -- continues to be one of the freshest tastes in town. Add a pot of French-press coffee, and it's a wonder that Uniatowski can get his guests to leave at all.

10427 Clifton Boulevard; 216-651-6473. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

The Metropolitan Café
Here's a surprise. While most restaurants' prices have gone up, at least a little, over the past two years, the Metropolitan's have actually come down. To wit: Seared yellow-fin tuna, which went for $23.95 in March 2001, today is set at $20; and a 14-ounce New York strip steak that once brought $25.95 is now a modest $22.

The reworking of price points, and the addition of lower-cost items such as gourmet pizzas, has been part of a long-standing strategy to make the Metropolitan a more wallet-friendly dining destination. And with careful picking and choosing among the menu's fish, seafood, and steaks, a diner could easily lose himself in the big-city ambiance, eager service, and well-prepared food for as little as $20. (On the other hand, free spenders can just as easily lay down a couple of big bills for a blowout dinner for two.)

This stylish Warehouse District dining room has gone through a boatload of chefs since it opened in late 2000, but it has always been a project of Twinsburg-based Hyde Park Restaurant Systems; today's executive chef is Patrick McNamara, a Hyde Park veteran and opening chef at Blake's Grille, an HPRS property in Chagrin Falls. Whether his kitchen is turning out such standards as lush wood-grilled salmon ($16) or trendy little gems such as plump foie gras "lollipops" in ruby-port foam ($10), the Metropolitan continues to serve up some of the area's best values in reliably upscale dining.

1352 West 6th Street; 216-241-1300. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday, 4 to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Johnny's Bar
Absolutely nothing seems to have changed at this sexy, retro-style salon since, oh, say 1939. So it's no surprise that today's Johnny's is nothing more nor less than what it has always been: an opulent, dimly lit hideaway, with professional service and an extensive menu of indulgent foods.

Sure, you can get spaghetti and meatballs here, but Johnny's is no more an Italian restaurant than Michelangelo was a house painter. The remarkably long menu includes 28 entrées, and more than a third of them are based on veal. Veal topped with lobster and shrimp . . . veal with shiitake mushrooms and foie gras . . . veal wrapped in puff pastry with wild mushroom ragout . . . you get the idea. A diner surely doesn't have to be in an Italian-food frame of mind to yearn for a long-boned veal chop, stuffed with chèvre and melted leeks, pan-seared until the natural juices caramelize, and finished in a hot oven before being slathered with shiitake mushrooms, sage, and natural juices ($32.95). And for a change of pace, how about a silken, cold-smoked filet mignon, lightly grilled and garnished with mushrooms, thyme, and a dark cabernet demi-glace ($31.95)? The tiny bar's ballsy gin martinis and gorgonzola-stuffed olives were made for this food. Or pick something from the rock-solid wine menu, where you're likely to spot more bottles above the $500 mark than below $50.

Like our other "old friends," Johnny's has profited from stable, skillful management; in this case, the steady vision of owners Joe Santosuosso and Paul Anthony, and Executive Chef Vid Lutz, is at the core of the restaurant's enduring quality. Not only does this remain one of the city's most exciting "special occasion" spots, but better still, it's a spot where any occasion seems special.

3164 Fulton Road; 216-281-0055. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.