Grand Prix Fixe

One Walnut cracks into the tasting-menu approach.

As if running an upscale downtown dining room like One Walnut (1801 East Ninth Street, in the Ohio Savings Building; 216-575-1111) weren't risky enough, well-seasoned chef and restaurateur Marlin Kaplan is boldly leading where no other Cleveland chef has thus far dared to tread: the prix fixe dinner menu.

While fixed-price "tasting menus" are standard practice at world-class restaurants like Napa Valley's The French Laundry and Chicago's Charlie Trotter's, when One Walnut rolls out the new dinner menu on October 1, it will be the only restaurant in the region to offer nothing but the prix fixe approach. (Several local spots, including Flying Fig and Classics, offer multicourse prix fixe dinners as an option, in addition to the more familiar à la carte menu.) Under One Walnut's new structure, though, guests will simply decide upon a three-course dinner for $42, a four-course feast for $54, or a five-course blowout for $65.

Once the price parameters are set, the real fun begins. Kaplan has divided his lengthy menu into five categories -- appetizer "short courses," seafood and shellfish dishes, meat and game bird preparations, artisanal cheeses, and sweets -- and diners can mix and match as their palates dictate. For instance, a five-course dinner might begin with roasted foie gras mousse, move on to seared sea scallops, pause for braised beef short ribs, proceed to a sampling of American farmhouse cheeses, and wrap up with lemongrass pot de crème, all for about what three comparable courses might cost at some of the city's other special-occasion restaurants.

With nearly a score of soon-to-open suburban chain eateries breathing down the necks of independent restaurateurs, Kaplan says he felt the time was right to try to distinguish One Walnut from its high-end peers. "I want our diners to have the most unique experience possible," he says, "and this was the perfect point of departure." And not only is the prix fixe approach good fun, it also brings some big-city panache to a region still struggling to find its place on the national culinary scene.

Salt of the earth . . . Ricardo Sandoval and Jack Anfang, owners of Fat Cats and Lava Lounge, have just opened their newest restaurant, Halite, in the Ohio City space that formerly housed Traci's (2800 Clinton Avenue, 216-472-1120). The menu is part Italian and part comfort food, with homey tastes like kielbasa, liver and onions, and tapioca pudding. For now, Halite is open only for dinner, 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Lunch service should begin in about two weeks.