No doubt Lopez Bar & Grille is a place for all seasons, but walking out of the late-summer heat and into the shadowy interior on a recent Sunday morning was like having a cool cloth laid upon our fevered brow. Stone floors, restful shades of terra cotta and aqua, and a collection of colorful, contemporary artwork reinforced our fantasy of having stepped off the desert and into a modern southwestern hacienda, although the white-draped tables and cool jazz in the background were irrefutable evidence that we were, in fact, in a Cleveland Heights dining room and not back on the Tucson homestead -- where Signora, of course, allows only salsa.
(There is also a small outdoor patio, enclosed by white stucco walls and black wrought iron, and occupied by tables topped in mosaics of cobalt blue and aqua. While young trees cast a dappled shade here, and we looked with some envy upon the stoic souls settled beneath it, we decided to save our alfresco feasting for a day when the humidity was something less than 100 percent.)
Happily, what the cool, collected room did to our spirits, the kitchen's sassy "nouveau Mexican" fare did to our taste buds, refreshing and invigorating them with an inspired commingling of contemporary techniques and authentic Mexican flavors. What results from this interplay are high-octane dishes like huevos Benedicto -- eggs, sunny side up, settled on a lush hash of chorizo and sweet potatoes, and finished with orange-chipotle hollandaise -- or the blackened-salmon quesadilla, served with green-chile rajas, crème de limon sauce, mango mojo, and black beans.
For those unable to tolerate such full-blown flavors much before the dinner hour, there are more conventional but still delicious alternatives. The Fruit + Granola Orgy, for instance, was a soothing launch to a summer's day, with its ample portions of housemade pepita-piqued granola, fresh berries, and creamy yogurt, sided by a slightly sweet corn muffin and a serving of cinnamon butter. And plump cornmeal-and-buttermilk pancakes, blanketed in sliced bananas and toasted pecans and served with real maple syrup, could hardly have been improved upon, although a side order of thick, smoky bacon from Wisconsin's Nueske family farm was a nice try.
From the bar, icy cervezas (Corona, Dos Equis, and Tecate among them) are available all day long, but if you want to sample something from one of the city's best collections of top-shelf tequilas, make your reservations for after 1 p.m.
While we still maintain that no dish improves while sitting over Sterno, we have to admit that the vegetarian-friendly brunch buffet at Solon's Mustard Seed Market Café is impressive, both in quantity and, for the most part, quality. (Alternatively, patrons who so prefer can order off an à la carte menu.)
Five tidy stations draped in white cloth offered a host of options, ranging from the wholesome (sweet-and-crunchy broccoli salad, for instance, studded with chopped walnuts and raisins) to the frankly indulgent (and here we recall the weighty bricks of carrot cake, frosted with a belly-busting layer of sweetened cream cheese).
Fresh pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, and red grapes burst with full, ripe flavors (it helps to have the entire stock of a gourmet natural-foods market at your disposal, no doubt), while organic salad greens were unimpeachably crisp and fresh. Likewise, custardy vegetable strata, roasted redskin potatoes, and meat-free stuffed grape leaves left our vegetarian companions feeling fat and happy. (We noticed, however, that even they weren't impressed by the bland baked tofu.)
But what the heck: We carnivores weren't exactly blown away by the tough, gristly leg of lamb featured at the carving station, either, or by the sort-of-watery-tasting roasted salmon. The made-to-order omelets, though, were another story, stuffed to the breaking point with such goodies as fresh spinach, mushrooms, shredded cheeses, or pre-sautéed onions. And the crisp-yet-juicy crunch of Applegate Farms' lean, oven-baked bacon sent us back to the buffet line more times than we'd care to admit. (Of course, that gave us an excuse to rub elbows with the nation's foremost vegan presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich. A nice guy and a frequent brunch patron, according to our waiter, although not exactly a big tipper.)
To drink, beer and wine are available after 1 p.m., but when the selection of smoothies, milk shakes, freshly squeezed juices, and spritzers is so impressive, who needs them? At the very least, don't leave the table without a glass of organic orange or carrot juice (with or without a hit of wheatgrass or spirulina) or a mug of smooth, dark java, painstakingly made from freshly ground and roasted organic beans brewed in unbleached filters with purified water.
The French Connection
Certainly, good food abounds during weekend brunch at Le Oui Oui Café -- moist, eggy crêpes overstuffed with sweet or savory fillings, to be exact, as well as thick Belgian waffles with the density of coffeecake. But there is also good theater here, as designer and master crêpe-maker Denajua plays the role of Parisian café proprietress to a consistently full house of appreciative fans.
Her tiny set is dressed in vintage fabrics, bouquets of ostrich plumes, and beaded lampshades that deftly conjure images of shabby-chic European bistros -- the sort of storybook spots that may never have actually existed but that you always hope to stumble across on your treks through Montmartre. And while the star of the show is no more French than you or I, she projects such an exotic persona -- that breathy voice! that jet-black hair! -- that she seems born to play the part.
But it is the rich, fragrant crêpes and strong, freshly ground coffee that ultimately bring us back to this Ohio City café cum playhouse. (The waffles are good, too, especially when buried beneath an avalanche of sliced apples, toasted walnuts, and powdered sugar, although their heavy, cake-like texture will not be everybody's cup of tea.) But take one of Denajua's sturdy, freshly made crêpes, fold it neatly around a filling of thinly sliced ham, scrambled eggs, and melted provolone, say, or sliced tomatoes, spinach, mozzarella, and a dab of coarsely cut olive tapenade, and the resulting sensations -- sprightly transactions of flavor and texture -- seem almost transcendental.
As for the pun that informs the café's name, place the blame for that one on Denajua's sly sense of humor. Although, of course, oui oui literally means "yes yes," the real namesake can be found in a 1920s hand-tinted lithograph that the proprietress brought back from a Parisian flea market, now copied onto the brunch menu and recreated as a wall mural. It shows a line of neatly garbed but anxious poodles, boxers, and terriers standing outside a Parisian public loo, waiting for their chance to, well, wee wee. Toilet humor? Perhaps. But at Le Oui Oui Café, it's all just part of the show.