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Big Change in Little Italy 

A classic venue gets a welcome update

Washington Place Bistro in Little Italy is a welcome change of pace, not only from its predecessor, the tired Baricelli Inn, but from the Italian joints — good, bad, and ugly — that surround it.

Among the most visible differences is the decor. While little could be done about the smallish dining room sizes, every attempt was made to freshen up the stodgy castle. A posh new bar and lounge was retrofitted into the lobby, giving folks a contemporary setting to sip, snack, and gather. New furniture, flooring, and wall colors throughout have transported the interiors from the overly colorful '80s to the monochromatic new millennium.

Of course, it wasn't paint chips that did in the Baricelli. That dubious honor goes to the national move away from white-tablecloth dining and the pervasive opinion that the Baricelli Inn was expensive. (More about that later.) In any case, it was clear to Baricelli owner and executive chef Paul Minnillo that it was time for a change; he's in the final stages of launching his "rustic Italian" joint, Flour, in Moreland Hills.

In the meantime, Washington Place Bistro's owner Scott Kuhn and chef Jonathan Guest (formerly of 87 West at Crocker Park) have created a refreshing new menu for their updated space, weaving familiar and accessible ingredients into appealing new combinations. On the plate, Guest's food is meticulously executed but always approachable. It's often rich, but not excessive.

The kitchen's roasted cauliflower bisque ($6) is a case in point. Velvety, deep with roasted vegetable flavor, and piping hot, the soup will make a cauliflower fan of anybody. Guest's oxtail pierogies ($13.50) are a tad misleading, especially to those familiar with Michael Symon's beef cheek version. We wrongly assumed they were stuffed with braised oxtail as opposed to being topped with it. The combination of doughy potato-stuffed pierogies plus the rich meat resulted in a heavy but delicious dish.

To-die-for cheesy white grits turn the shrimp and grits starter ($11.50) into a true fork-on-fork feud. Studded with nubbins of chorizo sausage and garnished with buttery sautéed shrimp, the dish is southern comfort on a cold day. One of the few bombs was the calamari ($10), which suffered from a doughy, greasy breading.

We've sampled our way through half of the dozen or so entrées on the menu, and each is worth a do-over. Chicken thigh confit ($15.50) was nearly flawless, with moist, tender pieces of salty, crisp-skinned meat surrounding a dreamy cornbread pudding. Five perfectly seared scallops ($22.50) arrived nestled into squash risotto with balanced sweetness and acid. A fat slab of fork-tender pot roast ($19) was sided by smooth whipped potatoes and colorful carrots from Huron's gourmet grower Chef's Garden. Mackenzie Creamery goat cheese from Hiram adds a new twist to the aptly named Mack & Cheese ($13.50/half), topped with a pair of crispy cheese strudels. Even the veal meatloaf ($16.50) passed with flying colors. Sliced into toothsome rounds, arranged with carrots around cheddar mashers, and sauced with smooth tomato gravy, the dish is virtually perfect contemporary comfort food.

Desserts here are mostly straightforward, and most feature Jeni's gourmet ice creams out of Columbus.

Washington Place's Wednesday prix fixe dinner is a bargain. Just $40 lands a couple one appetizer, two entrées, and a bottle of wine. And about that wine: We weren't thrilled with the price or the pour size of the by-the-glass options. Bottles offer the better deal and selection here.

In fact, a word about overall pricing seems in order. While Minnillo couldn't seem to outrun the "high price" stigma of his 25-year-old landmark, the incoming proprietor is having no such trouble.

The irony is that prices at Washington Place aren't much lower — and in some instances actually are higher than at the restaurant it replaced.

That's not meant to imply that Washington Place is pricey. It's just a reminder that, in the restaurant world, perceptions will trump reality any day.

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