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Mr. Brightside 

Matt Mathlage lights up Ohio City.

Chef Matt Mathlage goes postmodern with his salade ni?se. - EARTHA GOODWIN
  • Eartha Goodwin
  • Chef Matt Mathlage goes postmodern with his salade ni?se.

Too often, Cleveland foodies get a bad rap, painted as a bunch of meat-and-potato heads whose most daring culinary decisions revolve around whether to order the strip steak or the filet mignon.

But the crowds turning out for dinner at Light Bistro make me want to raise a cheer. Edgy, adventurous, and even challenging, the menu at this Ohio City hot spot, located inside the former Parker's American Bistro, is about as far removed from the mid-century steak house as Paolo Nutini is from Paul Anka. And yet Cleveland food fans can't seem to get enough. On a recent Saturday night, practically every one of the bistro's 90 or so seats was filled with eager eaters, ranging from silver-haired gourmets to good-natured novices still sussing out the subtleties of foie gras and duck confit.

Partners Matt Mathlage and Eric Dietrich flipped the Light switch on March 12, with the promise of progressive American cuisine -- freshly prepared, globally seasoned, and featuring as many locally grown ingredients as possible. Coming off a stint as executive chef at The Leopard in Aurora, Mathlage has assembled one of the most ambitious menus in town, comprising about 20 tapas-style small plates and 10 larger (but still tightly composed) entrées. Among the staples, he uses grain-fed pork, beef, and lamb from Fredericktown farms; brown eggs and organic dairy products from Wayne County; and Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese from Portage County herds.

Prices range from $3 for a jar of house-marinated olives, aromatic with saffron, citrus, and fennel, to a $27 rib eye served with sweet-potato "risotto." (OK, so Mathlage isn't above throwing a bone to Cleveland's hard-core carnivores; just don't expect a giant slab o' beef with a baked potato on the side.) For most couples, a satisfying meal will include two or three shared small plates and one entrée per person. At that rate, diners should still have room to explore some of the kitchen's imaginative desserts -- like "doughnuts and coffee," a plate of warm beignets served with espresso ice cream and dark-chocolate ganache, or the "cheese course," featuring savory blue-cheese soufflé with chopped pecans and a teensy scoop of housemade port sorbet.

At his best, Mathlage transforms earthy ingredients like venison, arugula, ostrich, and eggplant into little tidbits of edible art. His compositions are spare, his approach is essential, and the flavors he coaxes forth are often totally unexpected. (Umami, says Mathlage, is his kitchen's watchword.) Consider, for instance, the delicate, mousseline-like eggplant flan, its haunting nuances tangled up in ribbons of sweet crème anglaise and tart red-pepper coulis. Or the sumptuous, cinnamon-scented butternut-squash ravioli, dancing the fine line between savory and sweet.

Like all good chefs, Mathlage knows we eat first with our eyes. As a result, his creations are painstakingly plated on white backgrounds, all the better to show off rosy meats, miniature hedgerows of microgreens, and artful dabs of intense reductions. Among the small plates, for instance, a precisely mitered block of succulent braised pork belly looked like a minimalist sculpture, settled in a golden landscape of pineapple carpaccio, and surrounded by a meticulous arrangement of chipotle-inflected couscous. Among entrées, a deconstructed salade niçoise was a showstopper: two thick, upended slabs of crimson ahi tuna, a tidy stackup of emerald green beans on one side, and an ebony orb of niçoise-olive mousse on the other.

Then again, beauty can be in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps that's why an arugula, egg, and oyster-mushroom salad initially put off one my cautious dining companions. Shaggy, quivering, and fleshy brown, the wine-poached egg admittedly looked, um, rather arresting. Ultimately, I had to put on my most authoritative face to get him to dig in, so convinced was he that this might be offal in disguise.

Fortunately for him, dinners begin more conventionally, with warm, housemade breads tucked inside a brown paper bag. On the side, sweet organic butter, troweled into a tea-light holder, tasted wholesome and looked adorable, although the portion size was a bit too stingy for proper spreading. Even the drinking water merited special treatment: The everyday stuff is distilled, while bottled alternatives are available for the purists.

Soaking up the room's dim, energetic buzz, it was hard not to recall Parker's, circa 1999 -- a space a Gourmet critic once described as feeling as cold and formal as an Austrian dining hall. Not long afterward, of course, Bosley took steps to jazz up the vintage space. Today, Mathlage and Dietrich have gone one step further, adding coppery wall coverings, abstract oil paintings, and a contemporary soundtrack. Just beware the badly situated two-top pushed up against a hot brick chimney, with an air-conditioning floor vent below it: Roasted on top and frozen from the knees down, we understood the meaning of "running hot and cold."

As for service, waiters proved attentive, pacing was crisp, and bare tabletops were dusted off regularly between courses. The small international wine list is still a work in progress, although with most prices pegged below the $40 mark, it's hard not to find something to like; even better, wine-savvy manager Nick Cain is quick to point out a hidden gem or recommend a worthy pairing.

In fact, it was Cain who turned us on to the Esterlina port -- a smooth, sweet, and rare dessert wine from the Northern Californian boutique vineyard. Thus far, the bistro doesn't offer a list of after-dinner drinks, so for those craving a nightcap, the easiest way to scope out the choices is to do as we did and grab a seat at the bar. Thanks to Cain's recommendation, the $15-per-glass port brought our evening to a mellow close. And if my friend was scarred by the poached-egg incident, he had the decency to keep me in the dark.

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