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Tasty Number 

At downtown's renovated Arcade, 1890 is the number to play.

A juicy grilled pork-chop entrée competes with the Arcade for "best view" - status at 1890. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • A juicy grilled pork-chop entrée competes with the Arcade for "best view" status at 1890.

"I'll tell you what that's not," my companion offered, as I attempted to wrestle an unwieldy pennant of leaf lettuce around a spoonful of saucy diced chicken. "That's not date food."

Scarcely a moment later, the devilish lettuce leaf snapped in two, sending the chicken back down to my plate with a splash. "It's not job-interview food, either," she added dryly.

Lucky for us, our dinner visit to 1890, the new Hyatt Regency restaurant in the recently restored Arcade, was not about love or money. And it's not as if we hadn't been warned about potential problems with the greenery.

"I'll start with the stir-fried chicken in the lettuce cup," I had told my waiter a few minutes earlier.

He clarified. "Actually, it's not really in a cup. The chicken and sauce come in a bowl, the lettuce leaves are on the plate, and you wrap it all up yourself."

"Ooh, interactive food!" I cooed. "Sounds like fun!"

Hah. I had not yet gone toe-to-toe with those recalcitrant lettuce leaves, thick-ribbed tough guys who weren't about to let themselves be used as a crêpe for some effete chicken filling. Three more splash landings and I threw in the towel, resigning myself to cutting the lettuce into bite-sized morsels, arranging a few bits of chicken on top, and cautiously bringing each piece to my mouth, via fork, before the sauce could drizzle down my chin. Flavor-wise, the dish got high marks, with its spicy blend of garlic, chile, cilantro, mint, and ginger, and its interplay of crisp and yielding textures. But conceptually, this was one item that needed to go back to the drawing board, even if our waiter was standing by with a finger bowl and a fresh napkin.

That said, there was little else about 1890 that wasn't good, clean fun. Oh, perhaps the generous Caesar Salad would have been even better with a little less of its righteously heady dressing. Maybe a bowl of thick, creamy Spicy Roasted Tomato Bisque -- allegedly spiked with jalapeño and poblano chiles -- was neither quite spicy enough nor quite warm enough. And it could be argued that our attentive server became almost too chummy as the evening wore on (but, with the dining room nearly empty, who could blame him for craving human contact?).

By all rights, this rambling restaurant and its attached bar should be bustling, if for no other reason than the excuse it provides for visiting the Arcade. The ornate structure opened in 1890 (get it?) as a link between Euclid and Superior Avenues. Now resplendent in its restoration, the Arcade is a multi-tiered wedding cake of glass, brass, and marble, full of intricate design and almost-forgotten craftsmanship extending from the skylight's gilded griffins to the mosaic-like terrazzo underfoot. Along with the Hyatt lobby, the restaurant and bar are located near the Arcade's Superior Avenue entrance, on the second floor; from here, visitors have a particularly handsome view of the structure's interior. Hotel rooms occupy the higher floors, but space for retail shops and services line the Superior and Euclid concourses. Once these are up and running, foot traffic through the Arcade should increase, and 1890 will be a prime spot for people-watching. For now, however, Hyatt-related activity is about all there is to attract people into the Arcade during the evening. And when occupancy rates are down, as they were during our late August visits, both the restaurant and the Arcade can feel lonely.

Beyond the draw of its unique setting, however, 1890 is well worth a visit in its own right, for both its attentively prepared food and its gracious service. The overall ambiance is comfortably upscale, although it can be argued that the basically sleek, contemporary space has been excessively tarted up with references to Cleveland's industrial heritage. (The murals, paintings, and old photos are fine, but did we really need the extra-large hexagonal bolts that march across the back of the upholstered booths, and the long, dramatic stalactites -- presumably meant to evoke images of screws -- that hang near the open kitchen?) A gentle Eastern undercurrent also informs the space, from the massive pottery urns filled with stark, twisted willow branches to the delicate porcelain dinnerware, in shapes that range from squares to curvaceous pirogues. That Asian influence finds its reflection in the small but inclusive menu. Among the appetizers, for example, diners will find complexly flavored pan-roasted duck potstickers with a tongue-tingling ginger dipping sauce; entrées include an exceptionally luscious sautéed walleye stacked between layers of tender-crisp wonton wrappers.

Even in the Euro-American dishes, like a simple bistro-style strip steak slathered with savory mustard butter and sided with skinny pomme frites (frozen, but tasty), textures are light, flavors are generally well-developed, and presentation is painstaking. In fact, one evening's fish special -- a superb portion of tilefish, which approached sea bass in richness and delicacy -- was nearly as prettily arranged as it was delicious, beginning with the filet itself, settled into the bow of a blue, boat-shaped bowl. Next to the fish were longitudinal bands of red and green heirloom tomatoes and buttery sliced redskin potatoes; the arrangement ended with a dainty perpendicular "tail" of roasted young asparagus, which fanned out over the stern. In a final stylish stroke, the dish was garnished with crunchy deep-fried capers, a perfectly addictive crisp-and-salty counterpoint to the tilefish's own melting moistness.

While fish is a house specialty, executive chef Bruce Jones and restaurant sous chef Tim Skiber don't neglect the niceties on items like plump veal medallions. Butter-knife tender, they were served on a bed of deeply caramelized onion and mushrooms, then topped with a tangle of microgreens and a tiny purple pansy. This entrée was sided with a fragrant portion of herbed orzo, dainty little rice-like pasta that fairly danced across our taste buds, once we supplied a scant sprinkle of salt.

Greens are handled with similar care. A neatly plated à la carte salad of lightly dressed frisée, Belgian endive, radicchio, and warm panko-crumbed and deep-fried goat cheese was a nearly miraculous merger of tastes, textures, and temperatures. The ample 1890 Salad (a blend of lettuces, halved red and yellow pear tomatoes, cucumber, and pine nuts barely dressed with mild, creamy lemongrass vinaigrette) was a delight. And the cool side salad of baby spinach, field greens, haricot verts, roasted tomato, and poached apple slices, in a refreshingly sharp-and-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon dressing, turned the walleye entrée into something special.

The pleasure didn't end when our waiter carefully crumbed the table and brought our coffee -- one night iced, and the other night a robust cappuccino. Desserts were as flavorful and sophisticated as everything that had come before, ranging from white chocolate mousse swirled with mango and raspberry coulis, and topped with fresh berries and shaved chocolate, to a caramel-y, perfectly crafted apple tart. And talk about gracious service: We had mentioned to our waiter that we would share the apple tart, and it arrived neatly divided and precisely arranged on two separate plates, each finished with a tiny scoop of ice cream and a scattering of fresh berries.

No offense to the Hyatt guests, but 1890 is one place that's too good to leave to the out-of-towners.

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