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The Great Escape 

The latest arm of Johnny's upscale dining empire lives up to its predecessors.

Another Johnny's on the spot, no bones about it. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Another Johnny's on the spot, no bones about it.

It was a Monday morning worse than most, with the laundry hampers overflowing, spilled orange juice drying on the kitchen floor, and a dead hermit crab lying on the bottom of his well-equipped cage. All this to deal with, and a "real" job, too -- and all before a single sip of coffee. No wonder my head was pounding.

It hadn't been like that on the previous Saturday night, though. No, indeed. On that night, I had been a queen, pampered, petted, and treated to the finest of everything. A bottle of rare Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling? "Of course, Madame." Foie gras and sweetbreads? "Absolutely." A fried quail egg here, a bit of duck confit there, all presented on oversized gold-and-black-rimmed china as refined and elegant as pearls against a black velvet cocktail gown? "Yes, indeed." This is the life we were intended to lead, n'est-ce pas? And there it was, waiting for us at Johnny's Bistro San Roche.

Named in honor of a 14th-century pilgrim, Saint Rocco (or, in French, Saint Roche), this little gem is owners Joe Santosuosso and Paul Anthony's third dining room in Cleveland, and it surpasses even Johnny's on Fulton and Johnny's Downtown for sheer opulence. Paneled walls glow with a warm patina. Imported marble covers the floor. Intricately pressed tin hugs the ceiling, and soft light wafts down from four large but dainty beaded chandeliers. An impressive black-lacquered bar, shimmering with glass, mirrors, and red-shaded lamps, is set at one end of the room, near the pianist at the black baby grand. At the other end is the large open kitchen, twinkling with copper, tile, and brushed stainless steel, framed like a work of kinetic art by black-lacquered pillars and arches.

At the table, snowy white linens are topped with a substantial silver Christofle vase holding a single yellow rosebud. Sweet butter arrives inside a cunning little piece of hand-painted Limoges porcelain. And fine Riedel goblets make any selection from the distinctive (and expensive) wine list taste like nectar.

Executive Chef Vid Lutz oversees the menus at all three Johnny's restaurants, with Chef du Cuisine Fabio Mota and his staff in charge of the French bistro's day-to-day preparations. The sense of graciousness emanating from the kitchen is unmistakable. Meals begin with a tiny amuse gueule -- perhaps a bit of chicken terrine with black trumpet mushrooms and lemon zest, say, in a drop of basil oil -- and end with a silver compote filled with complimentary dried fruit, chocolate-covered coffee beans, and buttery bite-sized pastries.

As for what comes in between, it is as luxurious as the decor. Ingredients are impeccably fresh, and flavors are intense but never overwrought, often enhanced with infused oils, cheeses, and reductions. For instance, a large medallion of luscious seared foie gras, on a buttery bit of toasted croissant, is anointed with a golden Sauternes reduction. A salad of frisée, baby greens, and balsamic-roasted beet is piqued with a ruby-red beet vinaigrette and a disk of toasted goat cheese. And an entrée of seared venison tenderloin, with caramelized apple and a cloud of ephemeral puréed potatoes, gets a glorious finish from a profound Merlot and huckleberry sauce.

Along with the large standard menu, a list of special plats du jour is presented under separate cover, along with the day's six-course prix fixe dinner -- appetizer, salad, refresher, fish, meat, and dessert, all for a relatively bargain-priced $66. With so many choices available, we were thankful for our knowledgeable waiters, who steered us toward the most spectacular dishes coming out of the kitchen on any given visit. For example, at our waiter's suggestion, we passed up the crispy sweetbreads with shaved duck prosciutto from the regular menu one evening and instead feasted on a special creation of sautéed sweetbreads and foie gras, layered with puréed potatoes and drizzled with a honeyed Sauternes reduction. Mon dieu, what a dish!

We wish we had been warned off the entrecôte du boeuf, however; perhaps we would have had more luck with that evening's alternate offering of tournedos of beef au poivre. The generously sized entrecôte -- a classic French rib steak -- had a rich beefy flavor, but a dry texture that suggested overcooking. Still, with its topping of melted Roquefort and assistance from a portion of sweet, roasted pearl onions; a mélange of sautéed salsify, zucchini, and carrots; and more of those cloud-like puréed potatoes, the dish was enjoyable, if not outstanding.

On the other hand, the bistro's salads were uniformly fine. Besides the lovely roasted beet salad, we highly recommend the caramelized pear salad, with fat crumbs of pungent Roquefort, handfuls of spiced pecans, and a tangle of baby greens tossed with a creamy roasted-pear vinaigrette. And the flavors of a mixed greens salad, dressed in a dainty lavender-honey vinaigrette and topped with shreds of duck confit, still dance in our head.

Other memorable creations included an appetizer of savory French lentils paired with a tiny, sunny-side-up quail egg and a wedge of buttery, Brie-filled puff pastry; an entrée of firm, tender John Dory (a Mediterranean fish, seldom spotted here in the heartland), sautéed, dusted with a hint of white pepper, and garnished with shaved fennel, tomato, and capers; and one evening's special of spiced duck breast in a Calvados bordelaise, sided with a bundle of black trumpet mushrooms and an apple-fennel-and-potato purée.

The self-indulgence continues through dessert. For absolute lavishness, it's hard to imagine anything more tempting than one evening's moist vanilla bean soufflé, studded with melting chunks of chocolate and served -- not with just a spoonful, not with just a dollop, but with an entire copper pot full of custardy crème Anglaise. On the other end of the spectrum was a simple but delectable poached pear, infused with cinnamon and cloves, sided by two plump Madeleines, and topped with a soupçon of crème frâiche and a bit of spiced wine reduction.

The atmosphere of privilege here extends beyond the food and decor. The bistro's servers are top-notch, exceptionally well informed, attentive, and gracious. And while they aren't above trying to sell another glass of wine here, a bottle of designer water there, or an after-dinner drink at the close of the evening, the pitch is subtle, and should you decline the bottled water and go with l'eau de Cleveland instead, there is nary a hint of condescension. Pacing is respectful, leisurely, and unusually precise, with each course arriving at exactly the right moment. (The kitchen gets credit here, too. Even with a full house on a Saturday night, neither timing nor presentation seemed to falter.) Other niceties include immediate coat check, immaculate and beautiful powder rooms, and free valet parking.

In light of all that, we were surprised to find there wasn't a soul in sight when we stepped out into the cold air at the end of the evening to reclaim our car. We eventually had to toddle all the way over to the lobby of Johnny's Downtown to find the valets. Wouldn't it be nice, we thought, if at least a few of them hung out at the bistro entrance, too?

Then again, what was my hurry? Back in the suburbs, chaos reigned, with dishes in the sink, the cat in the trashcan, and the kiddies spilling soda pop on the family room floor. Better I should stay in town and savor these few blissful hours of luxury. The Bistro San Roche, admittedly, is not heaven on earth. But for special-occasion dining, I'm happy to report, it's no place like home.

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