Fortunately for those of us who love our veggies, there are at least a few chefs who think otherwise. Tom Ward, chef-owner of Wards' Inn, is among them. He handles produce with respect, assisting each cabbage, zucchini, or potato to be its very best, allowing vegetable side dishes to sing out with authentic flavor.
Think I'm exaggerating? Just try some of his creamy scalloped potatoes, a simple and delicious dish of thinly sliced potatoes baked in a bath of heavy cream. Delicately crunchy on the outside but soft and rich as custard on the inside, each forkful had the wonderfully light texture of a perfectly toasted marshmallow.
And those fine potatoes were just the start. Most of the entrées here are accompanied by three or four vegetable side dishes and, as far as we have been able to discover, they are all winners. Mashed parsnips were whipped until creamy and light, their slightly earthy taste enhanced, not masked, with a bit of butter, salt, and white pepper. Leaves of braised Napa Valley cabbage, topped with a brunoise of yellow pepper, were fresh-flavored and delicate. Thinly sliced red cabbage was cooked until crisp but tender, then treated to a sweet-tart panning that emphasized its natural flavor. Long slabs of zucchini -- that most disrespected of vegetables -- were nearly as luscious and flavorful as an ear of fresh corn. And if I could make firm strands of spaghetti squash (another veggie with big potential for dullness) vibrate with flavor the way Ward does, I would be tempted to cook it at every meal.
In fact, if he was capable of nothing else than turning out these tasty vegetable preparations, Ward would still be ahead of the game. But happily, he does much more. His small seasonal menu of what he calls "innovative American cuisine" is a garden of gustatory delights and currently includes 8 appetizers, 3 salads, and 10 entrées augmented by a few daily specials.
Among the appetizers, we were completely won over by the Lobster and Maryland Crab Strudel: a fat, flaky turnover stuffed with chunks of seafood and flecks of scallion greens in a pool of aromatic sherry-cream sauce. Each element of the dish was perfection. The golden-baked pastry was outstanding for its buttery crispness. The satiny cream sauce, sprinkled with bits of chopped fresh chives, was decadently rich. And the ample amount of seafood (which had been attentively cleaned so that there was nary a bit of shell) was as sweet and tender as any we have ever tasted.
Almost as good was a hot oyster appetizer, featuring five meltingly tender oysters on the half shell that had been dipped in olive oil and garlic, coated with bread crumbs and Asiago cheese, and baked until golden brown. A big bowl of lobster and shrimp bisque was no slouch, either. A beautiful shade of salmon pink, with lots of chunks of fresh shellfish and the vaguely sweet undertone of sherry, the silky soup was warm, comforting, and sophisticated.
Come to think of it, warm, comforting, and sophisticated could describe the restaurant as a whole. Snuggled into a rambling old house near the corner of Chagrin Boulevard and SOM Center Road in Moreland Hills, Wards' Inn has the down-to-earth feel of a neighborhood eatery where loyal customers know they can depend on finding reliably excellent food and drink. As is common in old buildings, the space has more than its share of design quirks, the most notable being that four of the restaurant's five dining rooms are located in what can only be described as the structure's basement. (A small dining room with fireplace and a smoky bar are located above ground level.)
Two of the four downstairs dining areas have fireplaces, but, with their acoustic-tile ceilings, mismatched lighting fixtures, and mass-produced wall "art," all the rooms have a kind of rec-room-meets-hunting-lodge decor that verges on kitsch. Ward's urbane food (with not-insignificant price tags) surely requires a more glamorous setting, I thought during my first visit; yet, while staring into the roaring fire, sipping a big martini, and savoring my seafood strudel, I can't say I found the homey space to be anything less than charming.
On a weeknight visit, our meals came with a simple house salad of mixed greens, rings of thinly sliced red onion, and a few bits of roasted red pepper tossed in a mild vinaigrette. On a Saturday night visit, we instead ordered a Classic Caesar Salad of romaine lettuce tossed with a dressing of egg, lemon juice, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan and Romano cheeses. While the bite-sized bits of romaine were crisp and cool, the dressing -- despite the savory ingredients -- lacked zest. We brightened it up with a few squeezes of the lemon wedges that we requested from our waiter, plus a sprinkle of salt, and found it much improved. It was a minor shortcoming, and the only one we have as yet discovered.
Then it was on to the main events, a variety of perfectly prepared, unpretentiously plated, and sensibly sized entrées. A grilled boneless breast of free-range chicken was delicious -- tender, juicy, and scented with lemon-thyme and rosemary. Nor did we need a knife to cut any of our five tender sautéed medallions of venison, each topped with a spoonful of wonderfully gooey and sweet caramelized apple, and sauced with an out-of-this-world blend of apple brandy and natural juices.
On another visit, a vegetarian companion was thrilled with a bowl of firm-but-creamy risotto, cooked in a rich vegetable broth and studded with bits of asparagus and red pepper, threads of crisp carrot, and slices of portobello and crimini mushrooms. I, on the other hand, longed to try the house specialty that I saw diners at a neighboring table enjoying: a huge oven-roasted rack of lamb for two, served in an aromatic Cabernet Sauvignon reduction sauce. However, being the only meat-eater in my party on this particular night, I resigned myself to a singleton's serving of marinated, char-grilled Muscovy duck breast. I needn't have wasted a second feeling sorry for myself, though: The boneless duck was a delight. Cooked to a juicy medium-rare, with a thin, smoky layer of fat on top, then sliced into medallions, the duck's full, rich flavor was further enhanced with a few sweet, chewy slices of dried apricot and an understated apricot-orange glaze that tempted me to lick the plate.
As it turns out, Tom Ward is not the only culinary talent in the family. His wife, Barb Ward, is the restaurant's pastry chef, and her skills are easy to appreciate in the inn's tasty desserts. Our favorite so far has been a big wedge of outstandingly dense, moist butter cake, topped with a sugary glaze and a pouf of whipped cream, and settled on a plate beside two tiny puddles of raspberry coulis and a bit of custardy cr&eagrave;me Anglaise. Rich, hearty, but not overly sweet, the cake was a real treat.
Also good were the homey apple crisp -- tender apple slices baked beneath a sweet brown sugar crust -- and a dense, fudge-like chocolate brownie. Both old-fashioned goodies were served warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on the top.
During both visits, service was professional and attentive. Orders and requests were promptly addressed, water glasses were kept filled, empty dishes were removed quickly, and clean flatware was provided at every course. Especially during our Saturday night visit, and despite a nearly full house, our waiter gave us plenty of time to unwind over cocktails and to consider a selection of after-dinner liqueurs and ports.
The restaurant also offers an annotated list of elite -- and expensive -- champagnes and wines. Among a number of exciting "reserve" selections is a vertical assortment of rare and much-sought-after Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignons from California's Alexander Valley (vintages 1992-1994) priced at $90 to $95 per bottle.
While the region can boast of more trendy restaurants, with sharper "cutting-edge" cuisine and hipper settings, Tom and Barb Ward's inn fills an often-neglected niche. Reliably delicious food, served by a knowledgeable staff in an unpretentious and comfortable atmosphere, makes Wards' Inn a spot for both special occasions and a refined and friendly restaurant to return to again and again.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].