A Meditation on Good Taste

There's nothing mystical about Erie Bleu's successful formula.

Erie Bleu 4204 Detroit Avenue Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Happy Hour, 3 to 6:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.


Chef Warren Dolata, with GM Roxanne Bibeau: - Mere vanilla bean chunks away from a perfect - score. - Thom  Sheridan
Chef Warren Dolata, with GM Roxanne Bibeau: Mere vanilla bean chunks away from a perfect score.
Mmm . . . mmm . . . mmm . . ."

Listen closely and you can hear the mantras of the faithful, the subvocal chants that diners raise in appreciation of delicious food. Despite the pervasive background hubbub -- laughter, music, and the tintinnabulation of forks upon plates -- you can be forgiven, in light of the undercurrent of wordless praise coursing through the dining room, for momentarily wondering if you have somehow wandered into an ashram. But although it's possible that, under certain circumstances, the pacific countenance of Executive Chef Warren Dolata may bear passing resemblance to a 21st-century swami, he exercises his karma on a range top rather than a mountaintop, and he deals in menus more than meditations.

These days, Dolata, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and formerly of Johnny's Bar on Fulton and the now-defunct Grappa's in Fairlawn, focuses on food for Erie Bleu, a hip little shrine to good eating in Ohio City. A curmudgeon could argue that the arty dining room, with its glass-block bar, sea-blue walls, and schools of mosaic fish, can get too noisy and cramped for absolute comfort -- especially for those unfortunate souls stuck at one of the handful of teensy high-top tables that can barely accommodate two dinner plates. But once said grouch tastes some of Dolata's dishes -- combinations of astonishingly fresh flavors and enticing textures, built up layer upon layer through the extravagant use of fresh herbs, broths, juices, and purées -- such complaints will no doubt fade, replaced by more "oohs" and "ahhs" of abject appreciation.

Dolata's current menu is compact, with 7 appetizers, 4 salads, and 11 entrées, supplemented by one or two daily specials. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for in depth, with dishes that run the gamut from Asian-influenced, barely seared tuna atop sturdy soba noodles in a savory broth of ginger, soy, and lime to Mediterranean-style mozzarella wrapped in Swiss chard, with sun-dried tomatoes and basil, served with roasted garlic and grilled, herbed pita bread. Upon first read, some of the chef's pairings may seem idiosyncratic, even risky. Does anyone, after all, innately crave seared scallops in a green purée of peas or handmade mussel ravioli in a fennel-saffron-chive cream? But without apparent exception, Dolata makes these novel pairings work, assisted by a deft comprehension of the language of herbs, a finely calibrated palate, and an almost preternaturally light touch when it comes to sauces.

An appetizer of battered and deep-fried Greek olives, stuffed with feta cheese and paired with wedges of grilled pita and a warm dip of spinach, artichoke, red pepper, and Fontinella, tells the tale. Who knew fried olives could be so addictive or that a cheese dip could be so weightless? One companion, swooning over each mouthful, rightly said the overall effect was like a pizza made in heaven -- all crisp but chewy, rich yet piquant. Another equally correct companion looked upon the dish as a modern riff on the venerable cheese-and-olive plate. But whatever its inspiration, it was clear that the starter's interplay of textures and tastes was unique and exciting, but grounded in time-honored flavor combinations.

In Dolata's hands, in fact, even a simple salad can become a flight of fancy. Take the mouthwatering combination of tender baby spinach laced with sweet spring strawberries, bits of juicy orange, fiery red-onion rings, and a dusting of chopped hazelnuts, all invisibly bound in a silken web of creamy celery dressing. We may not have dreamed about such frisky assemblages of tastes and textures before we tried it, but we certainly will now, after savoring every morsel.

For a relatively new contender on the Cleveland dining scene, Erie Bleu has already assembled an impressive wine cellar. The wine list, a cleverly descriptive collection of more than 250 selections, even includes an index for those too rushed to peruse all the pages. It is divided into fairly priced "favorites," by the glass or bottle, followed by whites and reds grouped according to style. For instance, "delicate" whites, like a 1999 Gundlach-Bundschu Gewürztraminer ($30), take up one page; "voluptuous" whites fill another. Then there are the reds, divided into categories like "robust," "very berry," and "spicy," among others. A pricier Divine List includes choices such as the $80 1997 Deloach "OFS" Cabernet Sauvignon. (Ask the Deloach reps what OFS stands for, and they'll tell you "our finest selection." But for members of the inner circle, it's code for "outta fuckin' sight!") Then comes the beer roster, followed by an accounting of vodkas, tequilas, single malt scotches, fine whiskeys, cognacs, cordials, and "signature drinks," making it nearly irresistible for regimented imbibers to get out of their ruts and try something new. For us, that meant starting off one night's meal with rounds of Arcades: ruby-red champagne cocktails blended with blood-orange juice and garnished with thick slices of cordial-marinated orange. Mmm . . . indeed.

Dolata apportions his entrées so that most diners can sample at least three courses -- appetizers, main events, and desserts -- without courting dietary disaster. But although portion sizes (and prices) are relatively modest, the flavor payoffs are substantial. Consider, for instance, the scaloppine of chicken: three thin sheets of breast meat dusted with seasoned flour, sautéed to a golden brown, and dabbed with a translucent, tongue-tingling beurre blanc, seasoned with tarragon, basil, chives, white wine, lemon juice, and shallots. Already bright and well-rounded, the entrée's vocabulary is next expanded by a portion of luscious lobster risotto, streaked with Fontinella and nudged by a hint of tarragon and basil, and a passel of slender French green beans, their tiny, tasty toes dangling in that same heady butter sauce.

Medallions of grilled beef, soft, succulent, and particularly full-flavored, dally in droplets of resoundingly intense Cabernet-thyme demi-glace and cozy up against firm elbow macaroni shellacked with melted blue cheese and polished with wedges of zesty roasted tomato. And two thick grilled lamb loin chops, sided by shimmering green baby fava beans (similar to baby limas in appearance, but heartier in flavor) and a single lighter-than-air artichoke-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli, beckon seductively from a thin, rich lamb jus.

Like everything else on the menu, including the dense cubes of herbed focaccia served with seasoned butter, Erie Bleu's desserts are made in-house. We told ourselves we would have only a few bites of the impressive rhubarb-strawberry crisp, topped with one of the city's few truly crisp crumb crusts and a scoop of buttery vanilla ice cream, but with its subtle infusion of ginger and vanilla, the crisp just seemed to disappear. Likewise, a portion of banana risotto, fluffed up with cream and rum, then drizzled with caramel and flecked with shaved chocolate, was somehow gone in an instant. Daily homemade sorbets -- tamarind-green tea, lemon and bay leaf, berry and basil, and strawberry-black pepper, to name some of the kitchen's more recent creations -- are becoming a specialty of the house. Our only complaint, from among everything that we tasted over the course of three visits, was with the rum-vanilla ice cream, a nicely balanced bouquet of flavors that stumbled over the inclusion of inedible chunks of woody vanilla bean.

Like Dolata's food, the decor at Erie Bleu is eclectic and original, from the artfully paved and inlaid foyer, through the copper-and-blue dining room, to the smart outdoor patio, complete with waterfall and fountain. Within this casually stylish space, the servers bustle, outfitted with glossy black bowling shirts, blue jeans, and a reasonably well-developed sense of when their services are needed. Along with owner Paul Tomko, the staffers -- chef and manager included -- helped build this restaurant, installing drywall, nailing molding, and painting walls, and they naturally remain deeply invested in its ultimate success. All of which doesn't exactly make them a cult, I realize. But maybe, along with Dolata's culinary inspirations, it helps account for the restaurant's aura of the divine.

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