Sometimes, a quality-control team might stand a better chance than a humble restaurant critic. Sometimes, all that humble restaurant critic can do is attempt to shine a little light into the cold, dark corners of a restaurant's evolution.
Take the recent upheavals at Ballantine, the newly opened gastropub in Willoughby. Settled in Johnny Mango's former space on the city's charming main drag, the warm, well-appointed dining room, bar, and tiny deck debuted on June 19, with meticulous chef Kurt Steeber overseeing the kitchen. (As for the nomenclature, gastropub is merely foodie-speak for a joint with a casual vibe, a killer bar, and gourmet grub to match.)
A Lakewood native, the well-traveled Steeber had the opportunity to work with some of the pioneers of regional American cuisine, including Jeremiah Tower of Stars and Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café, before opening his own spot near Pebble Beach.
Back in Cleveland, he more or less introduced diners to the gastropub concept during a short-lived stint at Great Lakes Brewing Company, a gig that ended when the owners decided to pass on the gastro and just run with the pub.
For his new post, Steeber put together a smart, timely menu of labor-intensive dishes -- braised pork belly, skillet-seared sweetbreads, his signature salmon sous vide, gently poached in a warm-water bath, and similar indulgences -- and divided them into small, medium, large, and extra-large categories, so they could serve as anything from a light snack to a hearty main event. We wasted little time heading over, scoring two visits in early July. And while the service was predictably shaky, the food was so cleverly conceived, precisely prepared, and drop-dead delicious, we could scarcely wait to trumpet the news.
But stop the presses. Steeber and his bosses (including longtime restaurant operator Sean Heineman) hit an impasse. Probably Steeber's food costs were too high; possibly he was reluctant to compromise; and just maybe Willoughbians actually do prefer hamburgers to seared quail. In any case, less than a week after our visits, Steeber was given the boot.
Restaurants rarely announce such shake-ups. We found out only when we called the restaurant after our visit, and had a long, cordial chat with general manager Manuel Nieves.
Besides his front-of-the-house duties, Nieves -- former sommelier for departed Classics and recently the beverage director for several South Beach and N.Y.C. hot spots -- has developed Ballantine's beverage program: a roundup of carefully crafted signature cocktails; a small but well-composed wine menu; and a boffo selection of suds, featuring 28 craft-brewed beers on tap and more than four dozen options by the bottle.
While Steeber might be gone, Nieves vowed, his culinary standards would remain. True, a foie-gras terrine had been replaced with an equally upscale lobster club, and Certified Angus Beef was subbing for the pricier Ohio Signature. But all in all, the gastropub vision remained intact.
Conversely, an admittedly angry Steeber expressed some doubt. "I don't wish the owners ill," he told us, "but they never understood the concept."
Clearly, it was time to borrow a quality-assurance cap and head back into the field.
Results of our third visit indicate that Steeber and Nieves are both right -- sort of. While the menu has been trimmed, with an eye toward cost-cutting, it's far from a lineup of nachos and wings. But while prices generally have held steady, quality and execution have suffered in the chef's absence.
Consider the gourmet corn dogs -- two plump little sausage-like creations made from a mild blend of lobster, shrimp, and scallop, and deep-fried in a light tempura batter. During the Steeber era, they were sheer perfection: firm but delicate within, crisp and dainty without. On our post-Steeber visit, they faltered: sloppy-looking, undercooked, and greasy. There was another change too. The former regime had served the doggies with a rich truffle and salsify pâté; now, they came with mustard and cocktail sauce.
The lamb "two ways" -- a superlative dish during our first go-round -- was a further disappointment. Portion size had gone up, from two chops to four, but so had the price tag -- from $26 to $32. Yet the flavor had flatlined. No longer nuanced and buttery, the braised shoulder meat seemed salty and dry -- and instead of irresistibly succulent and well-seasoned, the chops were vaguely bland and unevenly roasted.
For dessert, a formerly fab brown-sugar cake now was slightly stale and skimpy. Even the service proved aggravating.
So now you're probably thinking it's "thumbs down" for Ballantine. Not so fast. As of July 23, Anthony Seminatore took over as executive chef. Astute foodies may recall that Seminatore was most recently the chef at Cyrus Waterfront Restaurant and Patio; prior to that, he had been Nieves' colleague at Classics. See what we mean about ocean currents?
Can Seminatore whip the kitchen into shape? Will Heineman and Co. remain true to their vision? Will Nieves get his servers up to speed? Frankly, we haven't a clue. A restaurant review is only a snapshot. Want a long-term report? Call quality control.