Enter the restaurant and you'll find yourself in a small foyer, with a large, unfurnished carryout area to the left and a tinted-glass door to the right. Opening the door is like lifting the lid on an empress's jewel box: Luscious colors and lovely shapes fairly dance before your eyes.
This is the upscale soul-food restaurant belonging to caterer Tom Paige (aka Gookie), and it's a gem of an urban hideaway, seemingly lifted out of Chicago or New York and dropped into the sleepy outer ring of Cleveland's own downtown. High black ceilings, a pale stone floor, and sleek oak tables stained a lustrous ebony give the place a smart, contemporary feel. Some walls have been stripped to reveal old brick; others are painted vibrant shades of crimson, gold, and purple. And in the background, a nonstop jazz soundtrack is likely to set fingers to snapping and feet to tapping.
During the day, artfully shaded windows fill the two cozy dining areas with natural light, setting off the voluptuous forms of art-glass plates and vases. After dark, ceiling-mounted canisters and deco-inspired wall sconces introduce a tasty interplay of light and shadow while highlighting a museum-worthy collection of posters, paintings, and charmingly candid black-and-white photos of the great men and women of jazz.
Despite the urbane digs, though, there's a comforting homeyness to the place -- a sense of propriety and gentility of which Mother would most certainly approve. Patrons, for example, come to the table stylishly dressed, whether during a weekday lunch break or on Sundays after church. Maternal waitresses are cheerful and eagle-eyed, always on the lookout for a half-emptied glass or a missing napkin, and -- at least judging by the server who announced, "Lifestyyyles of the rich and famous!" as she slid our lunch in front of us -- occasionally moved to present meals with a proud flourish. Neither smoking nor drinking (other than soda, juice, and iced tea, of course) are countenanced here, making it a fine choice for a family outing. And as a result of Paige's religious beliefs, you'll look in vain for chitterlings, chops, or other pork products on the concise, all-day menu of Southern and soul-food standards.
Instead, the kitchen offers thoughtfully prepared, righteously seasoned, and lovingly presented comfort foods centered upon seafood, chicken, and, to a lesser extent, beef. Two side dishes -- including satiny collard greens, sturdy macaroni and cheese, and crunchy broccoli salad, with raisins, shredded cheddar, and diced peppers in a sweet, milky dressing -- accompany most entrées or are available for $3 à la carte. And the napkin-lined breadbasket may include not only ho-hum commercial rolls, but also dense, cakelike cornmeal muffins, brought to the table straight from the oven, with pats of real butter served on the side.
The menu is a compilation of family recipes, including those of Paige's sister and G.M., Jackie Paige Jackson, and contributions from Gookies' talented chefs, Tim Clark and Ishmael Smad. For wholesome, Mom-style nutrition, it would be hard to beat Clark's homemade soups, including the chicken, mushroom, and rice version we enjoyed during a weekday lunch -- slowly simmered, steaming hot, and nearly thick as porridge, with honest, unadorned flavors melded into a heartwarming whole that proved pleasantly soothing, even on a muggy spring day. On the other hand, barbecue-sauce-slathered chicken wings, nearly the size of drumsticks, proved to be a truly guilty pleasure, their juicy interiors wrapped in crackling crisp skin that spurted tiny rivulets of grease on first bite.
Other options include burgers, sandwiches, and salads, including the grilled Buffalo salad, a more than ample opus composed of torn romaine topped with shredded cheddar, crumbled blue cheese, grape tomatoes, and a tidy lineup of tender, Tabasco-powered breast-meat strips.
Among the substantial entrées, prices range from $11 for a simple grilled chicken breast to $25.95 for a surf-and-turf matchup of strip steak and scampi. At $12, two long, golden filets of fried catfish, in a delicate coating of finely ground cornmeal, made a good-tasting, reasonably priced meal. And while two not-so-plump pieces of overcooked Southern-fried chicken were mildly disappointing, expertly braised short ribs, doused in homemade gravy, melted in the mouth. Likewise, a special of herb-breaded orange roughy, draped in a golden garlic-cream sauce (made from heavy whipping cream, sautéed garlic, and caramelized onions) was rich, elegant, and cooked not one second past perfection.
Another day's special, boneless Caribbean chicken, also tap-danced in the narrow space between the upscale and the down-home, thanks largely to the spicy, cumin-infused "red sauce" (a sort of sassy hybrid of Italian marinara and Mexican mole) that blanketed the herb-coated breast meat. Fiery enough to make us sweat, but too addictive to avoid, the sauce also helped brighten up a side of buttery but slightly limp mixed vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, sliced carrots, and red pepper), and a tidy cylinder of veggie-studded rice, piqued with cinnamon and more cumin, and patiently simmered until it achieved a creaminess akin to that of the finest risotto.
Gookies' kitchen team also earns a nod for the attentive manner in which they plate the entrées. No random, cafeteria-style plops of food on these white plates. Rather, with the Caribbean chicken, for example, the saucy chicken was prettily propped against the rice, while the colorful veggies were precisely positioned along the edge of the plate; curly green-and-purple kale leaves and a sprig of fresh thyme made the final artful touches. And in the case of the orange roughy, garnished with red onion rings and lemon wedges, the buttery yellow cream sauce not only enhanced the flavor, but also added a luminous note of color.
If there is one area where Gookies seems to lag, it's among desserts. Sweet-potato pie sounded like a great idea, but it was unavailable during both of our visits. On one occasion, we settled for homemade peach cobbler (nearly watery as broth, although nicely spiced with cinnamon) and a slice of chocolate layer cake (slightly stale and "off"-flavored, perhaps from remaining too long in the cooler); obviously, both of those struck a sour note. Happily, our second visit ended more sweetly, with a slice of tender white cake, layered with pineapple and frosted with coconut. Washed down with a mug of freshly brewed coffee, served with real half-and-half, this one definitely rocked us.
Despite having been open for more than a year, Paige says, Gookies has been slow to build a following. That is a real shame. Sophisticated but homey, stylish yet down-to-earth, the jazzy little restaurant may not be avant-garde. But with its comforting soul-food repertoire and above-average quality and style, it serves up a mighty fine repertoire of music for the mouth.