They say you can't fit a square peg into a round hole without a pretty big mallet. But that was the approach that chef Brian Okin took when he attempted to turn the former Juniper Grille on Carnegie Avenue into a dinner destination. Despite wonderful food, honest-to-goodness value, and a deeply passionate staff, Okin's Verve never managed to hammer out much of a dinner crowd.
New chef-owner Jeff Uniatowski fully grasps his location's strengths and limitations. Open before the morning commute and buttoned up before the evening rush, Carnegie Kitchen aims for the breakfast-and-lunch sweet spot that served Juniper Grille so well for seven years.
Uniatowski seems more than qualified to return the restaurant to its former niche. Most memorably, he operated the popular but short-lived West Side bistro Mise. More recently, he ran the large-scale kitchens at Cleveland's House of Blues, where he likely gleaned enough operational experience to run three restaurants.
When it comes to the menu, the kitchen opted to sidestep "cute" in favor of broadly appealing. Rather than reinvent comfort foods, as so many chefs are wont to do these days, Uniatowski simply prepares them in straightforward ways that are nonetheless delicious. In other words: His ingredients and technique take the place of tongue-in-cheek playfulness. And frankly, it is refreshing.
In the altogether satisfying corned beef hash ($6.95), available on both the weekday and Saturday breakfast menus, the only "twist" is the housemade corned beef. Sliced extra-thick, the piquant meat elevates this diner staple to a new level. Mixed with fried potatoes, topped with a couple of eggs, and sided by toast, the dish exemplifies the kind of value that diners look for.
We loved the fact that the weekend menu features breakfast small plates. Famished, we immediately placed an order for the house-cured lox and bagel ($5.95). Unfortunately, it took forever to find its way to our table. Fortunately, when it did arrive, it proved worth waiting for: The build-your-own-bagel platter included lush lox, dilly cream cheese, and slivered red onion.
Also on the breakfast menu is an easy-to-eat, easy-to-enjoy croissant sandwich ($5.95), with eggs, bacon, and cheese tucked into a soft roll. Like most breakfast items, the sandwich comes with thick-cut and not altogether crispy home-fried potatoes.
Some items land on both the breakfast and lunch menus, like the dreamy steak and eggs ($11.95): medium-rare slices of hanger steak, two eggs, potatoes, and a drizzle of perky house steak sauce.
Carnegie's kicked-up chicken soup ($2.95/$3.95) is loaded with meat, carrots, and delightful little dumplings. If time permits, tack on a lunchtime starter of salmon cakes ($5.95): three plump and crispy beauties served with caper-dill dipping sauce.
Potato latkes ($4.95), meanwhile, made it back to the kitchen virtually ignored, thanks to their dense and doughy texture.
Salads and sandwiches shine here, with that housemade corned beef starring in a mile-high Reuben on marble rye ($8.95). In the two-salmon club sandwich ($8.95), the silky house-cured lox is paired with grilled salmon, apple-smoked bacon, and caper cream cheese.
Service went both ways for us, with one visit nothing but smooth sailing and another marred by patent inefficiency. Whenever we needed her, our server always managed to be on the other side of town. Time practically stopped while waiting for our bill, and it did stop while waiting for our change.
And don't waste your time trying to track down a website, map, menu, or any other helpful online information: It just doesn't exist. Until a website is constructed as promised, potential diners must resign themselves to telephones, faxes, and other Stone Age forms of communication.
That's a shame, because there are loads of people dying to spread the good word about Carnegie Kitchen.