If one needs any reminder that dining out is a form of theater, just cross the threshold of the new Urban Farmer restaurant downtown. From the props and setting to the lighting and wardrobe, the entire concept has been painstakingly scripted, right down to the story line.
What's the narrative? Urban Farmer is "Cleveland's Steakhouse" — a farm-to-table restaurant that showcases the rich bounty of the Midwest while firmly entrenching itself in the fabric of Cleveland. Reinforcing that story is imperative considering that all major components — management, concept and chef — hail from out of state.
Located in the swanky Westin Downtown, the restaurant is one of nearly a dozen red-hot concepts to come out of the Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group. That firm runs popular eateries in a number of cities, but Urban Farmer is the first in the Sage portfolio to be exported to another market. It's a great fit for Northeast Ohio given our affinity for red meat coupled with our robust farm-to-table culture.
Sure, the interior feels exceedingly contrived, but it's also undeniably attractive. The ripped-from-Portlandia aesthetic features chicken-wire chandeliers, cowhide-swaddled banquettes, a wall of pickled and jarred produce — suspenders! — and ostensibly every last square yard of reclaimed barn lumber left in the region. Oversized photos of farms, farmers and fuzzy little animals hang above the impressive open kitchen.
The restaurant is so visually interesting that it's easy to forget that it is, at its heart, a steakhouse. I can't recall how many times I've heard gripes that the menu here is overly meat-centric. Well, it's a steakhouse, and as a steakhouse it succeeds on levels that others in the area do not. The menu offers a primer on steak, with more than a dozen different options in regards to cut, weight, pedigree, rearing and aging. For three in one, order the New York Steak Tasting ($64), which features 6-ounce portions each of grass-fed, corn-fed and Ohio dry-aged strip steak. There are grass-fed filets, corn-fed flatirons and mouthwateringly delicious bone-in ribeyes ($54). Oddly, ranch names are given for every steak on the menu except those from Ohio, which simply get the none-too-helpful "Ohio Proud" designation. During three separate visits, no steak was improperly cooked.
Other than the minimally plated steak entrees, dishes here are as delightful to look at as they are to eat. A well-seared, crisp-skinned flank of walleye ($31) is seated in a bright-green slick of pureed spring peas, dotted by black pearls of fermented garlic and gilded with edible nasturtium blooms. Succulent grilled veal sweetbreads ($15) rest on a bed of crisp pea shoots punctuated by peas, hazelnuts and satisfyingly spongy morels. A four-star starter of meaty, charred octopus ($15) evokes lunch in a Greek taverna with bright lemon high notes and a refreshing cucumber-yogurt sauce.
Meals start with well-appointed charcuterie boards ($13/$21), sliced on a bright red Berkel in a gleaming white-tiled pantry in the corner of the barroom. Cheese ($18) is wheeled right up to one's table on a rolling butcher block, arranged on a lengthy board along with fruit, nuts and crackers. Other cold appetizers include a Frisbee-sized portion of well-seasoned beef tartar ($16) garnished with brioche toasts, dressed greens and a hard-cooked egg. Raw oysters, chilled shrimp, and summery beet salads all are on hand.
The bread service is both dreamy and dramatic, starring warm, wispy Parker House rolls, moist cornbread "poured" from a tin can, and heavenly whipped butter. Naturally, there are sides galore, many of them over-the-top rich and decadent. Served in a hot crock, the baked mac and cheese ($10) comes with a brioche crumb topping. A twice-baked potato tart ($11) is enriched with aged cheddar. And winning the "put an egg on it" competition are the creamy popcorn grits ($8), made all the more seductive thanks to oozing egg yolk.
Classic cocktails like Negronis ($10) and Side Cars ($12) are well-crafted, and wines are very fairly priced.
While executive chef Brad Cecchi and pastry chef Jodie Chavious both are imports from the West Coast, the service here feels downright Midwestern. We enjoyed professional attention during all our visits, feeling neither rushed nor neglected at any time. In fact, one of the only complaints we could muster was those damn oriental rugs, which seem to reach out and trip you every time you walk by. Oh yeah, and the non-comped valet parking.
Last year, Travel + Leisure magazine named Portland's Urban Farmer restaurant one of the Best Steakhouses in the U.S. After a few visits ourselves, we're starting to see what all the fuss is about.
777 St. Clair Ave., 216-771-7707, urbanfarmercleveland.com.