Eating With Your Eyes

Dim lights and muted flavors cast shadows on Jeso.

Donna Chriszt considers herself, among other things, a visual artist whose medium is food and whose canvas is dinnerware.

As owner and chef of Jeso, Chriszt uses her artistic sensibilities to guide diners through sometimes-wonderful adventures in global cuisine. Her palette includes strokes of Asian, Caribbean, and Mediterranean flavors, often skillfully balanced and beautifully presented.

Jeso is the phonetic spelling of "gesso," a preparation of plaster of Paris and glue used as a foundation for paintings. Chriszt says that, in the same fashion, the restaurant's big white platters serve as the foundation for her artfully prepared foods.

My first trip to Jeso was during the waning hours of the Blizzard of '99. My little group of chowhounds and I were probably the only people in Northeast Ohio who dared to go out on that icy Sunday afternoon, but--clever us--we snared an outstanding brunch while everyone else was still huddled in their bathrobes.

The metallic winter daylight pouring through the front windows did marvelous things to Jeso's decor, highlighting the restaurant's two eye-catching dining rooms of chartreuse and lavender, accented with royal purple, black, and silver. Regional artists use those colorful walls as a sort of gallery, displaying their works on a rotating basis.

Two of us opted for traditional breakfast foods--a short stack of fluffy pecan pancakes and a crisp, golden waffle accompanied by warm Geauga County maple syrup. Both dishes were served with a saucy pineapple-peach-and-cranberry compote that made a tangy counterpoint to the sweet breakfast foods.

A third companion and I chose something more substantial, starting with salads and moving on to quiche and meatloaf.

Both salads were delightful. The Pear Salad combined baby greens, blueberries, raspberries, and grilled pear cubes, with candied pecans and upright wedges of Saga blue cheese, and was moistened with a light port vinaigrette. Our eyes feasted on the colorful contrast of bright berries, dark greens, golden nuts, and creamy blue cheese, while our palates appreciated the contrast of sweet and salty flavors.

The Jeso house salad was also a stimulating wake-up call to the taste buds. The blend of field greens and the smoky dressing of balsamic vinegar and chopped shiitake mushrooms was compelling and exotic.

A grilled meatloaf dish was delicious. Settled atop a pile of garlic mashed potatoes, the slices of ground veal were napped with a golden sweet-and-sour caper-and-fennel reduction sauce that had us sighing in anticipation of each bite. Our only complaint was that the menu hadn't mentioned that the meatloaf was made with veal; because some conscientious diners try to avoid that meat, we felt it should have been identified.

The quiche, "Todd's Whatever," is named in honor of sous chef Todd Arnold, who was manning the kitchen on the day of our visit. The ingredients vary according to Todd's whim, and his selection this time was an unbeatable combination of eggs, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and asparagus in a crisp, buttery crust. The tall wedge of fluffy quiche came with tender herb-roasted potatoes, and we gobbled up every morsel and crumb.

I was expecting even better things when I returned for a Saturday night dinner with a different set of companions. But Jeso was not at its best after dark. Low interior lighting, combined with the glare of the mercury-vapor streetlights just outside the windows, muted the colors of both the decor and the food and hindered our ability to fully appreciate either.

Of course, it's a truism that one eats first with the eyes, and perhaps that's why the taste of our appetizers was also muted that night. Two sauteed salmon-and-langostino cakes were on the dry side and seemed to call out for something--a bright butter-and-garlic sauce, perhaps?--to help them "take off" on the tongue. A tasty relish of baby lima beans, roasted peppers, cucumbers, and lemon juice, with a dusting of a secret spice blend, accompanied the dish, but it wasn't quite enough to perk up the cakes. Similarly, while the plate was beautifully painted with beet sauce and sour cream, there was too little of it to add necessary moisture to the dish.

A Glass Noodle Salad combined straw mushrooms, juicy peapods, bean sprouts, greens, carrots, and cellophane noodles in a sesame dressing. Although the individual ingredients were toothsome, the dressing failed to unify the flavors. A sprinkle of salt might have helped but, as in some other fine restaurants, salt and pepper were not on the table.

I ordered Pupusas--Spanish griddlecakes stuffed with pork, mozzarella cheese, peppers, and onions. The three half-moons of grilled masa harina, sparingly filled with the pasty stuffing, were remarkably tasteless. The cakes were accompanied by a dab of finely chopped cabbage slaw slightly moistened with a touch of vinegar and with a little cup of thin, sweet-and-peppery cooked tomato puree. The rim of the plate was painted with squiggles of sour cream and a delicious red-pepper coulis.

The only clear winner among the appetizers was the Spicy Seared Bluefin Tuna--five slices of moist, warm, very rare tuna with a peppery coating. The fish was beautifully fanned around a mound of daikon-radish slaw moistened with a chili-cilantro vinaigrette. With its contrast of sweet, firm tuna and crisp, spicy slaw, this was one dish that made our taste buds sing.

We were much more impressed with our entrees. The Fall Lamb Medley included a three-bone rack chop and one thick, boneless loin chop, both of which were juicy, tender, and full-flavored. A sheaf of extra-long, slender green beans had been woven between the bones of the chop and tied into a knot, creating a striking effect. The meat was also accompanied by three small, roasted white potatoes that were crisp on the outside and buttery-soft within; once again, they could have used a bit of salt to brighten their taste. The plate was sauced with a small amount of delicious, tangy carrot-and-pomegranate vinaigrette that helped meld the flavors.

A fruity pork tenderloin dish was also unusual and delicious. The pork had been stuffed with dried cherries and gorgonzola cheese, then roasted, sliced, and set on a scant amount of robust Harp lager reduction sauce. The fork-tender meat was coated with a mixture of bread crumbs and ground "nuts" from the inside of apricot pits. The crust tasted like a blend of sweet apricots and almonds, and lent the pork a delightful, crunchy texture. The dish came with a cloud of chunky, buttery mashed sweet potatoes that provided a perfect accompaniment to the fruit-flavored meat.

We also liked a large, firm filet of mahi-mahi that had been crusted in coarsely grated potatoes then sauteed and baked. The crust helped preserve the filet's moist texture and made a fine contrast to the sweet fish within. The mahi-mahi was presented on a large corncake, an interesting pairing that would have been more successful if the corncake had been less dry. The plate was garnished with an inconsequential amount of cilantro-cashew pesto.

The final entree was a well-balanced combination of tastes, featuring a moist grilled salmon filet on a slice of creamy, goat-cheese-flavored grilled polenta. Nestled between the polenta and the fish were three slender, crisp stalks of steamed asparagus. The dish was garnished with a perky orange-lemon-lime-and-honey butter that brightened the palate and cunningly pulled all the flavors together.

But alas, dessert took us back to the Realm of Ho-Hum. A less-than-impressive Creme Brulee had a grainy texture and a vaguely musty aftertaste. A big wedge of carrot cake was nice enough, but hardly brought with it any hint of moist, sweet carrot. Champagne sorbet was flavorless, except for a slightly bitter aftertaste, although its garnish of fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries lent it some personality.

A slice of ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake was presented on a puddle of raspberry sauce and topped with tasty fresh raspberries, but still proved pretty dull. How boring was it? Our diner, an otherwise well-socialized adult, ate the berries and then dozed off! (In all fairness, she had had a hard day. But if dessert isn't enough to keep you awake, what is?)

Chriszt has created a unique setting in Jeso, and she obviously works hard at making plain the connections between food and art. While it is easy to appreciate her vision, it's harder to understand why she allows muted flavors, a niggardly use of sauces, and dim lighting to sometimes cast a shadow over what she is trying to achieve.

10427 Clifton Boulevard, Cleveland. 216-651-2787. Lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Todd's Whatever Quiche $7

Grilled Meatloaf $10

Pupusas $6

Salmon and Langostino Cakes $8

Spicy Seared Bluefin Tuna $9

Citrus-Glazed Salmon $18

Apricot-Seed Crusted Pork Tenderloin $18

Potato-Crusted Mahi-Mahi $18

Fall Lamb Medley $20

Desserts, each $6

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