Eternally Classic

There is no finer dining experience in Ohio.

Classics 9801 Carnegie Avenue (inside the InterContinental Hotel and Conference Center) 216-707-4157. Lunch, noon to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner, 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The Big Dining Room in the Sky should be as - heavenly as Classics. - Walter  Novak
The Big Dining Room in the Sky should be as heavenly as Classics.
I have a friend who insists that, when she dies, she wants to be buried beneath the marble floor of her newly remodeled bathroom. After all, as an inspired home decorator and designer, she can hardly imagine a more meaningful portal for her journey to the Great Beyond. But as for me -- and I think Cleveland's other gourmets may soon back me up here -- when I shuffle off to that Big Dining Room in the Sky, don't be surprised if my spirit pauses a while inside the posh digs of the new Classics.

The place is just that heavenly, what with its intimate design, elegant appointments, and gracious atmosphere. And even better, from its location inside the new InterContinental Hotel and Conference Center on the Cleveland Clinic campus, Classics provides a fine-dining experience like no other in the region. Geographically speaking, the closest comparison might be Cincinnati's Maisonette, although Classics' cuisine is more innovative and the ambiance significantly less stuffy. But from the remarkable quality of the service to the nine-course dégustation menu, this sophisticated restaurant compares more closely to spots in New York or Chicago than to any other place in Ohio.

Not surprisingly, the culinary minds behind Classics are thoroughly European. French native Didier Montarou, whose career has taken him to Spain, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and England, oversees all of the InterContinental's food operations in his role as the property's executive chef. And Classics' kitchen, in particular, is the domain of chef du cuisine Guillaume Brard, a son of Camembert who has worked at some of Europe's most famous and prestigious restaurants, such as Le Bearn in Geneva, Switzerland, and under some of its top chefs, including Pierre Gagnaire in St. Étienne, France.

Brard's style is a world-class confluence of culinary classicism and modern artistic sensibility. As a result, even such standards as lobster bisque, steak Diane, and veal Oscar seem new and exciting -- precisely prepared, intensely flavored, and artfully presented. Charlotte of Boston Blue Crab, a signature starter, is a delicious example of Brard's approach, with its sumptuous blend of cream, fines herbes, and cool, shredded crabmeat, crowned with a clear cap of lobster gelée and served on an oversized glass platter, along with three tiny Beluga-caviar-topped clams, a thin line of assertively fresh microgreens, and a dusting of red Szechwan pepper. Cream of asparagus soup, like liquid velvet resting in a deep white bowl, is another memorable example, with its buttery bits of peeled asparagus and an ephemeral "ravioli," filled with Camembert and fresh artichoke, floating on top.

There is tableside cooking, too, done in a manner that is efficient, entertaining, yet not a bit ostentatious. The preparation of Caesar salad for two is a small masterpiece of performance art, for instance, as a tuxedoed waiter adroitly glazes long leaves of crackling-crisp romaine with a classic dressing of raw egg yolk, anchovies, garlic, and squeezed-on-the-spot lemon juice. And the creation of steak Diane, flamed with a splash of cognac, fills the room with culinary pyrotechnics as well as some mouthwatering aromas.

The evening begins with complimentary canapés, tidbits such as Parmesan-flavored pastry puffs, and slender breadsticks wrapped in prosciutto. Then comes an amuse bouche, a special kiss from the chef, which one night might be a tiny fried wonton topped with crab salad and drizzled with lobster vinaigrette or on another might showcase an oversized shot glass filled with cool lobster gazpacho -- a sort of V-8 of the gods. Small, freshly baked breads appear throughout the meal as if by magic -- miniature epis, black and white sesame-seeded rolls, and plump little loaves of walnut-raisin bread among them. Meantime, the air fairly dances to the sounds of violin and grand piano, as a musical duo performs Viennese waltzes, Broadway show tunes, and Gershwin standards each Friday and Saturday night, in a room all a-shimmer in soft golden light.

The sense of luxury extends to Brard's extravagant dinner menu, crammed with indulgent creations of lamb, duck, sea bass, prime rib, John Dory, squab, and foie gras. And for diners who find themselves overcome by the array of delicious possibilities, the daily nine-course dégustation menu, with its seemingly endless progression of petite, gemlike dishes, is a nearly irresistible alternative to the regular à la carte offerings.

On a recent Friday night, for instance, our tasting experience began with the lovely crab charlotte; progressed to an almost evaporative piece of pan-seared, crisp-skinned sea bass, mounted on a bit of densely concentrated tomato coulis; then moved on to a slender finger of truffle-stuffed seared turbot, capped with a langostino and micro parsley, before pausing briefly for the intermezzo -- two tiny scoops of surprisingly creamy peach granité, served in a long-stemmed Schott-Zwiesel crystal flute, and topped off at the table with a generous pour of sparkling Veuve Cliquot.

Speaking of champagne, in what turned out to be a fairly futile attempt at self-control, we decided to pass on the option of pairing each course with wine, which is available for an additional $65. However, we couldn't resist beginning the evening with the always-appropriate Veuve Cliquot ($17/glass). And later, with our foie gras, we yielded to the temptations of a 1997 Château Doisy-Vedrines French Sauterne ($15/glass), then had 2000 Sebastapol Pinot Noir ($10/glass) with our lamb; and lastly succumbed to a 1977 Dow's Vintage Port ($19/glass) with the cheese course -- all chosen from the restaurant's voluminous international wine menu, with the cheerful guidance of sommelier Manuel Nieves and his assistant, Chris Oppewall. Additionally, perhaps out of pity for our pointless self-denial, Nieves took it upon himself to pour us a complimentary taste of Sauvignon Blanc while we savored our turbot.

As for that foie gras, it was pan-fried perfection, its lush, almost liquid center enrobed in a thin shell of swiftly melting crispness, settled in an earthy sauce of summer truffles, and garnished with a bouquet of tiny, golden chanterelles. Similarly, the "best of the lamb" course, composed of a mouthful of saddle, a mouthful of shoulder, and a diminutive rib chop, was the very definition of succulence, its flavor profile expanded by black truffles, petite fava beans, and premature haricots verts, no thicker than a strand of yarn.

A magnificent cheese course came next, chosen from among a collection of 12 French and American farmhouse cheeses. Possibilities ranged from mild, buttery Camembert (chosen in honor of Brard, mais bien sûr!) to a breathtakingly pungent soft-ripened goat cheese, charmingly "ventilated" with a length of natural straw and so moist, it had to be served on a spoon.

Afterward, our attentions turned to the creations of pastry chef Anton Yeranossian, a confectionery artist whose most recent gig was at Lockkeepers in Valley View. First came the complimentary dessert amuse bouche, a tiny square of flourless chocolate cake topped with an ovoid of lavender ice cream. Next appeared a chocolate "Rose de sable," made from almost impossibly thin leaves of bittersweet Caribbean chocolate, alternating with slim, chocolate-studded tuiles and sided by an inspired combination of sweet-tart passion-fruit coulis and rich chocolate ice cream. Then the Key lime granité arrived, layered with Key lime gelée and finished with a spoonful of Sauterne-soaked berries -- a sweet concoction that was nonetheless almost fiery in its cleansing astringency. And finally, a server presented the mignardises (miniature sweeties that included baby madeleines, thumbnail-sized almond cakes, orange tuiles, and miniature chocolate truffles), along with a silver serving "tree" whose 10 branches each ended in a glistening, bite-sized fruit tart.

Incredibly, the dégustation dining experience lasted for nearly four seamless hours, from the moment we took our seat until we spooned the last bit of froth from the top of our hearty cappuccino. (Dinners chosen from the à la carte menu, of course, will consume far less time.) But alternately pampered, amused, surprised, and delighted, we scarcely noticed the passing hours -- which simply proves my thesis: For true dining devotées, an evening at Classics is a slice of eternal bliss.

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