Focus on Freshness

Parker's pays homage to honest food.

At Parker's, the food's the thing. Nothing--not glitzy decor, fussy presentation, or overwhelming portion size--is allowed to interfere with a diner's appreciation of the impeccably fresh, attentively prepared dishes that flow out of this Ohio City restaurant's kitchen.

Chef and co-owner Parker Bosley, 60, has long been a luminary on the Cleveland dining scene. He began his cooking career in 1980, under the tutelage of culinary pioneer Pamela Grosscup--one of the area's first nouvelle cuisine practitioners. After furthering his education in France, he returned to Ohio, taking charge of the kitchen at Sammy's in 1982 and helping that restaurant secure its reputation as one of the city's top dining spots.

In 1986, Bosley struck out on his own, opening his first Parker's restaurant on Cleveland's East Side. He was there until 1991, when he decided to make a crosstown move to Ohio City. The new Parker's, in the former Ohio City Tavern, opened in 1992.

Until recently, Parker's guests had to choose between a four-course, prix fixe "chef's menu" featuring a choice of soup or hors d'oeuvres, salad, an entree, and a dessert, or the more elaborate seven-course, prix fixe "tasting menu," with small portions of soup, appetizers, seafood, two meat or poultry dishes, salad, and dessert.

But this April, to create a more casual atmo-sphere, Bosley and his business partner, Jeff Jaskiel, expanded the bar area, redecorated the main dining room, and revamped the menu to include a solid selection of a la carte appetizers, entrees, and desserts.

It was my interest in the menu and decor changes that led me to Parker's on a recent Saturday night with three dining companions.

Our white-linen-dressed table was in the narrow main dining room. Here, the walls are covered with dusty-burgundy damask and set off with cream-colored wood trim. Sepia-toned architectural prints and photographs in simple brass frames are the room's only decoration. (The slightly larger front room, with its brick wall, long bar, and smattering of tables, is also restrained.) The lighting is intentionally bright in both rooms, so diners can read the menu and see what they are eating. While most of my party found the atmosphere comfortable, one curmudgeon objected to the bright lighting and called the room "dreary."

Still, we all were immediately charmed by the first section of the menu, titled "Starters . . . Samples . . . Hors d'Oeuvres," which lists small treats that can be ordered, like tapas, to accompany cocktails or combined to make a light meal. These inexpensive starters range from a bowl of olives to a potato-and-onion tortilla, and provide an alternative to the larger appetizers offered on the menu's next page.

We decided to try the small, rather than the full-sized, items, in hopes of keeping our appetites--and our wallets--intact. Our choices included onion-and-bleu-cheese tartlets, chicken satay, and that bowl of olives.

The tartlets--two tiny, oval pastry barques, mounded with tender caramelized onions and dotted with bleu cheese--were delicious. The cara-melized onions were soft and sweet, and contrasted piquantly with the salty blue cheese. The buttery pastry was so delicate that it almost didn't survive the journey to my mouth, where it literally melted.

The chicken satay was made from a slender strip of marinated dark meat and topped with a sweet and fiery peanut sauce. A topping of chopped peanuts added a pleasing crunch.

I was surprised to see a simple bowl of olives on the menu. After all, what can a chef do to an olive to make it unusual? But I had underestimated Parker's ability to lavish attention on even the most ordinary foodstuffs. In this case, that involved bathing five or six different types of Greek olives in a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, and lemon rind, and spiking them with anise-flavored fennel seeds. The zippy combination was unusual, delicious, and just right, I might add, with a dry martini.

"My philosophy has always been that the dinner table must be firmly connected to the land," Bosley says. Consequently, he has worked hard to create a network of local purveyors for organic produce. His efforts have paid off: This year, for the first time, he has served nothing but locally grown organic fruits and vegetables in the restaurant.

Those local products, which vary with the season, are invariably put to good use in Parker's salads.

On this evening, one of us picked a salad of mixed organic greens topped with a substantial square of baked goat cheese. The goat cheese, from Lorain County's R-Haven Farm, was delightfully smooth-textured and mildly tangy. Meltingly warm and creamy, it blended into the honey-and-thyme vinaigrette, creating a thick, robust dressing that was an ideal complement to the cold, slightly bitter greens.

In another variation, the greens came with slices of peeled, perfectly ripened pears and were spiked with crumbs of salty Roquefort cheese, toasted walnuts, and vinaigrette dressing.

Our third diner chose the Three Winter Salads plate, which is composed of shredded carrots, celery root, and cabbage. Some of us thought it sounded boring, but the Parker treatment made it the best salad of the lot.

The three little mounds of finely shredded vegetables each had been attentively prepared and dressed in separate but equally delicious dressings. The sweet raw carrots were tossed in an olive-oil-and-lemon-juice vinaigrette and seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper. The crisp celery root, sweetened with the addition of juicy shredded apple, was moistened with lemon juice and Dijon mustard. And the cabbage had been salted, rinsed, and drained to eliminate any hint of bitterness, then dressed with a balsamic vinegar and walnut-oil mixture and topped with tiny bits of toasted walnut. Each little salad packed a big punch and was an excellent way for Bosley's kitchen to show its stuff.

For our entrees, we decided on the grilled rack of American lamb; a mixed grill of two lamb chops, a veal medallion, and a beef medallion; sauteed pork medallions; and fettuccini with scallops and Italian sausage in a light tomato sauce.

Bosley's way with meat is equal to his skill with vegetables. No need for massive steak knives here: Our meat selections were all so tender that our dinner knives cut through them with ease.

Both the rack of lamb and the mixed grill came rare, as ordered, and were enhanced with intensely flavored, savory reduction sauces and accompanied by a spoonful of diced, gently simmered beets and a few tender-crisp strips of steamed and buttered carrots. They also came with a mound of honest, old-fashioned mashed potatoes--thick, creamy, and without trendy additions like garlic or cheese.

The sauteed pork--which got high marks for being meltingly tender while still thoroughly cooked--was sauced with a fruity, piquant black-currant reduction. It came with those same wholesome mashed potatoes, a dab of mashed turnips, and a spoonful of slow-cooked, eastern-European-style sweet-and-sour red cabbage. Our diner called the dish the ultimate autumn meal.

The firm housemade pasta dish was a perfectly acceptable meal, but it just didn't measure up to the savory meats and vegetables the rest of us were enjoying. In fact, our fettuccini-eating friend seemed to long for our food, repeatedly begging for bites of mashed potatoes between mouthfuls of his pasta.

For dessert, we chose Creme Brulee; a coconut tart; a crisp, orange-scented cookie basket loaded with caramelized apples and topped with housemade cinnamon ice cream; and a portion of housemade banana ice cream served with a drizzle of sweet chocolate syrup.

The Creme Brulee was a fine representative of its species, if not especially outstanding. On the other hand, the cookie basket, stuffed with tender, warm-and-gooey apple slices and cinnamon ice cream, was excellent.

The tart was also delectable: rich custard flecked with shreds of coconut and piled into a shortbread-like crust. While the crust was somewhat less tender than we had anticipated, it was sweet and buttery. Two tiny scoops of ice cream--banana and pistachio--accompanied the tart and reinforced its tropical flavors. Each of the desserts was a sweet ending to what we agreed was one of the year's best meals.

If there was a weak link in our lovely evening, it was the service. Dining room manager Anna Doktor admits that a citywide server shortage forces her to put new staff members to work with only minimal training. This was clearly the case with our server who, although willing and polite, knew next to nothing about the dishes she was serving and was apparently frazzled by the pace of a Saturday-night full house.

Nonetheless, while more gorgeous dining rooms and more doting service may exist elsewhere in the city, better food does not. At Parker's, even the most humble vegetable gets its day of glory, honored by a chef who specializes in honest, traditional, and unusually attentive preparation, and who allows nothing to distract from its enjoyment.

Parker's Restaurant and Bistro
2801 Bridge Avenue, Cleveland. 216 771-7130. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday until 10 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Caramelized Onion-and-Bleu-Cheese Tartlets $3

Olives in a Citrus Marmalade $2

Three Winter Salads $4

Baked Goat Cheese on Mixed Organic Greens $7

Grilled Rack of Lamb $32

Mixed Grill of Lamb Chops, Veal, and Beef $29

Saute of Pork Medallions $18

Fettuccini with Scallops and Sausage in Tomato Sauce $17

Creme Brulee $6

Orange Cookie Basket with Caramelized Apples and Ice Cream $5.50

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