Good Old Sammy's

The Granddaddy of Cleveland restaurants isn't over the hill yet.

It was late, and the off-duty cop was suspiciously eyeing a preposterously long limo that was parked across from Sammy's on West Tenth Street.

"They've been in there since 7:30," he said with a jerk of his head back toward the restaurant door.

"Who are they?" we asked, wondering if we had overlooked the presence of some of Cleveland's glitterati during our just-completed dinner.

"Oh, I don't know," he answered with a trace of amusement. "It's no one famous."

His face grew pensive. "Of course, used to be all the city's high rollers came here," he mused. "Now, not so much. Now, I think they are all over at Johnny's."

And so it is in the restaurant trade — where, if diners are lucky, there is always someplace hipper going up just around the corner.

Certainly, Cleveland's much ballyhooed restaurant renaissance can leave relative old-timers, like twenty-year-old Sammy's in the Flats, at a disadvantage. After all, a dining spot can only be au courant for a few short, sparkling years before it is replaced by the next pretender to the culinary crown. And Sammy's had a long and brilliant day in the sun, when it was one of the few sophisticated spots to dine in a city best known for its dearth of decent food.

Still, while today there are undoubtedly cooler kitchens, more luxurious dining rooms, and more powerful young chefs in Cleveland, it is way too early to discount good old Sammy's.

First and foremost, Chef Jihad Hachicho, who arrived here from Lebanon by way of Hyde Park's Culinary Institute of America, has kept the restaurant's small but finely tuned menu up-to-the-moment, with trendy touches like grilled quail, assorted wild mushrooms in a balsamic reduction over creamy polenta, and classic upscale entrées like roasted rack of lamb and sautéed veal medallions. (Fish dishes are offered in nightly specials.)

Pastry Chef Tom Hambor also gets a big huzzah from this corner for the interesting, creative dessert selections: Although the ubiquitous cr&eagrave;me brûlée makes a showing, there is not a tiramisu, carrot cake, or cheesecake to be found in Sammy's kitchen.

And of course, time has, if anything, made the view from Sammy's perch high atop the river's east bank even more delightful. With stellar Lake Erie sunsets on one side, the beautifully illuminated Detroit-Superior Bridge on the other, and the sparkling lights of the now-bustling Flats below, the vistas from the restaurant's tall windows are some of the best in the city.

Things remain pleasantly sleek inside, too. Brick walls and antique architectural details remind guests that the building was once a warehouse for the dear-departed Higbee Company. But the juxtaposition of industrial-style light fixtures, contemporary wall art, and the sounds of a live jazz combo playing in the background temper any possible stodginess. (Although, metaphorically speaking, it might be better if the band members didn't have a combined age equal to or exceeding that of Methuselah's.)

Big, bright dinner platters, fresh exotic flowers, and candlelight add to the fun, although we wish we hadn't come to appreciate our comfy upholstered dining chairs by way of having to park our bottoms in them for a tedious two and a half hours. (Service, which had started out promptly enough, had slowed to a crawl by the time we were ready for our check.) And I'll also take this opportunity to complain about the crowded conditions in the three-tiered dining room that certainly contributed to a server sending a tray of dishes crashing down a narrow staircase. Boos and hisses, too, to our tiny table for four, which led to the appalling sight of fresh exotic flowers dangling into my 1996 Gregory Graham Knights Valley Viognier and forced us to play hot-potato with the oversized breadbasket.

But most disappointing was the inconsistency in the food, which ranged from the sublime to the barely edible.

In the first category was an unusual and absolutely perfect appetizer of beef carpaccio topped with a timbale of mango, orange, and lime granita. The dish used the same spectacular interplay of flavors that makes prosciutto and melon such an enduring favorite: slices of rich, salty, well-marbled meat engaged in a taste-bud tango with juicy, slightly spicy fruit flavors. Only this time, the meat was a relatively thick-sliced raw beef, and the contrast was provided by a rock 'em-sock 'em serving of intensely flavored fruit ice that sparkled provocatively on the tongue.

Those assorted wild mushrooms in a dark brown balsamic reduction syrup were also tasty, although the mushrooms appeared to be thick chunks of portobellos alone, rather than the promised variety of fungi. (Hachicho says the dish generally includes portobellos plus crimini and shiitake mushrooms.) The meaty texture and earthy flavor of the portobellos and the savory reduction sauce nonetheless made delicious toppings for the delicate polenta beneath them.

An appetizer of marinated grilled quail was also tasty, if perhaps a bit shocking in its presentation. The whole, mostly deboned birdie arrived, spread eagle, on a layer of deliciously firm Israeli couscous that had been flavored with a bit of buttery mango coulis. But God forgive me: The fact that its tiny little body reminded me of a kitten didn't stop me from eating every savory, sweet, and tender morsel of the quail. (This is one dish you'll never in a million years get your vegetarian friends to forgive you for eating.)

Other successful preparations included a classic entrée of three thick, fork-tender sautéed veal medallions arranged around a mound of shiitake mushrooms, accompanied by poufs of sweet butternut squash purée and several colorful broccoli florets. The contrasting sweet, savory, and earthy components of the dish were beautifully brought together by a robust, full-flavored port-wine reduction sauce that nearly had us licking the plate and made us forget that the broccoli was overdone to the point of mushiness.

A simple cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta dish, with strips of sweet red pepper, a few perfectly grilled shrimp, and custardy scallops in a light Madeira cream sauce, was also good, although we would have appreciated it if the tails had been uniformly removed from the shrimp prior to serving. (Doing so tableside, we found, is not so easy when the shrimp are coated in slippery sauce.)

While I am passing out kudos, a word about the mouthwatering rolls that accompanied our meal is in order. The raisin-and-walnut studded breads, a product of The Stone Oven, had a crisp, buttery crust that reminded us of croissants and a dense, moist interior. The remarkably satisfying rolls were cleverly served in a napkin-lined wooden champagne box accompanied by a small plate of whipped butter and a medley of piquant pickled carrots, celery, artichoke hearts, olives, and peppers.

As for the disappointments, an entrée of phyllo-wrapped roasted chicken breast led the pack. The thick breast filet was dry and tasteless, and its surrounding phyllo "purse" had a peculiar floury taste and texture. Altogether, trying to chew a mouthful of the stuff was very much like eating sawdust.

An appetizer special of king crab cakes topped with lemon cr&eagrave;me frâiche was also a downer. While the two modest-sized patties were well-seasoned, they seemed to be mostly filler with little evidence of sweet crabmeat. An avocado salsa that accompanied them was acidic to a fault and did nothing to bring the dish together into a coherent whole.

Sammy's has long been known for its way with lamb, and a platter of grilled double-boned lamb chops that I enjoyed there last winter was outstanding: lusciously tender, with the rich, vaguely dangerous flavor that makes lamb one of the most exciting of all meats. So the mediocre rack of lamb I had this night was doubly disappointing, both for what it was and for what it was not. The four long-boned chops that made up the rack were not terrifically tender, although they remained a rosy medium rare. Nor were they especially flavorful, despite a crunchy crust of chopped pistachio nuts and garlic. And while they might have been passable in any other restaurant, they were a letdown coming from Sammy's.

Desserts, however, helped us end our evening on a high note. Especially good was the refreshing White Chocolate Mint Glacé, a generous wedge of frozen mint cream set adrift in a cool, green mint sauce studded with shards of rich white chocolate. After one bite, our mint aficionado thought he had died and gone to heaven.

A snowball of dense, tender flourless chocolate cake hidden beneath an avalanche of freshly whipped cream — a classic Boule de Neige — was also delicious, although, as with all heavy desserts, a little went a long way.

And the Panna Cotta, a ramekin of light custard baked on a layer of thin caramel syrup and accompanied by several fat, succulent blackberries, a few perfect raspberries, and a chewy pistachio biscotti, tasted just like a summer in Tuscany.

So, yes, it is true that Sammy's is no longer young. But is the restaurant, once the guiding light of the Cleveland food scene, ready for that long slide down the far side of the hill? I don't think so. Not yet, not by a long shot.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].

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