Hot Spot

Fahrenheit restores faith in Cleveland's restaurant resurgence.

Fahrenheit 216 Professor Street, Tremont 216-781-8858. Hours, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Clunky goblets and complex pizzas, two of - Fahrenheit's mainstays. - Walter  Novak
Clunky goblets and complex pizzas, two of Fahrenheit's mainstays.
Just when diners were fretting that Cleveland's restaurant renaissance was running out of steam, along came Fahrenheit, a charming little bistro in Tremont, with outstanding food, engaging atmosphere, and enthusiastic service.

For this, we must thank chef-owner Rocco Whalen. At a mere 25, Whalen displays a balance and sophistication in his cooking that some chefs struggle for years to achieve. He can be inventive, as when he constructs whimsical "summer rolls" of rare roast beef, filled with sliced mango, sprouts, and baby greens, and piqued with pickled ginger, a few drops of horseradish cream, and a dash of apple syrup. Or he can be a traditionalist, producing an elegantly simple slow-roasted chicken, stroked with rosemary and lemon, and nestled into a feather bed of whipped buttermilk potatoes. While his cooking is bold and manly, with intensely flavored sauces and heady reductions, Whalen also knows restraint. He understands that flawless ingredients must be allowed to speak for themselves. He offers portion sizes that are satisfying, but he never tries to substitute quantity for quality. And he plates his food in a manner that is artistic and inventive, but never silly. As a result, his dishes -- everything from translucent grouper to earthy roasted pork, and blue-cheese-and-cherry salad to artichoke pizza -- are lively, complex, and personal, yet comprehensible and consistently appealing.

Of course, the young chef brings fine credentials to this, his newest endeavor. After graduating from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, he set out for the West Coast, where he spent four formative years at several of über-chef Wolfgang Puck's cafés. Back in Ohio, he served as executive sous chef at Blue Point Grille in the Warehouse District for two more years, then moved to the kitchen at Lockkeepers last December. When the opportunity arrived to have his own place, Whalen was ready: Along with partners Kim and Kelly Repas (Kelly being the dining room's friendly hostess and the chef's main squeeze), and sous chef Rob Geul, he fired up Fahrenheit in mid-May, and the place has been smokin' ever since.

It's a plus that, like Whalen's food, Fahrenheit's interior appears stylishly simple, creatively comfortable, and almost effortlessly hip. For patrons coming in off the sunny sidewalks of Professor Street, it's a cool, dark cave of a room, with gem-toned walls, wooden floors, and lots of exposed, vintage brick. Toward the front, a ferociously shiny, L-shaped bar shares space with cream-and-white-linen-dressed tables. To the rear is Whalen's semi-open kitchen, as well as a raised dining platform, with a velvet banquette and two narrow skylights that, at least during the long days of summer, permit natural light to sift in and brighten the space. The minimal decor includes a few green plants, several striking flower arrangements, and three framed pieces of modern art on the back wall. Lighting is dim and flattering, but not too dark; the background noise is significant, but not deafening; and the vibe is friendly and relaxed, but not so casual one can't wear one's good jewelry.

Fahrenheit's relatively brief menu covers a lot of ground. Starters run the gamut from homey, sausage-stuffed Hungarian peppers in a flavor-suffused tomato, basil, and roasted garlic sauce to the Pacific Rim-influenced rare-beef-and-mango summer rolls, with their deep, explosive tastes. The half-dozen entrées include beef, fish, seafood, and pork, generally paired and plated with unusual sides, such as the frothy, macadamia-studded sweet-potato mousse or skinny herbed frites. And a handful of California-style pizzas are topped with everything from white truffles to barbecued chicken.

Those thin-crusted pizzas (perfectly sized to share as an appetizer or enough for a light entrée for two) are little works of art, studded with items like red roasted tomato slices, ebony Niçoise olives, and buttery batons of carefully trimmed artichoke. Most of them come shellacked with a blend of asiago, smoked provolone, and mozzarella cheeses (judging by the menu, Whalen does appear inordinately fond of cheese); it's a smooth combination that is rich and nutty, but not a bit greasy, stringy, or salty. Add final lagniappes like fresh basil, caramelized shallots, or roasted garlic, and the resulting pizzas are as complex and delicious as they are lovely to behold.

You will search in vain for the typical fodder-like tossed salad coming out of this kitchen. Rather, each plate of greens is a handsome arrangement, piqued with sweet and savory add-ons such as grilled peaches, Greek feta, or caramelized cashew "candy." Housemade dressings are delicate and understated, and seem to exist solely to complement the main event. For example, despite its mushy tomatoes, a bread-and-tomato panzanella still made us happy, largely because of its beautifully balanced balsamic, caper, and garlic vinaigrette, which soaked into the soft croutons and melded with both the tomatoes and some creamy herbed chèvre. We could just imagine how good this one will be, once tomatoes are truly in season.

Among the entrées, the Java & Mustard-Crusted Pork Tenderloin is quickly becoming the house specialty. Whalen marinates the pork in a mixture of ground coffee beans, Dijon mustard, honey, and mustard oil for a full 24 hours before roasting it on the grill. Subtle and vaguely smoky, the crust adds an amazing depth of flavor, as well as ensuring that the meat is practically fork-tender. Beneath the thick pork slices, Whalen tucks a layer of sautéed spinach leaves and a cloud of sweet-potato mousse, studded with toasted macadamia nuts and flavored with cinnamon, honey, and heavy cream. And finally, he adds an intense but sparingly applied balsamic demi-glace, nearly as thick and black as molasses, bringing all the components together in an almost unbearable surfeit of taste.

For those who wonder about the bistro's name, Fahrenheit is a reference to cooking temperatures. The theme extends to the menu, where the pasta section, for example, is headlined "212 degrees" (the temperature at which water boils), and the pizza section is titled "600 degrees" (the temperature of the pizza oven). The annotated wine list carries on the tradition, grouping the wines by their ideal serving temperatures: white wines at 55 degrees, red wines at 65 degrees, and bubblies at 45 degrees. While the cellar is heavy on reasonably priced domestics (including a Harpersfield Riesling from Geneva, Ohio), we were excited to find a 2000 Sauvignon Blanc from Mulderbosch Vineyards ($29), one of South Africa's most notable producers. Concentrated and powerful, with a clean, crisp finish, the wine went as well with roasted grouper in a light lobster-vermouth reduction as it did with portobello-and-goat-cheese pizza.

For dessert, there is a handful of sweeties, some made in-house and others from out-of-house sources. But here is all you must remember: chocolate-coconut pot de crème. This luxuriously smooth custard, flavored with coconut milk and bittersweet chocolate, fogged with dense whipped cream, and garnished with sliced strawberries, chocolate shavings, and a dainty tuille cookie, is the stuff of dreams as well as a welcome change of pace from the ubiquitous crème brûlée.

As for gripes, they are embarrassingly picayune. First off, the menu font is too fine for mature eyes to decipher in the restaurant's dim light. Second, the wine glasses are clunky affairs and do nothing to enhance the wines. And third, the Tiffany-style lampshades above the raised dining platform are at odds with the rest of the pared-down, deco decor; they niggled at our refined aesthetic sensibilities all evening long. Small potatoes? You betcha, and noted mostly to prove that no place is perfect.

Because at Fahrenheit, it's almost frightening how very close it comes.

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