On a glorious summer evening it can seem like everybody is bound for the patio at Luxe. Carved out of an unforgiving parking lot, the cloistered hideaway has blossomed into a lush garden oasis utterly cut off from the world at large. An alfresco bar spins out effervescent cocktails like the Logi ($8), a tequila-based potion buttressed by alternating hits of blackberry, lime and mint. Man's best friends are equally refreshed thanks to shiny stainless water bowls. Oversize umbrellas fend off the glaring rays, attractive outdoor furniture provides a comfy perch, and a small ensemble fills the evening air with the soothing sounds of live jazz.
Before there was Toast, Brewnuts, Spice, Astoria, XYZ Tavern and sweet, Sweet Moses there was Luxe Kitchen, an early speculator in the then up-and-coming neighborhood of Detroit Shoreway. When it opened a little over a decade ago, the oh-so-haute bistro joined area mainstays like Rincon Criollo, Happy Dog, Latitude 41 and Gypsy Beans, which perhaps was the first piece on the chessboard of this so-called urban renaissance. Since opening day there have been ups and downs, chefs shifts and menu re-dos – even ownership tweaks – but throughout it all, the restaurant has managed to remain an anchor in this dynamic arts-fueled district.
There was much fanfare when Marlin Kaplan, one of Cleveland's first celebrity chefs, opened Luxe with his then-wife Melissa Cole. Kaplan's no longer around, but that hasn't hampered the business one iota thanks, in no small part, to Cole and a crack staff that seems more immutable than any in town. Familiar faces have become unicorns among restaurant employees these days, but that's not the case here where some harken back to opening day. Servers rattle off specials without the need for a cheat sheet, possess actual wine knowledge and are quick with a recommendation, and are expert at being present when needed and invisible when not.
The broad Italian-Mediterranean menu somehow manages to "have something for everybody" while avoiding the monotonous clichés that ostensibly populate most present-day menus. In place of tragically hip dishes that confound more than satisfy, the fare here is, as Cole herself describes it, "just simple, good, solid food and technique." A plethora of options span the spectrum in terms of portion size, personal preference and price. Small, medium, large, shareable, vegan, vegetarian, meaty, seafood-based, carb-heavy, gluten-free... and damn near everything is priced below $20.
Thrilling starters include a charred octopus ($15) in a roasted tomato sauce, presented in a hot skillet that also contains creamy textured gigante beans. Different takes on crispy croquettes feature a vegetarian version ($8) with a slightly sweet, somewhat spicy carrot filling and a flavorful crab-salmon blend ($13.50) garnished with pickled carrots. We hopped on a seasonal special on offer one night, cheese-filled, delicately battered and fried squash blossoms ($16). Baked gnocchi ($10) registered as one of the rare clunkers among the starters, marred by gummy pasta.
Luxe's kale Caesar salad ($10) has all the right components in proper proportion, while the wild greens ($13) arrived bright, fresh, ripe and gilded with a dollop of milky burrata. Pizzas have been an appealing staple at Luxe since the start and they remain so today, with various arrangements built atop airy, buttery crusts.
Pasta dishes range from an earthy linguini ($17) with sautéed wild mushrooms, toasted pine nuts and whipped ricotta in a garlic-scented olive oil to an imposing gnocchi ($21) dish that bathes nicely caramelized pasta blobs in a mushroom-studded cream sauce. It is capped off with three large flanks of tender braised beef short ribs. I could barely make a dent in an over-the-top platter of crispy fried chicken thighs ($19), all laid to rest atop a mountain of smoked gouda mac and cheese. The dish continued to feed me for days thereafter.
Brunch at Luxe is in equally high demand, when the kitchen rolls out egg Bennies, short rib hashes, spicy shakshukas, cheesy omelets, fluffy pancakes, eggy french toasts and airy beignets – all washed down with bloodies, bellinis and mimosas.
At a time when "restaurant saturation" seems to be the hot topic of the day, as evidenced by the above-mentioned restaurants plus Boiler 65, Blue Habanero, Il Rhione, Flight and Ninja City, the sum of which make up the dozen or so establishments that have opened up in the wake of Luxe, it's refreshing to see a level of customer support that is as rare today as are longtime employees. What keeps people coming back, in addition to the consistent food, service and value, is an energy and atmosphere that feels natural, effortless and genuine.