Pleasure Cruise

Never mind the ominous name -- Titanic will float your boat.

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Titanic Ristorante 15315 Madison Avenue, Lakewood 216-221-5130. Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, till 11 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
The beef tenderloin is pretty as a picture and way - more tasty.
The beef tenderloin is pretty as a picture and way more tasty.
The dining room of Lakewood's Titanic Ristorante shimmered like a Tiffany showcase that Saturday evening, as the sun's final honeyed rays poured through the brocade-draped windows, bounced off the marble floors, ricocheted between scores of colored-glass prisms dangling from the chandeliers, and finally dispersed across imported Italian tabletops the size of twin beds, adorned with tapestry runners, sparkling glassware, and oversized gold chargers.

For a moment, a reverent silence enveloped the space and the handful of diners within it. Then, with a roar typically reserved for airport runways, the calm was ripped asunder by the strains of -- of all things -- The Blue Danube Waltz. Immediately, Titanic's dapper owner, Sako Satko, was on his feet; by the time we understood what had hit us, there he was, waltzing solo 'round the room like a plump, cherubic dance master.

Staffers managed to ramp back the volume to tolerable levels mere moments later. By then, though, the room was echoing with a different kind of music: the laughter and applause of happy diners, as they cheered Satko's extemporaneous performance.

Okay, so that's not the way it usually goes at your better dining salons; then again, Titanic is nothing if not unique. From the eight crystal-encrusted chandeliers hanging from the acoustic-tile ceiling to its sleek underground lounge, tucked into the former basement, this is a restaurant as singular as its namesake ship.

Speaking of which, Satko sighs, by this point practically everyone in town has asked him why he named his restaurant after one of history's most prominent maritime disasters. It was an accident, the Albanian native maintains, brought on by a communication glitch between himself and his lawyer: "I meant to name the restaurant 'Tirana,' after my country's capital city," he says with a resigned shrug.

Still, it's more illuminating to think of the odd moniker as part of the restaurant's quirky charm -- of which there is plenty -- than as a potential jinx. After all, the place has already survived the voyage from the Warehouse District, where it was briefly docked, to a new slip inside the former Martini's on the Avenue; and with Executive Chef Brian Davis heading up the galley, a visit here is far more evocative of a pleasure cruise than a berth aboard the doomed ocean liner.

A graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Davis has put together interesting and imaginative lunch and dinner menus filled with contemporary, Italian-leaning flavors. At midday, for example, options include parmesan-crusted calamari, a half-pound Kobe beef burger, and a crab-cake sandwich with caper aïoli. At dinner, even more luxurious alternatives appear: velvety seared duck breast with a precisely balanced raspberry-Chambord demiglace, say, or al dente linguine tossed with thinly pounded veal, prosciutto, and a tongue-tingling sauce of olives, capers, and garlic, as well as succulent beef tenderloin medallions draped in the dark, smoky heat of a chipotle-and-bourbon sauce.

Serving sizes are generous, ingredients generally seem fresh and carefully handled, and while the menu is à la carte, prices are moderate, with most dinner entrées capped at $20 or less. During our visits, at least, those entrées included fresh, tender-crisp asparagus or green beans and mounds of sublimely buttery, garlic- and rosemary-tweaked mashed redskins.

One of the kitchen's other strong suits is its crisp, well-appointed salads, including the pleasantly astringent Greek, made with baby spinach, Kalamata olives, and feta; the nontraditional Caesar, assembled from torn romaine, applewood-smoked bacon, and garlic-kissed croutons; and our fave, the baked-goat-cheese combo, featuring a crunchy toss of mixed greens garnished with thinly sliced pear, toasted almond slices, and two ample, herb-piqued disks of creamy, crumb-coated baked chèvre. Enjoyed with wedges of rustic focaccia-like bread slathered with Davis' lush honey-rosemary butter, any one of these bad boys could stand alone as a refreshing, satisfying summer meal, best enjoyed on the outdoor patio.

On the other hand, next time we'll sail on by the starter of coconut-crusted scallops. The concept -- a trio of chubby sea scallops enrobed in a sweet coconut breading, balanced by a bright citrus reduction -- seemed so compelling, we tried the dish on two separate occasions; each time, though, we were disappointed in the soggy crust, which sloughed off the scallops in sheets.

Then there was that watery filet of frozen salmon, an apparent anomaly about which the less said, the better; and the rosy, rare rack of lamb, each petite chop trimmed into a perfect little lollipop of tender meat that, while perfectly adorable, seemed virtually flavorless -- and if the promised drizzle of minty pesto had indeed been applied, it was totally indiscernible.

Other minor snags? The kitchen was out of beef satay on one night and the sunflower-seed-crusted chicken on the next. And wine aficionados, be aware: While the restaurant has a full bar, the Italian-heavy wine list is relatively brief, composed of about two dozen bottles, with only five reds and seven whites available by the glass.

On the other hand, we'll willingly accept the eager but unpolished service and the elegant but oddly employed table settings as part of Titanic's quirky charm. Sure, those giant golden service plates took some getting used to -- especially since they remained on the table throughout the entire meal, as opposed to being correctly removed after the salad course. Serving red wine in red stemware may not have been proper either, but at least the glasses looked pretty. And while red cloth napkins were certainly apropos, wrapping them around the flatware, cafeteria-style, seemed less so. Still, service was prompt and welcoming, enough refills of water and lemony iced tea arrived to float anybody's boat, and staffers seemed sincerely delighted to see us barging through our meals.

While the dessert offerings are limited to ethereal zabaglione (a foamy custard of egg whites, sugar, and Madeira, topped with berries and served in a tall martini glass) or an unusual but ever-so-right berry-topped tiramisu, both cloudlike confections will almost surely enchant a sweet tooth. Pair either of them up with a massive mug of ultra-creamy cappuccino, and let the waves of indulgence wash away your cares.

So we swear, we're through cracking wise about the restaurant's odd choice of names. While not every diner will appreciate Titanic's eccentricities -- including those Viennese waltzes playing in the background -- most visitors will enjoy its authentic style and generally fine food. Go ahead, then, and pull up one of those oversized chairs to a decked-out table, and settle back to enjoy the ride. Who knows? A little wine, a little food, and your evening might turn out to be a night to remember -- and we mean that in the nicest possible way.

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