Reaching for the High Notes

The Restaurant at Blossom Music Center is just a little off-key.

Warm breezes blow across the rolling hills of Blossom Music Center, one of the region's undisputed cultural gems. In a few hours, members of the celebrated Cleveland Orchestra will take the stage and perform an evening of masterful works by Beethoven — a musical menu designed to whet the appetite of any classical music fan and a fitting opening for the orchestra's 1999 summer concert season.

But meantime, in a pastoral setting where the aural and visual senses are to be satiated with an abundance of beauty, gustatory desires must not be overlooked. After all, so much tastefulness works up an appetite. Enter the ubiquitous Blossom picnic basket, lugged onto the grounds by men in polo shirts and linen shorts, while their tidy sun-dressed wives gingerly clutch a sweaty bottle of Chardonnay. Inside the basket? Oh, perhaps a loaf of ciabatta bread, some grapes, and a round of cheese. Maybe a pasta salad or slices of chilled filet. Among the less-ambitious sorts, it is a known fact that you may even find a bucket of KFC, hidden beneath a pile of colorful gingham napkins and smuggled into this bastion of culture to be furtively nibbled at a table on the outer edge of the picnic pavilion.

How much easier, then — how festive! how elegant! — to simply waltz in, free of thermoses, quilts, or picnic hampers, and take a seat at the airy Blossom Restaurant. No shopping, no cooking, no packing, no carrying . . . just several courses of freshly prepared, tasty food, brought directly to your table by conscientious servers, with the mess whisked away at meal's end.

That, at least, is the dream. In reality, dining at the Blossom Restaurant has always been a mixed bouquet of roses and thorns. Now that the 227-seat dining room is under new management — Cleveland's Creative Concepts in Catering took over this year from Sammy's — some of those prickly issues remain in evidence.

Among the roses, Creative Concepts' owners Bill Kvoriak and Nancy Yetman deserve praise for their small but diverse menu, which is modified weekly. Appetizer offerings during opening weekend were especially interesting, including items that seldom show up on area menus, like a gorgeous plate of country pâté with all the fixin's. Similarly, there wasn't a tiramisu or cheesecake to be found among the dessert selections, which included several fresh berry creations and a very continental Brie en Croûte: baked ripe cheese in a puff pastry with fresh fruit, spiced pecans, and English wafer crackers.

General Manager Rich Zepp also gets kudos for putting together a competent staff of servers, who hit the ground running on opening night, providing personal and attentive service under what had to be difficult conditions.

And the thorns? As always, the devil is in the details — like the razor-sharp fragments of shell in the otherwise luscious lobster ravioli, and dessert strawberries that were pale, hard, and sour.

Despite the food flaws, the restaurant itself is a beauty. Surrounded by landscaped gardens of blooming flowers and backed by the hardwood forests of the Cuyahoga Valley, the space seems to buzz with the very essence of summer. Three dining levels, including a shady open-air patio, hold widely spaced tables that are dressed in pale green cloths and vibrant purple napkins; purple-and-green-silk irises in cobalt vases sit on every tabletop. Slow-moving paddle fans keep a constant breeze stirring on even the hottest evenings, and amber spotlights imitate the long rays of the setting sun while shining a golden glow onto the weathered pine ceiling. If your timing is right, background music may be provided by the orchestra, giving a pre-concert serenade; otherwise, bird songs create a natural soundtrack for the meal.

Our opening-night appetizer selections included the aforementioned pâté platter: a generous serving of two types of cold, seasoned ground meat. One, a coarse, dense, and garlicky combination of pork and herbs, had been cunningly sliced in the shape of a flower and topped with half a sugar-sweet grape tomato; the other, a smooth, mousse-like blend of duck's liver and cream, was cut in a wedge. The tasty forcemeat was accompanied by two hefty wedges of aged Italian cheese, a sliced cornichon pickle, and a half-dozen Carr's water wafers, all on a bed of tender baby greens. A dainty puff-pastry cup holding an assertive coarse-grained mustard was charming, although the pastry was quite soggy by the time it reached us, perhaps as a result of being filled far in advance.

Although the crackers were fresh and crisp, I prefer my pâté spread on a sturdy French baguette, and the dense, chewy, thick-crusted rolls in our breadbasket made a surprisingly good alternative. Oddly, considering the otherwise elegant place settings, butter was served in those dowdy little single-serving plastic packs.

Tuscany Artichokes were also an unusual and successful starter. Six tiny "baskets" of tender artichoke leaves were stuffed with a mild but juicy tomato-and-corn salsa and were arranged around one larger cored artichoke heart holding the same filling. The artichoke cups sat on a thick, sweet-and-tangy tomato relish that added just the right amount of zip. But the crowning touch was the pipings of thick ch&eagrave;vre mousseline, a buttery combination of whipping cream and goat cheese, that ringed the plate like little sunbursts, adding an earthy tang and seductively rich texture to the dish.

(Our friendly waiter steered us away from the soup of the day, a gazpacho that, he confided, was "just average.")

An entrée of three jumbo lobster ravioli was more problematic. The pasta shells were delectable — as thin as tissue, but tender, firm, and delicately flavored with saffron. The moist lobster filling was well-seasoned, but was unfortunately littered with shards of dangerously sharp lobster shell that greatly dimmed our dining pleasure. The dumplings were topped with a thick porcini-mushroom cream sauce that had a wonderful aroma, but proved to be quite salty. On the side came a pleasant if commonplace combo of roasted summer squash, zucchini, eggplant, and carrots.

Tournedos of Beef, while generally wonderful, also had a problem with flavor balance, this time the result of the too-sugary caramelized onions that underpinned the three thick, tender portions of filet and completely overwhelmed their savory flavor. A robust reduction sauce studded with a few big chunks of mouth-filling portobello mushroom was much better balanced, and it made a tasty topping for the creamy mashed Red Bliss potatoes that, along with the roasted summer vegetables, accompanied the dish.

The restaurant has a full bar and a small, tersely written wine list (the description for Burgess Cellars Chardonnay is the remarkably uninformative "A perfect Chardonnay for summer sipping") filled with pricey selections. Even an inexpensive Sutter Home Chardonnay, which retails for around $6 a bottle, goes for a hefty $5.50 a glass. Nevertheless, diners should be able to find something, by the glass or by the bottle, that will suitably lubricate the palate. We especially liked our icy-cold glass of sweet and intensely fruity St. Supery Moscato ($6), an excellent, green-grapey dessert wine well-suited to a hot summer's evening.

We passed up the tempting baked Brie dessert, in consideration of our full tummies, and opted for lighter, berry-based pleasures. The Cr&eagrave;me Crunch, a small portion of delicate crumb cake filled with a thick, vanilla-scented custard and moistened with Grand Marnier, reminded us of savarin; sadly, the generous serving of fresh strawberries on the side was tasteless, colorless, and totally lacking in character.

The Berry Delight was better, with an outstanding, tender but firm shortbread crust filled with vanilla custard and topped with wild blueberries, a few tasty raspberries, and a not-too-sweet wild berry coulis. We finished off the meal with a cup of excellent iced coffee, made for us at our request by our accommodating waiter; again, we were surprised that the cream arrived, not in a pitcher, but in little plastic tubs.

The bottom line on the meal for two, with three glasses of wine, tax, and tip, was more than $120. While it didn't exactly have us singing the blues, our experience left me feeling that the Blossom Restaurant is still straining to reach the high notes, with flavors and prices just a little out of tune.

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

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