The Secret's Out

The food at Brennan's is much better than pub grub.

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Brennan's Colony 2299 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights 216-371-1010. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m, Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; until midnight Thursday through Saturday. Bar stays open later.
Chefs Richard Wise and Jamie Wynbrandt: These - guys are the real deal. - Walter  Novak
Chefs Richard Wise and Jamie Wynbrandt: These guys are the real deal.

It's tempting to trot out the tired old "hidden gem" adage to describe Brennan's Colony. Who, after all, would expect to discover sophisticated fare such as pan-seared grouper, blue-cheese spaetzel, or crab-crusted salmon lurking behind the facade of a bland-looking pub in Cleveland Heights? And even assuming that a diner isn't stunned to find such offerings in a bar, one could certainly be forgiven for expecting the preparation of such dishes to be less than masterful. The universe is filled, after all, with cocky young chef wannabes who believe that anyone can whip up a tasty Cabernet-mushroom ragout or an aged sherry demi-glace, just by donning a toque.

However, judging from the crowds who pack the joint on a daily basis, the secret of the Colony's food has been thoroughly outed. So let's forget all about the hidden-gem angle, and just proceed with the facts: For food quality and value, Brennan's Colony just might be the best deal in town.

For this, diners can direct their gratitude toward owner Jim Brennan and chefs Jamie Wynbrandt and Richard Wise. The kitchen's dynamic duo may not be household names yet, but when it comes to whipping up smart, flavorful dishes, strongly built yet rife with nuance, these guys are the real deal.

Wynbrandt and Wise's daily dinner specials really rumble, though the chefs aren't averse to dishing up such routine items as onion rings, quarter-pound burgers, and grilled-chicken sandwiches either. But even on the standard pub-grub menu, there are signs that the kitchen can mix it up. For instance, when's the last time you spotted blackened tuna-steak salad on a barroom bill of fare? And while nearly every pub serves sandwiches, how many of them serve nearly two dozen kinds, ranging from a PB&J with french fries to a buttery Reuben, a hot roasted turkey, and a blackened strip-steak version?

When it comes to the daily dinner specials, the chefs get a lot of mileage from a handful of basic ingredients. During our visits, for instance, the holy trinity of asparagus, artichoke hearts, and spinach was almost ubiquitous. But even drawing from a relatively limited play list, Wynbrandt and Wise come up with flavor and texture riffs that seem clever and exciting. Consider how they employed artichoke hearts and grape tomatoes to add a pleasant tartness to a coarsely chopped ragout of butter-drenched spinach and asparagus tips, and how the savory, slightly citric flavors paired perfectly with an opalescent filet of undeniably fresh halibut, resting beneath a shield of shredded and crisply fried potatoes. Or ponder the impressive vegetarian tower, arising from a base of pan-fried polenta, spiked with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato. Here, the spinach and artichoke hearts added lushness and depth to the polenta, and balance to a thick, meaty, roasted portobello-mushroom cap; a drizzle of sunny tomato oil contributed a final fillip of flavor to a dish that was intense enough for even the most demanding carnivorous palate.

Not that we have any beef with the 13-ounce rib-eye steak, as yielding and well-marbled a piece of meat as has been our pleasure to eat. A big scoop of creamy mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, a drizzle of syrup-like aged sherry demi-glace, and a shellacking of chunky mushroom ragout, with a whisper of red wine, and it wasn't just a great tavern steak dinner -- it was a great steak dinner, period.

A thick, juicy, 14-ounce pork chop (sided with asparagus, natch) was both good and plenty. But what really rocked this dish was the accompanying spaetzel-- the little pan-fried dumplings sautéed to a puffy-chewy crunch, then tossed with slowly melting bits of crumbled blue cheese. Addictively light and salty, these buttery tidbits could be sold by the bowlful as an upscale accompaniment to beer.

Soft-shell crabs, at their peak in June and July, showed up on a Saturday-night menu, tempura-battered, flash-fried, and paired with mounds of sticky rice. "Do you think we should try them?" wondered a crab-wary dining companion. After all, properly harvested in the few days when they are between shells, the little fellas are a tender, toothsome treat. But we've picked far too many shell shards out from between our teeth after chomping down on "soft-shell" crabs that were nothing of the sort, so we've learned to be wary. "Oh, go for it," I shrugged. "If it's awful, you can always order a burger." But contingency plans were unneeded. Soft, sweet, and served with a potent tweak of wasabi vinaigrette and a toss of baby greens, the two crustaceans were as delicate as a tempura cloud.

And now chew on this: All these entrées were priced at less than $20, and in most cases the full-meal deal included an ample green salad, topped with shredded mozzarella and thick slices of pugliese bread from the nearby Stone Oven bakery. (The exceptions were dinner items such as barbecued ribs, beer-battered perch, and meatloaf, which came with their own side dishes.) Along with nearly a dozen beers on draft, this undoubtedly explains the collection of single guys -- of all ages and occupations -- strung out around the big, U-shaped bar: With food this good and prices so reasonable, what unattached man could be expected to cook?

Of course, bachelors aren't the only members of the Colony club. There are college students from nearby John Carroll, moviegoers fueling up before or after shows at the Cedar Lee, silver-haired couples looking to get the most bang from their dining-out buck, and lots of young families, glad to have found a place where the kids can eat hot dogs and chicken tenders, while Mommy and Daddy feast on coriander-crusted salmon, in a small, comfortable, nonsmoking dining room, stocked with plenty of paper napkins. In fact, the spot is so popular with young families that, during a Saturday-evening visit, the squeals and shrieks of a nearby pack of tykes (left at a table to fend for themselves while their parents "relaxed" at the bar) almost made us think we'd been unwittingly teleported to Chuck E. Cheese's. Fortunately, the noise was nothing another pint of freshly drawn Dos Equis couldn't help us filter out.

According to the locals, the Colony's corner at Lee and Silsby roads has supported an eatery for decades. Jim Brennan took over in 1992, and although he has expanded the place and keeps it clean and well maintained, he's done thankfully little to interfere with its authentic patina of age and hard use. As a result, the softly lit space is comfortable, casual, and resiliently low-key, with minimal froufrou and a friendly staff of efficient, youthful servers and bartenders.

As far as we can tell, the only thing this tavern doesn't have yet is a killer dessert menu. Oh sure, there are four tempting-sounding sweeties on the daily dinner menu, but be warned: We tried 75 percent of them without finding a winner. A commercially supplied cappuccino-and-chocolate mousse "teardrop" was lovely to look at, but tasted bland as tiramisu's shadow. Homemade apple pie had a perky cinnamon flavor, but needed at least another 20 minutes of oven time to thoroughly cook the filling. And we loved the dark, gooey double-fudge icing on a wedge of chocolate cake, but the cake itself was dry.

So if anyone asks us what we think of Brennan's Colony, maybe that's all we'll tell them: The desserts need work. After all, if we rave about the food, that's just going to draw bigger crowds. And while we know this cool kitty is permanently out of the bag, we'd like to pretend the Colony is our own little secret for just a while longer.

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