At 550 seats, Nighttown very likely is Cleveland's largest restaurant. At any given time, there can be 150 people enjoying a live show in the music room, a party for 20 in a private dining room, a dozen couples canoodling in the slender dining room and another couple hundred sprinkled throughout the various side and back patios. It's a massive, slow-moving ship that does not abide change.
Yet that's precisely what chef Nathan Sansone is attempting to do from within, though he admits it isn't always easy.
Impressed by his talent and initiative in the kitchen, owner Brendan Ring promoted Sansone to executive chef last summer. "I hired him last year as a sous chef, but when I saw what I had on my hands I got rid of my old chef and promoted him," Ring explains.
By buying whole fish and larger cuts of meat and breaking them down himself, Sansone was able to simultaneously improve the quality of his ingredients while lowering his food costs, exactly the kind of thing that earns the respect of the boss. "I brought a lot of new ideas to the table," Sansone says.
Fresh from Boulder, Colo., the 33-year-old chef was gung-ho to transform Nighttown into a progressive, farm-to-table restaurant, albeit on a massive scale. But that turned out to be more challenging than he expected. Pushback from the guests meant pushback from the owner, and before you knew it, that fusty old trout amandine with baked potato wasn't going anywhere.
"I have to confess, the first two months I was here I still had my resume out there," he says. "I wasn't sure it was the right place for me."
Instead, he focused on the things he could do to improve the restaurant. He reorganized the kitchen, he updated the banquet operations and began to add local product. "I know it sounds cliche, but you can put me in any situation and I'll try and make the most of it," he says. "There are some things I'm not allowed to touch. It took me a while to come to terms with that."
Still, small victories began to take place. Prime rib went from being an everyday item to weekends-only. Dishes like the roast chicken are now made with local Tea Hills poultry. New seasonal specials began working their way into the mix: creamy lobster pot pie in winter, Alaskan halibut with pea risotto and pea tendrils in spring, beachy lobster rolls in summer. He added a cheese plate.
Predictably, the new-fangled items outshine the grandfathered-in ones. The steamed whole artichoke ($8) tastes bland and lifeless. The famed Dublin Lawyer ($24) is heavy on mushrooms and light on lobster. Still, it is appropriately creamy, decadent and pleasantly spiced.
Fresh, local chicken makes all the difference in the world in Nighttown's roast chicken ($19), a straightforward but solid preparation. Fresh market fish, bright salsa, and a creamy avocado aioli all combine to great effect in a plate of fish tacos ($15), another recent addition. While over-dressed for my taste, the lobster roll ($18) literally overflows its toasted split-top bun with sweet and briny lobster meat.
Sansone devotes a good deal of his creative attention to nightly specials, an area where he's given an abundance of autonomy. That translates into dishes like braised Berkshire pork shank with local mushrooms ($19), or a meaty bone-in Ohio pork chop with a smoky glaze and crisp-cooked baby carrots ($19).
Service in the Music Room during a show is predictably slow, bordering at times on chaotic. It's less an issue of preparing the food for 150 people at a go, says Sansone, than it is getting the servers to do a better job managing their stations. That was apparent to us during a recent show, when our server seemed outnumbered by blood-thirsty diners.
That aside, Nighttown is figuring out ways to balance change and improvement with longstanding client expectations, which is always a delicate feat.
"It's a tough battle, I can tell you that," says Ring. "But the reality of the situation is the world is changing, food is changing. I can sit here and pat myself on the back for the next 10 years and turn around one day and say, 'What happened?' Or I can try and change before I need to."