As Gateway's newest restaurant, the Caribbean-themed cantina certainly has its work cut out for it, if it hopes to escape the fate of its predecessors. In an area where restaurants, both good and bad, have been dropping like clay pigeons (mostly from putting too many of their eggs in the baskets of Cleveland sports fans), partners George Schindler, Kay Ameen, Dave Hale, Jim Gillison, and Doug Petkovic obviously are taking a calculated risk with this venture. By now it should be clear that Gateway restaurants won't make it on the strength of beer sales alone. Good food, reliable service, and an enticing atmosphere are absolutely essential if these places plan to keep their chairs filled year-round. Happily, the Thirsty Parrot's owners are the same people responsible for the nearby, highly successful Blue Point Grille, as well as several other area restaurants. So it would seem that, if anyone has the savvy to make a go of a Gateway restaurant, it's these folks.
The Thirsty Parrot has been open only since late June, but most of the basics are already aloft. The space in the rear of the Caxton Building has been thoroughly redecorated in lush shades of melon, lime, lemon, and peach, with a turquoise ceiling, colorful parrot-and-palm-patterned carpet, and plenty of shiny woodwork. Sturdy, cheerful Fiesta Ware and coordinating cloth napkins top the bare laminate tables. Friendly servers are nattily attired in jungle-print shirts and khaki trousers or shorts. A tile-topped bar runs parallel to a wall of large windows and overlooks the deck (situated in the middle of a parking lot, but which can lay claim to a pretty interesting view into the Jake). A few steps up take diners behind the bar to a line of comfortable booths and provide a peek into Executive Chef Cesar Echeverria's semi-open kitchen. A few more steps lead to a third level, where more booths and some tables back up against a wall-sized mural of a balmy beach; strings of white lights overhead and a constant soundtrack of island music reinforce the notion that you're dining on a shaded deck with a view of the ocean.
The whole Margaritaville riff gains momentum from the Parrot's large selection of fruity mixed drinks, all tarted up with plastic palms, surfboards, and little paper umbrellas. A hot-pink blend of tequila, cactus fruit puree, and cactus juice schnapps -- the Horny Cactus -- was deliciously sweet and entirely too easy on the taste buds. For those who like a more manly drink, the bracing Mojito Cubana -- a long, cool glass of rum, seltzer, and imported guarapo (sugarcane juice) -- should make a suitably macho alternative. The bar also stocks plenty of premium tequilas and rums, all the basic Mexican beers, and a small but refined assortment of wines.
Of course, a true equatorial paradise requires some mighty fine food, and here the Thirsty Parrot often soars -- but occasionally nosedives. Echeverria, a native of El Salvador who most recently served as sous chef at the Blue Point Grille under the tutelage of chef Jim Gillison, does a generally commendable job of balancing spices so that while dishes are often piquant, they are also well-rounded and full of taste. We spotted a premier example of that in a hearty dish of Cuban meatloaf made with certified Black Angus beef and chorizo sausage, stacked up on some creamy pink, goat-cheese-and-roasted-red-pepper-enhanced mashed potatoes, and drizzled with a zesty but not overpowering warm chipotle-and-tomato sauce.
The kitchen never missed a beat with three roasted chicken dishes, either. Cumin-scented soup, with a thick tomato base supporting plenty of chunks of tender chicken, was moderately peppery, but got a soothing counterpoint from a topping of sour cream and delicious house-made guacamole. A roasted chicken quesadilla, with melted Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, sweet peppers, and caramelized onions, was mildly spiced but bursting with flavor; a bit of guacamole and a portion of buttery "reggae" rice raised the palate payoff even higher. Roasted chicken soft tacos, from Echeverria's family recipe box, were similarly decked out and equally delicious.
But an appetizer of Langostino Fundido -- a vaguely sweet, melted cheese dip with lots of bits of tender prawns -- was surprisingly bland and pedestrian. On the other hand, the otherwise flavorful Island Cowboy -- two meltingly tender beef filets wrapped in bacon and soused with a bit of sweet-hot adobo sauce -- was nearly ruined by a garnish of incendiary habanero pepper that infused everything it touched with a blinding heat.
Among the à la carte items, the small house salad of mixed greens, red onion, radish slices, and a few shreds of crisp tortilla in a tart key lime vinaigrette was pleasant and refreshing. But the Parrot Salad -- a mix of mango, feta cheese, watercress, radicchio, and other sharply flavored greens -- was bitter, and was littered with watercress stems that, though not exactly tough, weren't especially appetizing. While the feta was in ample supply, the kitchen was entirely too stingy with the mango and the orange vinaigrette: More of either probably would have helped balance the bitter greens and resulted in a better-tasting dish.
Among the milder items was a batch of coconut shrimp: five luscious shrimp in a crunchy coconut-flecked breading sided with a fruity papaya-and-cilantro relish and a pool of sweet mango-and-coconut sauce. We also made short work of a simple "chips and salsa" platter: frangible red and white tortilla chips, thick purple Peruvian potato chips, and slightly fibrous but sweet yucca chips, with bowls of that creamy guacamole, an excellent housemade mild red salsa, and a smooth, moderately peppery green tomatillo salsa. The Little Havana barbecued pork sandwich was also simple but tasty.
An entrée of Peruvian-Style Grouper, a thick but delicate filet of perfectly pan-seared black grouper ringed with a stunning pineapple-and-sage "mojo" sauce, was just a little off the mark. While the ingredients were delicious, the dish was undermined by the pile of gray and gummy mashers, made from purple Peruvian potatoes. (White potatoes, though not nearly so trendy, probably would have looked and tasted better.)
Dessert selections included a scrumptious brownie-like flourless chocolate torte, a small slice of too-tart Key Lime Pie, and an almost-wonderful Pineapple Foster: a piña colada-like combination of two big scoops of rich coconut ice cream, a puff of dense whipped cream, and slices of juicy grilled pineapple, napped with a buttery rum sauce. The flaw? No one had bothered to remove the fibrous core from the pineapple slices, so eating them became a chore somewhere between inconvenient and impossible.
Servers seemed well-intentioned, if not exactly obsessed with detail. During a dinner visit, we had to holler for refills of water and iced tea (although our waiter had been quick enough to ask if we wanted another umbrella drink!); soiled plates lingered too long; and we found ourselves stirring our lukewarm coffee with forks, the only clean flatware we could lay our hands on.
Still, poor snow-belt dwellers that we are, we are willing to overlook some short-term shortcomings in exchange for the colorful island theme and the kitchen's better endeavors. With a little more fine tuning, the Thirsty Parrot may well become a harbinger of good eating in the Gateway area.