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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Imports and Ex-Pats: Recent Little Italy Addition Home Bistro Hits All the Right Notes

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2020 at 9:08 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DOUG TRATTNER
  • Photo by Doug Trattner

We often hear of restaurants being described as “neighborhood spots,” but what exactly does that mean?

Well, there’s the location, for starters, which requires that the restaurant be situated in an actual neighborhood where people live as opposed to, say, a lifestyle center where people shop. In contrast to a destination or special-occasion restaurant, our “local” keeps prices slim enough so that we can visit as often as we want without breaking the bank. As an added incentive, the menu crafted by the chef (typically the owner) is a living, breathing document that always manages to have something new and fun to try, while preserving those select few classics that are chiseled in stone.

For 15 years, Home Bistro in Chicago was such a place. The small, intimate and convivial eatery lasted as long as it did thanks to unwavering support from the residents of its close-knit, diverse Boystown community. What drew so many for so long was the intangible hospitality factor, perhaps the most defining feature of a neighborhood restaurant.

A little more than a year ago, owners Victor Morenz and Emily Gilbert shuttered that successful bistro, relocated to Cleveland and began the rebuilding process. To them, there was no better neighborhood to forge a new beginning than Little Italy, which is where they (re)opened Home Bistro. Apart from the unfortunate timing, all the other pieces seem to be in place to begin sowing roots for a long and prosperous second act.

After nearly a year of family-generated sweat equity, Home welcomed its first guests in late August. The transformation of the space, formerly Gusto, is nothing short of dramatic, with warm woods, crisp tin ceilings, period-appropriate light fixtures and an all-new bar and lounge. The most significant improvement came thanks to a facade renovation project that unified the double storefront while replacing brick with expansive panes of glass. At twice the size of the Chi-Town original (plus a comfortable covered rear patio), Home has space enough for distanced dining.

Attempting to label chef Morenz’s creative scratch cooking is a fool’s errand; his dishes careen from Basque-inspired tapas to Korean-spiced bulgogi. But that’s not to say that there’s no common denominator; across this broad spectrum of seemingly disparate dishes is a throughline of easy-going elegance. I remarked to my wife that the food looks and feels like something a chef might make at home given a well-stocked fridge and pantry.

The bulgogi and spaetzle ($24) is such a dish. At first glance, it sounds as harmonious as a middle school symphony, but each element is there for a reason. The thin-sliced beef is tossed with tender little dumplings, glazing them in that sweet and savory bulgogi sauce. Bright pops of tangy-spicy kimchi punch up every other bite, while a sunny, runny fried egg enriches it all.

You won’t find a better trout preparation than the one served here. Twin filets of rainbow trout ($25) arrive with golden-brown, cracker-crisp skin protecting sweet, supple flesh. Down below, horseradish crème fraiche and kicky red cabbage provide the counterpoint. The chef’s version of a clambake-on-a-plate marries bratwurst, sweet potato, corn and sauerkraut, while the ricotta gnocchi stars duck meatballs and a sage-scented béchamel sauce. Given Morenz’s penchant for menu changes, there’s no guarantee that any of these dishes will linger too long.

Appetizers tend to be more mainstream, with crowd pleasers like bacon-wrapped dates, blistered shishito peppers and fried Brussels sprouts. The sprouts ($12) are more compelling than most thanks to a perfect crisp-tender texture and sweet and spicy glaze. We felt momentarily transported to Spain while snacking on a plate of pintxo ($9) between sips of Albariño ($33/bottle). The tapas-like snack consists of slips of bread topped with white anchovy, roasted red pepper, chorizo and manchego.

Hit Home on a Wednesday and build your own three-course meal for just $35. We tacked on an autumnal salad composed of thin pear slices, Belgian endive and shaved red onion tossed in a creamy walnut dressing and garnished with seasoned nuts. For dessert, who can say no to a thick slice of cinnamon bread pudding gilded with ribbons of freshly whipped cream.

The owners have put together a solid little wine list that, like the food, shuns the obvious in favor of interesting and value-focused. Better yet, every bottle on the list is available by the glass. Those pours are joined by a few craft beers, cocktails and digestifs.

More take-out friendly foods seem to be added all the time, with items like a smoked chicken thigh sandwich, double lamb burger and fried oysters and grits geared to hungry neighbors. But nothing screams “neighborhood joint” like a boozy weekend brunch, which Home rolls out each and every Sunday.

Home Bistro
12022 Mayfield Rd., Cleveland

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