When the Cleveland opened in Cleveland Place in Soho last year, it didn't set out to reinvent the wheel. It was an attractive place for attractive downtowners to nibble and drink from an affordable wine list, a neighborhood hangout more than a destination. That core mission remains today, but with greater ambitions. Max Sussman, formerly chef de cuisine of Roberta's, is now in the kitchen, and he's revamped the menu with some artful versions of all the things the Cleveland's core audience loves: Brussels sprouts and fancy burgers, cheffy dips and non-Buffalo chicken wings.
It's fan service, sure, but in a delicious, often unexpected vein. While you can get a Brussels sprouts salad anywhere these days, how many come with snappy pearls of roe? And in a city full of cheffed-up steaks of all kinds, the Cleveland's stands apart, actually worth the price of admission. Add in garden seating and a dining room that's serene from lunch through 8 p.m. and you have the makings of a true neighborhood charmer.
That's not to say the menu's without fault. Those chicken wings, juicy and well-fried as they are, could stand to add a yogurt sauce to accompany their za'atar crust. Sweetbreads paired perfectly with the meaty funk of sujuk, a garlic-laced Turkish sausage, scream for acidity (ask for some lemon on the side). And taut saffron cavatelli deserve more than the mashed lamb paste ragu they receive.
But if you order smart you'll find plenty to love.
I can't stop thinking about that Brussels Sprouts Salad ($12)—how the shredded raw cabbage gets a jolt of oily depth from whole roasted leaves; how a dill and yogurt dressing gets crunch from sunflower seeds and a complementary pop of briny trout roe; how lemony and bright and utterly spring-like it is despite its wintry base. Remember five years ago, when a well made Brussels sprouts dish was exciting enough to be the best bite of a meal? That's the magic happening here.
The Green Salad ($13) plays second fiddle, but that's no complaint. Crisp, buttery gem lettuce has a celery-like bite, and if apples, pecans, and generously grated Pecorino are expected add-ins, they're used to great effect. With a creamy dressing to tie the whole thing together, it's a more filling starter than you'd think.
There's not a gram of dry meat in this flaky filet of Cod ($25) served as a re-imagined take on fish and chips. Instead of battering, the fish is pan-fried with shatter-crisp skin. Chips are replaced by fingers of starchy, deeply crisped yucca, and a tangy sauce that suggests tartar snakes its way around the plate. In place of lemon wedges or malt vinegar is are wheels of charred oroblanco—a grapefruit relative that's high on bitterness and low on acidity—a clever way to cut the richness of the fish and fries.
Also of note is the Bavette Steak ($31), which sets itself apart in a city filled to bursting with luxury beef. Were it served plain, the meat, which isn't dry aged, would be one more boring steak among the masses. But slice it thin, add fistfuls of bright and tangy herb salad, and enough potatoes for substance, and you have a dish that comes alive and sticks with you.
But the most forward-thinking dish at the Cleveland isn't the steak. It's an eggplant.
It's grilled and served whole, served on a plate that's really a platter. Beneath it lies a coarse bulgar salad with sweet chunks of cucumber and plops of whipped feta. On top is a fried grape leaf whose bitter oiliness amplifies the eggplant's own skin. And underneath that skin, the flesh is full of the smoldering flavors of the grill. Is it as perfectly seasoned as the cod and steak? admittedly not, but there's enough going on that it does well regardless.
There's been plenty of talk recently about the future of the American diet, with suggestions of eating bugs and lab-produced animal protein. Sussman proposes an alternative: let's eat more eggplant for dinner. I'm on board.
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