Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Red Fish, Blue Fish, Part II

I thought long and hard about where I wanted to use the $25 American Express gift card that was part of the Bonefish Grill Challenge Kit I received and talked about in the first part of this story. The woman who had initially contacted me, Anna, had suggested that many people go to Red Lobster. Considering that I rarely cover national chain restaurants, covering two of them in a row seemed an unwise path for me to follow. If MS&L was willing to send me a gift card, I wanted to showcase something local in Cleveland that was comparable.

I dug around restaurant websites and asked a few friends who they might recommend for a mid-priced local Cleveland restaurant that specializes in (or at least does well) seafood. Ironically, no one could really come up with a good answer because most of the suggestions were at too high of a price point. But, through a bit of luck, I happened upon my answer. I am a member of the Cleveland Restaurant MeetUp group and they had an upcoming dinner scheduled at Restaurant Dante (warning: no music, but semi-gratuitous use of Flash). Having never been, I was eager to check out Chef Dante Boccuzzi's always interesting menu. While the menu wasn't quite as fish centric as Bonefish Grill's had been, it did have a nice selection of seafood and more importantly, it was comparable in price to what I had eaten at Bonefish Grill.

Now before I get any comments on the subject, the core of both meals was very similar. Had I stuck with an appetizer and an entree at Dante, my check would've only been several dollars higher than Bonefish Grill. That being said, at tonight's dinner I was paying for myself and a guest and as there was wine, multiple appetizers, coffee, and dessert as well, clearly, the check at the end of the meal was much more expensive than what I had received at Bonefish Grill.

The original plan was to meet my dining companion, the lovely Miss Penny, in Dante's bar area for a pre-dinner cocktail. Sadly, when I showed at 6:20 PM or so to grab us two seats, the entire bar was already filled. Instead, I waited for her outside and when she walked up, I suggested we walk around the corner and grab a drink at the 806 Martini & Wine Bar. Located at 806 Literary Road, Cleveland, OH 44113, they are just a few short steps from Lolita, Lago, and Dante.

I also knew from having been there in the past that they had some Happy Hour specials. Martinis were listed for only $3, but sadly when I inquired about them, apparently you couldn't get a regular vodka martini for $3, just the fruity ones (such as a Cosmo). The Stolichnaya martini, up, with cheese stuffed olives was a bit more at $9:

For some reason our server kept pushing the "dirty" martini, but I insisted several times that I wasn't interested in a sullied beverage. The resulting cocktail was actually pretty good and the cheese stuffed green olives added a nice salty balance to the vodka. As the time of our group reservation approached, we paid the check and returned to the entrance of Dante.

Valet parking was available, but if you are willing to walk five minutes, there was plenty of curbside parking on the street. After walking into the entrance and telling the hostess of our party affiliation, she directed us around the corner to two long tables where most of the rest of the group were already sitting. After taking our drink order, I got about the business of photographing the menu:

We waited for a bit while the few remaining stragglers trickled in. It gave Penny and I the chance to take in some of the interior decor. Previously a bank, the interior had been transformed only insomuch as the contents had changed. The walls and ceilings had been repainted, yes, but no treatment of any kind had been applied to help with the steadily building noise level. It became apparent soon enough that the only way to hear someone or even better yet, have a conversation, was to sit directly next to them. The restaurant and bar area were both full tonight (which was great for a Thursday evening), but I would suggest Dante invest in some type of acoustical wall and/or ceiling treatment to help with the noise.

After taking our orders, the waiter started the bread service. Here was a shot of our bread:

Instead of butter, small ramekins of white bean and garbanzo bean "hummos" drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Hungarian paprika were provided to spread on the bread:

The bread was the only item not made in-house. It actually came from the bakery Stone Oven on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights. While Penny selected a multi-grain slice, I ended up with an olive bread. I don't know that I've ever had bread from that bakery before, but I have to tell you, both pieces were absolutely delicious, even without anything to top them. I definitely need to look them up.

Here were shots of my olive bread, plain and topped with a shmear of the hummos:

The "hummos" was correct texturally, but it seemed to be missing the hallmark calling cards of a great hummos: tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. As a spread, it worked well because it didn't mask the flavor of the bread. But calling it hummos? That might be taking too much liberty with the word. All of us sitting at my end of the table agreed that we would ever called it that.

One of the niceties of Dante's menu is that many of the menu items are available in three sizes: Taste, Appetizer, and Entrée. This meant that Penny and I could try a few "tastes" and then still have room for our main courses. Penny left the ordering up to me, so I decided to go with a trio of tastes and ordered what I thought would be two heavier and one lighter taste.

Three items were listed under the risotto section. I decided to choose the Bhutanese Red Rice risotto with asparagus and tarragon:

What many people don't realize is that the word "risotto" describes a style of cooking and not actually a rice dish. I've made a barley risotto in the past and the method is more important than the starch. That being said, while the red rice was completely cooked, to me it was more of a pilaf style dish than a risotto. There was no creaminess to the rice and the grains were completely separate. The flavor was quite light and this would've been a marvelous accompaniment to a nice piece of broiled fish or pan-seared chicken. The tarragon flavor blended so well with the tender fresh green asparagus that Penny had a hard time picking up on it. The rice dish also lacked a bit of the boldness in flavors that our other dishes seemed to serve up in abundance.

The second taste for the evening was a cup of the Saffron Fish Fume:

Loaded with shrimp balls, orzo and fennel, the soup was ... interesting. The clear broth had an intense, but not overpowering fish flavor to it. While my initial taste of the broth made me at first think the fume was oversalted, as I let the liquid wash over my tongue, I realized that there was a different flavor I was experiencing, and not salt, that was causing me to take notice. The orzo was nicely cooked, soft and tender, and the shrimp balls, tiny orbs floating in the soup, were perfect texturally and had a nice shrimpy brightness to them.

Our final taste of the evening was of the homemade Linguine alla Carbonara:

Served with a poached egg and housemade pancetta, both Penny and I were eager to try this dish out. When it was placed in front of me, I was surprised at how much sauce was already on the noodles. After breaking the egg yolk and mixing it into the noodles,

we each took a bite. The noodles were perfectly cooked, tender but still with a little chew and the yolk-ladened sauce was creamy and decadent. To be honest, I don't remember there being much in the way of pancetta flavor coming from the sauce, but the salt level was perfect. Traditionally, carbonara can also served with fresh peas and I think that the little bit of sweetness would've helped to enhance this dish even more. I'm glad we only got a "taste" portion as an entire entrée would've been extremely rich.

So now that we've finished the bread course and the appetizers, let's take a break and do a little quick comparison between Dante and Bonefish Grill so far.

The bread itself, far and away, goes to Dante. The crust and crumb were spot on and just delicious. Even though Dante doesn't bake their own bread, they get points in my book for using another local Cleveland bakery to supply them. As for the dip/spread, I do like the boldness of the olive oil pesto dip for the bread. However, I also like the fact that the rather cavalierly named "hummos" had a clean flavor and didn't cover up the flavors of the bread. The bread course, most definitely, goes to Dante.

For the appetizer course, it's kind of a mixed bag. The mussels I enjoyed at Bonefish Grill were tender, but the rawness and size of the red onion chunks overpowered the bites that contained them. In addition, there were a few broken mussel shards to remove so that I didn't accidentally eat them. While Dante hit some high points with the homemade Linguine alla Carbonara and the delicateness of the Bhutanese red rice, there were some minor misses as well. I'll call the appetizer course a tie.

Now on to the main event, the fish!

Just like I did with Bonefish Grill, I checked with the Seafood Watch website to make sure that the Alaskan Halibut I was thinking of ordering was on the approved list. Sure enough, the website gave me the green light I wanted. Having finished our appetizers, our tables were cleared, clean cutlery was put out, and soon, the entrées began to arrive.

Here was a shot of my entrée:

And a close up of the halibut:

I had asked for the fish to be cooked medium rare, and just like at Bonefish Grill, it was cooked perfectly to order. The fillet was a nice even thickness, so the flesh was tender, juicy, and slightly translucent from one end to the other. The seasoning was aggressive, but not to the point where I would've considered it over-salted. The surprise on the plate was the sauce on the fish. While the menu describes it as a coconut green curry sauce, which would imply a Thai curry, when I tasted the sauce by itself, I actually thought it tasted exactly like an Indian favorite of mine, Saag (or Palak) Paneer, minus the cheese, of course. I tasted it two or three times, just to make sure my taste buds were still working. When I closed my eyes, I tasted India, not Thailand.

That being said, the halibut was a sturdy enough fish to be able to handle the sauce. It was an interesting combination and the kitchen had put just the right amount of sauce on the plate so that there was at the same time enough sauce to eat the entire fillet, but not so much that it was drowning in it. I think I actually liked the fish marginally better at Bonefish Grill, but the green curry sauce at Dante was the better of the two sauces.

The halibut had been perched (I know, I know, bad pun) on top of a sauté of spinach and sliced shiitake mushrooms. Along with three slices of lotus root, these served as the accompaniments to my fish:

Penny had never seen, much less eaten, lotus root, so I gave her one of mine to try. Lotus root doesn't have a very strong flavor of its own, so I think the reason for its inclusion in the meal was as much visual as gustatory. We also gave each other tastes from our entrées. That way, I could include a description of her dish, too.

Penny decided to go with the Seared Dayboat Scallops:

Penny's litmus test for any kitchen was how well they could prepare scallops. Just a few too many seconds on the heat and they would be dry and chewy. Fortunately, everyone who ordered this dish tonight was rewarded with plump, succulent scallops that had a wonderful sear on the outside. They were sauced with an earthy, slightly bitter sauce which balanced well against the sweetness from the scallops. Penny also let me try one of her "potato strudel," which had the look, feel, and crispness of a nice Greek spanakopita, but was filled with a slightly melted tangy goat cheese instead of spinach and onions.

Having cleared my plate, I realized how pretty darn full I was at that point. When our server brought out the dessert menus, I wasn't sure I wanted anything, but I told Penny to order something if she wanted. She countered that she didn't particularly want an entire dessert either and asked if we could split one. That, I figured, I could do.

Here was a shot of the dessert menu:

Fortunately, the two items on the menu that appealed to Penny were two of the lighter-flavored ones, the hot caramelized Bartlett pears and the citrus and mango napoleon. Knowing that the napoleon had an orange curd as well as a citrus sorbet, I figured that it sounded like the perfect light way to end the meal.

After getting a delicious cup of decaf,

we were served our dessert with two spoons:

This was every bit as light as I had hoped it would be. The shredded phyllo was crispy, sweetened only slightly, and had a wonderful cinnamon undertone to the flavor. When it was set down in front of us, the first thing that popped into both of our heads was Frosted Wheat cereal. I can tell you with certainty, it tasted MUCH better than Frosted Wheat cereal. Sandwiched between the two crispy layers was the citrus sorbet, the orange curd, and fresh slices of pleasantly ripe mango. The plate was sauced with a light mint syrup that really accented the flavors already in the dessert without overpowering them. As full as I had been, I eagerly devoured my half.

Since I revealed my bill total for my Bonefish Grill meal, I feel it only fair to reveal what this dinner at Dante cost me. The bill, including tax, was slightly over $93. That being said, my halibut was only $26 and each of the tastes we had eaten earlier were $4 each. The halibut was also the most expensive seafood item on the menu. Penny's luscious scallops were only $20 and there was a salmon dish on the menu for $21.

So where does that leave us, gentle reader? Each restaurant had its pros and its cons. The food at both restaurants ranged from good to excellent. The service at both was also outstanding. While there were fidgeting and crying babies at Bonefish, the hard edges and lack of acoustical treatments at Dante left me with no conversational partner except the person sitting next to me. My personal proclivity is to return to Restaurant Dante, but that's because I prefer to support the local independent restaurants over the national chains. The flavors at Dante were certainly more adventurous than Bonefish Grill, but as Bonefish Grill has to appeal to a national audience, I would expect the menu to be a little less cutting edge.

Honestly, I think you'll get a good meal at either restaurant. To me it simply comes down to the philosophy of what kind of restaurant you want to support. As I concluded at the end of the first part of this blog series, Restaurant Dante helps to define Cleveland gastronomically from other cities. Bonefish Grill does not. That's not to say you'll have a bad meal if you eat at any of the locations all over the United States. But I know that personally, if I'm going to take the time and effort to travel to another city for business or pleasure, I am purposely going to seek out places of interest that I can't find anywhere else.

Dante on Urbanspoon 806 Wine and Bar on Urbanspoon


Bite Buff said...

What a challenge! I love how you chose to select a local restaurant to compare with a chain, but recognized that in many ways they aren't comparable. Your review of Dante has helped push it up a few spots on my "To Do" list. And I have a sudden craving for fish...

DianeS said...

I love that Bhutanese red rice dish. When I've had it there has been a slight creaminess to it, not in quite the same way as a really creamy risotto but a creaminess none the less.

The service at Dante has always been spot on when I've been there and I greatly appreciate that the servers know the menu, including ingredients, backwards and forwards.

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