Wednesday, July 21, 2010

An Outrageous Meal At Ken Stewart's Lodge?

In a rather bold move, I decided to take on the second of three Ken Stewart restaurants tonight. As with my visit to Tre Belle just a few short weeks ago, I pulled into the rather full parking lot on a Tuesday evening at 7 P.M. with no reservation. While I was initially worried, when I saw only one couple dining out on the patio, I figured that if the interior was completely full, at least I'd be able to eat outside.

As I walked into the front door of Ken Stewart's Lodge, only a few feet from the entrance of Tre Belle, I was greeted with a surprising lack of light. In fact, it was so dim inside the restaurant that I felt almost blind walking down the main entranceway to the hostess stand. When my eyes finally adjusted, I realized that the old interior that used to be Little Joe's had been revamped to bring a northwest lodge feel to it. I was initially concerned that my photographs would come out terrible in such a low light environment and when the hostess asked if I wanted to dine out on the patio this evening, I quickly agreed.

The hostess led me to a smaller table over by the couple I had seen when first walking up to the front door. As I sat down, I realized that it was really a perfect night to be eating al fresco. Here was a shot of the patio from my table:

The sun was lingering behind some clouds, the temperature was in the mid-70's and really the only annoyance for the evening was the occasional fly swarming in to see what looked tasty.

One of the criticisms I had heard about eating at the Lodge was how expensive it was. Then again, I had heard the same rumor about Tre Belle and was happy to discover during my visit to that half of the building, the prices were pretty much in-line with the quality of food and level of service. As I sat down in my chair, my server handed me two menus.

Here was a shot of the dinner menu (top, middle, and bottom):

And here was a shot of the bar / patio menu (top, middle, and bottom):

Immediately, several notions crossed my mind. The first was that the dinner menu was significantly more expensive than the bar / patio menu and was significantly more expensive than the menu was at Tre Belle. Second, the Lodge is a steak and seafood kind of place. The two lonely pastas and one roasted chicken dish seemed entirely out of place. I assume they are there for diners who aren't in the mood for steak or seafood. The third idea that came to me was that while ordering off the regular dinner menu wouldn't be cheap, at least there was the alternative of ordering from the bar menu. However, be warned that the bar menu was only available in the bar (obviously) and the patio.

When I asked my server about daily specials, I was disappointed to learn that the Lodge shares a trait with the original location, the Grill: an almost sickening abundance of daily specials. In addition to the seven or eight appetizers available on the dinner menu, there were five additional appetizers alone. Don't even get me started on the litany of entrées that were available as daily specials. While I am all about choice in a restaurant, expecting diners to remember that much information, much less have the staff have to go through it with each table, seems a bit silly for me. You get to a point where it would be better to print up daily specials menus to distribute with the regular dinner menu. Fortunately, the time I visited Tre Belle, I was relieved that this practice hadn't taken root there, too.

As I pondered over my myriad of choices, my server brought me bread and butter:

It turned out that the bread was actually from Stone Oven on Lee Road in Cleveland. I had sampled this very tasty bread when I ate at Dante Restaurant not too long ago. While the bread was exquisitely fresh, I did prefer the version at Dante because they had warmed the bread before serving it.

The softened and whipped butter had fresh rosemary in it which complemented the bread nicely.

After pondering for a bit longer, I decided that for my appetizer, I would go with one of the daily specials, the seared scallops over vanilla bean risotto:

Visually, this dish was quite arresting. Which was interesting to me given how rustic my entrée would be later on in the meal. The duo of scallops had been seared to utter perfection and when I cut one in half, the white translucent interior told me that they would not be tough, but silky and ethereal:

The tender and creamy scallops had the perfect amount of texture and could've melted in my mouth. The vanilla bean risotto, also perfectly executed, wasn't sweet like most people would expect, but savory. The rice had just the right amount of toothiness to it (al dente) and was creamy the way a risotto should be prepared without the addition of too much cheese. The reduced balsamic streaks on the plate added a subtle sweet and sour element to the dish. I honestly thought it would be the balsamic reduction that was too strong for the delicate flavor of the scallops. It actually turned out to be the glazed strawberries.

When too much strawberry was combined with the other flavors on the plate, the acidic assertiveness of the strawberry overwhelmed everything else. When I cut the strawberries into smaller pieces, the flavor was much more balanced and I could taste each individual flavor as well as the dish as a whole. My suggestion would be to keep the strawberries, but perhaps use them diced finely as a garnish, almost like a confetti or maybe a strawberry chutney. That way, you can keep the flavor impact more manageable.

What I didn't realize (and I didn't see it listed on the menu) was that every entrée also came with a house salad. Here was mine:

Along with a mix of greens, toasted slivered almonds, dried cranberries, a sprinkling of feta cheese also dotted my plate. A house balsamic vinaigrette accompanied my salad in a separate cup. I hadn't asked for it on the side, as I expected a restaurant of the Lodge's caliber to be able to correctly dress a salad. But, that was a minor quibble. Before dressing my salad greens, I tasted the vinaigrette by itself. I personally like my vinaigrettes more acidic and this one definitely fit the bill.

Having added dressing to my taste, I attempted to gather up a little bit of everything on my fork. When I got a dried cranberry, the sweetness balanced the acidity of the vinaigrette well. Without the cranberry, I felt like it was missing something. The feta lent a mild flavor to the salad, but the creaminess was certainly appreciated. The toasted slivered almonds added a nice textural contrast and an obviously nutty flavor.

My appetizer and salad courses completed, I decided to add a glass of red wine for my entrée. Here was a shot of the tableside menu:

Perhaps they have a bigger wine menu available inside, but if this was the entirety of their wine selection, I would be a little surprised. Regardless, I went with a glass of the Columbia merlot:

I wasn't necessarily looking for a wine with lots of bold flavors; more like something that would complement the choice of protein in my entrée this evening. This wine fit the bill perfectly. I initially thought that $10 for a glass might be a bit pricey, but given the size of the pour, I definitely think it was worth it.

Shortly after my wine arrived, so did the remainder of my dinner. Here was a shot of the seared elk over a root vegetable ragout:

This wasn't on the regular menu, but was one of the daily specials. When I asked my server the price, she quoted me $45. While I was a little shocked at first, seeing that their filet mignon was listed at $37 and knowing that good steakhouses charge about that much for similar steaks, I figured that an extra $8 to try something I had never eaten before was worth it. And seeing as I pay for a $37 filet about once or twice a year, I figured tonight's entrée would count as one of my yearly indulgences.

When my server asked me how I wanted it prepared, I informed her that when I order filet, I normally get it medium rare. She nodded and said that the chef definitely recommends elk be cooked medium rare as well, as being too rare or cooked much past medium rare will lead to a tougher cut. As I cut into my elk steak, I was rewarded with a perfectly cooked piece of meat:

This farm-raised elk had been marinated in red wine to help remove some of the gamey flavor. I would've loved to try a version that hadn't been marinated, because honestly, I could detect no hint of gaminess at all. The seasoning was spot on and as I made the first cut into the steak, I noticed the ease with which it cut. When I placed the bite into my mouth, I was rewarded with a rich meaty flavor and meat that almost melted in my mouth. Pairing it with the jus pooled at the bottom of the plate, each bite was as heavenly as the last. The only real issue I had was with, of all things, the garnishes. While I've dinged some restaurants in the past for the lack of something as simple as a sprig of parsley, today's bouquet of parsley stems and leaves looked vulgar and out of place. While I get that as opposed to my appetizer, the elk was supposed to look "rustic," the parsley didn't have the professional polish that should've accompanied a plate of food at this price point. The sweet potato chips adorning the top of the steak also weren't crispy at all. The color was great, but the chips had more of a chewy texture to them.

While I was originally debating a side dish, when my server informed me that a trio of samplings was available for $6, I jumped at the chance to try it out. Here was my side dish tonight:

An interesting dish and presentation, what the three of these side dishes had in common was that they had all been gratineed under the Salamander (a professional broiler). The yellow line was a Latin City corn dish that had been spiced up with a bit of cayenne pepper. The green line in the middle was the same creamed spinach that was already available on the menu. The final line was a sweet potato soufflé, which I'm guessing refers more to its lightness rather than the fact that it rose in the oven at some point.

Each side was tasty, but the creamed spinach could've used a bit more seasoning as the spinach flavor was a bit flat. I could've sworn that there was either yogurt or creme fraiche in the sweet potato soufflé, but my server checked with the kitchen and they denied that either ingredient was involved. Any way you slice it, this side dish was an excellent decision for only $6.

As I sat on the deck, post dinner waiting for the check, who should walk up to my table other than Ken Stewart himself. If you remember, gentle reader, during my tale of Tre Belle, I actually met him for the first time ever, but I didn't identify myself other than to tell him my first name. This time, however, he remembered. "You're the blogger guy, aren't you?" We chatted for a few minutes and I gave him some of the exact feedback I am posting here. He asked if I had been to the Grill yet and when I told him that it was on my list of places to try, he seemed pleased.

Alright, the moment has arrived that I'm sure you've all been waiting for ... the check. As it turned out, the elk dish had been misquoted to me by my server. It wasn't $45. It was $48. Of course, I could take the easy way out and simply blame my server. Or I could blame the plethora of off-menu specials and congratulate her for getting the number so close to the right price.

All said and done, with a about a 23% tip and tax, the bill came to a whopping $106. That included a glass of wine, an appetizer, an included house salad, and an entrée. Yes, that is expensive. Like really expensive. Then again, was it a good value? Considering that the scallops and elk were cooked to perfection and the fact that there probably aren't many other places in northeast Ohio where one could even find elk on the menu? I'd say it was a fair value. Will Ken Stewart's Lodge be on my regular list of restaurants I visit often? No, probably not. I just can't see myself regularly dropping the same amount of cash for one meal as I used to budget for four weeks of grocery shopping back in college.

I would certainly recommend Ken Stewart's Lodge for those special occasions when money may be less of an issue. The food and service were both excellent and they are clearly there to take care of you in whatever way they can. As a diner, I would certainly appreciate a paper copy of the daily specials (nothing fancy, just something that can be thrown out at the end of each day), but I can't deny that the execution of the food was nearly flawless. If you can afford to do it, I would suggest stopping in for an excellent meal.

Ken Stewart's Lodge on Urbanspoon


Dave said...

I ate at the Lodge for the first time a month or so ago. While our food was good (love the spicy creamed corn) the number of "specials" was extremely annoying. I bet there were 8 appetizer specials, 10 entree specials, and 6 dessert specials. I was with a group of 10 and almost every person had to ask for them to be repeated when it was their turn to order. The crazy thing was that NOTHING on the regular menu seemed very interesting - typical steak and seafood options - but all the specials sounded good. They really need to write them down if there are going to be that many.

bonnjill said...

That meal sounds absolutely divine, Tom! You really have a great way of describing what you are eating. My mouth was watering when you described the elk, and it made me want to run right out and order it. The PD ran a feature yesterday asking people what they would choose for their Last Meal. This meal would be right up there for me. Yum!

Tino said...

@Dave: Couldn't agree more.

@bonnjill: Couldn't agree more. :)

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