The last time I reviewed Bar Cento, it had been for a lunch planned weeks in advance. My old colleague, Mike, was in town for the weekend from Chicago visiting his folks and had messaged me asking if we could get together for a meal while he was here. Since our visit was during lunch on a Saturday, I found it odd that we were rather restricted in our choices. Fortunately, Bar Cento opened at noon to cater to the throngs of customers streaming out of the West Side Market on West 25th Street looking for a tasty and hot meal after spending the morning shopping for fresh produce and quality meats.
Tonight's return to Bar Cento, however, was wholly different. I had agreed to meet up with some friends after work at the hidden Cleveland gem, Velvet Tango Room, where I was greeted by the always friendly Paulius Nasvytis and his bartending crew. I arrived just as my friend Steve was tapping away on his smartphone, ensuring that we would have 6:30 PM reservations for five at the restaurant. When he told me where we'd be going for dinner, I couldn't have been more delighted ... it had been far too long since I split that pizza and order of pommes frites with my friend Mike. By 6:20, we had settled our checks at VTR and made the block and a half trek required to walk through the door precisely on time.
When I saw how busy the restaurant was (which was a very good thing), I was amazed that Steve was able to secure a table for five people just thirty minutes prior using the OpenTable application on his Android phone. Score one for technology! After getting my coat off and sitting down at the table, I began to peruse the ever changing menu that Bar Cento offered:
Just as with any restaurant concerned with the seasonality of the ingredients, the popular items will always be present, but Chef Mike Nowak, like many other prominent chefs in Cleveland, liked to change the menu to reflect the quality of ingredients that were available right now. As we were pondering which appetizers we'd like to split tonight, our server arrived with a small brown bag of dinner rolls:
These were quite tasty. The crust had a nice chew to it and the gentle tug on the crumb led me to believe that these were definitely not food service rolls. There was some olive oil on the table, but I greedily snarfed it down before bothering.
It was at this point in the evening that something surprising happened. Not only had the chef sent over two complimentary appetizers, but he hand delivered them himself. Now, wait, wait, gentle reader! I know where your mind must be right now, but I can assure you that this personalized service was due to the fact that Steve (the gentleman who made the reservation) and his wife Diane eat at Bar Cento on a frequent basis. Chef Nowak had obviously recognized either the name on the reservation or Steve and Diane themselves as they walked into the restaurant initially.
That being said, as we went around the table introducing ourselves, when it got to me, I simply said, "Hi, chef. My name is Tom Noe." I didn't even have to speak the follow-up sentence of "I write a food blog called Exploring Food My Way." because before I could even utter it, he blurted out, "Oh, yeah, I've read your blog." Truth be told, I had met Chef Nowak at least once before, but it had been at one of those huge food gatherings where hundreds of people are milling about and you're lucky if you can remember five names, much less five hundred.
So what did Chef Nowak bring our table? First up was Steamed Mussels in a Belgian Ale Butter Sauce with Toasted Bread:
The bowl of mussels was about as perfect as they come. The mussels were tender without being rubbery. The broth was rich with both seafood and butter and the ale helped to cut through that very richness just a touch to balance it out. The toasted bread served as a nice textural counterbalance to the softness of the mussels and needless to say, the entire table gobbled these up.
The second appetizer that the chef brought us was one of those seasonal dishes of which I spoke, a Crispy Fried Quail with Black-Eyed Peas, Collards, and Honey Mustard Sauce:
I don't know how long this will remain on the menu, but if you have a chance to order this dish, do it! Everything about this plate of food worked amazingly well together. The crispness of the fried coating, the tender, juicy quail meat cooked to a perfectly medium-rare, the tender and flavorful black-eyed peas and the ever-so-slightly spiciness from the sauce made this dish another plate cleaner. Ironically, the table was thinking of ordering this dish as one of our appetizers, but now, we didn't have to.
Instead, the appetizer we decided to order was the Mushroom and Leek Pizza with Mahon Cheese and Coriander:
Without a doubt in my mind, the top two pizzas available in Cleveland right now are at Lolita Bistro and Bar Cento. I wrote prodigiously about the duck prosciutto pizza during my last visit to Bar Cento and why I liked it so much. I won't rehash those words here except to say that tonight's selection lived up to my very high expectations. Truly one of the best pizzas around. Additionally, if you are a mushroom lover, this pizza should be at the top of your list of things to try. Soon.
Somehow my tablemate, Miss Penny, had convinced the kitchen to send out a small dish of White Anchovies and freshly sliced bread:
Also known as boquerones, the small fillets had been marinated in fresh herbs, olive oil, and lemon. While I have no problem using regular anchovies IN something (like red sauce or in Caesar's salad dressing), I've never been one to just place one on top of fresh bread and pop the thing into my mouth. It's a rather strong flavor, even for me. Apparently, because the white anchovies are not processed with the same method that regular anchovies undergo, they have none of the oily, fishy flavors that most Americans dislike. Knowing that I will always try something at least once, I loaded up my slice of bread and took a bite.
When I tell you that I have not put something so wonderfully delicious in my mouth as boquerones en escabeche, I honestly mean it. It was like eating from the culinary Tree of Knowledge and I suddenly could feel my epicurean nakedness for the first time. As I continued to chew and roll the flavors around in my mouth, my eyes widened, I inhaled sharply, and my eyes rolled back into their sockets. I am not a particularly religious man, but surely what was happening in my mouth was proof that a higher power must exist. No mere mortal could've combined these simple flavors in such perfect balance. I do not know if Chef Nowak gets the white anchovies pre-marinated or marinates them himself. Honestly, I don't care. The fact that he has them available is good enough for me.
We had already done so much eating by this point, we began to question whether it was a good idea to order an entree, too, but inevitably they finally arrived at the table. Tonight I had ordered the Black Truffle Carbonara:
Topped with freshly shaved black truffles, crispy fried prosciutto, a poached egg and freshly grated cheese, the fettuccine noodles glistened in the prosciutto-enriched cream sauce. I've heard many times that black truffles and eggs go quite well together and I was looking forward to verifying this bit of information for myself. While the egg was soft and luscious, the ONLY quibble I had with the entire meal tonight was that I prefer a runnier yolk on my carbonara. Tonight's egg was more closely cooked to a soft-boiled stage and as such, there wasn't much liquid gold to mix in with the pasta to enrich the sauce even further.
That being said, the explosion of aromas when I put the first bite into my mouth was simply outstanding. The fettuccine was cooked to a perfect al dente, the noodles being just slightly resistive to the tooth. The crispy prosciutto acted as a more delicate stand-in for crispy bacon, and the earthy balance between the truffles and the eggs was just amazing. I would order this again in a heartbeat.
Each entree came with a side dish. Tonight I chose the Roasted Turnips with Pine Nuts, Fresh Herbs, and Lemon Zest:
These might look like roasted potatoes, but that was where the similarity ended. They were soft and tender on the inside and crispy and caramelized on the outside. The herbs and lemon added a nice brightness to the dish and the pine nuts brought a textural element to balance out the softness from the cooked vegetable. This was such an unusual and tasty dish that I might just have to try and re-create it in my own kitchen.
While dessert and coffee were offered, as you can imagine, we were all stuffed by this point. When the check came, I was shocked to discover that it was roughly $17, tax included. Diane and Steve had decided to pay for the mushroom pizza on their check and since the two other appetizers the chef brought out were complimentary, the only thing I was actually charged for was the pasta and my side, which was a mere $16. Even after leaving an extra generous tip, I still walked away from tonight's meal having spent less than $25.
As we stood, some two and a half hours after arriving, to gather our belongings and bundle up before returning to the cold Cleveland winter, Chef Nowak again made his way to the front of the restaurant to wish us well and shake some more hands. Do I think that an effort was made tonight by the chef and his staff to make sure we had an excellent meal? Yes, I do. Do I think that tonight's visit has been in-line with my prior visits? Absolutely, I do. I have always received prompt, courteous service and excellent food in my previous half-dozen visits, both when Jonathon Sawyer ran the kitchen and now that Mike Nowak is manning that post, proving that not only can he fill Chef Sawyer's shoes, but he can stand in his own pair right alongside him.
Cleveland is truly evolving into a major culinary hotspot, in no small part due to chefs and restaurant owners who believe in providing the best possible ingredients while at the same time giving customers a nod regarding good value. Bar Cento has always been a champion for this cause and I personally hope they will be around for a long, long time.