Disappointments

I have had a string of disappointing meals lately. Not horrible food or terrible service, just meals that were not as good as I had hoped or expected. I usually focus on the successful dining experiences that I am lucky enough to have. In between those, there are plenty of mundane evenings out. Quick runs through chain restaurants for an easy, on-the-go type supper, or a stop at someone’s favorite local hangout for a burger and a beer. There are also a few truly bad meals that I won’t waste the keystrokes to write about. What I am talking about here are restaurants that come with excellent recommendations and then turn out to be less than stellar.

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The most recent was last night at Tremont’s Fahrenheit. Ask me what my favorite “special occasion” restaurant in that neighborhood is and I will automatically say Fahrenheit. It has been my go-to spot for entertaining out of town guests for years. I have had some incredible dinners there. Last night, after a stop at the weather-challenged Tremont Farmers Market, Tony and I headed up the street for some Happy Hour bar snacks. The bar at this Tremont standard bearer is a narrow space to the right of the front door. It offers about a dozen seats at the bar, plus 4 hightop deuces set against the windows looking out onto the street. Arty pendant lamps cast a warm glow over the coppery tabletops. The service is friendly and thoughtful.
The menu is limited, but offers up some good values. It’s standard bar fare, including pizza, burgers, hot dogs and cocktails. We chose the Butternut Squash Pizza, the Vietnamese Chicken Springrolls and the Chicken & Waffles. The Springrolls came up first, two of them cut a sharp angle, served with a couple of Boston lettuce leaves, a sweet chile dipping sauce and a sharp cucumber salad. The filling was perfectly seasoned, the crust shatteringly crisp and the sauce and salad a nice counterpoint to the heat. My first question was, “Why only two lettuce leaves, when there were four pieces of springroll?”
Next up was the Butternut Squash Pizza. This was topped with a few leaves of spinach, some cubes of squash, a couple of crumbles of goat cheese and a thick layer of melted mozzarella. The pie was dominated by two things: the pale crust and the flabby mozzarella. The few toppings scattered across this wan looking surface could not compete with the pedestrian base. I am not one who wants the “Ultimate Supreme” pizza with 25 toppings. I am of the “less is more” school of pizza making, but the sad qualities of the basic canvas overwhelmed the otherwise delicious toppings.
Our final choice of Chicken and Waffles was well executed. We were presented with a tower of waffles, topped with three beautifully cooked chicken tenders. The whole thing was drizzled with truffle honey and presented on a platter lined with a paper printed with the Fahrenheit logo. My main quibble with this dish was that some of the edges of the waffles were burned. While each part was delicious, we decided that chicken and waffles was exactly that…fried chicken served with waffles. I also wondered why the name of the restaurant had to be presented to me again on my plate. It seemed a little too corporate for my taste.
All in all, it was a nice evening. Our bartender took good care of us; the food was hot and fresh; the portions were good sized; the price was certainly right (all of this , plus a bottle of Dortmunder Gold, came to $27). Unfortunately, there was nothing that made me perk up and say WOW! There was nothing that made me want to hurry back for Happy Hour, either.

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I was also underwhelmed by a group outing to Quince in Olmsted Falls a few weeks ago. Aside from the setting in a tooth-achingly sweet, old fashioned “railroad junction” development, the room is a triumph of minimalism. Glossy wooden tables and large windows make for a clean, uncluttered space. The placement of the bar on the second floor makes the bar service a little clunky, but keeps the dining room calmer. The service is friendly and helpful, if not completely professional. The plates and platters themselves were many and varied. Between three courses for four people, we didn’t see one piece of porcelain twice. (What a nightmare for the dishwasher!)
The menu, sadly, is overly ambitious. First off, it is quite large for such a plain setting. There are some fifteen starters, plus three more that were read off to us as specials. The entree list totaled eighteen choices, not counting the three verbal additions. Add to this the fact that any half-portion of salad can be added to any entree for just $3.50 and the eyes start to glaze over. Admittedly, my most memorable restaurant meals of all time have been in rooms where there is little or no choice (think Chez Panisse or Per Se). If have agreed to eat somewhere, I would like to think that I trust the chef enough to make choices for what I should eat that evening. A menu this large makes me doubt the ability of the kitchen to pull all of these dishes off successfully. Which things are really good, and which are just okay? What is the chef’s favorite dish…the one he is most proud of? That’s what I want to know going in.
Virtually every dish sounded good in the beginning, but then each took a turn for the worse further down the menu description. In some cases, there were unlikely pairings; mostly, it was a case of just too many things going on.
For example, an “unsprung sushi roll” of tuna and vegetables was made confusing with the inclusion of tomato, watermelon and papaya. A spinach salad was perked up with the counterpoint of sweet peaches and salty prosciutto, but the brie on top left us scratching our heads. My entree of shrimp & scallop tortellini, summer vegetable sauté and brandy lobster reduction, was a muddled mess on the plate. The “tortellini” were gigantic purses, properly seasoned but unevenly cooked. The vegetables had been overcooked to the point of mushiness, with no real texture and no distinct flavors. The brandy and lobster notes were completely lost in the mix. There were also edamame in with my saute, which seemed out of place. Many of the preparations include sort of beans or legumes, in addition to whatever the center of the plate protein is. Some other examples from the menu: Stuffed chicken, cavatelli, pesto and white beans; Orecchiette, meatballs, tomato, gorgonzola and green beans; Saffron pasta, pork bolognese, portobellos and white beans. In my opinion, this renders each of these dishes much too heavy.
My fellow diners had similar complaints about their meals. The portions were also huge. Each of us had at least one carryout container for leftovers and few of our plates were really finished. I wish the kitchen would just pull back a little and focus in on a few good, simple dishes. I am not afraid of fusion cooking or unusual combinations. I have eaten out enough in my life to understand creativity and new things. I was disappointed that Quince could not just relax and trust that simple does not mean uninviting. I have eaten this chef’s cooking before and loved it. I hope he can take a cue from the decor and lighten up in the kitchen.

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There are other examples, but I think I have made my point. It’s painful to write about these disappointments. I am a big supporter of the Cleveland restaurant scene. I try to eat out locally as much as possible. Sometimes, though, I am much more impressed by a happy hour at the Tremont Tap House, a burger at the B Spot or a sundae at the Honey Hut than I am by a complicated, overwrought dinner. Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the restaurants I am choosing. All in all, I love eating around town. In the future, I’ll stick to writing about the meals that impress me the most.

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