One Old, One New

Yesterday involved two different holiday meals, one at the long established Johnny’s Bar on Fulton, the other at the newly opened Market in Rocky River.  Both of them shared some positive qualities:  attractive settings, attentive service and good company.  Yet somehow they were very different experiences.

Johnny’s, the original location of a trio of restaurants, is in the slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood of Clark Metro.  You would drive past this place a hundred times without noticing it.  It is a hidden gem and this becomes obvious as soon as you step inside.  A welcoming bar dominates the lower room, along with a couple of white tableclothed four-tops along the side.  A few steps up place you in the main dining room.  Indirect cove lighting in the ceiling, grooved rosewood paneling and an Italianate mural set a sophisticated tone.  The inclusion of leopard print carpeting strikes a snazzy note at your feet.

The lunch menu is a brief affair, a short excursion through some Italian classics.  A couple of salads, a few simple apps and soups give way to a short list of entrees.  We have always focussed on the house specialities here, which we have gauged from watching what the locals around us are ordering.  For a starter, the choice is the Stuffed Banana Peppers.  Hot peppers, char-grilled and stuffed with ground veal, are then baked in marinara.  Deftly served by the waitstaff, using a pair of spoons, these gems hit all the right notes of heat, spice and savory richness.  With plenty of Italian bread to sop up the sauce, this makes a fitting start to any meal here.  A salad follows, just leaves of lettuce with vinaigrette, no other vegetables to distract you.  The Italian dressing is light as air, with just a whisper of garlic; the blue cheese is creamy and rich with clearly evident chunks of cheese.

For our entrees, there were thin scallopini of tender veal, finished with lemon and white wine and capers, a perfect rendition of Piccata.  A pounded chicken breast came cloaked with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and an intensely flavored demi-glace.  The sides included perfectly seasoned scalloped potatoes and perfectly cooked haricots verts, given a final turn in the pan with a swirl of butter.  There was nothing racy or avant garde about any of these plates, but they all came out of the kitchen beautifully arranged and deftly seasoned.  Clearly, this has been the case here for decades and there is no reason to mess with success.

We finished with an enormous slice of Triple Chocolate Torte; tender cake, tall layers of mousse and a thick drift of ganache on top.  It would easily satisfy four diners, although the three of us managed to kill it off handily.  Freshly brewed coffee, dark and strong, is poured from silver pots into a proper cup and saucer arrangement…no casual mugs here.  The well-used china, with its slightly worn gilding, is a graceful complement to the hefty silver service in your hand.

As we watched the snow fall through the enormous plate glass window at the front, we contemplated the last of our martinis and sank back into a sense of satisfaction.  “This is a grown-up restaurant,” we all agreed.  A restaurant for grown-ups, yes, but also a scene that has matured across the years.  A well rehearsed staff; a solid menu of outstanding dishes; a setting that is at once elegant and comfortable.

Market, on Linda Street in Rocky River, has been open only a few weeks at this point.  The structure was built specifically for this restaurant.  With a stone and timber lodge feel, the main room is all high ceilings and huge windows.  A massive horseshoe bar dominates the back of the space, with rows of flat screen TVs above.  An enormous television in the dining room played cable news all during our dinner, although there was no sound, nor was there closed captioning.  Basically, we had a mural of talking heads with a ticker of news headlines across the bottom.  (Can anyone explain to me why we always need to be watching television while we eat out?  I do watch at home during dinner, but when I am in a restaurant, paying for my meal, attended by a waiter, can I please have it without the distraction of a flickering screen overhead?)

The list of beers and wines is extensive and should satisfy just about everyone.  The menu is, clearly, market driven and seasonal.  There are the usual choices, such as a burger, a wedge salad, a strip steak and grilled salmon.  There are some less usual items like a bison burger, sesame crusted tuna and truffled mac and cheese.  Then there are some very ambitious dishes like Chicken Roulade, stuffed with chorizo and smoked gouda, served with pine nut risotto, or Blackened Grouper served over Crawfish Jambalaya.  The roulade was delicious, although the accompanying four spears of asparagus were tough and without any seasoning.  We also tried a Reuben sandwich, made with house smoked brisket.  The sweet potato fries alongside were crispy, hot and served in a generous portion.  A Black Pearl Porkchop arrived atop a pile of sweet potato mash.  Cooked exactly as requested, the chop was grilled on the bone and was juicy and flavorful.

For dessert, we tasted a slab of house made carrot cake that was a clear winner.  Less enticing were my Deep-fried Uncrustables.  This little junk food indulgence involved taking the frozen kids snack (a white bread pocket of peanut butter and jelly) and frying it to a golden turn.  Sadly, the flavor of the fish fried in the oil previously was the dominant flavor of the crust.  This was disconcerting at best and downright unappetizing by the third bite.  If you are going to prepare desserts like this, a separate fryer is a must.

There are some issues at Market that have to do with the place being so new.  The room’s enormous size and generous ceiling height made us feel like we were in a warehouse.  The space lacks any real character of its own; one can hope that will come with time.  Perhaps, once it’s more established this sense of newness will fade.  The reach of the menu is a concern, as well as the pricing.  The inclusion of Lobster Linguine and Veal Chops, along with some of the more unusual sides (Sweet Corn Red Pepper Beurre Blanc? Bamboo Rice?), seem out of place in this setting.  With some entrees pushing the $24 mark, and even the sandwiches all riding at $11 to $14, the pricing is high.  Our entrees, priced in the upper teens, came with neither bread nor salad.  At this price point, I was surprised to see everything a la carte.

Aside from the few mis-steps mentioned, the food was generally good and the portions reasonably sized.  Hopefully, once Market has been through its paces a few times and grown more comfortable with itself, a return trip will feel more successful.