Friday, April 13, 2012

Destination Dining: Rockefeller's Restaurant

I finally snapped several years ago. I had heard enough jokes about my home town of Cleveland, Ohio from my roommate, herself smugly "born and raised" in San Francisco. It's easy to be proud of growing up in a city as diverse, beautiful and welcoming as San Francisco, to revel in its quirks, its history and romance.

But Cleveland is a hard city to love, although deep in our hearts (almost) all of us who hail from her do.

I proceeded to lecture my roommate on Cleveland history, falling on probably deaf ears (or considering the time of night, vodka soaked). Her opinion on Cleveland has softened...we have taken over her social life and her Facebook page so much that she dared utter these words: "I might as well be an honorary Clevelander now!"

Uh, no. Not until you've scraped ice off your windshield or been attacked by mosquitoes in October, rode the back on an Amish hay cart in Autumn, cheered for the Indians during a snow storm in May at Jacobs Field or felt rage that the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony was held (until this year) in New York City. New York City?

Rockefeller's Logo, Walter Greene & Company, Cleveland, Oh

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Clevelanders have always had a love-hate relationship with New York City: for it was there, in 1884, that John D Rockefeller uprooted his Standard Oil Company from Cleveland and took it and his largess to New York, New York.

Still, Rockefeller remained fond of Cleveland and dedicated many buildings and parks all the way until his death (and beyond in endowments and trusts).

In 1930, the Heights Rockefeller Building was built to be a general (read: company) store and centerpiece of the Forest Hill community in Cleveland Heights. Home of the Cleveland Trust Company, built in the French Norman style, this handsome building features high ceilings, marble and granite, and one of the oldest continuously operating elevators in the country.

Stained glass, like a Robber Baron boss
The huge walk-in safe of the Cleveland Trust has been converted into a small but very functional kitchen in which Executive Chef Jill Vedaa creates accessible New American cuisine. The simplicity of her food ("don't fuss with it too much", Vedaa) is austere in contrast to the ornate decor of the space, complete with a stained glass window overlooking the dining room.

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I arrived early to Rockefeller's Restaurant and was greeted by a doe-eyed blonde named Joy who bore a striking resemblance to Chloe Sevigny.

I opted to sit at the bar since none of my companions had arrived.

Having had a late night of birthday carousing the night before, I set out to fix my hangover with a stiff negroni. I idly browsed the wine list as I waited, knowing that I would probably defer to my pal and fellow wine enthusiast, Christina.

The space is huge and imposing. I envision John D himself clearing the whole room and roasting a hot dog or marshmallows on a stick over the fireplace, a stolen Citizen Kane moment of forbidden childhood glee safely out of sight of the proletariat.

The group trickles in slowly, foiled by the worst timed traffic lights in Cleveland, perhaps the world. We are shown to a round table on a raised platform overlooking the dining room by our hostess, Joy.

Another round of drinks. Christina gets a negroni - I knew I liked her for a reason. Her boyfriend Chris orders a frou-frou concoction tinted lavender by some twee cordial, as if to say: "yes, real men can drink purple martinis". Bravo!

Brad and I both get the daily special, something called "The Dillinger", which is basically a Bulleit Rye sidecar on the rocks (just say no to "up" drinks). Olga abstains.

After some hemming and hawing we get around to ordering appetizers.

The menu did not contain many vegan or vegetarian options, or did not at the time of our visit.

[ Editor's note: Jill sent us the updated menu which does have a few vegetarian options, including an entrée. I'll include that at the end of this article. ]

We had:
  • Fried calamaris - these are soaked in buttermilk, then lightly battered, usually in rice flour, and flash fried. Rockefeller's came with a drizzle of a a tangy coconut milk dressing and greens. A version of these have been featured by Jill since her pre-Fig days, and, I hope, for some time to come.
  • Tuna tartare - a single amuse bouche for each of us at the table, light, with an aromatic oil, scallions, portioned out on fried lotus chips with a light wasabi sauce.
  • Butter lettuce and beets with goat cheese - a crowd pleasing standard, the fresh Ohio butter lettuce a good contrast to earthy, candy like beets.
  • Puree of white beans - the vegetarian choice was surprisingly one of the favorites. I have to find out what Jill does with these beans but the puree was absolutely delicious. Came with warmed olives and crostini. Very, very good.
  • Something not on the menu that came with a latke, devoured almost instantaneously. I'm not even sure I got more than 2 bites of it, since my friends are savages! I want to say a smoked sable was part of the dish. Lachaim!
"Just to let you know, we're about to 86 the cowboy steak," said the Waiter.

"Oh word, Jill had best save me one of them bad boys or I'll have to share some stories of her from the 1990s," I jested.

The Waiter shot me a bitch, please kind of look and said, "90s? Hell, I'll tell you some some stories of Jill in the 80s."

Needless to say, by the time I got around to ordering the cowboy steak, which is a single, Frenched ribeye steak, it had been 86ed (the kitchen ran out of them), so I defaulted to my second choice, the hanger steak.

Jill Vedaa introduced this wonderful cut of meat to me back in 1998 when she was the sous chef at the Flying Fig in Ohio City.

The hanger steak is one of my favorite cuts of beef, a muscle that joins the flank and the skirt to the animal's diaphragm. There are two on each animal, weighing about a pound each, on either side of a large tendon.

Susceptible to spoilage, butchers would take them home rather than try to sell them - and as an added bonus it's one of the best cuts on the animal.

Rockefeller's hanger steak comes grilled and sauced, with grilled asparagus and Ohio blue cheese smashed potatoes.

Rounding out the entrees:
  •  Roasted pork chop with roasted apples, horseradish spätzle and bacon braised greens. Beside the hanger, this is one of Vedaa's standbys and always delicious.
  • Veal Osso Bucco with wild mushroom polenta, candied bacon gremolata and baby beans. I mentioned bacon, right? A winner: falling off the bone, succulent and unctuous dish.
  • Trout with an herb crust, white bean tomato ragout and grilled asparagus. Didn't try but I looked damn good and no complaints.
  • Great Lakes Walleye with black eyed peas and seared greens. Also didn't try but it looked good, the fish portion was huge and again, no complaints.
My arm was twisted into having two excellently executed but not terribly daring desserts:
  • A salted caramel ice cream which was easily as good as Symon's or Cosentino's (and I would not put it past Jill to poach one of Symon's former pastry chefs).
  • A molten, flour-less chocolate cake with raspberry coulis.
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Probably my only real complaint was the lack of an espresso machine.

Our Waiter (who had a hilariously 70's-esque porn name, think Dirk Diggler) offered to and did fetch espressi from the Starbuck's in the building and served them up in demitasse cups.

A+ for effort, indeed.

The price was right: my entree was $28 for a good portion of steak, and most entrees were in the $20-30 range. Appetizers ranged from $8 to $16. There were a number of priced-to-move items on the wine list.

Chef Vedaa's food is good and her approach to food is very accessible: pick the best products available, don't mess with them too much, and you'll have a good result. I can get behind that.

She's hard working and talented and she deserves success, but the restaurant industry is cruel and often arbitrary - I worry that the location may be out of the way for the kind of crowd they want to attract: young and spend-thrift.

Also, it may seem out of place to have such dressed-down food in such dressy environs.

I hope that the local community sees the irony of it as I do, the whimsy of roasting marshmallows over the fireplace in spite of the marble and vaulted ceilings; turning a bank vault into a kitchen.

And Jill...get an espresso machine. We can do better than Starbuck's!

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Rockefeller's Restaurant:

Menu for April 11, 2012

first
calamari cilantro + coriander coconut milk glaze 10
duck meatballs diakon slaw + plum sauce 10.5
tuna tartar cucumber salad + crisp bread 12
short ribs pinto bean cake + charmoula 10
mussels smoked tomato broth, crabmeat + croustini 11
lobster fritters pablano + citrus remoulade 13
white bean puree farro salad + grilled bread 9
shrimp tacos avocado, charred corn salsa + creme fraiche 12.5
second 
roasted beets fennel, orange, walnut, goat cheese +
citrus chive vinaigrette 9
arugula blueberries, shaved parmesan + lemon vinaigrette 8
baby spinach candied bacon, egg, maytag blue and
mustard vinaigrette 8 
third
duck breast carmelized leek polenta, ginger fig reduction + baby beans 23
mahi mahi mashed sweet potatoes, charred pineapple buerre blanc +
fresh cabbage slaw 24
pork tenderloin bourbon baked beans, asparagus + peach bbq 22
scampi black pepper grits, fried kale + honey jalepeno glaze 24
quinoa sweet peas, roasted garlic + marinated feta 20
braised lamb saffron rice, olives, tomato + minted yogurt 22
gnocci pinenuts, asparagus, parmesan + lemon garlic oil 19
hanger steak roasted yukons, arugula, tomato, maytag blue +
balsamic syrup 23
http://www.rockefellers-restaurant.com/
3099 Mayfield Road  Cleveland Heights, OH 44118
(216) 321-0477