For too long, PlayhouseSquare's dining scene has resembled a Samuel Beckett play: a little lonely, forlorn and just waiting for something noteworthy to arrive.
Want a bite to eat before seeing a show? Your choices were Otto Moser's Restaurant, Star (now closed) and a rotation of bit players and warm-up acts. But with Zack Bruell's Cowell and Hubbard appearing in 2012, the neighborhood got a touch of star appeal that's boosted the entire Theater District.
In recent months, PlayhouseSquare's options have grown into something akin to an ensemble cast, with a renovated Encore on the ground floor of the Wyndham Hotel led by executive chef Shawn Brozic, formerly at the Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland; Cibreo Italian Kitchen, the Tuscan eatery by Chris Hodgson and Scott Kuhn that opened in September; and District, a 100-seat restaurant across the street from the Hanna Theatre that debuted in the spring.
Owned by Seth Bromberg and Eric McIntyre, who also operate two Melting Pot locations in the suburbs, District plays the part of an American brasserie with an informal style, and approachable and affordable food and drink.
Yet Ran Saggi, an Israeli-born and -trained chef, puts a touch of the Middle East into the relatively small menu, crafted to keep things manageable for the kitchen so those in a hurry to make a show are served quickly.
So you'll find some familiar preparations with sides of rice pilaf, liberal use of legumes and lemons, and a palate of Mediterranean flavors. A simple salad of chopped romaine, herbs and tomatoes ($5), for example, is dotted with chickpeas and lentils — although it would have benefited from a bolder, more assertive dressing.
Saggi's version of osso buco ($24) uses lamb rather than the traditional veal for a hearty and wonderfully satisfying dish. Cooked in a spicy tomato shakshouka sauce, the meat is seasoned with a combination of turmeric, cumin, a touch of fenugreek and presented in a bowl with couscous.
A more French sensibility surfaces in the moules meuniere ($9), an appetizer of plump Prince Edward Island mussels. The shellfish were delicious: fresh, classically done with plenty of white wine, butter, lemon and parsley. However, the portion was on the small side compared to other restaurants in town.
In an effort to please a broad swath of appetites, District offers a couple of steaks, including a filet mignon stuffed with blue cheese ($28), and the requisite chicken breast and grilled salmon filet. Vegetarian options include a seasonal vegetable tart ($14), lentil falafel ($13) and pappardelle pasta marinara ($12). Many of the dinner dishes are also available at lunch, along with salads and sandwiches.
We really liked a pan-seared striped bass ($25) with zucchini risotto, haricot verts and a splash of citrus vinaigrette. Dusted with cornstarch to add a bit of crispness to the exterior, the fish was moist and flaky inside.
Expect stews and slow-cooked dishes to be added for fall and winter, Saggi notes, with an emphasis on what he calls "warming spices," such as ginger and cinnamon, and apple pie and fruit crumbles for dessert.
The house version of surf and turf ($23) is far from typical and quite tasty. It featured pieces of veal escalope combined with shrimp and calamari in a white wine and mushroom cream sauce. (In a recent reformulation, steak au poivre replaces the veal.)
Happily, one thing that won't be getting a makeover is Saggi's goose confit ($25). We haven't seen this bird offered elsewhere in Cleveland, which makes it special. His take on it is pitch perfect. A splendid simmered sauce of red wine, dried cranberries, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar sets off the rich flesh. Mashed potatoes play a supporting role.
Saggi is something of a purist. He doesn't do garnishes, fussy platings or artful arrangements. He prefers dishes with few ingredients, prepared well and presented in a simple, straightforward way.
"I don't want to overwhelm diners with complicated preparations," he says. "They should be able to understand what they're eating and taste the main ingredients."
In general, he's not going to amaze you and likely won't send serious foodies into twittering raptures. Rather, this food is meant to be enjoyed.
The dining room echoes Saggi's simple philosophy. It has a spare, smart, utilitarian look — no white cloths on the dark wood tables, no art on the walls, all function and no flash. But it's a comfortable space to sit and have a meal.
Bromberg reports that District is doing a brisk midday business and is busy for dinner when the lights are on in the surrounding theaters. We visited preseason and the place was like a set before the actors have arrived. But Bromberg isn't worried.
"This a marathon for us, not a sprint. We're still building our audience," he says. "We knew it would take time. This area is on the cusp of a rebirth, and we're going to be part of it."