Anyone who has been to Blue Canyon Kitchen & Tavern, that very successful lodge-type place in Twinsburg, already knows chef Brandt Evans can cowboy up in the kitchen. The 7-year-old Western-style Twinsburg restaurant known for its steaks and spice rubs has been a local favorite.
But Evans' new venture is all about his range. Gone are the log cabin feel, grilled meat and barbecue cowboy dust. Pura Vida is a sleek, modern Public Square spot, where the food is fun, excellently prepared and, as the name implies, pure.
"Pura vida" is a saying I first heard in Costa Rica, where it is practically a national trademark. It is more of a philosophy than a slogan, which Evans interprets as living in the present.
With gray cement floors and lighted fabric softening the industrial-looking ceiling, the space is undeniably urban. A long, metal beam runs through the room and draws the eye from the dining area to the busy open kitchen, and a glass cooler with a smart cheese selection acts as a divider to a semiprivate nook that can be closed off with a stainless mesh curtain.
Evans knows the risk of a Public Square restaurant in a town that tends to go to the suburbs in the evenings — something he hopes will change when the casino opens next spring. In the meantime, daytime traffic is robust, and he capitalizes on that.
A sturdy lunch menu offers reliables and quite a few surprises. It goes from soups to a section called "with your hands" to "early supper" for the hungrier diner. But there is little ordinary here.
Tired of the old tuna sandwich? Try the tuna sandwich deconstructed ($12.50). It's a bowl of fine chunks of tuna marinated in light oil (as all tuna should be) and served with slices of grilled bread, pickled onions, fried capers and lemon-garlic aioli. You build it to your liking, smearing the tuna on crispy, buttery bread and dotting it with the crunchy salted capers and the sweet onion. You come away filled up but not feeling overloaded, something Evans calls "sushi full."
There's a daily special called the Lunch Box that comes in a, well, a metal lunch box. The one I had was a breaded fried shrimp po' boy on a large crunchy roll with remoulade, caper and spicy Thai sauce.
The soups are also worth sampling. A shrimp and corn chowder was full of tiny shrimp in a velvety cream ($4). The yellow tomato gazpacho was zingy and fresh ($4).
But unlike a lot of Cleveland commuters, Pura Vida doesn't retreat as night falls, and the restaurant's dinners are worth sticking around to enjoy.
Start with any of the dishes classified as Urban Picnic. The Moroccan spiced lamb sliders, ground lamb on small buns with taleggio cheese melted on top and fig jam, were served three on a plate. The buns are toasted to buttery perfection and brushed with a wash that added a delightful unexpected sweetness. If you go with friends, you can supersize your order. Instead of $8 for the three, you get nine for $18. In fact, all appetizers come with two prices: one for yourself and one for the table.
A section called Jars is also a good place to share. Duck confit, beef tongue and salmon rillettes come to the table in a glass jar with several condiments and toast points. The duck confit ($14) was a creamy pate with bits of roasted garlic and caramelized onions. A spoon of sea salt, sliced radishes, pickled onions and an olive tapenade accompanied the jar to create whatever combinations we cared to try.
The entrees are also a mix of old favorites and some new twists. Sockeye salmon ($20) had a balsamic glaze cooked to perfection, topped with another appreciated detail: a couple of perfectly fired basil leaves. The dish came with a curried cous cous that offered a change of pace.
The 24-hour short rib ($21) was one of those dishes you think about long after you've finished your dessert and are headed home. Perfectly tender — I'd say fall off the bone, but there wasn't any. Its flavor was deep and rich, the kind meat gets when it cooks slowly for a long time. The plate came with a large smear of a delicate horseradish sauce that gave a kick to the mellow meat. Tender wild mushroom herbed spaetzle was served alongside it. Some caramelized mushrooms and the delicate tiny dumplings gave the whole dish an Old World feel.