Almost Letter Perfect


Cognac producers use a veritable alphabet soup of letters to designate the relative quality of their product. In ascending order: VO for "very old," VS for "very special," VSOP for "very superior old pale." At the top of the heap stands XO ("extra old") and, appropriately enough, that's the name owner Zdenko Zovki's chose for his Warehouse District restaurant at the corner of West Sixth Street and St. Clair Avenue, in the former Greek Isles. XO opened last September and, in a neighborhood of good restaurants, quickly made its way to the top of the heap for its food, service and ambiance.

XO is packed on weekends (so plan ahead). Even on a frigid midweek night, when local TV meteorologists were sowing panic with endless gibbering about Alberta Clippers and the dreaded lake effect, the main dining room was mostly filled by a happy, chattering crowd heedless that the sky was about to fall.

Zovki'c has had a long career in food service, both in Europe and the U.S. "I chose the name XO because I wanted a name that represents high quality, without specifically identifying the restaurant as French or Italian or Spanish," he says. "I'm a great aficionado of cognac, and I thought XO not only signified the best, but would also be easy to remember."

He adds that he's made it a point to stock the bar with bottles of every XO currently available in Ohio. That's not many, but Zovki'c hopes that, in the future, more enlightened liquor laws will permit him to enlarge his stock.

Zovki'c worked pretty much as his own interior designer and gave each of the restaurant's rooms a different look. The bar is all black, silver and white leather with stunning, globe-shaped lighting fixtures of rippled glass that seem to hover over the zebra-wood bar. Thousands of strands of stainless-steel beads drape the back bar. One of the smaller dining rooms (perfect for private parties) is all chocolate and cream. The main room is swathed in pink with charcoal accents. About the only complaint we have about the overall ambiance is the too-loud rock music piped into the dining rooms.

XO reflects Zovki'c's energetic will to excel, and his good sense in hiring executive chef Scott Popovic, whose previous assignments include Charlie Trotter's Aureole in Las Vegas and Nine, a fish- and steakhouse at The Palms hotel and casino. Locally, Popovic has worked at The Ritz-Carlton and Moxie.

His XO menu offers something for everyone -- seafood, pasta, chicken, red meat and game -- in interesting combinations with imaginative sides. Often enough, his plates include thoughtfully chosen and well-prepared greens, a component too often ignored by other chefs. Popovic's food is beautifully presented and filled with great flavors and textures.

The chef will change his menu with the seasons and to keep up with all the latest dining trends. As an example, some dishes may be accompanied by "vapors" -- a bowl of aromatic herbs steeping in boiling water so that their aroma becomes part of the total experience of the dish. Another such touch is experimenting with unusual combinations of flavors and textures, such as the chocolate beurre blanc on his great halibut dish and the lavender granita that accompanies the rabbit.

Appetizers are a strong suit. At least one, the lamb loin, could serve as an entree for a diner with a small appetite. A generous cut of fork-tender lamb loin is dusted with morel mushrooms and roasted to rosy perfection. Slices of lamb are fanned around a tower of spinach, roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes flavored with fresh thyme, and a mound of flawlessly seasoned eggplant caviar. A puddle of port-wine reduction completes the dish ($10).

A trio of beggar's purses offers a variety of fillings -- one each of beef, duck and crab -- in deep-fried wonton skins. Each of the fillings offers its own unique delights: The beef is rich and full flavored, the duck unctuous and velvety, the crab smooth and creamy. The deep-fried wontons provide a pleasantly satisfying crunch. Wasabi, ginger-soy and plum dipping sauces round out the plate ($11).

Sea scallops are sliced rather thin, then lightly seared, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and topped with a dollop of foie gras. A leaf of crunchy Boston lettuce is provided for rolling up the scallop to be eaten by hand, Thai style. It's a delicious combination, but we felt the $15 tariff a bit stiff given the thinness of the scallop slices and relatively tiny nugget of foie gras.

The menu indicates that the mushroom-stuffed raviolo is accompanied by porcini foam. We detected no foam, but did note a mild porcini flavor. All in all, the dish is not up to the standards set by XO's other appetizers ($8.50).

Other interesting starters include beef carpaccio, a slice of top-quality beef tenderloin pounded flat and deftly seasoned ($11) and tuna tartare with wasabi, caviar cream and frizzled leeks ($10.50).

Salads, like everything else at XO, are beautifully arranged and presented. The chef's green salad is sprinkled with spiced pecans and croutons flavored with goat cheese, then dressed with an apple vinaigrette ($7.50). Fans of Caesar salad may opt for a blend of romaine lettuce and anchovies with an anchovy dressing and a crunchy frico (crisp-fried Parmesan cheese) for $6.50.

Chef Popovic's kitchen handles seafood very well indeed. Try his roasted bass flavored with fresh thyme and served with a butternut-squash raviolo, Swiss chard and a sage-infused beurre blanc ($24.50), or dig into roasted salmon enriched with pancetta and accompanied by cannellini beans, cabbage and beets ($21). Another luscious choice is lasagna layered with crab and a rich lobster cream sauce ($22).

Offered as a special, and soon to make its way onto the regular menu, roasted halibut is a clear winner. The fish is fresh and mild, roasted until crisp around the edges but still sweet and creamy inside. Sides include a scoop of roasted acorn squash and a tangle of baby greens with a blood-orange vinaigrette. The dish is finished with the chef's signature chocolate beurre blanc. The combination sounds strange, but comes out plate-licking good ($25).

Chicken, so often a throwaway item on menus, gets careful attention here. It's a generous serving of what restaurateurs call "airline chicken," a boneless breast with only the wing bone still attached. It's pan roasted, beautifully moist and tender, flavored with a slice of prosciutto and a chunk of smoked mozzarella for richness, then finished with a delicious wine reduction ($20).

Few local restaurants offer game dishes; fewer still do them well. XO fills the void with a loin of farm-raised venison that's pan seared and served with a mound of broccoli rabe and a stack of fried polenta sticks ($26). The meat is rich and full flavored with only a faint, pleasant tang of gaminess. The bitterness of the rapini provides a perfect foil to the meat's richness, while the crispy polenta sticks complete the symphony with great crunchy texture.

Braised short ribs, the best we have ever tasted, anywhere, are cooked to fall-apart tenderness in a richly seasoned braising liquid redolent of wine and root vegetables ($27.50). Sadly, the honey-glazed Brussels sprouts that accompany the dish are woefully undercooked. Try cutting one with your fork and you'll find it skittering across the plate ? perhaps into the lap of a neighboring diner.

Desserts, though not housemade, are mostly exclusive to XO. As ever, Woo City ice cream pleases us mightily; try the French vanilla with dried cherries if it's available ($7). A banana cream tart with coconut and caramel sauce was pleasant but had, perhaps, spent too many hours in the refrigerator ($7.50). Get your chocolate fix with the intensely chocolaty mousse that rides atop a ring of chocolate cake and is laced with additional chocolate sauce ($7.50).

The lunch menu at XO offers a variety of sandwiches, salads and pastas. Prices range from $9.50 for a salad of chopped greens with prosciutto and bleu cheese to $18 for a lobster club sandwich.

XO's wine list, while not encyclopedic, offers a generally fairly priced mix of bottles from many of the world's prime wine-producing regions, as well as an excellent selection of wines by the glass.

Opening a restaurant in downtown Cleveland in these parlous times is clearly an act of faith ? in yourself, in the city and in your product. Zovki'c clearly has the drive and has proven he has the food-service savvy. Working with Popovic, he's created an outstanding product. We wait to see if this city will support it.

XO, 500 West St. Clair Ave., Warehouse District, (216) 861-1919. Hours: lunch Mon-Friday 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.; dinner Mon-Thu 5 - 11 p.m., Fri and Sat 4 p.m. - midnight, Sun 4 - 9 p.m. Access to the dining room and restrooms is easy. Valet parking is available. All major credit cards are accepted.

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