Amped Up

Amp 150 is not what you expect. It’s much, much better.

Operated by a national hotel chain in a location that caters to business travelers, the restaurant doesn’t exactly inspire high hopes for a memorable dining experience. But Amp 150, which replaced Jack’s Steakhouse in the lobby of the renovated Cleveland Airport Marriott, defies that stereotype.

The incredible quality and originality of the food plus executive chef Ellis Cooley’s commitment to using local products that capture the flavor and seasons of Northeast Ohio give the place a distinctive personality. That’s why we broke our general rule of covering only restaurants owned and operated by people who live here. Despite its corporate parentage, Amp 150 is no cookie-cutter dining destination.

The restaurant’s name is an acronym for “America’s Modern Palate” plus a nod to its location on West 150th Street. Celebrity chef Dean James Max developed the concept, which emphasizes small plates, farm-to-table cooking and imaginative combinations, but enlisted Cooley, who had worked with him in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to interpret it. The 30-year-old, whose résumé includes stints in Spain and New York, brings his own perspective to the menu. So credit for its meticulous execution should now go to him.

Ruth Reichl, editor of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, was recently quoted in the Seattle Times explaining that because great ingredients are so readily available to everyone these days, restaurant chefs have to be more technique-driven than in the past, offering diners “something extraordinary in terms of how those ingredients are prepared.”

Reichl’s words go a long way in explaining my enthusiasm for Amp 150. Cooley does things with food that home cooks can’t or won’t. He devises ingenious pairings such as steak with a smear of cashew butter or creme brulee spiked with Chinese five-spice powder.

His team makes cider vinegar, sauerkraut and pickles, my favorite being a Kool-Aid version (apparently it’s a Southern thing, and the strawberry variety I had was ridiculously good). They also prepare lounge-only offerings such as corned beef and jerky. Irresistible sweet soy and peanut chicken wings — served with spicy kimchee that Cooley ferments himself — require 24 hours in brine and a poach in duck fat.

Cooley’s approach is interesting, subtle, sometimes edgy, and full of nice surprises but not overly rich or fussy. It’s the kind of food I could eat every day.

The menu is divided into five unconventional categories: Share, Salads and Soups, Small Bites, Garden, Larger Bites and a separate short list of desserts. You can nibble or feast in whatever variety and quantity suits you. The approach also allows you to taste many dishes.

Two soups will prompt a desire to soak up every last drop: The mushroom with chive cream is silken and earthy ($5) while the chunky chicken soup dotted with slices of avocado, radish and corn dumplings is bright and lively courtesy of jalapenos, cilantro and a squeeze of lime ($6). Cognac-laced chicken liver pâté has the intensity of fois gras without the moral ambiguity or price tag ($5). The secret, Cooley reveals, is the addition of whipped cream and triple sieving. Grilled bread and a shimmering orange spoonful of kumquat marmalade complete the fine presentation.

Cooley’s got a deft hand with vegetables, too. A butter lettuce salad is boosted by pumpkinseed vinaigrette ($6), and so is a baby arugula salad with candied walnuts, blood orange, Parmesan and citrus dressing ($7). Cauliflower is a treat after being roasted, combined with goat cheese and pine nuts, and splashed with a garnet beet vinaigrette ($5).

Among the full-sized options, I was especially taken by the Asian-influenced Chesapeake Bay cod ($15). The fish flakes off at the tap of a tine, falling into a pool of gingery smoked onion broth thick with bok choy, pieces of shrimp and edamame.Another outstanding seafood choice is pan-roasted arctic char ($16). Soft, buttery, savory cabbage laced with lardons (cubes of fatty bacon) and a sweet parsnip puree shared the plate on my visit, but they have since been replaced with honey-glazed turnips.

Not everybody can make potato gnocchi correctly. But Cooley’s, tossed with Killbuck Valley mushrooms, truffle and sage, are light and plump ($7). His braised rabbit cavatelli, flecked with candied garlic, fall greens and mint is a smart mash up of Italian tradition and contemporary invention ($15). And while the meat in his Austrian goulash was ho-hum, the paprika gravy and creamy herbed spaetzle in the dish was terrific ($14).

Even menu staples are elevated here. Burgers start with certified Angus beef, Ohio cheddar and rashers of sweet, salty bacon from a small Tennessee producer ($9). Hand-cut fries are seasoned with sea salt and served with lemon aioli ($4). If it’s crunch you crave, choose the potentially habit-forming, house-made potato chips ($4).

Cooley expresses his buy-local-and-make-it-from-scratch ethic at the bar in seasonal specialty cocktails featuring fresh fruit juices and purees and Ohio-brewed beers.

Wines, however, have a global reach. The emphasis is on boutique labels and lesser-known varietals (22 available by the glass) that can’t be found on supermarket shelves. I had an excellent Martin Codax albarino, a Spanish white ($7), and Argento malbec ($7.50). Nice discoveries among the bottles are a South African pinotage (Fairview, $38) and Fontevecchio verdicchio from Italy ($36).

On multiple visits, our servers were unusually personable and helpful. They must hone their people skills dealing with lonely business travelers who value friendly attention. The staff also seemed enthusiastic about the chef’s food and did a noteworthy job describing his dishes. That’s especially impressive considering the menu is a fluid thing that reflects the best of what Cooley can get from farmers and suppliers.

What remains the same is his ability to amp up the excitement with his ingenious ideas and impeccable execution.

Amp 150, 4277 W. 150th St., Cleveland, 216-706-8787. Open daily, breakfast 6:30 - 10:30 a.m., lunch & dinner 11 a.m. - midnight,

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