Flavor Fancy

Jeff Jarrett's refreshing Palate brings trendy neighborhood tastes to a suburban strip mall.

Stumbling upon a terrific fine-dining restaurant such as Palate makes you wonder how many other gems are hidden in suburban strip shopping centers. So don't count this place out by its exterior appearance, a front stuck between a nail salon and a license bureau in Strongsville.

Chef and owner Jeff Jarrett left North End in Hudson last year, moving his operation and some of his staff to this nondescript center on Pearl Road. It is a welcome addition to the South Side's sometimes drab culinary scene.

The vibe is sophisticated and modern. Stone-filled glass boxes on each table hold either a single candle or sprig of flowers. And dishes are served on a variety of unconventionally shaped platters reminiscent of geometry class — a fitting backdrop for an imaginative menu filled with surprising combinations of flavors.

For example, a crab cake starter ($6) rests on a bed of creamy cauliflower salad and candied hot peppers, while the beet salad ($8) features tender baby beets in a variety of colors sprinkled with candied nuts, mango puree, shallot vinaigrette and a paper-thin slice of pickled ginger.

Every dish is well conceived and executed with equal amount of thought throughout the entire three-section menu of small plates, salads and entrees. (Even desserts offer a twist on the expected, but we'll get to that later.) Influences are all over the map. Earthy, rich European-style braises are found alongside dishes with hints of Asian spices and flavors such as a fall-off-the-bone tender duck confit ($10) appetizer with hoisin glaze.

But perhaps the biggest shock about Palate is that Jarrett never had formal culinary training. He learned by going from restaurant to restaurant, starting at Denny's long ago and moving to some of Cleveland's best, including Dante, Leopard at The Bertram Inn and Light Bistro.

He'll be the first to tell you that his approach to food is playful. "I like to have fun with it," he says modestly. That is most certainly an understatement.

Take, for example, the braised pork belly ($7) small plate Jarrett says was inspired by a breakfast of bacon and hash browns. Crisp on the outside and tender within, the pork comes on sliced, sauteed fingerling potatoes with mushrooms and a small dab of smoked gouda sauce. It sounded good on the menu, but the first bite blew me away. The salt of the bacon played well against the mild richness of the fingerlings. It was totally unexpected to have lowly pork belly elevated to such culinary satisfaction.

The wild mushroom bread pudding starter ($7) with herb-smoked onions and balsamic drizzle put a savory twist on the predictable dessert preparation. The dish was moist, the herbs brought a subtle earthiness without overpowering, and the onions provided a natural sweetness.

Salads are also given the care that you'd expect from entrees. Try the fried goat cheese salad ($7) with two medallions of cheese, produced on a farm in Kent, breaded and fried quickly to a golden brown. They are perched on a small bed of microgreens, diced pears and toasted almonds and lightly drizzled with a thyme honey gastrique. If not for the beautiful crust, you wouldn't know the goat cheese even touched hot oil.

With starters like those, you'd think it would be a hard act to follow. But Jarrett's imagination kicks into overdrive on his entrees.

A signature dish is his pancetta-wrapped pheasant ($22) on a zucchini and bacon ragout with oyster mushrooms and a French onion puree. The pheasant almost melted away in my mouth. You just don't find game birds that tender unless prepared perfectly.

The flatiron steak ($22), cut thick and done as asked to medium rare, was served with brown butter roasted cauliflower, a house-made steak sauce and a generous pan of some of the best mac and cheese I've ever sampled — herby, creamy and cheesy.

The beautiful scallop dish ($22) highlighted the stars of springtime with fresh asparagus and pickled ramps (wild leeks) atop a bed of nutty, slightly crunchy farro (wheat berries).

For dessert, Jarrett turns the reins over to pastry chef Lauren Stephenson, who made the move from Hudson with Jarrett. Stephenson stopped by the table once she heard we were interested in dessert to tell us about her creations.

She recommended goat cheese cheesecake ($6) made from the same local creamy goat cheese as in the salad. The mild cheese played well with the pecan shortbread crust and strawberry gastrique. But one of the best was what she called the Blueberry Muffin ($6). It wasn't a muffin at all, but a deliciously creamy panna cotta with a slightly tangy blueberry compote topped with crumbled cinnamon cookies.

Stephenson gets points for imagination and whimsy. Her cookies and milk ($6) is a presentation of two small bottles — one filled with raspberry-infused chocolate milk and the other with ginger-infused white — and two small cups that arrive at the table in a basket. The cookies were homemade crisps. Like everything else here, it was tasty and fun, and well worth the venture to the burbs.

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