A New Favorite

SB Eighty One takes up where the popular Saucy Bistro left off, with a fresh look and great food.

Saucy Bistro had been popular among West Side restaurant goers ever since it opened in Rocky River in the 1990s. Its fans remained loyal even after it moved to a larger space on Detroit Road in Westlake several years later, and those followers will no doubt remain true after its latest transformation.

Last fall, after a brief respite, the restaurant opened as SB Eighty One with new ownership, updated décor and a different chef in charge. I'm happy to report that longtime fans of its former incarnation won't be disappointed.

The space has been brightened, with lighter walls and contemporary artwork. The more formal white tablecloths have given way to a sleeker, more relaxed look of bare-wood tabletops and dark placemats and settings that will no doubt play well with the hip, mature crowd the bistro attracts.

I also noticed these patrons seem to gravitate to the restaurant's downstairs room — called 81 Below — where new owner Paul Schell has devoted considerable attention to offering live entertainment most nights of the week.

Schell, who grew up in Westlake, recently moved back after spending many years on the West Coast, during which he took a stab at an acting/modeling career. While in Los Angeles, he owned and operated restaurants to supplement his income, learning what works and what doesn't along the way.

SB Eighty One's space, once home to the venerable Iron Gate and later Bistro du Beaujolais, is anchored by an open kitchen where chef Nick Dlugoss can be seen directing his team, turning out dishes marked by his own stamp on contemporary bistro cuisine.

And right out of the box, with his selection of starters, there is no mistaking his penchant for bold and creative flavors.

Take, for example, the mussels ($9), which was a star dish among the appetizer selections. Plump, juicy shellfish are topped with a generous portion of crumbled, well-seasoned chorizo sausage. The spicy sausage and burst of sweetness from the mussels and light white wine butter sauce created an unexpected combination, offering a workout for the taste buds. The scallions, tomatoes and basil topped it all off for a fresh finish.

For a lighter bite, the tuna Napoleon ($11) offered an almost palate-cleansing alternative. The very fresh, very thin slices of sesame-crusted rare tuna came on crispy fried wontons with a subtle wasabi

Another appetizer, the roasted vegetable Wellington ($9), would make any vegetarian happy with its delicate, savory-sauced dice of zucchini, red onion, mushroom and leek tucked in a fluffy puff pastry and drizzled with a tangy, sweet balsamic glaze.

Dlugoss' eye for detail is also evident in his salads. Beet salad ($7) was a refreshing interlude with thick slices of small, tender red beets topped with blue cheese, crunchy pistachios and citrus vinaigrette. The Bittaker salad ($6) is also one worth trying. Mixed fresh greens are topped with small bits of cauliflower, bacon, generous crumbles of blue cheese and the restaurant's signature creamy-yet-zesty Bittaker dressing

Like the appetizers, SB Eighty One's entrees were also prepared with attention to flavors and textures. The fennel-crusted pork tenderloin ($20) had a generous pop of nutty fennel seed and sat on a bed of tender braised — slightly sweet, slightly tangy — red cabbage and apples. A light vermouth cream sauce tied it all together.

Sage-crusted chicken breast ($20) was light on the sage — if detected at all — but it didn't stop the dish from delivering. A light, crispy crust encased a pleasantly moist breast. It was perched atop a mound of delicate creamy, cauliflower risotto and sautéed greens.

The old standby filet mignon ($29) was anything but ordinary, dressed up with fresh crab, wilted spinach and classic béarnaise sauce all on a generous portion of creamy goat cheese mashed potatoes that were impossible for me to stop eating. The steak, ordered medium rare, came out more on the rare side, but didn't stop me from enjoying every last bite.

But entrees such as these weren't the only dinner options. The menu, which boasted several gluten-free selections, was rounded out with pasta, pizza and burgers for those who prefer a more casual bite — perhaps before an evening of music downstairs.

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