Feeling Saucy?: Saucy Bistro

Saucy Bistro

Westlake's hugely popular Saucy Bistro boasts a somewhat ambiguous name. Does "saucy" mean the kitchen prides itself on its signature sauces? Or does "saucy" refer to cuisine that is slightly irreverent?

Probably both. Chef and owner Matt Barnes has a gift for producing outstanding sauces for his high-quality, center-of-the-plate product. Cases in point: the lemon beurre blanc on his lobster potato pancakes; the white French dressing on his Bittaker salad; the Burgundy-infused beurre rouge that accompanies his peppercorn-crusted tuna. You'll understand his commitment to that other meaning of "saucy" when you taste the big flavors and daring combinations in many other dishes — such as the bite of cayenne in the lobster pancakes, the sting of jalapeno in the tomato relish that accompanies his sirloin steak and the succulent slice of foie gras that tops his Ahi tuna.

Chef Barnes and his wife, Shyla, took over Saucy Bistro at its original Rocky River location on Center Ridge Road.

"The old place was really too small for what we had in mind," Barnes says.

The new digs in the former Iron Gate Restaurant provide more room in the kitchen, bar and dining areas, plus comfortable private party rooms. And, yes, there's a great patio now too. "[It] took off in popularity the first summer we opened it," he says.

The Barneses, with some help from Lee Meyer Interiors in Westlake, renovated and redecorated extensively to create a number of handsome dining rooms that are elegant and comfortable but absolutely unpretentious — you'll feel properly dressed in jeans or coat and tie.

The open kitchen affords a clear view of Barnes' hard-working and well-groomed staff doing their thing amid spotless surroundings. Tables are very well spaced and noise control is outstanding. The wait staff is extraordinarily well trained and efficient — your water glass will never run dry, soiled dishes are whisked away, additional flatware laid in place quietly, smoothly and without fuss.

Barnes bills his restaurant as "an American bistro with the passion of France and Italy." His food, though, is more sophisticated than you'd expect from a typical bistro. You can, of course, order something as simple as a hamburger and French fries ($9.50), but you'd be selling the kitchen short. Orchestrate a meal — let the chef offer suggestions, if you like. Barnes' favorite appetizer is the fried calamari ($10). Here the squid is ultra tender and juicy with a crisp crust and generously flavored with garlic and basil. A healthy sprinkling of sun-dried tomatoes provides welcome contrast in texture and flavor — chewy and sweet plays beautifully against the crispness and sea-gamy flavor of the calamari.

We could become addicted to the lobster potato pancakes ($8.50). Lobster mashed potatoes are formed into patties, rolled in crumbs and sautéed to golden crispness. Bite through the crunchy crust and savor the velvety mashed potatoes with their hint of lobster, then feel the surprise: a delicious afterburn of cayenne pepper. The pancakes are served in a pool of lemon-scented beurre blanc with a sprinkling of sautéed spinach and deep-fried leeks. Outstanding.

Other appetizers worth trying include sautéed chicken livers given an East-Asian touch with caramelized onions, soy sauce and pickled ginger ($7.50). The vegetable strudel features a medley of seasonal vegetables rolled in phyllo, baked crisp and served with a smoky tomato sauce ($9). Or choose a portobello mushroom cap, stuffed with spinach and other fresh herbs, sprinkled with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, then anointed with truffle oil ($7.50).

The chef's recommended salad is the Bittaker, named for the cook who invented it ($5.50). It's a great combination of mixed field greens — absolutely fresh and tasting like they're only hours from the garden — chunks of cauliflower, blue cheese and crunchy bacon bits. The greens are bathed in a house-made white French dressing. We tried to get the recipe, but Barnes tells us he'd have to kill whoever wheedled the secret from him.

Chef Barnes is hesitant to recommend a single entrée, like a parent trying to single out his favorite child. But after some prodding, he recommends the rack of lamb ($28). Four double chops were sweet and tender, though grilled a little past the medium-rare stage requested. The lamb is sauced with a rosemary-scented demi glace — an inspired choice — and served atop a mound of hashed sweet potatoes and crisp bacon bits.

Beefeaters are well served with a 12-ounce sirloin steak ($25). The beef is rich and full of good beef flavor, but the roasted corn bread pudding and tomato relish that accompany the steak almost steal the show. For the pudding, chunks of corn bread and roasted corn kernels are folded into luscious savory custard. The zing of that mouth-warming tomato/jalapeno relish is a perfect foil for the bland sweetness of the corn bread pudding and the richness of the beef.

The kitchen does wonderful things with seafood. Halibut ($24) is a generous steak, grilled perfectly and sauced with a tasty red pepper and garlic aioli. Braised spinach and a generous side of perfectly cooked scalloped potatoes — smooth, creamy and enriched with goat cheese — complete the dish. Tilapia ($20) is covered in a crunchy crust of sage-flavored cornmeal and topped with lemon-flavored beurre blanc. Tilapia comes with a side of lobster risotto that's good enough to serve as an entrée. Ahi tuna ($25) is crusted with peppercorns then seared to rosy perfection. A slice of unctuous foie gras is the surprising — and altogether pleasing — accompaniment.

Desserts — some house made, some outsourced — are generally good. Crème brûlée is everybody's favorite. Flavors vary according to the whim of the kitchen, but we were lucky enough to order plain vanilla bean crème brûlée — still the best by far — and luscious ($6). Another popular choice is the peanut butter crunch bar ($6.25). It's a combination of milk chocolate, ganache and peanut butter that will remind you of an upscale Reese's cup. The Italian almond cream cake ($6.25) is sponge cake covered with amaretto-flavored whipped cream (the real thing) and crunchy slivered almonds. Ice creams and sorbets are house made and outstanding ($5.50).

Saucy Bistro's wine list has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence four years in a row. The list offers wines by the glass, half bottle or full bottle.

While Saucy Bistro may have a rather ambiguous name, there's nothing confusing about the food, atmosphere and service. On all counts, this is one of the area's top restaurants.

Saucy Bistro, 24481 Detroit Road, Westlake, (440) 835-3559. Reservations are recommended. Hours: (Lunch) Mon-Fri 11:30 - 3:30 p.m.; (Dinner) Mon-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Sat & Sun 5 - 11 p.m. The restaurant is usually closed on Sunday, except for special occasions.

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