Raising the Bar: Bar Cento

Jonathan Sawyer’s seared skate wing is a tasty departure from Bar Cento’s comfort-food focus.
Fries & Schuele, the West Side’s finest department store for more than 100 years, has been plucked off the vintage rack during the past decade. Luxury condos and McNulty’s Bier Markt now occupy the historic building.

And like a classic little black dress, Bar Cento, a joint venture of chef Jonathan Sawyer and Bier Markt owner Sam McNulty, is a perfect fit for this Ohio City spot. The landmark was rehabbed and reinvented, and that’s exactly what Sawyer is doing with his dishes.

Americans love their burgers, pizza and fries. Instead of fighting that fact, Sawyer embraces it. Back home after a stint running Parea, Michael Symon’s now-defunct New York City restaurant, Sawyer makes these familiar standards anything but ho-hum.

Consider the ordinary french fry. Here it’s the central character in a culinary version of “Extreme Makeover.” His mahogany-hued pommes frites arrive tumbling out of a paper cone, tossed with fragrant sprigs of fresh rosemary and plump cloves of garlic, accompanied by three kinds of mayo for dipping: garlic, curry and chile ($6, $9 for a big table-share order).

I pop a few in my mouth, then many more, and suddenly I want to jump up and down, squeal and do that weepy laughing-slash-hyperventilating thing like the lucky winning folks on reality TV.

Yes — they are that good. It takes just the right potatoes, four steps, three days and a dunk in boiling duck fat (take note, vegetarians!) to achieve that distinctive color and amazing taste.

Sawyer gives pizza an overhaul too. He bakes his in a brick oven and uses big, bold flavors and over-the-top combinations to update and elevate the humble pie.

The Sunnyside ($9) is brilliant. Peppered eggs are nestled in a bed of Italian bacon, with a sauce of runny yolks on the paper-thin, cracker-crispy round of dough.

The roasted red onion pizza ($7) is a treat thanks to the addition of Oregonzola, a tangy, artisan-made, cave-aged Gorgonzola-style blue cheese.

And don’t let the l-word keep you from trying the liver and onions pizza ($17). It’s a study in brown, with chunks of fois gras and “boudin noir” (another potential turnoff once you know that’s French for blood sausage). It isn’t pretty but it is delicious — rich, intense and meaty.

The hamburger’s no average patty, either ($9). It’s made with premium Ohio beef topped with Chimay Grand Cru (a creamy, semihard cheese from Belgium), and a pile of onions sautéed to sugary perfection. Bite into this baby and you get a mouthful of intense, savory complexity.

Sage adds an unexpected note to baked ziti ($15), made with fresh ricotta, while chewy little pieces of chestnut take it way beyond the predictable. It definitely qualifies as comfort food but is good enough to get any gourmet’s seal of approval.

Ravioli ($16) undergoes a similar rehab. Sawyer fills his with pumpkin and sprinkles them with amaretto cookie crumbs for an intriguingly sweet element of surprise. Like all the entrees, it comes with a self-selected side.

Of those I sampled, the baked greens gratinatta was nice, but the simple caramelized fennel bulb was outstanding. It was like biting into a piece of ripe fruit —juicy, sweet and crunchy. Sawyer demonstrates his chef sense by stepping aside and letting the ingredient speak for itself.

The small menu is a mix of snack-size portions and full-on entrees. You can follow the traditional progression of courses or opt for nibbling and sharing. Pair up the warm marinated olives ($4), enlivened by ginger and orange peel, and the antipasto platter ($9) for a great grazing combo.

Bar Cento serves food until 2 a.m. There’s a $10 dinner special every day, and a couple of new dishes replace others on the menu weekly.

Not every item represents a tried-and-true favorite. A choice that might not have instant appeal is the seared skate wing ($11). Popular in Europe but little known in this country, the mild-flavored white fish is prepared with pancetta, capers and chili, a feisty and piquant interpretation not to be missed. The flesh is served on the bone, which may intimidate some, but the plump moist fillets peel off the ribs easily.

The blue cod with brodo and white beans ($18) is a truly blessed fish dish. It’s made with olio sancto (generally written santo), a “holy water” composed of olive oil spiced with peperoncini. It gave the herby tomato broth a pleasing zip.

Only a few things didn’t ring my bells. The warm beets ($5) were mushy and bland. The braised lamb ($16) was light on the promised cinnamon and a bit tough. And I was surprised that in a place that puts such an emphasis on scratch cooking, the veggie burger ($9) tasted as if it were straight out of the box.

On the other hand, desserts exceeded expectations. Both the macaroons ($5) — airy cookie sandwiches, served cold and filled with caramel chocolate pistachio frosting — and the toasted semolina cake with ice cream ($5) got raves from all at the table.

Cento is Roman for one hundred, a nod to the number of bottles on the six-page wine list, and every one is available for retail sale at half the listed price. There are lots of bargain finds, each with a helpful and detailed description. The info led us to a fruity dark red Malbec from Argentina (Altos las Hormigas 2006, $7/$21) and a smooth dry Spanish Vina Albali, Gran Reserva (1997, $8/$25).

The bar also stocks homemade limoncello and Moletto Grappa. The Bier Markt is attached and interconnected, so that establishment’s extensive selection of Belgian brews is available to Sawyer’s patrons.

The long, narrow room gets packed and loud; it’s not a good choice for intimate conversation during peak hours. But the high-energy vibe prompts a different sort of sociability, and it’s fun to hang out here.

Sawyer’s idea is to keep the size of the wait staff lean, and service, though friendly and concerned, can be slow and sometimes awkward. Cooks may bring food to the tables, bartenders often refill water glasses, and there are no designated bussers or runners. This allows the restaurant to deliver outstanding food at affordable prices, so it’s a worthwhile trade-off and keeps with the casual character of the place.

Those who lean green will be happy to note that the restaurant uses many locally sourced and organic ingredients, composts all vegetable scraps and passes on its fryer oil to be converted into biodiesel fuel. These efforts reflect Sawyer’s personal philosophy, and he believes they’re important to many of his customers too.

Back in 1910 discerning shoppers came to Fries & Schuele when they wanted quality and style. These days, those in search of good things are once again flocking here. But the draw now isn’t curtains or corsets. It’s the splendid selection at Bar Cento, sure to please even the most discriminating diners and drinkers.
Bar Cento, 1948 W. 25th St., Cleveland, (216) 274-1010, 4:30 p.m. - 2:30 a.m. Mon-Fri & Sun, noon - 2:30 a.m. Sat. Reservations only for parties of eight or more. www.barcento.com
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