Taste: Savor the Flavor

Taste. It’s a noun and a verb; a perception, a preference and a portion; an experience and a command. It’s also the name of a restaurant in Cleveland Heights that’s been open one year this month. The word’s multiple meanings come into play here: Following the prompt, I sipped, sampled and savored my way through an enticing selection of food and wine.

With an equal emphasis on food and drink, the envelope-shaped space is divided in half with a handsome bar on one side and the main dining room on the other. A minimalist aesthetic sets a sophisticated, contemporary tone: blond wood furnishings, exposed brick, pendant lights and walls painted terra cotta, graphite and saffron. It’s a good choice for a leisurely multicourse meal with a good bottle from Napa but is equally appealing for a light, late-night bite and a single glass of Veuve Clicquot or a Chilean cab.

The kitchen is in the care of Anthony Vicente. He worked at Fire Food and Drink before accepting his first turn as top toque. Paris born and trained, Vicente unsurprisingly uses terrines, Dijon sauce and creme brulee on his small but regularly changing menu. He turns out a masterful vichyssoise, an elegant chilled potato soup that’s satiny smooth ($6). A salmon rillettes appetizer demonstrates equal finesse ($8). The lightly cooked fish is rough chopped and turned into a dense pâté-like spread that’s served atop slices of baguette with a paper thin Parmesan tuile (cookie) and a small mound of dressed, mixed greens.

But Vicente, who landed here because his wife had an opportunity to do research at the Cleveland Clinic, refuses to let his heritage define his cooking.

“This is not a French restaurant,” he insists. “I am free to make whatever I want.”

That’s why you’ll also see a sauteed shrimp starter with Asian noodles ($10), a sesame-crusted filet mignon presented with a crispy rice cake and Japanese vegetables ($24), and a risotto special prepared with couscous among the nightly offerings.

Dishes come and go with seasons and the chef’s whim, but a few have proved so popular that they are almost always available with slight variations in sauce, seasoning and garnishes. The red beet carpaccio — a clever vegetal version of the traditional Mediterranean presentation featuring thin slices of raw beef — is a palate pleaser with plenty of eye appeal ($8). Rounds of ruby-colored beets are arrayed around a green mound of spinach splashed with a curry dressing and dotted with white goat cheese crumbles. Bits of bacon add another layer of flavor.

Scallops on a bed of creamy leeks are a pure pleasure ($18). Four fat scallops are sliced in half before getting a caramelizing sear. This allows for quicker cooking and ensures every bite is moist, silken and almost sugary on the tongue with a firm lobster-like texture. Swiping each one through the swirls of red pepper and mango coulis that decorated the plate provides extra zing while the natural buttered onion essence of the leeks is a perfect foil for the seafood.

I was less impressed with another menu staple — the duck breast with mustard mashed potatoes ($21). The skin on the bird was nicely crisped and the meat tender, but the passion fruit sauce was dull brown, somewhat salty and lacking any hint of fruitiness. On the plus side, the punched-up potatoes were just right.

Two other dishes disappointed. The filling in the fried chicken-stuffed ravioli was extremely dry, and the sweet chili sauce did not hide the fact that it was bland ($9). A slightly overdone lemon thyme pork chop with fresh green apple would have benefited from a more generous application of all three ingredients ($20). However, the accompanying creamy fennel, that cousin of celery with an anise-kissed tang, was delicious and is available a la carte ($5).

Perhaps the most surprising thing on the menu, and there since day one, is the intriguing red bell pepper cheesecake ($6). “I was trying to do something very American,” Vicente explains, “but also original and interesting that not everybody else does.” To make the fluffy pinkish wedge, he roasts the peppers, which intensifies their natural sweetness, then purees and folds them into the cream cheese mixture. The finished product is a satisfyingly sweet and rich dessert, but with hints of smokiness and salad.

Another terrific ending is a luscious chocolate mousse ($8) with house-made hazelnut ice cream (all the ice cream and sorbet are made in house and are available as a sampler trio for $6). The pairing of the two flavors is a classic, and for me, one spoonful inevitably led to the next until the bowl was quite empty.

Taste is definitely a destination for wine enthusiasts. The list is assembled by Larry Weider, a longtime wine collector and self-taught aficionado. He co-owns Taste with partner Raj Singh, who also owns Café Tandoor. The handpicked mix is thoughtful, eclectic and varied, emphasizing notable California reds, which Weider believes are particularly appealing to American palates. Most run between $50 and $70, but there are a few trophy bottles including a ’97 Opus One cab for $250. A smaller selection of whites from California, Oregon, France, Italy, Argentina, Chile and South America are less pricey but quite interesting. There are more than a dozen by-the-glass selections, usually poured tableside from a tiny carafe. I was especially impressed by the Drouhin Saint-Veran bourgogne blanc, a vibrant white burgundy ($10).

Part of Taste’s appeal is the fine dining amenities you get without the overwhelming formality or exorbitant checks. The napkins are cloth, the flatware has the look and feel of quality, and the plates, platters and bowls are sleek and modern.

In tune with the times, there are some bargains to get you in the door. On Wine and Dine Wednesdays, bottles are $10 off. Happy hour features $5 wine pours and martinis and 20 percent off all appetizers. The $49 per person prix fixe dinner is an anytime option: Select any appetizer, entree and dessert plus two by-the-glass wines costing up to $10. Save a lot or a little depending on the items you choose. I think there’s something very relaxing about knowing exactly what you’re spending up front.

Deals like this add to this restaurant’s appeal and make it easy to develop a taste for Taste.

Taste, 2317 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, (216) 932-9100. Tue-Sat 5 - 10 p.m., Sun 5 - 9 p.m. Happy Hour Tue-Sun, 5 - 7 p.m., tastefoodwine.com

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