Worth Your Time: Thyme

I’m not in the habit of driving almost 40 miles for a meal. But I did — twice! — for dinner at Thyme, the restaurant John Kolar opened in Medina last October. On both occasions it was well worth the trip and every drop of $2.78-per-gallon gas it took to get there. Those who live closer should count themselves lucky, indeed.

It appears that many people agree. When I called to make a reservation (which I didn’t think I’d even need), there was nothing available on a Saturday night until 8:30 p.m. The place was packed when we arrived, the 10 stools at the handsome copper-sheathed bar were full, and steady demand kept two bartenders busy. Tables were still emptying and refilling an hour later. Likewise on a Friday weeks later.

None of this would be remarkable if the 54-seat restaurant were in Tremont or the Warehouse District. But it’s certainly not what I expected in this semirural exurban community where fast food chains rule.

I did, however, have high expectations for the food, and I was not disappointed.

A Culinary Institute of America grad, Kolar honed his skills at Vong, a three-star restaurant in Manhattan. He showed his hometown what he could do as a chef when he headed up the kitchen at Three Birds in Lakewood. Esquire included Three Birds on its November 2003 list of best new restaurants in the country, and the following May readers of this magazine named it the best new Cleveland restaurant.
Finally settled into his own place, Kolar is securing his reputation as an inspired and accomplished cook with a flair for creating appealing, inventive selections. What’s more, in an effort to make his world-flavored contemporary American cuisine accessible to a wide audience and encourage those who don’t regularly dine on mussels in chipotle cream to eat adventurously, he’s kept prices on the right side of reasonable. He’s hoping this will entice even the timid to try dishes such as pineapple-glazed sea scallops with jalapeno risotto ($21) or macadamia nut-crusted grouper with black rice and blood orange beurre blanc ($24).

Kolar says his favorite moment as a chef is when he overhears someone say, “Wow, you’ve got to taste this,” and sees them pass a forkful across the table. He certainly had us doing exactly that ... before he confessed his penchant for culinary voyeurism.

I liked every dish I sampled, from a cup of smoked tomato bisque served with a cunning miniature grilled cheese sandwich ($5) and asparagus in a red pepper hollandaise ($6) to a deeply satisfying braised lamb shank with ultra creamy orzo mac and cheese ($21). Even his Caesar salad impresses, thanks to the addition of a paramigiano-reggiano tuille (a sort of lacy cheese pastry) and a slice of paper-thin prosciutto flash fried into a crunchy chip ($6).   
Particular dishes really showcase Kolar’s attraction to vibrant flavors. Take the grilled hanger steak ($19). By soaking the beef in a papaya marinade and serving it with a tart tamarind ketchup, a straightforward meat-on-the-plate entrée became something much better. The slices of steak are butter-soft after a bath in Mother Nature’s tenderizer, and the ketchup adds a sweet-and-sour element.

Kolar is a fan of what happens when liquids are cooked to reduce volume by evaporation, because what’s left is so intensely flavored that anything it’s paired with just pops. He uses this technique for an apple cider reduction that tops his beggar purse, a salad of walnut-crusted goat cheese and mixed greens served with a warm apple raisin compote ($6), and the balsamic reduction he drizzles on his fluffy, featherweight house-made gnocchi sauced with porcini cream. I chose the latter as an appetizer. After one bite, I was sorry I hadn’t gotten an entrée-sized portion ($8, $14).

Two other starters put me in a state of gustatory bliss. Grilled shrimp, skewered on stalks of fresh rosemary and presented atop soft polenta, got just the right amount of zip from a fantastic smoked barbecue sauce ($9). White tubes of calamari stuffed with veal sausage looked a bit odd — like the “cocoons” from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — but the combination, spiked with fontina cheese and a zesty Vera Cruz sauce ($8), show his knack for pulling off these flights of culinary imagination.

Kolar has an especially deft touch with seafood. The sesame-crusted halibut in a delicate honey-soy-mushroom broth is an uncomplicated, light and perfectly balanced preparation ($23). For a tuna special, he wrapped a thick chunk of ahi in seaweed, breading it, and deep-frying only to crisp the outside, leaving the core rare, moist and fleshy ($28).

By now, you should be gripped by an urge to book a table. But don’t blame me if all the things I describe aren’t available. Kolar changes most of the offerings every three months so he can take advantage of what’s in season. Specials, typically edgier dishes, have a weeklong shelf life.

In a customer-friendly gesture, many of the vegetables and starches that show up alongside particular entrées can be ordered separately as $4 side dishes. That’s how we tried Kolar’s fabulous sauteed artichoke hearts even though neither of us wanted the pan-seared salmon they accompany. Our server commended us for recognizing that these were not to be missed. They’re braised in olive oil, white wine, chicken stock and thyme, then browned with bread crumbs and fresh herbs. The preparation smooths out and subtly sweetens the artichokes’ distinctive earthy, piquant taste.

There’s something for everyone on the a short list of desserts, all prepared on the premises ($5 each). I loved the custardy fruit zabaglione featuring pineapple and fresh berries and a martini glass filled with finely diced seasonal fruit and chantilly cream. Not to suggest that there was anything less wonderful about Thyme’s classic creme brulée, enjoyed with a glass of Errazuirz Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc ($6).

The same care, quality and approachability that defines the food is evident on the wine list. It highlights boutique producers and an impressive lineup of bottles under $30. Our $26 Lolonis 2004 Fume Blanc was a true find. Even the bar is part chef-driven. A few cocktails feature Kolar’s own fruit purees, and the difference was apparent. Instead of the usually cloying sweetness, my mangotini offered a burst of real fresh fruit flavor.

Our servers did their work well, answering questions competently, replacing silver promptly and checking in regularly. But they have an easygoing friendliness that makes the atmosphere more casual than fine. Which is just what their boss wants. This is not meant to be a fancy, special-occasion destination. The stylish but simple and understated décor, the result of a whirlwind 90-day renovation of the space, reinforces that message of unpretentious welcome.

I felt good being here, left happy and highwayed it home thinking I’d do it all again in a Cleveland minute.      

Thyme the Restaurant, 716 N. Court St., Medina, (330) 764-4114. Hours: Lunch, Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Mon-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 5 - 11 p.m.
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