House Party

Owner and chef Bob Niemojewski started his labor of love long before the first pot clanked in the kitchen of his new restaurant. In 2000, along with his wife and co-owner, Denise, and other family members, Niemojewski embarked on an ambitious 18-month restoration of the 1850s Alten House in Avon's French Creek District. The space had last been a tearoom and antiques store.

Nemo Grille opened its doors in mid-July last year, and the results of that group effort are phenomenal. The restaurant's décor mirrors its menu as a mixture of traditional and cutting-edge contemporary.

Diners are greeted by a bar area sporting pumpkin-colored walls and a shiny, hammered-tin ceiling. This section was constructed as an addition to the original home. Three cozy dining rooms open off the main hallway, each with a slightly different atmosphere. Spaces are decorated in a simple, uncluttered style at the whimsy of the owners and, despite the lack of an overarching theme, each area flows wonderfully into the next.

Niemojewski says he'd dreamed of opening his own restaurant for some time. Having worked his way up from busboy to chef during a seven-year stint in the kitchen of Strongsville's Portofino Ristorante, much of his culinary ability is self-taught.

Seeking perfection

His attention to detail and perfectionist nature are apparent throughout Nemo Grille. A look at the kitchen reveals a clean, well-organized space with thoughtfully planned stations. The front of the house also operates in an efficient and orderly fashion.

Sous chef Mike Turcola — until recently chef at Vico downtown on East Sixth — trained at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and previously worked at the Ritz-Carlton in both Philadelphia and here in Cleveland. Award-winners at Vico, Turcola's lump crabcakes have just appeared on the newest Nemo menu, served over Oriental noodle salad with Thai chili sauce ($11).

On a hectic weekend visit, servers and staff remained uniformly attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. And this restaurant gets busy often. Seating is limited to 55 persons in the dining rooms, with an additional 15 spots at the bar. On a typical Friday or Saturday night, Nemo will serve 125 patrons, so reservations are strongly recommended.

Not just another Italian restaurant

The menu's goal is variety. The owners clearly want to avoid classification as a traditional Italian eatery. "We don't want to stay strictly an Italian menu," says Niemojewski. "We want to branch out to ... anything neat." A fair number of pasta dishes and Italian entrees do adorn the menu, but they share space with an eclectic mix of foods, including Asian and other Mediterranean specialties. Entrees range in price from $16 for chicken saltimbocca to $26 for the veal chop (a favorite of the regulars the restaurant has already attracted).

Daily specials showcase the artistry of the kitchen crew with unique blends of flavor and creative presentation. A prime example is the Paupiettes of Sole with Scallop Mousseline ($23) accented by a saffron-vermouth sauce and sided by cannellini beans and a cabbage roll stuffed with mushrooms and peppers. The delicate texture and taste of the sole could easily be overshadowed by the addition of too many elements, but this dish was perfectly balanced.

A sampling of first courses also proved wonderful. The popular King crab chowder ($6) is a perfect hearty soup for a winter evening, with hunks of crabmeat and redskin potatoes, and finished with a swirl of cream. Be forewarned, the soup portions are hefty.

Salads are artfully done here. The addition of strawberry slivers to the spinach and bocconcini salad ($5) pulled flavors from the toasted almonds and the lemon thyme vinaigrette. Green bean and chicken salad ($7) was layered in a bowl of radicchio leaves accompanied by red onions and goat cheese and drizzled with a honey-Dijon vinaigrette. The beans were precisely cooked, but the real treat was how the mild smokiness of the chicken merged with the pungent tang of the goat cheese, the sweetness of the dressing and the bulbous aroma of the onion for a delicious taste experience.

The chef used the plate for our seared bacon-wrapped sea scallops ($10) as a canvas, painting with balsamic vinegar reduction, red-pepper purée and orange sherry vinaigrette.

The only sampled entree that failed to rise to the level of these other dishes was the gnocchi ($16). Despite a flavorful porcini-tomato sauce, the gnocchi themselves were overcooked and somewhat soggy.

The wine list has a reasonable selection with a tilt toward California and Italian vintages. There are many moderately priced bottles and the choices range to a maximum of $100 for a '97 Liparita Cellars cabernet. Sommelier Tim Pevec offers a nice variety of wines by the glass and half bottle. His suggestion of a 2000 Solitude Chardonnay ($39 per bottle) went exceptionally well with the first courses and fish, but was somewhat overpowered by the gnocchi's sauce. This Chardonnay from San Giacomo Vineyard was on the sweeter side, with subtle flavors of butterscotch.

Nemo Grille stocks two microbrews made on premises: Nemo Porter and a lighter variety, Rubrew (both $3 a glass).

All desserts (with the exception of ice cream/sorbet amorés) are also made on the premises. A tasty array of options — from creamy cheesecakes to bread pudding with fruit — is presented and the dessert tray ($5 to $6) changes on a nightly basis.

Addition by renovation

With the early popularity Nemo Grille has found, plans are under way to add dining capacity. The Niemojewskis note that patrons have requested outdoor seating, so a deck out back is planned at some point. Part of Bob Niemojewski's original vision for the restaurant included dining rooms upstairs, which would be optimal for private parties or larger groups (though there is currently no handicapped access to second floor). That upstairs renovation will likely be the next upgrade "in the near future." The owners also suggest we might expect the addition of a chef's table or wine tastings.

Hopefully, the intimate atmosphere and delightful food at Nemo Grille will not suffer from such an expansion. Bob and Denise Niemojewski have proven that contemporary fine dining can be accomplished (on the West Side yet!) without 30-foot ceilings and stainless-steel fixtures in a converted factory building. The dining experience at Nemo Grille is much like a meal in your favorite chair at a friend's home: relaxed and inviting, a spot you'd like to revisit time and again.

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