Pté de foie gras in Geauga County? You bet! Downtown dining migrated to the country with the June 2000 opening of John Palmer's, an upscale eatery in Chardon. This venture, a joint effort of chef-owner John DeJoy and his wife, Michelle, fills the space vacated by Molinari's Panini Grill.
DeJoy's love of food and the passion he infuses into his restaurant is apparent after even a brief conversation. He sums up his overall philosophy as serving menu items "based in simplicity a little different [preparation] but with familiar products." He definitely doesn't want his creations to intimidate diners, and attempts to further demystify the culinary experience by strolling through the dining room on a nightly basis to chat with patrons. The combination of DeJoy's cordial personality and his quality food has drawn a large crowd of regulars to the eatery.
The chef received a bachelor's in hotel and institutional restaurant management from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. After a stint at Stouffer's Riviere in Chicago, he gained further experience here as chef de cuisine at Johnny's Downtown and Johnny's Bar on Fulton in Cleveland and as executive chef for 11 months at the late J. Gilbert's in Beachwood, just prior to opening John Palmer's.
The restaurant's facade is unimposing, nestled in the center of a strip mall, and we approached with some hesitation. However, the doors open onto a cozy and inviting view of the central wooden bar with a window into the kitchen. The decor is contemporary and simple, with shafts of light cast downward from dangling halogen fixtures, wall coverings and upholstery decked in a festive martini-glass motif, and paintings of Mediterranean landscapes and European cafes. Ferns and dark wooden folding screens carve out a sense of more intimate space in the restaurant's close quarters. Tables are covered in white linen and adorned with a vase of fresh carnations and sprigs of mint.
We started with a bread plate of focaccia, which is made in house with a savory garlic-herb dough, and ciabatta from an outside bakery. These were served with two delightful varieties of compound butter: chipotle and honey/scallion. The ciabatta lacked flavor in comparison to the focaccia and serves as a testament to the value of breads made on premises.
Our favorite appetizer proved to be the crab cakes ($12), three pan-seared ovals loaded with crabmeat and blended with Ritz cracker crumbs that imparted a smooth butteriness and splendid texture. As with all of our starters, the cakes were perched atop a mound of mesclun greens. A dollop of chipotle mayonnaise with a hint of picante and smokiness formed the perfect accompaniment. In one of the rare flaws in food preparation, the cakes were slightly scorched on the bottom, but this did not detract significantly from their excellent taste.
Pté de foie gras ($12) is a specialty of sous chef James Fallon and the delicately flavored slices were served on toast points with a scattering of cognac jelly. As fans of foie gras in its unadulterated state, we were left with a desire for a more robust flavor. However, the cognac marinade deftly adds an interesting twist to this traditional terrine.
The stuffed tomato ($11) was a special appetizer, peeled and overflowing with a mixture of crabmeat, red and yellow peppers and cilantro, drizzled with a light red-pepper vinaigrette. The crunch of the strands of pepper mingled with cool hunks of crab made for a refreshingly light and tasty treat. The same heirloom tomatoes were used in the tomato salad ($9), in which perfect slices were topped with fresh mozzarella and drizzled with 30-year-old balsamic vinegar. As lovers of fine balsamic, this vinegar had an unusual flavor, salty and lacking the syrupy thickness of an aged balsamic. We had to inquire and were told that the vinegar was reduced. Why one would reduce and salt a 30-year-old balsamic remains a mystery to us.
Among the entrees we found a real treat: pan-seared ono ($30), a Hawaiian white-fleshed fish with a sweet taste and firm texture. The fish was elegantly presented on a bed of mesclun and green onions with a pool of cauliflower purée. The plate rim was circled by juicy mandarin orange slices, which provided the citrus flavor that enhances most exotic fish. The fillet was cooked exactly to our liking, with a crisp and salty seared crust and a moist, cooler center. John Palmer's orders fish from Honolulu Fish Co. weekly from a list of options available on the day boat. These are then sent via FedEx and used as soon as they arrive.
DeJoy also employs several specialty purveyors who, he says, like to surprise him with ingredients of the week. One local farmer grows produce specifically for the restaurant, but the chefs don't know what's scheduled to arrive until they make their trip to the farm.
Our gnocchi ($23) were floated in a reduced cream sauce made with smoked portobellos, julienned squash, peppers, onions, zucchini and hunks of tender chicken. The portobellos were the highlight of this dish, imparting a strong woody, smoked flavor and aroma. DeJoy notes that the smoker plays an important role in his food prep. "Whenever the smoker is going, we look around to find other things we can throw into it," he says. Despite an unbelievable flavor, the gnocchi fell a little short of expectations, having been oversauced, resulting in a soggy texture.
The extensive wine list shines under the direction of manager Greg Kubunski, and received Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence in 2001 and 2002. Kubunski was quick to offer his assistance during our visit and arrived tableside with suggestions prepared after already reviewing our orders. His recommendation of a full-bodied '95 Baltieri La Romensa Valpolicello ($30) seemed unusual at first, but we agreed to try it after he promised that "If you don't like it, I'll just take the bottle back and get another." We didn't exercise that option as this vintage, with its fresh flavor and citrus undertone, complemented all of our dishes exceptionally well.
Desserts are all made on premises. The bread pudding ($7) follows a traditional recipe with a twist. Sun-dried cherries and white-chocolate chips add a surprise to every bite of this rich and creamy dish. Cobblers are offered frequently and we sampled the raspberry cobbler ($7), a divine blend of Granny Smith apples, nutmeg, mace, brown sugar and raspberry coulis, topped with a crust of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. The aroma alone was satisfying.
Service during our visit was friendly and courteous. Our server was attentive throughout the meal and knowledgeable about the menu and ingredients. John Palmer's is not the place for formal, stuffy waitstaff. These are the sort of down-to-earth folks you'd expect to find in a country inn or roadside tavern. It's one of the few clues to remind you that you are not at a chic downtown hot spot.
DeJoy says he named his bistro after his maternal grandfather, who funded his culinary education. We think most patrons will agree that the gentleman's investment was clearly a wise one.
John Palmer's, 301 Center St., Chardon, (440) 286-6464. Hours: lunch: Tue-Fri 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner: Tue-Thu 5 to 9:30 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 to 10:30 p.m.