Owner Bob LeFever calls opening his LeFever's River Grille more than two years ago "a leap of faith." Finding the restaurant for the first time may require a similar trusting jump.
Its particular stretch of Riverfront Parkway is impossible to distinguish in the veritable barcode of parallel roads on a street-guide map. When you finally spot the little green road sign, the parkway appears nothing more than a narrow service road snaking around the back of buildings that drape down the hillside from the Front Street pedestrian mall above. But if you follow the parkway just a short distance, passing under a road bridge, LeFever's suddenly emerges on the right, hugging the west bank of the Cuyahoga, lights glowing and valets waiting to attend you.
|To read more about LeFever's including descriptions of the restaurant's various dining areas pick up the June 2001 issue of Cleveland Magazine.
No lie. During its early days, the restaurant racked up 44 no-shows on a single Saturday night. "When we called to find out what happened, they said, 'We couldn't find you!' They were just getting so frustrated," LeFever recalls.
"Once they find us, they never have trouble finding us again," LeFever says.
Fortuitous timing brings a chef
To helm the kitchen, LeFever turned to someone he knew from his club years. Patrick Kunkel spent 15 years in cooking at various Akron clubs, then a year and a half at Lockkeeper's Inn in Valley View before he took on running the kitchen at Saucy Bistro, a small fine-dining spot in Rocky River. As things came together for LeFever's River Grille, Kunkel was LeFever's first pick as executive chef. His offer came about the time Saucy Bistro was being sold to new ownership, so Kunkel found the timing providential.
"The two of us together," LeFever says, "if nothing gets in our way, we will make this place very successful."
Judging by the crush of customers still descending on the restaurant two years after opening, LeFever must have lofty standards indeed for what constitutes "very successful" if he doesn't think he's met them yet. He is into details, visiting every table when he's in the house lunch or dinner to make sure everything is satisfactory.
Choosing from Kunkel's starters is tough. He says several of them are mainstays that his customers won't allow him to remove whenever he changes the menu. Grilled Hungarian wax peppers stuffed with sweet Italian sausage ($7) is one of these.
Maryland-style crab cakes ($9) were fashioned into balls more reminiscent of hushpuppies than the traditional mound or hockey-puck shape. Their flavor was good and nicely picked up the sharpness of the two-mustard sauce drizzled on the plate.
Most entrees include a choice of soup of the day or house salad. On one visit, we tried a bowl of the cream-based spring soup, well laden with chicken white meat. The salad ($3 à la carte) is a plate of sliced fresh Romaine and some seasonal greens, best topped by the tangy house Cabernet vinaigrette.
The horseradish-crusted salmon with roasted beets and apples ($21) will probably change its guise for the summer, when horseradish becomes a bit heavy for most people's taste. The dish is a prime example of Kunkel's skillful combining of textures and flavors. Remembering his great seared tuna with beet-and-horseradish risotto at Saucy Bistro, we had to try this. The sweet apple slices and strong taste of the beets offer a great foil to the bite of the horseradish. Yet with all that going on, the flavor of the salmon never gets overwhelmed and lost. It's a careful balancing act that, in other hands, might degenerate into chaos.
Seeing spice eye to eye
"Most of the dishes here are built," Kunkel explains, reiterating the philosophy he exhibited at Saucy Bistro. "If there's something spicy, then we try to off-center it with something maybe a little sweet in the dish, either the addition of honey or carrots or something that's got some natural sugar."
Says LeFever, "The one thing about Pat's food is it's always spicy, it's always got a little heat to it. He and I see eye to eye on that. It's great."
A good example of that is the macaroni-and-cheese entree ($9.95 lunch, $14 dinner) we had on a lunch visit. Kunkel uses manchego and Lorain County chèvre for a rich, tart cheese sauce. On some menus, the notation "chorizo sausage" might indicate a few crumbled specks, but here it means a full four ounces of the spicy pork sausage in every heaping bowl. This is comfort food with attitude.
The wine list changes weekly, continually evolving. The emphasis is on New World wines, particularly California, but also including some Oregon, Washington, Australian and New Zealand labels. There is a single French pinot noir and a couple of Champagnes, but LeFever says he's largely sticking to "our own back yard" for the list because of how many good wines are available without crossing the pond.
We finished off with a slice of sweet apple pie ($6) with walnut-crumble topping. The apples were nice and crisp, and plentiful throughout. For our other dessert we chose the best-selling molten chocolate cake ($6), up-ended moist and warm from the mold and accented with fresh raspberries. The first poke of the fork produced a flow of rich, hot, gooey chocolate filling. A cappuccino with real cream ($3.50) provided the necessary alertness for the drive home.
All desserts except ice creams and sorbets are made in house. Focaccia, other breads and pizza dough are also baked fresh on premises every day.
Specials come and go two or three times a week, but the hard menu is only changed every six months. As summer approaches, Kunkel is contemplating another such retooling. Some anchor dishes will gain a fresh presentation. And he will experiment, using the palates of the larger summer crowds to gauge what will fly.
Look before you leap . . . again
LeFever says that he's planning to open a second restaurant in the next year or so, though he's not sure just where yet perhaps nearby in Cuyahoga Falls or Akron, possibly even downtown Cleveland if he found the right spot. "Maybe take it down a notch or two, a little more relaxed," LeFever says. "That wouldn't require myself or Patrick to be there.
"You've got to keep dreaming in order for those things to happen."
And then take a leap.