Menu: A greater focus on share plates of familiar-sounding dishes with touches of high-end ingredients Missing: White tablecloths (though you'll still see linen napkins) The Bill: Foodies on a budget love these spots because many entrees are less than $20. Open Up: Each spot offers a clear view into the kitchen bustle.
Marlin Kaplan closed his opulent One Walnut last year, refocusing his efforts on spots that offer experiences similar to the relaxed Luxe. At Roseangel, typical tacos get dressier, and at Dragonfly in Ohio City, Kaplan simultaneously relaxes fancy dishes and dresses up casual foods. "It's a casual menu in a very hip setting with fine dining ingredients served in a casual way," he says.
Why Go Casual? "There's definitely been a movement away from the white tablecloth," Kaplan says. So it's been necessary to make things a little more accessible from a cost perspective. But informal dining doesn't mean taking away choice ingredients. "You don't have to compromise the quality of the dish," he says. "It's a question of entertaining the diner and giving them something they didn't expect."
Simple Upgrade: Meatballs may be at the lower end of cuisine. But Kaplan, who uses pork shoulder instead of veal, elevates them as a fancy skewer. "Pork shoulder is a lesser cut, but it's used creatively," he says. The ground meat is seasoned with five spices to give it more flavor; skewered on lemon grass spears; and served with Bibb lettuce, radishes and cucumber. "It totally changes how you perceive a meatball," he says.
Fresh Fish: Kaplan uses black bass in his seafood-based take on beef carpaccio. Shaved ultra thin, the bass is dressed with lime and jalapenos — a lot of acidity that actually cooks the fish. "This is a dish you would have seen in a fine dining restaurant, just with a lesser type of ingredient," Kaplan explains.
1865 W. 25th St., Cleveland, 216-696-7774, dragonflycleveland.com
At his new Hudson spot One Red Door, Shawn Monday marries familiar comfort fare with a gourmet stroke. The result is dishes instantly recognizable in name (like pierogies) but with added touches that make them more than run-of-the-mill (filled with roasted mushrooms and leeks). "It's not white tablecloth; it's casual," Monday says. "The atmosphere means having fun dishes like that. It has to be approachable, but we want to make it gourmet."
Why Go Casual: "I've been to a lot of these unbelievable restaurants, and I take away from it that it's not really a restaurant; it's more of an experience," Monday says. "We want to be approachable and just have fun with it. It's easy for me to write the dishes in an environment like this. I look at every dish and say, I want to eat that.' "
McTwist: To be truly approachable, food must be recognizable. So Monday starts with a dish you'll find in most fast food joints: chicken nuggets. To give it a finer flavor, he subs duck confit for chicken. Forget ketchup or mustard. Monday pairs his crispy nuggets with curry aioli and preserved lemon.
Fair Treatment: Expect ingredients to be prepped just as they would at a white-tablecloth spot. Monday slowly cooks the duck in its own fat for four hours, which gives the meat of his nuggets an extra layer of flavor. "Confiting is something that came about from people preserving their meats. It's almost like a poor man's food," Monday says. "It's one of those traits you learn in fine dining, so why not still do it?"
Tiny Touches: "We can't afford flown in truffles from France and Italy," says Monday, explaining how he can work in high-end ingredients while still keeping the price down. "We use truffle pate that still has great flavor." He's also strategic about deploying the truffle flavor. You'll see truffles hiding in the aioli that comes with the thrice-fried pomme frites or in truffle honey dressing on salad.
Dressed Down: "The typical warm spinach salad has poached eggs on it, so we wanted to play on that," Monday says. "And I love an egg that runs over the salad and almost adds to the dressing." His version of the fancy dish with double applewood smoked bacon, crispy mushrooms and truffle honey dressing gets a casual topper from a soft poached egg that's been breaded and fried.
49 Village Way, Hudson, 330-342-3667, onereddoorhudson.com