The name is exotic, but the dish is simple. The D.C. Pasta Co.'s spaghetti con il meglio dei mari ($15) best of the sea — uses just a few ingredients to evoke the cuisine of the coastal regions of Italy. Chef Dante Boccuzzi ( ), who explores evolving modern American cuisine at Dante in Tremont, opened D.C. Pasta in Strongsville to go back to basics: "More family style, an Italian grandmother's approach," he says.
In D.C. Pasta's seafood dish, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab join roasted garlic, olive oil and chili flakes in the pan. Once the mussel shells pop open, the chef adds white wine, butter and parsley.
Simplicity also defines D.C.'s bucatini con salsa di agnello ($15, as seen on the cover) — tomato-braised lamb with mint. Legs of lamb and lamb shoulders are marinated for a day with herbs, garlic, spices and red wine and then braised in tomato sauce for three hours until the meat is ready to fall apart. The dish is finished with fresh mint. "It's a hearty, great-eating Italian dish," Boccuzzi says. "For me personally, it's hard to stop with one serving." 12214 Pearl Road, Strongsville, 440-238-8500, restaurantdante.us
Don't let a few tentacles scare you. Noodlecat's octopus stir-fry udon dish, ($13) like the restaurant itself, is meant to straddle the line between adventurous and accessible.
"Octopus is that slight reach outside your comfort zone," says chef Jonathon Sawyer. "It's calamari for grown-ups."
The udon noodles, crafted by Ohio City Pasta, provide the comfort. Meant to be chopsticked and slurped, they can also be spaghetti-twirled in a spoon. But with chili paste adding a fiery kick and carrots and bamboo giving it crunch, this is no limp noodle dish.
Sawyer, renowned for his Greenhouse Tavern around the corner, opened Noodlecat ( ) last year to "represent the noodle in Tokyo and America today." It's also to have some fun. Mixing the unfamiliar with the comforting is "more a game than a challenge," he says.
The cold soba noodle salad ($11, as seen on the cover), for example, sits atop a chilled plate. "It's really about noodle worship, nothing but perfectly cooked soba noodles," he says. Chewy and nutty, they're shocked in ice water, tossed with just enough wasabi oil to keep them from sticking together and served with a dash of bonito flakes — dried, smoked skipjack fish.
Though it's served in summer and winter in Japan, Sawyer knows how far to push Cleveland diners. He features it on the menu here only in the summer. 234 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-589-0007, noodlecat.com
Matthew Mathlage often seeks the element of surprise. "I like to find odd things and make people astonished when they taste something they've never tasted before," says the chef at Light Bistro ( ).
That's one reason he came up with his Southern fried quail ($12), which intermixes the novelty of wild game with Mathlage's preoccupation with Southern cooking and soul food.
The quail, from a farm in upstate New York, is soaked for 24 hours or longer in buttermilk, garlic, thyme and a bit of hot sauce. Then it's dredged in flour and cornstarch and deep-fried. Instead of pairing it with country gravy, Mathlage creates a velvety sauce made of chicken stock and cream, thickened with a roux and seasoned with black pepper. The quail is then served on a potato pancake.
Broken down by the buttermilk, it is tender and cooked till just pink in the center. The taste is richer than most chicken, yet leaner and lighter than pheasant.
"It's not the most beautiful dish," says Mathlage. But "it hits your soul. [It's like] one of the memory dishes from a being a kid." 2801 Bridge Ave., Cleveland, 216-771-7130, lightbistro.com
With elk and bison stampeding onto Cleveland menus and pheasant already perched on Amp 150's bill of fare, chef Jeff Jarrett wanted to try cooking with more wild game.
"Cleveland diners are now really picking up on that," he says. They want something different. "Chefs are reacting to it and saying, 'OK, I'll put it on the menu and see if it sells.' "
So Jarrett has added rabbit to the menu, pairing it with "pot pie or pasta, things people relate to as comfort food or are approachable." Currently, he's serving rabbit pappardelle ($12).
Jarrett braises the dark meat of the rabbit hindquarter for three hours, until it nearly falls off the bone, and uses the stock as the dish's broth. It's tossed with locally grown crimini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms and wide, rippling house-made noodles and garnished with Brussels sprout leaves.
The dish has an earthy taste, thanks to the rabbit and mushrooms, and the pappardelle and the tender meat give it a soft, silky texture. "It's a homey pasta dish," Jarrett says. 4277 W. 150th St., Cleveland, 216-706-8787, amp150.com
Steve Schimoler conceived Crop Bistro's breakfasty braised pork belly appetizer ($12) at 7:30 one morning for a live shoot on local TV. It started simple: waffles, bacon and egg. "A really kick-ass breakfast," Schimoler enthuses. That Crop doesn't serve breakfast didn't stop him; he just adapted his sunrise inspiration for the dinner menu. "There's no reason those ingredients can't live anywhere on the menu."
The chef took pork belly — the same cut from which bacon is made — and braised it instead of curing and smoking it, rendering out much of the fat. He created a savory waffle with fresh herbs, salt and pepper balancing out the sweetness of the batter.
Over the waffle and pork, he poured an apple cherry port demi-glace: a glaze with dried cherries soaked in port wine, and pieces of apple. The result is a chunky sauce, almost a compote. Its secret ingredient: a bit of maple syrup.
"It has a nice musty sweetness," Schimoler says. "It's hearkening back to breakfast, subliminally."
The result is an innovative dish with a retro element. "I think this generation has blurred the lines greatly between what breakfast, lunch and dinner can be," says Schimoler. 2537 Lorain Ave., Cleveland, 216-696-2767, cropbistro.com
Zack Bruell would like to make it clear that the French toast ($8) appetizer at L'Albatros ( ) is no breakfast dish. To him, breakfast means sweetness, and he'd prefer to save sweet for dessert.
"I wanted to do something with wild mushrooms," he says. "I needed a foil for it."
So the chef sautéed a slice of brioche, the rich French bread from which classic French toast is made, in an egg and cream batter, like the toast in a croque monsieur, the iconic French grilled ham and cheese sandwich.
Shiitake, oyster and portobello mushrooms are sautéed with shallots, garlic and fresh tarragon and served atop the toast, with a balsamic syrup poured over it all and beurre blanc on the plate. "It's almost a deconstructed mushroom sandwich," Bruell says. "I deconstruct dishes, present them a different way. When you do that, flavor profiles sometimes change."
It's not breakfast, but is it a comfort food? "Definitely," Bruell says. "Toast, mushrooms — it's pretty basic." 11401 Bellflower Road, Cleveland, 216-791-7880, albatrosbrasserie.com
( ) Denotes Silver Spoon 2012 Award winner