Paul Tomko's mother cooked for the priests at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for about 20 years and his father was a caterer for almost 25 years. Yet young Paul steered into the jewelry business, doing well for himself. Eventually, though, filial duty pulled him back into food.
"My mom and dad always wanted a restaurant," he recalls. "I didn't know [that] I really wanted to do anything like that." But when his dad retired, Tomko pitched in with his parents to open a 28-seat restaurant in Lakewood. "For about three years, I tried to learn the business," he says. "I guess what I learned most is not trying to learn everything."
He's put that lesson to use in Erie Bleu, the near West Side restaurant he and partner Anne Bloomberg opened earlier this year on Detroit Avenue, overlooking the Shoreway and Lake Erie.
"Paul grew up in this neighborhood," says Bloomberg, "so he really ... felt strongly about wanting to come back to the neighborhood and be in business here."
"It was the old meatpackers' union hall," Tomko notes. "My father did the last catering job [here] before the building was vacated."
Tomko and Bloomberg were partners with radio personality Buck Harris in the shortlived Lake Effect at the same address. The structure was originally condemned, already scheduled for the wrecking ball. Tomko guided the renovations for Lake Effect, then another round for its new incarnation as Erie Bleu.
Stained-glass and three-dimensional pieces by neighborhood artist Hector Vega ornament the dining room, as do shoals of metallic fish by Sheila Weil that hang from the ceiling. The centerpiece of the bar is a backlighted stained-glass image of the downtown Cleveland skyline by Vega, framed by copper-sheathed pillars.
Bloomberg says they wanted the space to encourage customers to spend time, and it does. On both of our visits, we were so engaged both by the fun, lively decor and the artful food that hours slipped by much faster than we realized.
The grape and potato
General manager Roxanne Bibeau's wine list, updated every two weeks, contains more than 270 bottle choices and 23 glass pours. Prices range from $12 for a 1997 Spanish Borsao Tinto to $255 for '80 Veuve Clicquot "La Grande Dame." Most bottles fall in the $20 to $40 range. Bibeau says she wanted the glass pours to "give people an opportunity to try wines that they might never try" at bottle prices, such as an uncharacteristically dry Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling or a 1996 Argentinean Trumpeter malbec. Malbecs are hard enough to find on bottle lists, much less by the glass. She just added her first chianti to the list. "I think you have to have a chianti, especially if you're gonna serve fava beans," Bibeau says with a laugh.
If the grape is not your thing, Joe DeLuca known variously by his co-workers as "Dr. Drink" or "The Barmaster" creates his own infusions so that one can imbibe saffron Stoli vodka or a martini infused with Italian white truffle. Noting that dining tends to be heavily wine-driven these days, DeLuca strives to create signature cocktails and a spirits list that lend themselves to pairing with the menu.
"Occasionally, you want something different," he says. "Starting off a meal with a saffron martini will go nice with your paella." He and executive chef Warren Dolata collaborate on matching desserts with selections from the 17 cordials, too.
Where's the buffalo (beef)?
Dolata came to Erie Bleu via the late Grappa's in Akron, having worked at Johnny's Bar on Fulton before that. Originally from South Carolina, he moved to Northeast Ohio at age 13. He says the old Southern accent "comes back every once in a while," and there are shades of low-country cooking in his menu, such as the chive grits that side his top-selling hickory-smoked pork porterhouse ($15.50).
|Read Michael von Glahn's complete review of Erie Bleu in the July 2001 issue of Cleveland Magazine, on newsstands now.|
At dinner, we began on duck confit potstickers with a curry-mango sauce ($9.50) that were quite tasty but needed just a touch more stuffing. A house salad of fresh baby greens with tiny pear tomatoes and toasted pecans ($4.50) was excellent with a lemon-poppyseed-Chardonnay vinaigrette.
We tried a daily special of South Dakota bison ribeye with twice-baked potato ($31). Ordered medium-rare, it arrived nice and red inside. The meat is slaughtered to order, so Dolata gets it in very fresh and then ages it 14 to 21 days to improve the flavor. Not a single complaint on ours except to wonder why more eateries don't give the ultra-lean meat a try. A glass of the Trumpeter malbec ($6.50, $24 bottle) proved a good companion to it.
Made in Cleveland
Everything is made on premises, from bread to sorbets to ice cream made from real cream with no preservatives. Dolata admits that doing it all in-house "can be hectic at times, but it's well worth it because there's no substitute for what we can do here. I think our ice cream can compete with Ben & Jerry's, I really do." That would be one decadent contest, to judge by the luscious rum-espresso ice cream ($4) Erie Bleu served up for dessert on our visit.
Dolata has created such off-the-wall fruit-herb sorbet combinations as berry-basil, lemon-bay leaf, and strawberry-black pepper with Pernod. Customers call in just to find out what the sorbet of the day is.