I’ll go pretty much anywhere with the promise of a great meal at journey’s end. But I realize not everyone is quite so adventurous. Many people prefer familiar, close-to-home neighborhood hangouts. Some favor trendy Tremont and the Warehouse District, while others choose chains in the ’burbs as their dining destinations.
No matter where you head when your inner dinner bell rings, there’s now a very good reason to venture into what may be new — and certainly unlikely — territory. I’m talking East Cleveland.
The city is not exactly a hotbed of chic or known for its restaurants, but Chester’s, which opened on Noble Road across the street from Nela Park in April 2005, is worth a visit, whether you’re coming from near or far.
The food is very good, the space is absolutely lovely, the atmosphere sophisticated, the service first-rate, and owners Chester and Jackie Tucker cruise the room making every guest feel special. What more could you ask for? Oh, yeah, the prices are reasonable and the portions are huge.
Years ago and long before Katrina changed everything, I ate at a landmark restaurant in New Orleans called Dookie Chase’s — this place reminds me of that one. Both are in neighborhoods that have seen better days and give little hint from the outside of the attractive setting and skilled cooking happening inside. And most notably, both feature a menu heavy on classic Creole and Southern dishes.
“In Cleveland,” says Chester Tucker, “when African-Americans open a restaurant it’s typically a casual, soul food place. I wanted to do something different. Hardly anyone around here is making the kind of food we serve and presenting it in an upscale context. We’ve got soul and more.”
That “more” is immediately apparent on entering the sleek and elegant dining room with its earth tones, gleaming wood, soft lights and white cloth. Table settings include square saucers under square-bottomed coffee cups, a look echoed in the bread plate and some of the presentation plates. Mellow and sweet recorded jazz plays on weeknights with live musicians on Fridays and Saturdays.
And there’s plenty of “more” once the food starts arriving.
A starter order of Cajun seafood with tortilla chips is a party in a bowl — liberally studded with shrimp, crawfish and lobster, topped with a warm, zesty cheese sauce and big enough for two ($10). An appetizer plate of fried green tomatoes ($6) is perfectly executed. The coating is thin and crisp, the tart flesh meltingly soft, and the mayo-based rÃƒ©moulade that keeps the slices company is irresistible.
Ever heard the phrase “if pigs had wings?” At Chester’s they do, sort of. Listed among the appetizers as orange ginger BBQ-glazed rib tips ($8), they’re referred to by one and all as “pig wings.” Actually a trimmed-down pork shank, the cut looks exactly like an oversized chicken drumette. There are two in a serving, the meat is fall-off-bone tender, and the seasoning brings a little uptown to down home.
The spicy gumbo (cup $5, bowl $10), thick with okra, prepared just right so it’s not gummy, dances lightly on the tongue. The same goes for the jambalaya, a combination of rice, shrimp, crayfish and tomatoes served up in a basin-sized bowl. It packs heat but no burn to overwhelm all the other flavors.
My only quibble with these otherwise excellent dishes is that the kitchen uses ordinary smoked sausage instead of real andouille or boudin, and the absence is a noticeable loss to anyone who’s ever eaten the real thing. And one more, minor, gripe — the quality of dishes such as these just begs for something better than the bland, doughy rolls in the bread basket.
The bayou theme expresses itself in a few other entrÃƒ©es. There’s crawfish etouffÃƒ© ($21), tasty but a little heavy-handed on the black pepper, and a blackened catfish ($20) I have yet to try. The Big Cajun Platter ($34) is a crowd pleaser, delivering enough fried oysters, scampies, catfish bites, scallops, mudbugs and crab fingers for three or four hungry folks.
Those who aren’t looking to eat Southern won’t be disappointed. The kitchen turns out grilled center-cut pork chops and garlic mashed potatoes ($18), prime rib and house-cut aged strip steaks in 12-ounce ounce or 16-ounce portions ($19, $22), veal osso bucco ($29), and a meatless pasta with roasted vegetables and herbed tomato sauce ($15). Everything is plated with care and flair.
Despite a certain formality in her uniform and her recitation of the specials, our server, who took care of us on each of our recent visits, had an easygoing, natural tableside manner that made us feel right at home.
When my husband ordered a bowl of shrimp and crab bisque (along with a lot of other things), she wisely advised him to go for the cup: “When I serve you that cup,” she offered, “you’re going to ask me, did I forget and bring you the big one.”
When it does arrive, he quips, “We’ll be back tomorrow for our entrÃƒ©es.”
I really appreciated her friendly, “Be careful girl, you’re making a mess of yourself,” when she noticed me dribbling lobster veloute down the front of my shirt — a consequence of dipping pieces of my crab-stuffed mushroom perhaps a bit too enthusiastically in the luscious sauce before forking them into my mouth. And her considerate warning on a Saturday night that our orders might be slow coming out, the result of two big parties going on simultaneously, made it a nonissue. We kicked back, let the good times roll, and enjoyed a leisurely meal.
For those with a sweet tooth, it’s a happy moment when the dessert trolley rolls around. Choices include cheesecake, fried apple pie and bread pudding. We opted for a buttery peach cobbler ($6) that proved a bit too sugary for my taste, and a generous slice of oh-so-moist red velvet cake ($6) that quickly disappeared despite the fact that we had declared ourselves full before taking the first bite.
The wine list is small but notable for its reasonable prices and highly informative descriptive notes. We drank by the glass and were pleased with a smooth, full-bodied Terrazas Malbec from Argentina ($6) and a bright, crisp Italian Cavit Pinot Grigio ($5). There are nine varieties of champagne, some available by the glass ($9), and for serious celebrators, a $225 bottle of Dom Perignon.
For those in the know, this is the place to be when hunger hits and the normal dinner hour is long passed. On a weeknight there were more people tucking into orders of roasted chicken, grilled salmon and filet mignon at 9 p.m. than when we arrived at 7.
I’m not surprised. It’s a gem of a restaurant that delivers a satisfying out-to-eat experience. This place has everything going for it but location — and that should definitely not keep anyone away.
Chester’s Fine Cuisine, 1990 Noble Road, East Cleveland, (216) 451-2073. Hours: Lunch Wed-Fri 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., Dinner Wed and Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 - midnight, Sun 2 - 9 p.m. Handicapped accessible. Nonsmoking. Parking in lot across the street. Reservations suggested for Friday and Saturday nights, when there is live music. All major credit cards accepted.