"Man, you look really familiar," Andy Himmel, the young, affable owner of boulevard blue, says when we meet. After the usual exchange of possible sources of familiarity "— college, hangouts, wanted posters, med-school cadavers, et cetera "— we hit on the realization that for a brief time during my tenure as executive chef at a prominent Warehouse District eatery, Andy worked there as a server. After making sure that I never yelled at him needlessly, I congratulate him on the good turn his fortunes have taken in only a few years' time.
Armed with a finance degree from The Ohio State University, a formidable link to the business through his father, Marty, who operated the Boarding House jazz club in University Circle for 20 years, and a lot of restaurant sense culled from years of serving and bartending, Himmel, though young, is a man with vision, moxie and a plan "— a plan that fills 250 pages, in fact.
That tome of a business plan, fleshed out with the help of his executive chef, Scott Wuennemann, must have been a wonder, as it obtained for boulevard blue an SBA loan through Huntington Bank. For those of you on the outside of the rough-and-tumble world of restaurant finance, it's important to note that this never, never, never, ever happens. The bank's money was evidently a good investment, as Himmel has parlayed it into a quality eatery and jazz/blues club with a growing reputation.
The intimate hustle and bustle of boulevard blue is very much in keeping with the space Himmel originally envisioned. Wall-sized photos of Chicago and New Orleans represent the fusion of jazz and blues that is showcased in the restaurant on Fridays, Saturdays and the third Thursday of every month. The lighting is cool, as are the shades of blue that adorn the walls. The room is wide open, packed with tables and notably free of dividers. While some have kvetched that this is a little too close for their Midwestern sense of personal space, in our opinion it imparts a sense of upbeat energy.
"I wanted the restaurant to feel like places in New York or other metropolitan areas," Himmel explains. "They have a certain vibe that fits well with our concept."
There is a certain hum to a busy, intimate space that is more pronounced by its absence. Doubtless, we've all encountered a restaurant that seems to have succumbed to ennui, finding ourselves forced to whisper across the table for fear of disturbing an imagined librarian-like figure sitting nearby. Not at boulevard blue, where diners continue to pack the Larchmere Boulevard eatery for Wuennemann's eclectic and reasonably priced menu and Himmel's carefully constructed array of cocktails and martinis.
Having come into his own as a sous-chef at M (Cameron Mitchell's scion of fine dining in Columbus), Wuennemann has created for boulevard blue a tasty, yet very accessible menu that touches on many of the most popular current themes in dining. We began our meal with the sweet Spanish onion soup ($5.25), one of the more delicious takes on the bistro classic that we've encountered in years. The addition of bubbly Manchego cheese and a pinch of saffron give the soup a Spanish spin that works very well.
The sushi-grade tuna ($10.50) with sticky rice, Asian vegetables and wasabi drizzle, while increasingly a menu stalwart in Cleveland, was perfectly executed. More enticing was the wild mushroom tart ($8.50). Here, a delicious housemade crust is topped with grilled red onion, goat cheese, cabernet drizzle and halloumi. (Halloumi, a sheep's-milk cheese from Cyprus, is almost feta-like in flavor, but with the remarkable quality of being grillable. The product becomes, ostensibly, a tasty grilled-cheese sandwich without the bread. It's something you need to try. No really, go buy some; we'll wait here.)
Salads were each good, if sometimes unremarkable. Boulevard's iceberg wedge "— thankfully, not Titanic "— ($6) features crispy bacon, grape tomatoes, bleu cheese and a cabernet-buttermilk dressing. The 13-Year-Old Salad with baby greens, 18-month-old Gouda, pine nuts and 12-year-old balsamic (get it? the combined age of the prominent ingredients is 13 years) is also simple, yet a fine beginner.
The duck and bosc pear salad ($14), though, is decidedly more advanced. Six ounces of seared duck breast, spinach, Cabrales bleu cheese from Spain and a maple vinaigrette comprise a delicious fall/winter salad. Our only real salad disappointment, the Blue Spinach Salad ($8), with spinach, Cabrales bleu cheese, blueberries and a lavender-honey vinaigrette, was a bit too lavender heavy, with the herb overpowering the palate with its sweet-floral flavor. At press time, however, the salad had been removed from the menu. (A chicken entree that we also felt fell a bit below the mark was also missing upon a return visit. Almost eerily prescient, we think.)
Each of our entrees was well prepared, running the gamut from good to excellent. The crispy salmon ($16.75) is pan-seared and served with sweet-potato won tons, Szechwan green beans and a sweet corn Mirin sauce. (Mirin is a sweet, low-alcohol Japanese rice wine that is essential to the Japanese cook and "— not that we would encourage you to find out "— would probably give anyone who consumed it on its own the hangover of a lifetime.) The dish was quite good and the Asian twist interesting.
On the excellent end of the spectrum, we sampled two entrees that were simply fantastic. The grilled pork chop ($19.25) with harissa (Tunisian hot sauce) creamed spinach, prosciutto-wrapped apples, Anna potatoes (a classic French dish of thinly sliced potatoes and butter) and apple-cider reduction proved to be a combination of perfectly reinforcing flavors and textures. The pork itself was succulent and juicy, far from the dry pork chops on which I grew up. (Not yours, Mom -- uhmm, I mean on which other people grew up.)
The caramelized scallops ($19) were also perfectly done and sided with a delectable, savory mushroom bread pudding, asparagus, wilted spinach and Madeira mushroom demi. Here again, the flavors complement one another ideally, resulting in a dish that's hearty and appropriate for the crisp weather outside. For those wishing to dine out on a budget, boulevard blue's On The Boulevard menu features two pastas, a pesto chicken focaccio sandwich and a Kobe burger, all priced below $16.
Desserts are all tasty endings to the meal and, notably, are all made in house. (You would be surprised to discover at how many places they aren't.) Our favorite was the Black and Tan float ($6) with Guinness ice cream, Bass granita and root beer "— a great twist on the pub classic.
Before or after dinner, be sure to check out the many mixed drinks, both hot and cold, that Himmel has concocted to complement Wuennemann's menu.
If, like us, you appreciate a pleasurable dining experience in a high-energy, contemporary atmosphere, boulevard blue is as good a bet as anyplace in town and sure to be a sound cornerstone for the continually evolving Shaker and Larchmere dining scene.
boulevard blue, 12718 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland, (216) 721-5500. Hours: Tue and Wed 4 p.m. - midnight, kitchen 5 - 10 p.m.; Thu 4 p.m. - 1 a.m., kitchen 5 - 10 p.m., extended menu till midnight; Fri and Sat 4 p.m. - 2 a.m., kitchen 5 - 11 p.m., extended menu till 1 a.m.; Sun 4 - 10 p.m., kitchen 5 - 9 p.m.