There’s good Mediterranean-inspired, seasonally driven food coming out of chef Pete Joyce’s kitchen, and his comfortable, unfussy 70-seat spot is a pleasant place to enjoy it — especially at sunset when the ambience is courtesy of Mother Nature.
The big front windows in the bar and dining room face west, and the sidewalk seating is oriented the same way. When the skies and the weather cooperate, every table is drenched in a golden glow.
I’ve got history with this particular spot that dates back to the early days of my food-writing career. In 1986, it was a potato pancake emporium called Miracles. Owners Gary and Rita Grabowski were pioneers, investing in the community before it blossomed into the hip destination it is today. Then there was Donna Chriszt’s restaurant, Oz, followed by Sage, which closed after five years in 2006.
Joyce, who has a long and impressive résumé that includes hitches at Pier W and Blue Point Grille, picks up where some talented chefs left off and appears headed for a long and successful run.
My confident prediction is largely based on one bite of a freshly baked dinner roll, buttered with a soft smear and sliced from a slab speckled with crunchy sea salt crystals (from Cyprus, I was told). But just to be sure, I sampled a crisp flatbread. Bread service can reveal a great deal about a chef and a restaurant. Good bread details a commitment to craft and quality.
My first impression was further confirmed as I learned about and tasted many other items Joyce makes from scratch: sauces, condiments, desserts, even mozzarella cheese and ice cream. And he cures his own bacon, too. Lacking a large staff, this means the guy rarely goes home. Luckily, his wife, Megan, is also his business partner and general manager; otherwise she might never see him.
Many of his dishes touch down on European shores but are not confined by tradition. Salamorejo ($6) is a classic Spanish chilled tomato soup thickened with bread. His version, made with roasted tomatoes and red peppers and a poached egg instead of the usual hard-boiled one, was exceptional — smooth and intensely flavorful.
A savory strudel ($8) has a French-inflected filling of duck confit and Ohio chevre. This appetizer worked especially well thanks to the addition of black figs and a blueberry-balsamic gastrique that acted as a sweet yet tart foil for the rich preserved meat. Goat cheese appears again in a warm and wonderful tart with wild ramps and feta from Lake Erie Creamery ($9).
A juicy pork chop ($19) — locally sourced, as are many of Joyce’s ingredients — is done Milanese-style: pounded out to the size of a personal pan pizza, breaded and baked with a layer of melted mozzarella on top. What set it apart was a side of sautéed Swiss chard dotted with pine nuts, shaved candy onions — a hard-to-find variety that lives up to its name —and a beguiling golden raisin vinaigrette.
Angel hair carbonara ($17) is another of his entrées with Italian roots. In the spring version, fresh Ohio City pasta was tossed with peas and plump morel mushrooms. Intriguing spice notes in this dish, courtesy of Joyce’s veal bacon seasoned with coriander, allspice and bay leaves, provided a complexity that kept me engaged to the last forkful.
Bacon shows up again — this time a pork version — as a wrap for a piece of walleye ($21). It gives the mild fish a real boost, with an assist from a peppery carrot foam. I wish he’d call it something else. Foam sounds pretentious, and it’s a trend that many, including me, think is best forgotten. But while it does resemble the head on a beer, it’s more of an airy yet assertive sauce in this preparation.
My only critical comment is that too many presentations are finished with a pinch of microgreens or microherbs. The treatment’s overdone, and the look becomes repetitive before the meal is finished. Food of this caliber deserves better.
There are fine-dining perks, surprising for such a casual, reasonably priced establishment: The chef offers dinner guests a spoonful of something special to start off the meal, and the table is crumbed between courses.
Big spenders will find worthy choices on the regular wine list, such as a Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon ($90) and a Louis Jadot Pouilly Fuisse ($42). But bargain hunters are rewarded with real value from the 20 bottles for $20 roster. My 2007 Lenotti Rosso Passo, a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, drank like a more expensive red.
For an even better bargain, come for the bistro’s happy hour at the beginning and end of the night, when the after-work specials reappear. We split three small plates and loved them all ($5 each).
The buns for the lamb sliders were homemade, and the peppered aioli was just right. The chicken mykanos was like a potpie folded into Greek phyllo dough. Brochette de Parma consisted of fried semolina polenta topped with a ladle of tomato sauce. We were less enthused about our cocktails: The black-cherry lemonade and margarita martini were short on spirits and too sugary ($5 each).
Not that I have anything against sweets, especially when Pete Joyce is behind them. He elevated a root beer float ($6) to lip-smacking sophistication by combining vanilla ice cream with a scoop of sassafras sorbet and a delicate tuille cookie in the shape of a spoon. A creamy, orange-infused panna cotta ($7) that jiggled like Jell-O was paired with poached rhubarb to great effect. And there was a touch of genius in a little round of cheesecake made with mascarpone, lemon curd and almond shortbread crust splashed with red grape sauce that was like liquid Welch’s purple jelly for grown-ups ($7).
Throughout the summer, look for Joyce to change the menu to take advantage of what area farmers are harvesting. Corn, tomatoes, berries and stone fruits, he tells me, will soon appear in savory and sweet dishes.
Bistro on Lincoln Park, 2391 W. 11th St., Cleveland, (216) 862-2969, Mon-Thu 4:30 -10:30 p.m., Fri & Sat 4:30 - 11:30 p.m.; Happy hour Mon-Fri 4:30 - 6:30 p.m., Mon-Thu 9:30 p.m. - close & Fri 10:30 p.m. - close