Doug Petkovic has a theory: If you build a restaurant, give it a unique identity and provide a dining experience that lives up to its promise, people will find you and they'll keep coming back. Petkovic is testing his notion at the new restaurant he and partner Gretchen Hyland opened in Tremont last July, the aptly named Theory.
No question Petkovic knows the dining scene and local tastes well: He's been in the restaurant business for 20 years, the past seven as a member of the Restaurant Hospitality Group, which owns the successful Blue Point Grill, Cabin Club and Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille. Hyland is a newcomer to the biz, but Petkovic says she's "very much a working partner."
"This may be a meat-and-potatoes town," he adds, "but that doesn't mean we can't give the people what they want and still be creative."
With the help of architect Rick Lalli, and artist/designer Tim Haas, Petkovic fashioned Theory to fit the Professor Avenue space formerly occupied by Michael Herschman's Mojo. The three share an affection for the Arts and Crafts style, and it shows. Theory boasts more quarter-sawn oak than you'll find anywhere outside of a McKinley-era mansion in Lakewood. There's Mission furniture in the lobby and Craftsman-style lighting fixtures in the dining room. The typeface on the menu could have been copied from a Frank Lloyd Wright blueprint. Dominating the main dining room is a WPA-style mural by Haas that celebrates Cleveland's bygone industrial muscle not exactly of the Arts and Crafts era, but a knockout nonetheless.
Tabletops are roomy, every chair is an armchair and there's plenty of space between tables. Petkovic admits that those touches reduce his total seating capacity. He also points to the genuine oak, the individual salt cellars (filled with kosher salt) at each table and Theory's practice of delivering glass pours of wine in individual carafes. "It all costs us money," he says, "but it also helps to identify us as a special place where you can enjoy a great meal in comfort, amid beautiful surroundings."
On our visits, chef Goran Zekic was the man responsible for delivering the "great meal" that Petkovic views as central to the Theory experience. Tim Bando has since taken over the top spot in the kitchen. Steve Fillis was Theory's original chef, but his mission was just to get the eatery up and running, since he always intended to leave in order to study for the Orthodox priesthood. Zekic and Bando also participated in Theory's creation, so when Zekic became the second chef to leave "for personal reasons," according to Petkovic, "Tim was able to slide right into the spot, basically without missing a beat." Petkovic adds that the rapid turnover has not degenerated into turmoil. He and Bando have worked together before, both being alumni of Rich Melman's Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago-based restaurant group. Locally, Bando has cooked at Moxie, the late Tutto a Posto and Mentor's Noosa Bistro.
Himself an organic farmer, Bando pledges to continue Theory's commitment to the finest ingredients available, always fresh and in season, offering them in combinations and presentations designed "to charm and intrigue without overwhelming the diner," as Zekic put it. Bando has already made a few changes, adding Arctic char and grouper, for example, to replace farm-raised salmon and walleye that he felt weren't up to standard.
Many eateries claim to use superior products, but Theory backs it by specifying such premium items as lamb from Jamison Farms, pork from Nieman Ranch, certified Angus and American-grown Kobe-style beef, sashimi-grade tuna and the freshest, most perfect organic produce available in this market. The kitchen handles these prime materials with respect and serves them in simple, unfussy presentations. On your next trip to Theory, pick a seat with a good view of the open kitchen and watch the chef scrutinize and fine-tune every dish before it's carried into the dining room.
In fact, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that this kitchen's approach to food echoes the Arts and Crafts aesthetic that owner Petkovic honors: an emphasis on outstanding materials and craftsmanship, and disdain for excessive ornamentation and gingerbread.
?he arugula salad serves as a good example. It's the only green salad on the menu and should not be missed. Leaves of arugula, seemingly only hours from the field, are tossed with sliced mushrooms and shards of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, then bathed in a luscious lemon juice and olive oil dressing ($6). It's a dish so simple that it succeeds only because of the quality of the ingredients.
Theory's menu lists only about 10 appetizers and a dozen entrees, again by design. "We only offer what we know we can do perfectly. I won't promise what I can't deliver," Petkovic says.
Outstanding starters include seared diver scallops on a bed of shredded zucchini ($8) and tuna sushi ($7). The scallops (three to an order) are firm and sweet, beautifully caramelized and perfectly cooked. The zucchini strands are crisp and taste of the garden. Bando says that he's replacing the zucchini with a rich pumpkin broth for fall and winter. The tuna sushi (I might have called it tuna tartare, but let's not quibble over semantics) is served in a hollowed-out lemon. This dish teams cubes of raw, sashimi-grade tuna with a mix of fava beans, raisins, roasted corn, ditalini pasta and nuggets of toasted almond. The blend of textures and flavors is almost whimsical, juxtaposing crunchy almonds against soft pasta; bland favas against tart lemon juice. Every forkful is a treat.
We found the pan-roasted crab cake ($8) rather bland and boring. The best part of the dish was the bed of citrus slaw on which the crab cake rested. It was full flavored and loaded with cilantro.
The entree list caused a double take. What's this? Not one chicken dish? "Right," says Petkovic. "There're dozens of places in town where you can get pasta with grilled chicken or pizza or ribs. This is not one of them. We're not trying to do everything just trying to be the best at what we do."
At Theory, beef takes the spotlight. "But this isn't a kitchen where someone just throws a slab of beef onto the grill and serves it with a baked potato," Petkovic cautions. Several of the entrees are pan- or oven-roasted, and short ribs are braised with a medley of baby vegetables. Try the beef tenderloin, robed by finely minced black trumpet mushrooms and pan-roasted to rosy perfection ($28). The crust gives an earthy, woodsy tang to the tender and succulent beef. A purée of leeks and a pot of french-fried potatoes complete the dish.
Or choose a generous hunk of top sirloin, also prime, roasted to a turn and served with a potato galette and a pleasantly bitter medley of wild greens ($19). A dollop of housemade chutney usually accompanies the dish, but on one night the kitchen rounded out the presentation with an earthy mix of beets and mushrooms.
Theory's other beef selections include rib steak with horseradish and french fries ($26) and a strip steak in red-wine reduction sauce, also served with fries ($24). One of the restaurant's most popular beef entrees is the hamburger of super-premium Kobe-style beef with the added zip of Maytag bleu cheese ($15).
On one evening, we found pan-roasted pork tenderloin ($23) offered as a special. Being great fans of Nieman Ranch free-range, organic pork, we gave it a try. The meat was outstanding moist, tender and tasting the way pork was meant to taste and the side of apple chutney provided a pleasant sweet/tart grace note. Sadly, the accompanying sweet-potato gnocchi were gummy and lacked flavor.
While Theory's menu is so far chicken-free (this may change), it's not poultry free. Those uneasy about dining without the help of our feathered friends may try the almond-crusted duck breast ($24).
Desserts are few, but extraordinary (all $6). Some are made in house, others from off premises. They vary with availability. If it's offered on your visit, try the eggless, housemade berry "brûlée." Theory's version takes a medley of berries, lightly seasoned in the Italian manner with a hint of black pepper and balsamic vinegar, drenches them in sour cream and then bakes the mixture beneath a crunchy burnt-sugar crust. The result is outstanding. The warm apple tart encases slices of apples, spices and a hint of lemon in crisp, tender and buttery pte brisée.
Can Theory make it in Tremont, which is already crowded with good restaurants? No problem, says Petkovic. "I don't think Tremont is anywhere near the saturation point. 'Restaurant Rows,' with dozens of places side by side, thrive in many cities. Tremont is becoming Cleveland's dining destination, and we'll be able to hold our own," he vows.
Theory, 2221 Professor Ave., Tremont, (216) 621-2301. Dinner: Mon-Thu 5 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 - 11 p.m. Easy access to the dining room; although the main restrooms are down a full flight of stairs, there is a handicapped-accessible restroom on the main floor as well. Valet parking is available for $5. A private dining room seating up to 10 is available for parties.