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MC Slim JB | Sep 21, 2003 12:58 AM

Finally got by this place, which I'm told has been open for six weeks now. Weird location: I assumed it would be in the heart of Bay Village, but you can see Fleming's and McCormick & Schmick's from the bar: it's right on Park Square.

Quiet for a Saturday night, a handful of people at the bar at 8:30pm, a quarter-full dining room. Very pleasant staff, decor that looks like they went halfway on an upscale makeover and then stopped: a weird contrast between pretty touches (the dining room's deep-red ceiling, the cool framed mirrors in the bar) and ugly leftover details (the hideous fire door and cheap-looking lighting fixtures in the dining room.)

Good news: a brothy lobster stew with what tastes like a very rich mushroom stock, nuggets of chanterelle, big chunks of lobster, and curls of some kind of pork (belly?). Superb, and only $7. Roast chicken has a rich free-range taste, with awe-inspiring barely-creamed corn and a fantastic cube of potato gratin on the side. The gnocchi with roast squash and apples is terrific: a gorgeous (veal-stock-based, I think) sauce. The dumplings don't have quite the pillowy lightness I prefer, but are just airy enough. Both entrees run in the high teens.

Wine list is quite limited -- six or seven reds and whites each, plus three sparklers, most under $30. A $28 Frescobaldi Chianti does the job just fine, and I appreciate the low prices, but I think the food deserves a slightly broader list, or at least better food wines (2 of 6 whites were Cali chardonnays, ick).

Desserts impress: a fine white-chocolate cheesecake with stewed cherries, fluffy and light, and a plate of five fabu handmade chocolates (white chocolate with hazelnut cream and milk chocolate with sesame cream are the favorites). Excellent filter coffee.

Best surprise: it all comes to $85 including tax. I think if the room were full and noisy, I might not have noticed the corner-cutting on the decor. With its very friendly service and remarkable, creative-but-not-overreaching food at this price point, I am reminded of the Franklin Cafe (only with a lot more elbow room). A strong first impression: I will definitely visit again and drag some more friends along.

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