Restaurant Review: Grotto Wine Bar
Grotto Wine Bar is the latest venture for father and son team of Ricardo and Fabio Salerno, who also operate Gusto in Little Italy and Lago in Tremont.
For the sake of applying a “numerical” valuation towards elements during the dinner, we have chosen to rank each segment from 1-5 “tickets at the pass,” 5 being the most favorable value.
Chef Gusteau: True to form, Anton was already at the bar, drinking away before I arrived on time…notice any trends? He seemed to be enjoying the wines provided by the very affable and professional bartender. I have to admit, although difficult to do so, that the bartender would prove to possess wine knowledge rivaling even my own. Scary thought, I agree.
The wine selections were quite impressive as you might expect from a “wine bar.” Seventeen selections by the glass, for both white and red, were available are fair prices.
Monsieur Anton: Ah, jealousy rears its ugly head! Don’t be a hater Gusteau. Just because I am a single guy and my schedule is my own with no wife and kids to answer to. This affords me time for the finer things in life, like wine and pretty barmaids.
Fortunately this particular barmaid had an extensive knowledge of the wine she was pouring. In addition to the above mentioned glass selections, there was a huge amount bottle selections and a handful of featured flights. As one might suspect at an Italian wine bar, the offerings were heavily weighted to Italian wines. The prices were not cheap by any means, but were more or less in line with higher end restaurant prices. That said, drinking here is not a cheap proposition, nor is it intended to be.
Tickets at the pass – 4.5
Ossobuco Sliders – $14 Pulled braised veal shank on polenta roll
Chef Gusteau: There is certainly a trend among restaurants to offer mini-burgers and sliders among their menu selections. This is primarily due to the recent economic pressures that have consumers watching their spending, particularly in areas like restaurants. I was pleased to see no burgers on this menu. The slider in question was actually a piece of osso bucco between a flavored roll. The meat was perfectly cooked, though a bit dry (due to holding the product too long for service), and was topped with fried onion rings.
Monsieur Anton: The small plates/tapas aspect of Grotto is perfect for sharing and sampling a large number of menu items. Like Gusteau, I tire of seeing mini burgers on menus around the city. To me, it is lazy. Please, if you are not a sports bar or White Castle, do not have sliders! That is unless of course you have the vision to do something different with the concept. As luck would have it, Chef Fabio Salerno offers us Osso Bucco rather than a small, dry beef patty. Sadly, the Osso Bucco was bit dry, but darned flavorful.
Anatra /duck – $14 Blackberry Frangelico glaze, goat cheese and candied walnuts
Chef Gusteau: The duck was delightful! Perfectly cooked, and served with a flavored demi-glace sauce. As any chef can tell you, by serving a demi-glace sauce you are telling the customer several things: “I care about taking the time to make the perfect sauce; money is secondary to the best ingredients; I really am that damn good.” You see, a demi-glace sauce is the result of hours of careful reduction of a stock. Typically, one gallon of stock might only produce about one cup of demi-glace. In this manner, that sauce also becomes an expensive ingredient. But it is worth it! Don’t believe me, you should have seen Anton mopping up the sauce on the plate with the crusts of bread he was saving for later!
Monsieur Anton: Gusteau loves to harp on how long it takes to make a demi-glace. Truth be told, many restaurants buy theirs out of a box or bag rather than making their own, so I give Salerno props for that. What I care about though is how it tastes, and it was very good. As far as mopping up the sauce with the bread, I was only being frugal. In these tough economic times, it only makes sense to not waste anything. The duck itself was delicious, and the sweet accompaniments played off the savory duck nicely.
Scallops – $12 Pistachio crusted with pomegranate glaze
Chef Gusteau: When the scallops arrived, I have to admit I was already a bit concerned. Scallops are typically not the ingredient you choose to encrust with anything. It is such a decadent food, so tender and moist, that to add a crunchy coating really “eats away” at the best part of scallops. I can appreciate chefs trying to play soft and crunchy textures against each other, but sometimes you just have to know when to stop. These scallops were no exception. They were perfectly cooked, but the rough texture of the pistachio chunks on top really didn’t do the dish any justice. Luckily all I had to do was brush them aside to enjoy the scallops. And the pomegranate glaze? I tasted the sauce, which was fortunately on the side of the plate, and knew that its pungent acidity had no place on the scallops. So I enjoyed the scallops au natural.
Monsieur Anton : The amply sized scallops were cooked to perfection, creamy and sweet, with a hint of the taste of the sea. I can take or leave the pistachio crust, but not being the food snob that Gusteau is, I was willing to give it a try. I can still take or leave it. I also was a bit more open-minded about the pomegranate glaze. A little acid to go with the creamy texture of the scallops is not a bad idea. When all is said and done though, it pains me to admit that my esteemed chef friend Gusteau is correct. The scallops in and of themselves were the star of this dish.
Tickets at the pass – 4
Grotto Pizza – $10 Coppa salami, smoked mozzarella and roasted tomato
Chef Gusteau: Anton wanted pizza. I shook my head as he ordered it. He ate it. I tasted a small piece of salami on a slice. It was OK. It was thin crust pizza with cheese and tomato. Sometimes you just can’t take Anton anywhere. We just had scallops for heaven’s sake. Would you like a Genuine Draft with that Anton?
Monsieur Anton: Is Gusteau too good for pizza? Once again, food snobbery plays into Gusteau’s point of view. Does he not see that fine chefs around the country are featuring gourmet pizzas? It’s not as if Grotto was emulating Pizza Hut. They’ve put together a line-up of high-end pizzas with a thin cracker type crust, charred to just the right amount with quality toppings. And by the way, I enjoy Dortmunder Gold with my pizza. What am I, a cretin?
Tagliatelli – $14 Wild boar Bolognese
Chef Gusteau: I liked the idea of the Tagliatelli with wild boar Bolognese. Wild boar being the playful alternative to pork sausage and beef typically used in Bolognese sauces. Verdict? Not a bad attempt, but the wild boar was used very sparingly, so it was hard to determine the quality of flavor. Overall, the dish was tasty, though. When paired with the Super Tuscan, it really was a delightful dish. I give extra credit for the creativity with the ingredients. Bravo!
Monsieur Anton: I was disappointed at both the measure and quality of the wild boar. There was a scant amount of the meat, and while I was hoping for more of a traditional Bolognese with stringy chunks of meat, what I got more resembled a sausage. The sauce was delightfully tangy, and slightly acidic. The pasta cooked perfectly.
Coniglio/Rabbit – $19 Braised with pureed root vegetables
Chef Gustaeu: I had such hopes for the rabbit dish. I love rabbit, braised, roasted, confit; love it all. It tastes a little like chicken, but so much better. The problem? Rabbit is not covered for inspection by the USDA – it is inspected on a voluntary system only. If rabbit has not undergone voluntary inspection, it falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA to determine if the food is wholesome and disease free. And then each state gets to add their two cents to the FDA’s ruling. The net result? It’s really hard to get good rabbit if you are a restaurant. If you go to the farmers market and slip the right person a good amount of money? You get great quality rabbit. Restaurants can’t do this, though, so have to go through major distributors to get this expensive ingredient. Too often though, the rabbit has been frozen, thawed, frozen again for ages, etc. My guess is this is what happened here. The rabbit was just ok; it tasted like turkey leg meat, barely. But at least I got to taste rabbit. I applaud the use of it on the menu…it belongs on the menu, and goes great with wine. The vegetable puree was too watery.
Monsieur Anton: I too was excited to see rabbit on the menu. Its not something you see very often, and I was eager to sample it. It did indeed taste like dark meat turkey. While I’m the first to go after the drumstick on Thanksgiving, it’s not a rabbit drumstick I’m after. My question is, if a restaurant cannot get quality rabbit, then why feature it on the menu? The vegetable puree was a substitute on the menu, further hinting that they don’t sell much of the rabbit. It was bland and thin, and after the first taste I gave up on it. Not even I’m that thrifty.
Tickets at the pass – 4
Chef Gusteau: For dessert, we chose the liquid dessert route. Late Harvest and ice wines, pure decadence!
Monsieur Anton: When in Rome, do as the Romans do…drink! Man I love Rome. To Dionysus!
Tickets at the pass – 5
Chef Gusteau: The ambiance of the restaurant was that of an upscale bar. We actually ate at the bar. High four tops filled the restaurant/bar. Keep in mind, this fits the theme. This setup is perfect for fun socializing and frivolity. I wouldn’t come here and expect a quiet table for 8. The food is also bar portions, not gut-busting dinner portions.
Monsieur Anton: The atmosphere was splendid. The Salernos spared no cost on the design of this place. High arched ceilings with brick accents give a nod to the Grotto theme. The expansive glass enclosed wine room stationed behind the bar shows the aesthetic of the wine is equal to the taste. Marble tops on both the bar and the tables give the impression of rustic elegance. My only nit to pick, is the majority of the tables being high tops for four. It limits the idea of large parties where the food and wine can be best enjoyed. The tall seats can also be a bit uncomfortable after some time.
Tickets at the pass – 4
Chef Gusteau: Grotto is a fun place to talk, enjoy some great wines and fun food. No complaints or regrets. This place is fun! Ask for Ricardo or Stephanie…don’t say we sent you…they have no idea who we were…actually they did…but had no idea we are doing this. So, shhhhhhhh, it will be our little secret.
Monsieur Anton: The food and wine is good. The service is even better, with cheerful and knowledgeable recommendations. Ricardo and Fabio Salerno have done a fine job of establishing an environment that embodies their spirit of food, wine and hospitality. One caveat though. Grotto is not inexpensive. The portions tend to be small for the price, and the wines are in keeping with many restaurants throughout the area. That is to say, a tad pricy. Don’t let this stop you however. Good food and hospitality can sometimes come with a price, and at Grotto, it is money well spent.
Final tickets at the pass – 4.5
Grotto Wine Bar
13101 Shaker Square
Cleveland, OH 44120