Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fun Playing With Great Food on New Year's Eve in Cleveland

We mostly stay home, or close to home, on New Year's Eve. Too many amateurs on the road. But this year, we were invited to join our friends Dave and Beth, and a whole bunch of their friends, for a special New Years Eve dinner at Bar Cento. This would be our first time to visit Bar Cento under the helm of new Executive Chef Michael Nowak and his crew.

Since dinner didn't start until 9pm, we decided to begin the festivities with a stop at one of our favorite, but undervisited places, Momocho. Chef Eric Williams was at the door and welcomed us. Surprisingly, the bar area was busy, but not overly so, as we took a couple of seats at the end. As always, the dim red lights on the first floor of Momocho presented a photography challenge to my limited skills.

We enjoyed a few drinks,

Cactus Flower Margharita

and two snacks:

queso fundito / house made chorizo sausage / rajitas / corn tortillas

guacamole / tradicional

Fresh Made Chips

We enjoyed our nosh and bid goodnight to Chef Williams, who checked out early, to spend NYE with his family at home for the first time in years! And just about 8:30pm, when the last reservations were to begin - Momocho was slammed! It went from brisk to almost-mayhem in just minutes. You just never know.

Shortly before 9pm, we headed around the block to Bar Cento. After being seated and looking at the menu, we eagerly anticipated the seven lovely courses listed on the menu, and ordered up the optional wine pairings.

I do not want to be too critical here - but I also want to be honest. Our dinner was overall a delicious and delightful experience. But I also came away with two big complaints, which I will get out of the way now. Please take these comments in the context of the whole review - it was a terrific dinner at an amazingly fair price. But to not mention the downs would be as unfair as leaving out the ups.

First bad - no one ever explained any of the dishes we were eating. This was a terrible shame, since, as you will see, Chef Nowak obviously put a lot of thought into it that we did not get to share. A corollary of this criticism is that the servers didn't seem to know much about the menu - when one of my dining companions asked our server about the contents of a dish, he said he didn't know. There was apparently no pre-dinner meeting so staff could be educated about what they were serving.

The second complaint is that none of the hot courses was served anywhere near an appropriate serving tempurature. This detracted from our enjoyment of these wonderfully crafted dishes. Kitchen and serving staff need to get on the same page to pull off this kind of dinner successfully.

With those two negatives duly noted - I repeat that this was a tasty, special, terrific way to ring in the New Year.

And so we began:


The menu described this platter, to be shared by four diners, as "Petit Jesus, Prosciutto Americana, Tomme d' Savior, Primadonna, Mushroom Salad, Pickled Vegetables, Roman Money." But no one told us about where the meats and cheeses were made, or what varieties the cheeses were, or what exactly was intended by the whimsical menu description. Was "Roman Money" the lentil salad? Or the salami rounds? No matter - it was all delicious!

The mushroom salad is tucked under the crostini at one o'clock. Despising mushrooms, I passed on that.

These pickled vegetables, on the other hand, were fabulous!

Ah, the power of cheese!

Wikipedia advises that lentils are a traditional Italian New Year's item.

My Antipasti Plate

Salad of Braised Artichokes, Zuchini, Preserved Tomatoes, Baby Lettuces

Bravo! A beautifully composed, delicious salad with homemade petite croutons and a lovely balsamic reduction.

Puree of Cauliflower Soup, Crisp Chickpea, Poached Lobster

This soup would have been outstanding had it been served hot, or at least warm. The scents and flavors tantalized, and the crispy chickpeas were little flavor bombs!

For the pasta course, there were two choices. To my great surprise, my husband opted for the vegetarian course:

Ravioli of Ricotta and Black Truffle, Poached Quail Egg, Parmesan

The perfectly poached quail egg is hiding under one of the raviolis. This dish offered a silky texture and sublime flavors.

Bolito Misto Papperdelle, Capon, Veal, Zampone, Braised Roots

The round meaty item in the center was the Zampone. It took Wikipedia to determine that Zampone is stuffed pig's trotter (I did figure out when I ate it that it was some form of forcemeat), a traditional Italian New Year's item. All of the meats were lovely, though the Zampone appealed more to Bob than to me. The jus was delightful, and the pasta toothsome. The mini-carrots were perfectly cooked. But the temperature of both pasta courses was tepid.

Bob and I broke from our usual pattern of sharing the different choices to both order the same entree - how often are you offered grass-fed beef? The menu gave no clue to the origin of the tuna course, so we both ordered the beef. But one of my dining companions allowed me to photograph his plate:

Risotto Di Tonno, Seared Tuna, Risotto Provencal, Crisp Rapini

I did not taste this dish, but the tuna I saw on another's plate looked like it was cooked way past a sear. However, the people that ordered it seemed to like it - it was crusted with black peppercorn, and accompanied by the cooling tomato risotto and rapini.

Dry Aged Grass-Fed Beef, Rouille, Caramelized Vegetables, Demi

Again, it took Wikipedia to determine that rouille meant "a sauce that consists of olive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and chili peppers." It certainly helps to explain the tasty bits of what seemed at the time to be "stuffing" dotting the plate. And though the meat was cooked longer than it wanted to be, it still retained a little pink, and was buttery soft and delicious (if a little colder than optimal), and also delightfully crusted with fresh black pepper.

The beef was served with perfectly puffed sweet potato fingers and a lovely braised slice of fennel bulb that I failed to photograph.

Formaggio - Aged Cow's Milk, Cranberry, Almonds

Another winning course - but I wish I knew what kind of cheese it was!

Crisp Sesame Bowl, Orange Curd, Cognac and Torrone Ice Creams

I am usually not a big fan of sesame, but this presentation and flavor combo blew me away. I would have liked to know if these were Jeni's Ice Creams, which are normally served at Bar Cento and are very popular, but which I'd never tasted before, or some other. I'm going to guess Jeni's, since both of these flavors are listed on their website.


Complimentary bubbles toast at midnight for everyone in the house.

And everyone was given a little "goody" bag when they left, which contained two items. A small bottle of bitters (and Italian tradition with which I'm not familiar?) and a lovely macaroon cookie from A Cookie & A Cupcake, Chef Wendy Thompson's new Ohio City venture.

Caramel, I believe.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, I say again - the "new" Bar Cento has a lot to offer, and I look forward to trying more of Chef Nowak's creations. After the dinner ended, and the restaurant re-opened to the public (they serve food until 2am every day), people wandered in and ordered drinks and pizzas - and a wonderful time was had by all!

Happy New Year - good health, and lots of fun playing with your food!


  1. Sounds like the courses that weren't time sensitive (like the salads and cheese courses) were executed to a very high level while the ones that required precise last minute timing suffered.

    I think the one that made me want to reach out and grab it was the cheese, cranberry, and almond course. That looks absolutely stunning.

  2. Glad you guys could join us, it was a very fun night!

  3. It was nice to see you at Bar Cento. Since we were early I did see Mike brief some of the staff on the dishes. I have had some of the items at other dinners so we knew most of items on the antipasta plate, especially the "roman money" lentils for good luck. We had a great meal and very good service.

  4. Oh, that looks incredible. Is it possible to be homesick for Cleveland when you were just a frequent visitor?

    Happy New Year from Memphis!

  5. Thank you Benito! I have to admit, I've become very fond of Cleveland over these last 13 years here.

    And Steve - it was nice to see you. We did have a great time NYE and hope to get back to Cento soon.