Had you toured the space that was to become Cibreo less than three weeks ago, you couldn’t help but be impressed. Restaurateur Scott Kuhn gutted the perfectly acceptable property last occupied by Bricco Cleveland, and transformed it into an Old World charmer.
First, a look at the food, the reason any of us make the trek out to dinner – even if, as in this case, it might only be a detour on the way to a show at the neighboring Allen, State, Palace and other theaters across the street or around the corner.
At Wednesday night’s preview, the kitchen’s strengths were evident. A five course “friends-and-family” sampling menu showcased starches in a wonderful light.
Start with a fragrant and robust, winter-friendly soup of sausage, porcini and beans, with a lively chile kick ($6). It was the kind of hearty potage that many a Clevelander would polish off with a thick slab of rustic bread, alongside a mug of great amber ale.
Move on to the Risotto Funghi ($16). Rather than employing the usual Arborio rice, Kuhn and executive chef Erik Martinez (late of Orchard House and Hodges, where he worked with Chris Hodgson, who consults at Cibreo), opted for a longer-grain variety – then bakes it in a cazuela, an earthenware vessel. The mélange boasts a fine depth of flavor, intensified by lemon juice, all loaded with a succulent mixture of domestic wild mushrooms. It may lack the delicacy of more sophisticated versions, but it’s got plenty of gusto.
By all means try (or share) the pappardelle Bolognese. The wide, flat, fat noodles are clad in a hearty sauce specked with tasty bits of ground veal, pork and beef ($17). Throw in one of the available salads, and you’re ready for a relay – or maybe a marathon production of “Nicholas Nickleby.”
Best of all, at least at our table, was the Pork Osso Buco ($20). Plump flakes of meat fell from the bone at the touch of the fork’s tines, a wonderful contrast to the tangy Brown Butter Polenta it lay upon. (A touch of buttermilk lent the right hint of tartness.) A hint of citrusy gremolata provided the perfect counterpoint to the unctuous pork shank – and bitter-tinged Swiss chard made an engaging companion.
While enjoying our meal, it was impossible not to drink in the room’s engaging visuals.
As founder and managing partner of Driftwood Restaurant Group (Washington Place Bistro, Welshfield Inn, Hodges and other places), Kuhn prefers to follow his own vision rather than lean on designers. With the support of professional tradesmen and others, he sought to create a sense of theatricality that’s in keeping with district
“I think we’re bringing to Playhouse Square a break from reality,” Kuhn says. “It’s in keeping with the sense of escape that theater provides. “I think the space we created is authentic, and takes you away for an hour-and-a-half while you sit down to dinner. That’s what the intent was. I hope it’ll be a place where Clevelanders can enjoy for a getaway – then cross the street and go see a show, then come back or go somewhere else for a drink, and then go home.”
Apparently, he has a good eye for aesthetics as well as for business. Kuhn’s concept for Cibreo recalls a Tuscan wine cellar – walls clad in Montana sandstone, inset with niches in which non-burning candles flicker.
The space could have been cavernous, but cosmetic and visual sleight of altered the room’s sense of proportions. Brick archways and beams mounted on the towering ceilings play on the airy spaciousness, adding texture while bringing a more human scale to the room. Meanwhile, by playing up the broad, stone-clad pillars set around the room, the space feels embracing, even cozy, without becoming claustrophobic.
Kuhn took a gamble by working with so much stone, a notoriously resonant surface that could have resulted in a cacophony of bouncing noise. Instead, the sandstone style of surfacing he chose seems to actually absorb, or at least dampen, sound – making normal conversation possible. (Bonus: his choice of color has the added benefit of warm tones, adding to a sense of inviting warmth.
In all, it’s the sort of environment you’d be more likely to find in Napa Valley or a villa in Italy than in an urban setting.
Overlook the rush of traffic and pedestrians making their way down Euclid and you might find yourself off in wine country. A getaway visitors are sure to find inviting as chill winds soon enough gather on the shores of Lake Erie, and sweep through the theater district.