Greenhouse Tavern Revisited (Cleveland, OH)

(Update: Alas, things have not gone well in Sawyer’s restaurant group; on February 8th, 2020, Greenhouse Tavern closed its doors forever, the restaurant apparently saddled with debt problems. Cleveland Scene has the details. I’ll miss Greenhouse, I’ve had many, many great visits there over the years)

Every once in a while, I find myself needing to revisit a restaurant I’ve already reviewed. Sometimes it’s because I’ve found, after my visit, that I missed a particularly notable dish. Sometimes, I feel that a visit I has wasn’t representative for some reason. And, quite frankly, a successful restaurant is an evolving entity, and restaurants can, and should, change over time.

You can read my original review of Greenhouse Tavern here. While I came away from that visit thoroughly wowed by Greenhouse, I had only basically sampled a few items off of the late night bar menu. Since then, I’ve had almost half a dozen visits, and had a chance to really work through the overall menu, so it was time for a re-review. Also, that first visit, as you can read from the review, involved more than a little direct interaction with the kitchen (they kept bringing out cool things for me to photograph and sample), and I figured another review in which I was just a random customer was in order as well (I wasn’t completely successful in this, one of the staff recognized me this time). And finally, it’s been 2 years since that review, and that’s a long time in the restaurant world. The Greenhouse is still mostly the same, but it’s had a lot of little changes. In 2009 it was only about six months old. Now it’s a seasoned veteran restaurant with a passel of awards, some new paint, and a lot of tinkering with the menu (as an aside, do they still have the bar menu? I’ve always had coworkers in tow the last few visits, so I haven’t actually sat at the bar…)

Well, last month’s trip to Cleveland left a free evening, and I decided to revisit Greenhouse Tavern for several of these reasons. I also had two coworkers in tow (one who I had previously brought in 2010, and one that hadn’t been before), and we all agreed that it was worth trying for dinner. And like my previous handful of visits, it took us all only a few seconds to decide that the $44 tasting menu was where the action was at.

I started off pretty simple, opting to try the Devils on Horseback. These are bacon wrapped dates with almonds, bitter chocolate and roasted pepper. These were good, but this dish is probably one of the most over-used dishes of 2011, since everyone (indeed, I noticed this article on the topic a few days after dining at Greenhouse Tavern). That said, these were a particularly well done rendition of the classic appetizer of the ’60s.

Next up was the beef tartare with frites. I’ve had this every single time I’ve been to the Greenhouse, and it’s generally quite nicely done. While this time was no exception, this dish has taken a turn south. To me, a good tartare is really about finely chopped beef, so that you can get the micro-texture of the beef without the chewiness. This time, the tartare, instead of having nice little tiny chunk of red beef, was a pink mound of beef that had been ground to the point that it was more of a pâté than a tartare. Flavorwise, it was almost spot-on, but texture-wise, this missed the mark. Don’t get me wrong, it was still quite good, and one of the better tartares I’ve had, this was only about two-thirds as good as the two previous times I’ve gotten it. There’s room for improvement here.

The frites that came with it, however, were perfectly done, making them the fourth batch of perfectly done frites I had in Cleveland this trip (previously were Market Garden, Bar Cento, and Deagan’s Kitchen & Bar). So Cleveland got the frites thing down pat.

But then with the main course, things really turned around. Amazingly, if you do the tasting menu, the pig’s Head is available as one of the options. Indeed, the pig’s head is exactly that (well, more particularly, it’s half a pig’s head). As your course, get half of a pig’s head, BBQed with a shrimp BBQ paste, served up on a plate with vegetable salad, lime wedges, rolls, and lettuce. They helpfully give you a large steak knife and some tongs to manipulate the resulting delicacy.

For those that haven’t done a pig’s head, the resulting dish is someplace in the spectrum between “pulled pork” and “bacon”. Most of the head (the ears were removed, likely reserved for other purposes) is basically facial muscle, so there are alternating bands of muscle and pork, giving a bacon-like structure. By barbecuing the head with a nice spiced rub, you get a few layers of everything interesting: some crispy pork skin, some flavorful fat, and several thick bands of pork muscle (particularly cheek) that have been roasted down to delicious shreds of pork. Applied to the bun with a nice helping of lime and chopped radish, and it’s a good sandwich. Delicious, but there’s a an awful lot of meat on a pigs head. A serious mess, and a huge amount of food, but well worth trying out if you aren’t terribly squeamish.

Interestingly, I noticed that doing interesting things with pig heads is the current trend in Cleveland, with several restaurants having pig heads, cheeks, ears, and other related parts on the menu. Indeed, two nights before Greenhouse, I was in the basement kitchen of Bar Cento watching sous chef Adam Lambert applying a spice rub to pig faces to make “face bacon”, while commenting to me that in a relatively short few months, pig heads went from being an item that you could get cheaply from most suppliers to being a higher-demand item. Makes me wonder what other unused parts or offal will be the next fad…

Dessert closed up the dinner nicely. I had heard good reviews of Greenhouse’s most intriguing “buttered popcorn pot de creme with salted caramel.” This is awfully hard to review, since it was a unique combination of flavors, but essential it does what it says on the tin. It’s a nicely done pot de creme with a very strong butter note accompanied with some salted caramel with a few nice large salt flakes. I wouldn’t want this too frequently as a dessert, but it was a nice counterpoint to the pig head.

Overall, while my tartare was a bit under my expectations this time, the rest of the meal really delivered. And at $44 for the chef’s tasting menu? It’s actually a lot of really quality food for not much money. I’ll certainly be back, many times.

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