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Review: Cleveland-Heath

This small-town Illinois restaurant is worth the drive

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

106 N. Main
Edwardsville, Ill.
Lunch and dinner Mon–Sat

Average Main Course: $14.
Reservations: Fat chance.
Dress: Don’t wear plaid and jeans, lest you be confused for the wait staff.
Chefs: Jennifer Cleveland and Eric Heath

The egg is fried. Perfectly. There are maybe a dozen chefs locally who can consistently fry an egg to such perfection. Sunny side up, it decorates a spectacular presentation of a pork chop, which seems almost an afterthought. Consider it for a moment: the glossy golden yolk, the snowy corona with its delicate crusty lace around the edges, and the taste—liquid sunshine spilling across your tongue. That egg says it, eloquently: This is a remarkably good restaurant.

Downtown Edwardsville, Ill., has the small-town charm of a Gary Ross film (minus Stanley Tucci in a ridiculous-looking wig). The restaurant holds down a corner space that looks like it took a nap in the ’50s and never woke up. The interior is handsome; if you remember its incarnation as Fond, it’ll seem familiar—soft pastel colors, lots of wood, and artwork that’s not painfully bad. Tables are crowded. The atmosphere is happy. Gourmets mingle with locals. Find a place at the bar if there aren’t any tables immediately available. It’s worth the wait.

The menu is as minimalist in length as its offerings are extravagant in presentation. And let’s get this clear right away: Portions here are beyond absurdly generous. Consider a bowl of pozole—four of us shared this soup, and two more of us enjoyed the leftovers the next day. It’s more stew than soup, with thick shreds of braised pork in a luscious carmine pork broth sweet with tomato, pungent with cumin, along with tender hominy nubbins and sliced cabbage. A salad of chopped lettuce covers an entire dinner plate, piled with chunks of roasted chicken, bacon nibbles, and fragrant curds of blue cheese; it could easily satisfy two. The kale salad consists of a delightfully simple arrangement of finely shredded raw kale, hand-mixed with lemon vinaigrette, garlic, and red pepper, then topped with shards of Parmesan.

Quail with sweet potatoes is a splendid starter. The delicate bird is fried golden, splayed on a cloud of clown-orange creamed sweet potatoes and drizzled with bacon gravy. Drop biscuits, crusty and flaky, with blobs of cheddar, are sliced and layered with papery slices of prosciutto. These “sliders” are accompanied by a pot of tart cherry jam that’s actually more chutney, and it couldn’t be a more perfect middleman for biscuit and meat.

You’d have to find a Baptist church picnic to get tastier deviled eggs than Cleveland-Heath’s version, spiked with smoky paprika and a dribble of Frank’s RedHot hot sauce. (One quibble: A table of four should never be served three half-eggs; attention to detail is so tuned here that odd notes like this stand out.)

The restaurant’s cheeseburger is swiftly approaching cult status. A rich brioche bun holds a slab of ground beef; a shingle of melting sharp cheddar on top adds its magic, with mayo, arugula, and ketchup, the last of which you should, in the name of decency, ask to have left off. Our waiter lamented the expected departure of a pulled-pork sandwich from the menu—if it’s gone by now, you missed more than you know.

A hamburger bun for a po’ boy? The plump, fried rock shrimp are faultless, the field greens and pickled red onions as worthy ideas as the garlicky aioli dressing. But a hamburger bun? We’re not indicting it; we just think it’s weird.

That perfectly fried egg appears along with a Pigzilla-size pork chop—a massive, porky porterhouse cut. Underneath the chop is a hefty wedge of bread pudding (read: dressing, but the addition of jalapeño slices and bubbles of cheddar make it a great dressing), and a stack of green beans comes alongside. The egg is inspired; it complements the pork like Jack Daniel’s complements bad decisions.

We think of lemon- and herb-smacked gremolata with osso bucco. Here, it’s used to good effect with a rabbit braised until the meat is tender, the delicate flesh tossed with house-made fusilli pasta. Roasted mushrooms are swirled into a risotto that’s just the thick side of soupy, the rice al dente, firm at the kernel, with a liberal fairy-dusting of Parmesan. Knobs of potato gnocchi are blanketed in a Gorgonzola cream sauce that isn’t overpowering, but the comparatively simple taste and textures make this a dish better for sharing than as a main course. “Street tacos” and a steak selection change daily. Ask the servers: They’ll tell you—and delightfully, they’ll give you their opinion—on the daily specials and other topics. It’s refreshing to have such interaction.

Despite bread pudding and cherry pie being available, there can be only one reasonable dessert choice: beignets, airy, like finely spun pillows of sweetness. The only odd note is the cinnamon-sugar dusting; beignets should, of course, be topped with powdered sugar, the surplus of which is often discreetly blown on the backs of nearby diners.

A 2010 Maula, a decent Malbec with full-hipped tannins, is delicious with the pork. An ’09 Wente Vineyards Riesling, acid-sharp, won’t hurt the risotto a bit. The wine list here isn’t extensive; it’s affordable, though, and balanced. Consider, too, the cane-sugar sodas; the Black Cherry Bomb has a fruity nose and a long, sugary finish.

Service (while provided in blue jeans and plaid shirts that are a tad too precious) is excellent, though a little slow when the place fills. And fill it does—not accepting reservations adds to the throng. Go early, or expect a long wait.

Cleveland-Heath seems to celebrate a lack of theme that makes it even more attractive. Instead, its presentations seem like the personal culinary faves of the two chefs. If so, trust ’em. Or just try that wonderful fried egg.

The Bottom Line: A charming small-town spot with big-time flavors and even bigger presentations.

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