The divide between good chicken and great chicken is wide enough to pilot a yacht through. Good chicken is filling yet forgettable, but truly exceptional roast chicken has a way of making diners shift from indifferent picking to impassioned debate, literally redirecting the table talk in its direction.
The chicken ($28) at Alea is such a dish. Like most things at this fearless new Ohio City restaurant, the entree is stripped down to bare essentials. Yogurt-marinated, roasted and grilled, the bone-in half bird sports a mahogany skin that gets ripped, stripped and devoured with Walking Dead-like intensity. Both the white and dark meat below are moist, lush and so deeply flavorful that any accompanying sauce would be an affront to the chicken. Instead, a punchy, citrusy and perfectly picked flat-leaf parsley salad serves as the piercing treble to the poultry's thrumming bass.
On one of the coldest, most bone-chilling nights of the year, we crossed the threshold into a small, sleek, stark space where we instantly were met with the sights, smells and warmth of an open fire. Alea is not the first Cleveland restaurant to employ a wood-burning cooking suite, but it is the only one to position that apparatus in the middle of the dining room.
While it's true that most foods taste better when cooked over an open flame, it's also true that disaster can happen in the blink of an eye. Meaty East Coast oysters ($18) are grilled just long enough to pop the tops, warm the flesh and dissolve a sliver of lardo (cured fat), which melts into a bed of chopped oyster mushrooms below. Each salty, savory, smoky slurp is a triumph.
It's hard to top the gratification that comes from smearing roasted bone marrow ($14) onto thick slices of grilled bread. The kitchen yanks the split bones from the heat at precisely the right time, when the marrow is shimmering, wobbly and spreadable as opposed to liquefied and gone. Again, this is a time when a rustic parsley gremolata is essential to the success of the dish.
Hamachi ($16), one of the few dishes to avoid the flames, is a stunner in looks and taste. Sliced thicker than most crudos, the rosy-rimmed fish offers a more compelling, toothsome texture. The buttery flesh is garnished with crisp shallot rings, pert capers and an egg yolk that, when popped, blends with the sherry vinaigrette to form a sauce.
Sweet potato makes an unexpected though welcome appearance in the form of an appetizer — or is it salad? — that pairs the honey-scented tuber with bracing yogurt, warm spices and crunchy, nutty toppers. Gnocchi lovers should not miss the malfatti ($15), delicate gnudi-like dumplings that get crisped up on the plancha before hitting the table.
When there are just five entrees on the menu, there's no room for duds. We haven't come across one yet. That chicken, of course, is amazing and ample enough for two. A fat bone-in heritage-breed pork chop ($28) comes off the wood grill with an alluring campfire aroma, sizzling crust and racy pink center. It's set into a pool of silky-smooth celery root puree and joined on the plate by juicy roasted grapes, which are a revelation. Ocean-fresh Spanish mackerel ($30) is seared until the skin is charred and buckling, and the boldly flavored filets a creamy shade of white. The warm fish is contrasted by a bright, cool and crisp shaved fennel slaw with golden raisins and pine nuts.
You don't necessarily come to a restaurant like Alea expecting great cocktails — the place really doesn't even have a bar — but that's precisely what you'll get. The wine list is short but exceptional, with bottles plucked from some of the best winemakers around the world, most of whom are doing so organically and biodynamically. What's more, 20 of those labels are available as glass pours. We giddily drained bottles of a fruity, balanced Willamette Valley pinot noir from Ransom ($45) and a luscious, full-bodied Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Strappelli ($70).
Alea is one of those restaurants that sneak up on us, opened in an obscure building on a quiet block by an unfamiliar chef. But Athan Zarnas' savvy is evidenced by the enthusiastic response to this high-concept eatery. Alea is not without its flaws. The 33-seat restaurant does not take reservations and has nowhere for hopeful diners to wait. (Might we suggest Jukebox?) Meals progress in their own sweet time, with dishes landing on the table when they are done. The small, stark space is rock-concert loud, a quality that should dissipate when the large front window can be raised. But despite those shortcomings, Alea is bound for glory.