The Epicurean: Education Wins, As Does Killer Lobster Bisque

Matt Segall, Collumnist

This is a biweekly column highlighting our local culinary scene. Restaurant reviews, research, interviews, recipes and more will all come together in order to identify what makes the Cleveland experience unique.

I am not fond of lengthy menus. I would rather know that the kitchen staff is putting its efforts into a few excellent dishes as opposed to offering a greater range of items of lesser quality. A smaller menu is often evidence that a chef is restricting themselves to the best and freshest ingredients. Ideally, they will understand cookery and their ingredients well enough to know exactly how they should be prepared.

So, when making reservations for EDWINS, a restaurant in Cleveland’s Shaker Square, I inquired about tasting options. I said that I was interested in trying whatever was freshest and most representative of the restaurant’s character. While a tasting menu was not normally available, the staff was happy to accommodate my request and craft one especially for me. Personal attention is not something one often finds at a typical fine dining establishment, even in hospitable Cleveland.

In fact, EDWINS’s first priority is not to cook delicious food — although the kitchen staff excels in that regard — but to provide a mentoring program in fine dining and hospitality for previously incarcerated adults. Formally called EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute (EDWINS stands for “education wins”), its mission statement reads:

“EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute is a unique approach at giving formerly incarcerated adults a foundation in the hospitality industry while providing a support network necessary for a successful re-entry. [EDWINS’s goal] is to enhance the community of Cleveland’s vulnerable neighborhoods by providing its future leaders. Our mission is to teach a skilled trade in the culinary arts, empower willing minds through passion for the hospitality industry and prepare students for a successful transition into the world of business professionals.”

Even with a humanitarian program like EDWINS, the food must stand on its own. My meal began with a smooth lobster bisque. Many bisques I’ve tasted have been unappealingly gritty or chunky, but EDWINS was pleasantly even — undoubtedly finished with a healthy dollop of cream. A luxurious prize in the form of a perfectly cooked bite of lobster tail hid just under the surface of the bisque. The bisque was a bit heavy for a first course; nonetheless, it was perfectly executed.

For my second course, I was presented with a slice of rabbit pie, one of EDWINS’s signature dishes. Accompanied by tartly dressed greens and unnecessary tomato slices, the pie was nicely seasoned, with generous strands of slow-cooked rabbit. The perfectly golden and flaky crust was spiked with salty prosciutto, which held up nicely against the subtle flavor of the pie’s interior. My main course was grouper paupiette, a fish preparation originating from Normandy. In paupiette, the grouper filet is wrapped in thinly sliced potatoes and pan-fried so it achieves a crispy exterior while maintaining tender, delicate flesh.

EDWINS struggles with its service. My server did not know the menu very well and was awkward at the table. The bread guy stopped by religiously every three minutes, even after everyone at my table had refused another slice. It was very good bread, I’ll admit.

Given the nature of EDWINS’s goal, it is unfair to hold them to the same standard as a fine dining establishment with a well-paid and experienced staff. Yet at many of those very restaurants, the service is snobby. I prefer EDWINS’s well-meaning but unrefined hospitality to a fleet of high-nosed waiters. If you enjoy food that supports businesses with a social justice bent as most Obies do, then you can’t do better than EDWINS.