The Epicurean: The Greenhouse Tavern Jewel of Cleveland Culinary Scene

Matt Segall, Columnist

I can often be heard saying, “The Greenhouse Tavern is the best restaurant I’ve ever been to,” and I’m not a liar. Local hero Jonathan Sawyer’s flagship establishment tops many locals lists, and after many visits, it remains on the top of mine too. Yes, its food is some of the best I’ve had. Yes, its service is refined. It hit all the marks. But GHT is more than the food on the plate and the attentive people who bring it to you; it is the crown jewel of Cleveland’s celebrated restaurant scene.

One of The Greenhouse Tavern’s main focuses is sourcing ingredients from local producers, at which they succeed wherever they can. While not the first spot to catch wind of the farm-to-table movement in Cleveland (Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Lola opened back in 1997), The Greenhouse Tavern has been at the center of Cleveland’s recovery since it opened.

Chef Sawyer posted on the restaurant’s website:

“We opened the Tavern in 2009 at a time when everyone thought we were nuts. Cleveland was getting killed by the economy and our friends in the bigger cities thought we were secretly drunk. We knew something they didn’t. We knew that the spirit of Cleveland was back and bigger than ever. We took the risk on Cleveland.”

As the extreme hardship that affected the area begins to lighten, Clevelanders are understandably proud of their city and what it has to offer. This pride includes the culinary sector, where enthusiastic locals are willing to try anything that comes out of the Greenhouse kitchen. A roast pig’s head is not something you find on many menus, but it sells out nearly every night at The Greenhouse Tavern. The prized meat remains shielded under a layer of fat as it slowly cooks, naturally basting throughout the cooking process. Finished with a brush of Asian barbeque sauce and crisped under the broiler, this dish is full of contrasts. Placing sweet against rich and crisp against soft, Sawyer exercises true genius in applying traditional techniques — in this case, slowroasting — to unusual ingredients. Confit is an old French technique that was used to preserve leftover duck legs before the luxury of refrigeration. Sawyer applies this method to simple chicken wings, elevating a normal bar snack to praise-worthy heights. Due to the confit process, the meat slides right off the bone, turning a usually messy dish into an almost dainty affair. It’s quite fun.

Conversely, Sawyer also applies modern techniques to conventional ingredients. For example, he serves a typical French dessert, pot de crème, that is essentially a custard. However, instead of using a standard flavor like chocolate, Sawyer decided to attempt a deconstructed caramel corn in the form of custard. He purees real buttered popcorn, which he infuses into the custard, then tops the dish with silky caramel and sea salt. When I first tried this dish, I had an existential crisis. Is this custard? Is it caramel corn? What if my blue is your red? Sawyer used to rotate the flavors of his pot de crème, but this one proved so popular that it earned a permanent spot on the menu.

Other standout dishes include the smoky grilled Caesar salad, unconventionally paired foie gras-steamed clams and the massive yet tender whole short rib. The Greenhouse Tavern also offers a $44 four-course menu, which is easily shareable. As an Obie, if you are curious what the Cleveland buzz is all about — and you should be — do yourself a favor and get some questions answered at The Greenhouse Tavern.