Towards the end of the summer, I visited Lawyera restaurant in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland specializing in modern Mexican cuisine.
I liked it.
Since then, I had wanted to check out Rocky River’s Char Whiskey Bar + Grille, which, like Avo, is owned by Gabriel Zeller and Julie Mesenburg. They opened it in late 2019, in Sweet Melissa’s former home.
As Zeller describes in a video on the restaurant’s websiteChar strives to be a “classic and casual” restaurant offering “stylish bar food with a superb whiskey list and craft cocktails”.
And, as Mesenburg notes in the clip, some of his food and drink names are inspired by the music they love.
I like everything they say, and I liked Char.
I think it was mainly my exorbitant opinion of Avo that kept me from liking him.
In other words, when I met my friend Erin – who lives near Char and had been there several times – for a catch-up dinner before a movie, I may have walked in with unrealistic expectations.
It was late on a Tuesday afternoon when I found Erin already seated at a table in Char’s breakout area, where a few other people were having fun but it was far from crowded. Char’s atmosphere is sober and tasteful, with wood dominating the environment.
I didn’t go through the list of about 300 whiskeys, as I wanted to start with a cocktail. There are about 15 to choose from, all of which are $13 but were $11 because it was happy hour.
While a Gin Blossoms fan might want to try Hey Jealousy made with gin and pear vodka, I had to fight the urge to order the Bloodbuzz Ohio – a refreshingly potent concoction that starts with Campari , sweet vermouth, orange juice and blood orange bitters before adding another alcoholic element chosen by the diner – named after a terrific tune from The National.
Instead, I felt that because my nickname is “Mez”, I was almost compelled to dance with the Mezhattan, which brings together Casamigos Mezcal, Cointreau, a French vermouth, cinnamon, and a few appealing components related to fruits. Not generally a fan of Manhattans and other drinks served “up”, I asked for it to be served in a rock glass over ice and was happy with both choices. The drink was a bit sweet but also complex enough to be interesting. (Just like me? Well, let’s not think too much about it.)
Although we theoretically shared them, Erin and I each chose an entry that interested us much more than the other.
She’s, say, spice-averse and has never given up on her intentions to stay away from the Ahi Poke ($15). My favorite dinner taste, the dish consists of an elaborate tower of marinated tuna, avocado, something Char calls ‘sriracha crunch’, sesame seeds and wasabi cream, which sits alongside a pile of wonton chips. All the bold tastes and textures work in perfect harmony in this creation.
Conversely, the pineapple guacamole ($12) was – despite the inclusion of appealing ingredients, bacon, goat cheese, jalapenos and cilantro – as avant-garde as I feared. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a very popular appetizer, and Erin enjoyed it a lot, but it’s not for me.
When it came to an entry, I was extremely torn. I felt at a place called “Char” I should order a steak, like the 14 oz Hand Cut Ribeye ($39). However, with a two-hour movie looming, lighter options such as scallops ($34), which get the Cajun treatment, and salmon ($26), looked more appealing.
I did, however, land on the Duck Breast ($30). Served with blackberry marmalade, whipped sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, the overall composition of the dish was too intriguing to resist.
And while it was a nice presentation, it was…good. I enjoyed a more tender and flavorful duck than this, but I certainly didn’t leave any on the plate – and it was enhanced by the very good marmalade. I left a few sprouts – as with pineapple, I don’t usually love them – while I made the most of my encounter with Char’s sweet potato treatment. They were second on my taste ranking.
Erin made one of three selections from the Char’s Mac section of the menu, the Truffle ($14), which features grilled local portobellos, to which she added lobster ($12). Other mac-n-cheeses are Short Rib ($16) and the simpler Char Mac ($12), and to each of these you can also add chicken ($6), bacon ($5), steak ($8), chorizo ($4), and cauliflower ($4).
Char’s main menu – a separate brunch menu is available from $10 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, with tempting choices such as Morning Mac ($12), Brunch Burger ($14) and Chicken + Waffles ($19 ) – also offers several salads and a few burgers. I really should stop by, if not for brunch, for the Char burger, which is topped with short ribs, “Char Cheese” found in macs and elsewhere and onion straws and served on a pretzel bun.
Finally, our server was borderline exceptional. Again not a busy time which makes it easy to provide great service but she was friendly and knowledgeable, never rushed us as we enjoyed a leisurely meal and brought me samples of two unusual beers they had on tap when I was faced with yet another decision.
I really have no complaints about Char – it just wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. Maybe that’s more of a me problem.
Nonetheless, while I would go out of my way to dine at Avo, I would love to see Char again the next time I find myself in Rocky River. That just wouldn’t be the reason I was there.
Reviews are based on an anonymous visit to a restaurant.
Char Whiskey Bar + Grid
19337 Detroit Road
Location: On the south side of Detroit between Propsect and Wright avenues.
Type of restoration: Bar and grills.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.
Alcohol and wine: Full bar with a few draft beers, several craft cocktails, and an extensive whiskey list.
Vegetarian: Several options.
Special diets: Some items listed as vegan or gluten-free.
Dress code: Relaxed.
Online order : Available.
Prices: Moderate to high, with entrees around $12, salads around $10, and entrees ranging from $24 to $39, except for a wagyu steak for $140.
Scores (out of five):
A service: 4.5.