Something special is happening at Cameron Mitchell's chic new Short North spot The Guild House.
In the movie industry, a long list of screenwriters in the credits is often the harbinger of a flop. A script that undergoes a group grope is bound to be a watered-down mess that tries to please everyone but instead pleases no one.
You could say the menu at The Guild House was created by committee. A culinary dream team of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (CMR) chefs put their collective talent and influences together to come up with it.
The result defies conventional wisdom about what happens when too many creative types collaborate. The menu is elegant and concise. It doesn't try to run the gamut or stuff you silly. It's nimble enough to keep pace with the seasons. As the calendar flipped to May, fiddlehead ferns were scattered on Skate ($21). White asparagus gave fresh crunch to Cavatelli ($17) with rabbit confit. And the humble pea's many forms were celebrated in a salad of pea tendrils and sprouts so fresh they might have been picked while we were dropping the kids with the sitter. Probe with your fork to find the hummus-like sweet pea cream with preserved Meyer lemon hiding underneath. The dish is aptly called Peas ($7).
Incorporating lots of seasonal and local ingredients may be a new practice for the restaurant group, but fitting into the hip neighborhood is old hat. The Guild House is Cameron Mitchell's third restaurant in the Short North. In fact, from its airy, deceptively small dining room girded by distressed wood beams, you can see established outposts Marcella's and The Pearl across the street.
Compared to the dark polished woods, king-sized booths and movie set fakery of more recent CMR openers Hudson 29 and The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek, The Guild House is lighter in many ways, with a more boutique feel. Beneath green hobnail chandeliers, tables are set with mismatched English tea saucers and dried flowers in bud vases. Seating is a mix of luxe white leather banquettes and white Eames-inspired chairs. A painting of blue sky and puffy clouds hangs above a mantel lined with candles. On a recent visit with my husband, I felt like we were walking into a chic B&B in California. He felt like we were walking into West Elm.
Our evening wasn't meant to be a special occasion. It was a school night. I was on assignment. But that changed when the food started to arrive.
Or maybe it was when our cocktail for two ($20) was presented in a glass Porthole. If you're not familiar with the concept, imagine a see-through canteen with a silver spout for pouring. Gimmicky? Maybe. Fun? Totally. Our communal cocktail was a seasonal infusion of rum, orgeat (almond syrup), orange slices and cinnamon sticks that got stronger and sweeter as the water line dropped. That our Porthole sprung a leak because it wasn't locked properly had the strange effect of loosening everyone up. Spills are OK here! It also revealed that our server, a tomboy-ish Gwyneth Paltrow type in the Guild House uniform of selvedge Levi's, suspenders and brown brogues, would not be rattled.
Other house cocktails worth trying: a refreshing Botanist gin with an aromatic rosemary sprig, and Woodford Reserve bourbon with grapefruit juice and velvet falernum over lots of crushed ice (both $10). Age or practice may play a role, but I find Cameron Mitchell cocktails so mild they're practically chuggable. That's fine; I'm not looking to face-plant in my steaming hot bowl of Pork Cheeks ($14), which are fantastic, by the way, in a robust marinara over nests of spaghetti squash. But if you like more starch in your stiff drink, the well-rounded wine list with many recognizable labels may do the trick.
A crowd-sourced menu is actually not that different from how many CMR menus are created. But here, it's as if the chefs said of each dish, how can we make this really special-either through technique or unexpected finishes? How can we gild the lily?
How about a dab of Tabasco and lime juice granita on raw Oysters ($12 for three) whose shells are already sloshing with a bright apple cider mignonette? You get a flash of ice followed by a bloom of chili pepper heat.
Or consider the captivating Prime Rib Cap ($15) appetizer. This uncommon cut comes from the top edge of the rib roast and is prized by beef lovers for its tenderness and flavor. Executive chef John Paul Iacobucci breaks it down in a buttery sous vide bath. After a sear to give it a dark crust, the beef collapses on a soft bed of sweet onion relish. Crumbles of creamy blue cheese add more richness. This is how I want all steak to taste.
Across the table, my husband was thinking the same about his eye of ribeye ($34) entree. When you carve away the bone and delectable cap from a ribeye, you're left with the eye. The thick marbled steak is also cooked sous vide. But what really elevates it is a schmear of foie gras, which melts like salty umami butter. I was lucky to steal a bite before it was gone.
For meat eaters who want to wrap their hands around their dinner, the Lamb Burger ($16) with feta cheese, arugula and roasted red pepper is a more substantial choice. We'd had it on a previous visit and watched as it was delivered to a table near us. "Lucky guy," my hungry husband mused.
Extra-special touches continue in the seafood dishes. The golden-seared Sea Bass ($36) comes with a soup spoon-you'll need that to sip the lobster broth with bits of lobster meat that surrounds the fish. The Salmon ($24) also arrives with a top so crackly you can hear it, and an interior that melts in your mouth.
The menu lists almost twice as many appetizers as entrees, and a few, like the Pork Cheeks and the spicy Poblano pepper ($13) stuffed with a creamy mixture of roasted corn, sweet shrimp and goat cheese, are hearty enough to be a light dinner. They're two of the homier dishes on the menu. We also loved the thinly sliced Hamachi ($16), which are overlapped like carpaccio and slicked with an Asian-flavored red curry vinaigrette that might be overpowering if you had it all to yourself.
What I didn't like at The Guild House could fit into a Tweet: The cavatelli are the shape and weight of bullets, and the Skate was tender but so briny we wondered if it was accidentally seasoned twice.
When you order Carrot Cake ($7) at a Cameron Mitchell restaurant, you can bet your bill on what it will look like: a big wedge of layered cake with cream cheese frosting. Great. Bring it on. But, surprise, the pastry chef team at The Guild House does a composed version that's right out of Candyland: tiny squares of moist brown cake, miniature towers of thick frosting, a few almonds and plump raisins glittering with sugar. I thought about it for days.
The Guild House is connected to the neighboring boutique hotel, Le Meridien, the Joseph, through a side door off the lobby. The restaurant does room service and breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner-two firsts for the CMR group. We capped our night with a stroll around the Joseph to admire the art on display. Afterward, the doorman asked us what we thought. Really nice, we said. He beamed.
The restaurant may not be one chef's labor of love, but it is one of collective focus and high standards. In Hollywood terms, it's one of the most exciting releases of the year.