E+O Kitchen breathes plenty of prim, Scandinavian beach house color into the former Beluga space on Edwards Road. The hyper-modern backlit bar pulses with club music, and bar staff sling pedestrian cocktails with names reminiscent of soap samples you’d find in the bathroom of a Hampton Inn (Endless Consciousness, Mindful Paloma). Conjoining the spirit of two cuisines that seem to have little in common—minimalist Asian with gutsy-cum-earthy Latin—one wonders what chef would dare attempt it. Well, if anyone can reach this level of gustatory bravado, it’s Owen Maass. His short but storied stint at Cumin more than demonstrated his ability to capably riff on an esoteric cuisine or two. And yet, he still struggles.
Mike Hama, who owned Beluga, is hoping to bring a consistent revenue stream to the former sushi hotspot’s digs following Dancing Wasabi’s brief tenure in 2014. Hama has partnered with Chicago-based restaurant group Intrestco, which has given CIA-trained Maass quite a long leash. The menu at E+O Kitchen is also heavily influenced by Rodelio Aglibot, one of Hama’s Chicago partners better known as “the Food Buddha” thanks to his 2010 television show on TLC. What’s unclear is whether all this ballyhoo will lead to a comeback.
Dinner started with a deeply puzzling act of kabuki theater. Our hostess filled my guest’s glass with water then stopped to stare at the glass only to whisk it away, returning a moment later with a second—and presumably spotless—glass, which she refilled. This wordless ritual was repeated with my glass. Said water ceremony lasted three excruciating and unnecessary minutes, making us feel like we were being punished for arriving inhospitably early. (We weren’t alone. A well-heeled elderly couple at the next table also had water issues. The gentleman asked for a glass of ice water. He was presented with a glass of ice. Fifteen minutes later, ice and water were finally merged at his request.)
But help was on the way. Our server returned and a spiel ensued. We learned the dining room’s “living” rear wall, a densely packed vertical arrangement of large-leaved plants, replete with its own self-watering system, was the largest such wall in Ohio. We then were treated to the E+O Kitchen manifesto, which included the word concept too many times to count. The wine list did little to appease our curiosity. The mildly effervescent 2014 Pavão vinho verde proved a safe glass to share over fish, and the $30 bottle of 2012 Seven Hills Riesling is a sweet, if predictable, steal. Appetizers further clouded the waters. Guacamole was pointlessly studded with edamame, gyoza were conspicuously dry around the edges, and a heartbreaking kale and Brussels sprout salad, despite a bewitching citrus-sambal dressing, seeped cooking oil with every bite. Two starter dishes did shine, though: A rich miso soup teased with plenty of salinity and the pork belly buns were especially tender.
Maass says he spends many mornings on the phone with fish vendors, and I believe him. Nevertheless, final results were hit-or-miss. A bay scallop ceviche arrived swimming in a pool of grapefruit juice and packing liquid, which our server informed me was “kind of like an aioli.” An actual aioli lent a slightly fatty layer to a wonderful yellowtail and albacore ceviche, packed with hominy, slivers of hot serrano chilies, and sweet onion. The sushi varied. While the fish was impeccable—the deeply marbled salmon gleamed for miles—the over-packed rice, a common occurrence when Maass isn’t in the kitchen, degraded several pieces. This kind of close-but-not-quite isn’t limited to the food: the asparagus and mushroom roll is named for a popular meme (“Bye, Felicia”), but it’s misspelled as “Felicha”; I also noticed our neighbors sipping glasses of sauvignon blanc after ordering prosecco.
E+O taco plates are a much safer bet, although it’s confounding that a mix-and-match option isn’t available. The house made tortillas are hand-rolled, and Maass goes old school with lard, to give them flavor and strength. The taco listed as “sol” pastor on the menu is one of the few times his cuisine truly delivers the best of both worlds—pineapple coupled with Korean kimchi, bulgogi pork, and cilantro hit all the right notes. And his gaucho rib eye may be the best item on the menu, especially considering the relatively modest price point. The grilled eight-ounce, sesame-rubbed Wagyu steak maintains a ribald campfire aroma. More adventurous palates may opt for Maass’s nuanced ramen—the brooding pork and soy broth teeming with cuts of both pork belly and slow-cooked shoulder, while a superbly poached egg lingers at the edge, awaiting its curtain call.
As we prepared to depart, it was impossible to miss the maître d’, who swooped in at meal’s end to welcome our neighbors back to the restaurant, noting that he’d seated the couple in the same spot on their last visit. They stared back blankly. Had he stopped by our table, I might have mentioned that there is never a reason to see staff, including management, clustered together smoking cigars on the front porch during the dinner service, especially in a restaurant that struggles to serve water correctly.
The problems at E+O run much deeper than simple growing pains. As a result, it hovers somewhere between a solid neighborhood spot and just another well-intentioned Hyde Park flash-in-the-pan. If anyone can pull this wreck through the fire, it’s Maass, but he’s got his work cut out for him.