Ranger Cafe Hits All The Right Notes
Due to a prolonged episode of writer’s block I have been for too long absent from the pages of the Lakewood Observer, but recent changes and additions to the Lakewood restaurant scene have fueled my culinary muse and ideas have been illuminated which virtually scream out for discussion and attention. So hoping that the readers forgive the absence, I will once again mount my soap box to talk about things gastronomic. There will be other times to discuss changes in the Lakewood food scene, but today I’d like to focus on the innovations that the West Shore Career-Tech Culinary Arts program at Lakewood High School has come forth with by way of the Ranger Café @ West Shore. Any quality vocational culinary program has attached to it a restaurant of some sort. For those wishing to become involved in the food service business, while learning technique may be of tremendous importance, there is nothing that can substitute than having to run a restaurant. Presumably that is what those studying in the culinary arts will eventually be doing and the best way to learn is to do. That is the underlying premise behind the Ranger Café @ West Shore where juniors and seniors from the West Shore Technical district made up of Lakewood, Westlake and Rocky River High School Juniors and Seniors not only study cooking techniques and restaurant management, but also are now at least on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s running a full blown restaurant with a state-of-the-art kitchen.
Those who doubt the ability of these high school students to translate what they learn in the classroom into not only a credible but top-notch dining experience need not fear. The menu for the Ranger Café presents something to suit the taste of every one. From freshly prepared salads of crisp micro greens, entrées which include a vegetarian pasta, fresh seafood of the day, as well as credible array of sandwiches there is something to please every palate. Because of the limited seating (50) and limited hours (11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.) reservations are required which are easily made by calling (216) 529-4165. On a recent visit with two dining companions, we found the service to be marred only by a certain amount of youthful awkwardness, but the table settings were impeccable from the dishes and glassware to the folded napkin.
We decided that the best way to fully test the abilities of the kitchen, which had only been serving for a week at that time, was to each order different entrées and each sample everything. The soup of the day ($2.50) was a rich broccoli cheddar soup that tasted distinctly of fresh broccoli and real cheese. While it lacked the smoothness of some soups, it also lacked any of the distinct Velveeta taste which is sometimes present. It was well prepared, well seasoned and even for one of my partners, who is an efficienato of salt and pepper required no seasoning adjustment. We moved on to a dinner salad of mescalin greens served with a house dressing. The slight sweetness of my vinaigrette was beautifully offset by the acid and herbs and if there were any shortcomings it would have been in the flavorless hot house tomato slice. We chose as entrees the herb encrusted chicken breast ($5.00) accompanied by sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes, the boneless pork loin ($6.00) served with risotto and the quiche of the day (vegetable). While I felt that the pork might have been a bit overdone, the tomato coulis was a wonderful counter-balance. The seasoning on both the pork and the chicken were done to a “T” and the kitchen had produced a very credible creamy risotto that was nevertheless al dente something that many restaurant kitchens are somehow unable to do. The homemade pastry for the quiche ($4.00) was done to a turn and not the least bit soggy and although a trifle more thick than I would have preferred nevertheless the total package was superb.
While none of us typically eat dessert at lunch (all $2.50), somehow it was difficult to say no to a hot apple turnover with house made ice cream, the dessert of the day (N.Y style cheesecake) or the chocolate mouse torte. The torte was layers of sponge cake surrounding not so much a mouse but more of a fudge granache, with an excellent cup of coffee the richness of the chocolate was delightful. The cheesecake, although again the crust was a bit thick for my taste, was smooth, creamy with a touch of lemon and firm without being dry. I think the best of the bunch, however, was the warm apple turnover which was made obviously with fresh tart Granny Smith apples and a light pastry with a homemade honey vanilla ice cream.
The service was timely. Lunch can easily be accomplished within an hour. Many of us, especially Lakewood High School alumnis, point with pride to many of the school system’s accomplishments, from its innovative vocational program to its wide range in curriculum. The Ranger Café is truly another jewel in the Lakewood School System’s crown, not only for the knowledge and experience it is imparting into its students, but also for serving a lunch which can rival the portions served by many carriage trade restaurants of note.
After our meal, a tour of the kitchen revealed an absolute state-of-the-art facility with an attached classroom demo kitchen, much like that I pined to see in the library renovations. Busy at work were several dozen students properly attired in tocque and jacket – doing everything from dishes and clean-up to line cook preparation, expediting service and assuring that each plate was properly and cleanly presented. Being able to work in an educational facility that provides them with state-of-the-art tools of the trade can only enhance the learning experience, as well as the end product, all to the benefit of those dining at the Ranger Café.