Friday, November 21, 2014

My Dinner with Adrià

I’m not exactly sure when I first heard about Ferran Adrià and El Bulli, his three-star restaurant near the town of Roses, Catalonia, Spain (El Bulli closed in 2011). But once I became familiar with his reputation, I don’t think I could ignore any article, video or book that featured Adrià or El Bulli. Among my favorite reviews ever written about El Bulli is one by Cleveland's own food writer Linda Griffith, based on her five-plus-hour experience there with her husband, Fred, one glorious evening in early summer 1999 — a dinner that almost didn’t happen due to bad directions and poor signage. Fred and Linda circled the mountain several times before finally coming upon the ever elusive rock with “El Bulli” and an arrow inscribed on it. Once there, Griffith says they were treated as if they were visiting royalty.

The entire meal was noteworthy and her review is attached at the end of this post. I recently asked Griffith which dish was the most memorable. She recalls the wonderful sensation of drinking hot pea soup from a glass. Patrons were instructed not to set the glass down once they began to drink from it. The contents began as hot pea soup and gradually changed to a refreshing, chilled mint soup by the time they got to the bottom.

The experience was both extraordinary and exhilarating, since Adrià was so little known here then. And totally satisfying, I might also add. According to Ferran Adrià my review was to be the first review of his restaurant published in the U.S. It has been fascinating to watch all of the press over the years … all of the foam, etc. Revolutionary! —Linda Griffith

When El Bulli reopens some time in 2015 it will be a “Creative Culinary Institute.” Adrià doesn't know exactly where this journey will lead. It’s probably safe to predict El Bulli’s future will continue on a path similar to its past; a road that is not merely less travelled, but one that is virtually unpaved and unknown.

El Bulli was blessed both with good location overlooking Cala Montjol, a bay on Catalonia’s Costa Brava, and a good following. Perhaps the restaurant’s success can be best expressed in numbers: during a typical seven-month-long season from June through December, El Bulli might accommodate 8,000 diners from a reservation request list of over a million. One of the qualities I most admire in Adrià is that despite his monumental success and fame, he is the antithesis of a “celebrity chef.” Adrià is a man who knows who he is and what he is about. He chooses not to be defined by possessions and eschews the trappings of fame. He prefers to immerse himself (fifteen hour days) in his life’s work.

I am not a multimillionaire. I don't own a yacht or a Ferrari. I live in a 60-square metre flat. My needs are simple. —Ferran Adrià

This past Sunday, I attended Adrià’s interview at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA). MOCA's exhibit Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the visualization and drawing practices of master chef Ferran Adrià.The exhibit runs through January 18, 2014. Author Michael Ruhlman had the daunting task of sharing the stage with a man who not only speaks a foreign language (Catalan), but speaks about many foreign concepts. Initially, I thought that Adrià was a contrarian. As the interview progressed, I realized this is the nature of his creative process. It is this questioning and challenging that has led him to his unique vision: a comingling of art, food, theater, science and innovation. Essentially, Adrià is a minimalist with a thorough knowledge and understanding of various disciplines and their interplay.

For me, creativity is not a job; it’s a way of understanding life. I’ve used cooking as a language to develop that creativity and also to have a dialogue with other disciplines like design, science, art and architecture. —Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià and Michael Ruhlman MOCA Cleveland/Photo:Edsel Little

Ferran Adrià and Michael Ruhlman MOCA Cleveland/Photo:Edsel Little

It is always surprising to me that at the heart of nearly all genius is not complexity but rather simplicity. For example, rather than rattle off a laundry list of techniques and skills to explain what it takes to be a good chef, Adrià explained it in this way.

What makes a good chef is a person with a great desire to eat well. Everything else can be taught. —Ferran Adrià

How’s that for clarity? As he signed books after the interview, I enjoyed challenging Adrià on his assertion that Italians say they don’t like corn yet eat polenta. I asked him if corn once refined and processed is still corn, and added that in Southern Italy, corn is merely chicken feed. He laughed. I concluded that he has little patience or respect for universal truths. No absolutes. There’s no pushing envelopes or boundaries if you accept the status quo.

I don’t worry about things I can’t change. —Ferran Adrià

Book signing Ferran Adrià and Michael Ruhlman MOCA Cleveland

Energized by his words and presence, I looked forward to cocktails and dinner on the following evening. Our inclusion to this “by invitation only” event can best be explained in one word: serendipity (my mother’s term for it is “by the grace of God”). The golden tickets in Willy Wonka may have been an easy get by comparison. To be one of the 60 invited quests was thrilling not only because of the exclusivity, but also because it was an opportunity to spend an evening dining with arguably the best chef in the world while experiencing what ten “rising star” chefs would create for the occasion. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance at Babette’s Feast.

The Invitation/Photo: Stephen Tokar

The evening began with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at MOCA, but not before a gallery talk by Adrià that explained some pieces in the exhibit. You could tell he was proud of his drawings. They are crude renderings and representations of many of his theories, and he made a point to say that they are one of the reasons he shuns the title of “artist.”

Clearly, I am no artist. —Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià Exhibit MOCA Cleveland/Photo:Edsel Little

After cocktails, we were shuttled to Trentina and ushered into a tent that had been erected on their patio for the occasion. Once inside, we were warmly received by MOCA Trustee / Event Host Dick Cahoon and MOCA Director Jill Snyder. The Dom Pérignon began to flow …

Arrival at Trentina
Jill Snyder MOCA Cleveland Director and her brother Gary Snyder

New and old friends

Already feeling sorry for the dishwashers/Photo:Keith Humphrey

Dick Cahoon, Host and MOCA Trustee, toasting

Ferran Adrià having the menu read and translated

The invitation listed the names of eight highly esteemed, rising Midwestern chefs who were invited to participate. For me, there was one name on the list with a bit more distinction than the rest: Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago, who received his third Michelin star less than a week before coming to Cleveland. At last count, ten chefs traveled to Cleveland to cook for a man who is considered to be the world’s best. In his remarks, Adrià mentioned how touched he was by their willingness to make the journey on his account.

The Menu

We were off to the races and no better place to start then at the top, with the first course by Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago: “Sunchoke, Concord Grape, Beluga Lentil Nasturtium.” The dish was just what we needed to warm ourselves on a bitter cold November evening. The flavors were delicate and nuanced. The plate was presented with dry goods beautifully arranged and warm broth was poured table side.

Dom Pérignon Blanc de Blans Champagne 2004

Curtis Duffy: “Sunchoke, Concord Grape, Beluga Lentil Nasturtium” 

Dom Pérignon Blanc de Blans Champagne 2004

As you might imagine, we were not anticipating a typical dining experience. This was instantly verified when each diner was presented with a pair of wireless headphones. The second course was prepared by locals Jonathon Sawyer and Matt Danko of Trentina. “Chicken of the Trees, Leaves, Foraged Goods.” We all put our headphones on and listened to a tutorial about foraging in Northeast Ohio. As interesting and educational as the headphone experience was, I was at dinner and found the company and conversation across the table to be more entertaining and fleeting. The headphones placed a higher demand on my attention then I was willing to give. The dish itself, however, was full of novelty and surprise — a cornucopia of unique ingredients that included petrified duck heart, snail caviar, aged beef chain, hay charred grouse breast and farce of acorn fed squirrel. It was an impressive performance to the maestro. But Sawyer and Danko weren't finished yet: They planned a surreal finale before exiting the stage.

Headphones accompanied the Sawyer Danko course
Jonathon Sawyer and Matt Danko Trentina: “Chicken of the Trees, Leaves, Foraged Goods"

Jonathon Sawyer and Matt DankoTrentina: “Chicken of the Trees, Leaves, Foraged Goods"
Intermezzo (sort of): A swarm of servers filled the tent, each holding a single spoonful of something or other, and stood behind every seated diner. Each one of us was then spoon-fed, in unison. Nobody could identify what we were eating; it was an interesting flavor and not at all unpleasant. We were then told that it was foraged common mallow meringue, served with an edible, sugared honeybee perched on its own wax & comb. I wonder if I would have eaten it had they told me what it was in advance, or had I seen the picture below. No wonder it was served “blind!”

Rare Wine Company Historic Series Charleston Sercial Madeira NV

A swarm of people

Foraged Common Mallow Meringue, served with an edible, sugared honeybee perched on its own wax & comb Sawyer/Danko/Photo: BurkleHagen Photography

The third course may have been my favorite, although I find myself changing my mind every time I reminisce about the evening. Perhaps it has something to do with being born on the Mediterranean; when given a choice, I gravitate toward fish and seafood. Gerard Craft of Niche, in St. Louis prepared “Confit of White Fish, Lemon Purée, Potato.” The dish’s visual allure quickly took second place to its delicately balanced and subtle flavor. The velvety purée bound and elevated the dish to another level while reinforcing the genius of sheer simplicity. A study in contrast: this was as basic as the previous dish was complex.

Weingut Prager ‘Hinter Der Burg’ Grüner Vetliner Wachau 2013

Gerard Craft of Niche, in St. Louis: “Confit of White Fish, Lemon Purée, Potato”

 Gerard Craft of Niche, in St. Louis: “Confit of White Fish, Lemon Purée, Potato”
Bringing us to mid-meal was Brandon Baltzley of Ceia in Newburyport with the fourth course: “Overlooked Lobster Trap: Lobster, Squid Ink, Carrot, Reindeer Lichen.” The jovial name set the tone and the whimsy spilled onto the plate with a lobster trap constructed out of squid ink that mimics a cloche plat. The briny saltiness of the fragile trap served to enhance the savory richness of the meat. The logistics of making sixty squid ink lobster traps is mind-blowing, but that may have been the intended effect. It succeeded: it was an exquisite sight and luxurious on the palate. 
Tempier Bandol Rose Provence 2013

Brandon Baltzley of Cela in Newburyport: "Overlooked Lobster Trap: Lobster, Squid Ink, Carrot, Reindeer Lichen"

Brandon Baltzley of Cela in Newburyport: "Overlooked Lobster Trap: Lobster, Squid Ink, Carrot, Reindeer Lichen"

This course was a bit difficult for me and I think it actually had to do more with the sequence of my evening rather than the chef’s ability or choice of ingredients. Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors in Pittsburgh served “Beef Heart, Steelhead Roe, Matsutake, Pine, Dashi.” Earlier, at the cocktail reception, I enjoyed my first experience eating heart prepared by Michael Nowak and Adam Lambert of The Black Pig in Ohio City. The appetizer consisted of ground Ohio venison heart, bull’s blood beets, capers, shallots, Dijon, parsley and sherry vinegar served on crusty bread. It was an exotic, rich concoction with just the right amount of tang. In contrast, the texture of the sliced beef heart in Sousa’s presentation was dense and chewy. None of it due to any error in technique, it’s merely the nature of beef heart. This was quickly becoming a night of firsts. Add petrified duck, beef and venison heart to my list — right below sugared honeybee!

Kamoizumi Kome Kome ‘Happy Bride’

Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors in Pittsburgh: “Beef Heart, Steelhead Roe, Matsutake, Pine, Dashi.” 

I knew they'd get around to something recognizable at some point.The following course was by Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis:“Risotto, Blood Sausage, Pumpkin, Apple.” It was seasonably appropriate, buttery and creamy, with the most vibrant colors. The deep, royal purple-ish sausage perfectly complemented the saffron-orange-colored rice. The flavors were well married and it had all the warmth and comfort I’ve come to expect from a starch-based dish. (I recently read that there are two things that Adrià will not eat: green bell pepper and blood sausage. I happened to mention this earlier at the cocktail reception to one of the waiters from Trentina. Glad I did.)

Renato Ratti ‘Battaglione’ Barbera d’Alba Piedmont 2012

 Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis:“Risotto, Blood Sausage, Pumpkin, Apple"/Photo: Anu Ramakushnan

Renato Ratti ‘Battaglione’ Barbera d’Alba Piedmont 2012

Once again, I found myself in uncharted territory with the seventh course, which was created by Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson of Brut in Minneapolis: “Pigeon Matsutake, Roasted Hay, Preserved Berries, Liver.” I’ve had quail, pheasant and grouse. I’m not sure why I previously thought pigeon would be any less of a delicacy. It was the gourmet version of Thanksgiving on a plate. Squab is a young pigeon of about four weeks and is not the easiest fowl to find these days. The pigeon leg on my plate had dark, tender meat full of rich, gamy flavor. The berries performed the same role as cranberry sauce does with turkey. Believe me: if I could pull off this dish, our Thanksgiving menu might be very different.

Domaine Follin-Arbelet Aloxe-Cochon 1er Cru Burgundy 2011

Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson of Brut in Minneapolis: “Pigeon Matsutake, Roasted Hay, Preserved Berries, Liver"

Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson of Brut in Minneapolis: “Pigeon Matsutake, Roasted Hay, Preserved Berries, Liver"
Domaine Follin-Arbelet Aloxe-Cochon 1er Cru Burgundy 2011

The eighth and final course was created by Garrett Lipar of Torino in Detroit: “Mackenzie Creamery Goat Cheese, Spruce Tips, Sorrel, Strawberry.” It was a sublime, fabulous finish — a light and creamy dessert with the perfect measure of sweetness. The spruce tips, with their woodsy, citrusy notes, and the flavor of sorrel, with its kiwi and sour strawberries overtones, served to enhance the rich essence of strawberry. It was a sensational end to a dolce notte.

Lustau ‘San Emilio’ Pedro Ximénez Sherry NV

Phoenix Coffee Ethiopian Ardi

Garrett Lipar of Torino in Detroit: “Mackenzie Creamery Goat Cheese, Spruce Tips, Sorrel, Strawberry”
Lustau ‘San Emilio’ Pedro Ximénez Sherry NV/Phoenix Coffee Ethiopian Ardi

For me to go to a restaurant and eat something that is not only good, but totally new, is a double thrill. Double the enjoyment. —Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià and Mary Manno Sweeney/Photo:Keith Humphrey
Keith Humphrey, Mary Manno Sweeney and Dick Cahoon MOCA Trustee and Event Host
Never underestimate the kindness of strangers.

For more pictures from the evening click here.
To view pictures of the Ruhlman/Adrià Interview and MOCA Symposium click here.


Linda Griffith’s article as published in Currents:

The Hottest restaurant in the world in 2004!!

 Printed in Currents in 1999

 Linda Griffith       On Food & Wine         August 1999 El Bulli

          I almost missed the most extraordinary meal of my life. I’ve never had a facility for languages, a real disappointment for someone who loves travel as I do.  My love for all things French grew from my ability to ask questions and usually understand the answers, although even at my best, I’m seriously grammatically challenged.

          Also, maps make sense there; and the French have logic to their one way streets. But not in Italy.  Much as I adore my husband, our fights were especially vivid visiting the hill towns of Tuscany!  When in doubt, he hurtles forward at an illogical speed.  We almost killed each other in Arezzo struggling to find Piero della Francesca’s fabled frescoes in the church of San Francesco.  The map made it look easy.  But, a plethora of narrow streets, all running in the same direction, made the church impossible to find.  A sudden downpour did nothing to facilitate our efforts. And, while perhaps I sounded intelligent in asking passersby for directions, their rapid speech in a language I know not did nothing to assist us. I can still see my frantic husband yanking the car into a parking space.  “There,” he said. “We’ll walk!”  And so we did, until soaking wet, we eventually found the church.  I could read enough Italian to understand that our battles had been in vain.  “Sorry, the church is closed while the frescoes are cleaned and restored.”

          My beloved studied Spanish in high school.  Lest I hurt his feelings, those classes were more than a few years ago.  So it was with some trepidation that we planned a small foray into Spain during our June trip to France.  We would explore the Catalonian countryside and the breathtakingly beautiful Costa Brava.

“ No matter what, you have to eat at El Bulli, one of Spain’s few Michelin 3-star restaurants,” our friends wrote. “You must have the tasting menu.”  Later we learned that El Bulli means “the bulldog.” Only those with the tenacity of a bulldog will ever find it!

Locating this restaurant was a summary of all of our worst hilltown battles.  Only this time, the roads were few, the mountain steep, and the Mediterranean right at the bottom. We understand no one’s directions.  Not even those from an English-speaking policeman. I begged my dear driver to give up; murder was just around the corner. Luckily he ignored me. And a kindly soul led us by car to a narrow mountain road we had some how missed. 

Up the narrow, stony, mountain road we drove for about 5 miles.  As we began to work our way down, we saw it!  Clinging to the hillside and overlooking a spectacular azure bay was our destination.

          Only an hour late, with nerves badly frayed, we were profuse in apologies to co-owner Juli Soler as he rushed us into the enormous stainless steel and marble state-of-art kitchen.  Well into the lunch hour, the young 40-person staff was busily engrossed in well-orchestrated culinary frenzy.  The maestro of it all, owner-chef Ferran Adrià, paused a moment to welcome us. With Señor Soler’s translation aid we agree to put ourselves in the chef’s hands, assuring them there is little we won’t eat other than cockscomb and sea slugs.  
          Several terra-cotta tiled diningrooms are marked by dark wooden beams, wonderful old credenzas and handsome contemporary accessories. Large windows overlook the bay.  Our table was next to one of them.    We mellowed very quickly.

          Moments after we sat, we were each served a “cocktail.” Short glasses were filled with bourbon and passion fruit---quite welcome after that frenetic drive.  Then came an array of small, handsomely designed serving containers---a china cup, a silver “flour shovel,” a pewter bowl and a small glass.  In each was a remarkable nibble: curry-flavored caramelized hazelnuts; transparently thin strips of shrimp cracklings; thin slices of lotus root crisps; and wafers of codfish and Parmesan.

          The shrimp wafer was an extraction of the most intense flavor a shrimp has to offer. From the very crunchy sweet crunchy hazelnut with their aroma of curry, we moved to the salty combination cod and cheese. And this was just for starters.

We knew then that this would be a meal unlike all others.  Ferran Adrià is dedicated to presenting dishes that excite all the senses.  Contrasts of flavors and textures are important.  Aromas are also important. There are daring combinations of ingredients, some that made us chuckle, others that just blew us away.  There is a rhythm to his tasting menu; slowly it builds to particular points, ebbs a bit and builds again.

          Following the array of  nibbles, we marveled at the lush white sorbet of tomato water served with a diminutive pillow of crisp fried bread “to be eaten in one bite following the sorbet”--- an amusing play on a tomato bread salad.

          Next came a single silver spoon with a seductively silken raw sea scallop surrounded by light-as air-seawater mousse.  Another spoon appeared bearing a small round potato that had a coffee-filled center on a bed of mascarpone.  Each was a study in contrasts within itself as well as with the other. 

          Our excitement reached a new level with the next dish, a flûte of an opaque, brilliant green, liquid.  “Drink it slowly but all at one time,” our smiling server said.  Imagine this: the first few swallows are of hot soup of fresh peas, but as you drink the temperature gradually cools, the mint is slowly introduced,  until you reach a chilled mint soup at the bottom.  Our groans of pleasure soon gave way to happy chuckles when we finished.  What a brilliant hoot!

          That was followed by a small jade bowl with a small puddle of milky parmesan “water” marked by a luscious golden olive oil.  Mounded up one side is seriously aromatic polenta.  But wait—the polenta is frigid, dissolving instantly in your mouth. How does he do this?

          Speaking of “how does he,”  our subsequent dish was a Tagliatelle carbonara.  These were transparent noodles, tasting intensely of everything one experiences in a pasta carbonara.  Along with the nest of noodles were a fine dice of ham and Parmesan, a small egg yolk and a touch of cream.  The whole was perfumed by an oil of white truffles.

          And now my notes become somewhat incomplete.  Forgiveness, I beg.
I wrote: “A salad like no other!  This vegetable terrine is layers of color and contrasting flavors, lavishly perfumed with mint, accompanied by strips of basil gelatin sprinkled with chervil, a delicate milk foam and bursts of sea salt.”

          Another rectangular plate appeared bearing 5 mussels, each lightly glazed with a tomato-water gelatin.  A highly concentrated tomato mousse as well as a garlic cream “soup” provide the harmony.

          The crescendo built higher with the Napoleon-shaped tarte of shaved white truffles over apples two ways-- gelatin and diced.  The pastry was paper thin and crisply tender. Aromas were enticing.

          The next plate held six small duck tongues (totally tender and delicious), each punctuated by bites of pear and litchi.  A sinful caramel sauce knit the whole together.

          A series of variations on the cuttlefish came next: (1) a slice braised with its juice; (2) Fried;  (3) light as air cuttlefish ravioli; (4) sautéed with artichokes; (5) noodles with a sauce of garlic, peanuts, almonds, cuttlefish ink and saffron.

          Two lightly grilled scampi served with a scampi jelly served as a delicate palate refresher.  These were followed by sardines over a square of sardine gelatin, garnished by an onion cassis sauce and smoky grilled scallions. And finally,  a small piece of duck with a peanut sesame sauce, turnip, and seaweed that is marked by tiny bursts of saltwater jelly.

          Soon thereafter we moved to the garden for a series of refreshing sweets.  First an ephemeral and refreshing combination of jellies of coconut over coffee, over passion fruit.  Next was chocolate with coffee mousse, passion fruit sorbet and a Campari jelly.  And finally, a tantalizing variety of little sweets, each a luscious juxtaposition of flavors.  Desserts, by the way, are the creation of the chef’s younger brother, Albert.

          My simple notes don’t do this experience justice.  Every bite was exciting and satisfying.  This was as much an intellectual experience as a dining one.  Each dish was perfectly sized.  And when we were finished we were exhilarated, not stuffed.  After nearly five hours (!) we were ready to leave.  The kitchen was beginning to prepare for their evening meal, but the brothers Adrià took time to sign the handsomely illustrated book that each has published. They will be in Chicago sometime in November.  We promised that we would try to be there. 

          Ferran Adrià is a brilliant chef who has taken his finely honed culinary skills and pushed them to an entirely new level. Others have tried with some success---Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Michel Trama in France.  But none has put it all together into a clearly articulated culinary philosophy except Adrià.

          We have to return soon.  Now that we know the way.        

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tim Bando: Balance, the new success

When I first interviewed Tim Bando, he was at a precipice. He had come to the realization that his definition of success needed to change – not because success had eluded him in Tremont (Theory), New York City (Tremont), or the Hamptons (Meeting House), but because the cost of success was too great. It took the shock of his wife picking up and moving back to Cleveland with their children for that epiphany to occur. He had to modify his definition of success to “balance.” It is a daily pursuit.

After my initial meeting with him on that cold December morning, I was satisfied with his reasons for returning to Cleveland in 2012. His wife wanted to be closer to her family and he wanted more realistic hours, nothing too drastic. The brutal hours are a common complaint. It wasn’t until I was back at my desk organizing my notes when my phone rang. It was Tim. He proceeded to tell me his story. Bando, like many others in the industry, was battling addiction. He wanted to go on record – not only as part of his own healing process, but also to raise awareness of one of the real dangers in the industry. It also reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a restaurateur who has since relocated, who said, “you’re young and at the end of your shift you have a lot of cash. If you want trouble, it’ll find you.” 

Since that original article was published, Bando has transformed Deagan’s Kitchen & Bar in Lakewood into a successful venture, created the menu and opened Humble Wine Bar just down Detroit Road from Deagan’s, and went on to do the same for The Standard on the east side. As I drove to Chagrin Falls to meet him recently, I couldn’t help remembering his emphatic proclamation at our first meeting: Tim Bando wasn’t interested in opening his own place. Grove Hill, Bando’s new restaurant, located in the old Raintree space, has been open for six weeks now. Take from that what you will. I figured it was a good time to check in.

Grove Hill
Grove Hill, Dining Room
He was running a little late. I wandered into a side door that was left open by a service repairman who appeared to be working on the HVAC system. The transformation isn’t dramatic, but it’s done in such a way that has preserved all that was good while stripping away the years of wear-and-tear it endured. Raintree was there so long that it had become woven into the very fabric of Chagrin Falls’ culture. The tables are lined with white butcher paper, brightening the room while giving the tables a polished look. The walls have been freshly painted a warm gray with black trim. Two of the original clocks adorn the dining and bar areas. There’s also a painting of Tim’s wife as a young girl on the wall in the bar. The painting sets up the family friendly vibe, confirmed by his children’s menu. The main menu is nicely casual, offering American dishes with Mediterranean influences. He is also offering a variety of oysters. For the most part, the décor still relies on the original bones of the space. The arched, wood-trimmed mirrors in the main dining room and the bi-level bar area remain the most dominant architectural features. The bar itself is where most of the renovations occurred. Notably, they repurposed an area within the dining room to be used as a private dinning space. It can easily accommodate a party of twelve.

Grove Hill, Bar

Grove Hill, Private Party Room
Enter Bando. He’s simultaneously talking to his FOH manager and the workers, and apologizing to me for his tardiness; it’s as if a mild cyclone has entered the room. He immediately starts obsessing about a Yelp review, one negative in a sea of positive reviews. A review he already knows he should not have read. We sit at the bar with the afternoon light streaming in. I ask him how his first weekend of brunch service went. “It was good. We wanted to ease into it so we didn’t make a big announcement about it. Now that we have that experience behind us, we’re ready to get the word out. We’ve enjoyed a great reception since our open. It took longer than I thought it would to get open and we went over budget.” He adds the last part almost in jest. Again he brings up reviews. “The critical reviews have all been positive. I wish I could focus on those and block this one out,” Bando says. He tried to contact the review’s writer, but as of last Monday he hadn’t been able to make the connection. I try to set him at ease by mentioning that most chefs simply don’t read Yelp reviews. But since I’m all too aware that this is this same obsessive nature that leads most chefs to triumph, I let it go. Even though I’d love to ask if he’d consider reading his Yelp reviews on camera.

Chef Tim Bando in front of a painting of his wife as a child
“Grove Hill is most like Meeting House,” he explains, citing his place in Amagansett. “A casual bar, relaxed dining room. We offer five-to-seven varieties of oysters, which come in three-or-four times a week.” He also offers a 45-dollar dry-aged ribeye from Pat La Frieda, which is served with wild mushroom hash, roasted cipollini onions and salsa verde. “I’m not fucking putting mashed potatoes on the menu,” Bando declares. He goes on to mention he’s been experiencing more substitution requests out in the suburbs “We do the best we can to substitute based on the ingredients on hand. I’m not going to 86 a dish to allow someone a side that will be needed for another. An up-charge may be incurred – it depends on what they want to sub,” Bando explains. Evidently, this has been more of an issue than he would like. He’s also considering adding a late night menu featuring a cheese program and oysters for people coming home from social engagements.

Despite these minor protestations, he is quick to mention how well things have gone for him since opening – largely due to the fact that among his 30 employees are many veterans of the industry People he has known and trusted for years. They help him run his 130-seat restaurant with an additional 16 seats at the bar, eight more in the window and 24 on the riser. Things have worked out.

When asked what advice he might have for young people who want to pursue a career in the culinary industry, he immediately chimes in with “choose another profession.” He also recommended, “work with the best people in the industry. People you want to emulate. It takes time to become a Sous Chef but it is that relentless repetition and practice that will get you there. Too many are bored too quickly. It takes time to develop talent.” In a bittersweet moment he says, “if I had gone to culinary school at 18, I might very well be retired by now.” He doesn’t want the job of babysitter. He sees his role as that of a supervisor. “Applying constant, gentle pressure to get them up to speed. You can’t let anything go.” I get the general impression that being a chef means sweating the small stuff.

I asked what he thought about Cleveland’s prospects and he was hopeful, adding this caveat: “We’re not Chicago and we’re not New York City. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can move on with the business of realizing Cleveland’s potential.” He also worries we may be hitting critical mass in restaurants. “Consumers will decide which restaurants will make it and the frustrating reality is that restaurants with fine culinary programs are not guaranteed success.”

Finally, I wanted to be indulged in one last Tim Bando story, since he is also a skillful raconteur. I asked him what the craziest thing that’s happened to him while on shift. He recounted this adventure: “I’m working at Avanzare in Chicago and we witnessed someone stealing wallets from unsuspecting patrons at the bar. He was reaching inside ladies’ handbags that were draped across the back of the bar stools. We called the authorities but before they could get there, he made a dash for it. We trapped him inside the revolving doors until the cops could get there.” That’s the kind of quick-on-your-feet thinking that is expected of chefs every day.

I mention that I continue to recieve positive feedback regarding the initial published article. Bando adds, “Since then several people in the industry faced with similar problems have contacted me seeking help and advice. I’ve been given the biggest second chance of my life. We’ve all settled into our new routine.” There is balance. 

Grove Hill Restaurant
25 Pleasant Drive
Chagrin Falls, OH 44022


Prices: $$

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Welcome to Ninja City

Ninja City opens its doors today with a loud emphatic “kaboom!” The comic book creation that began to take shape in Bac Nguyen’s imagination in the 80s has been realized with fantastic design, brick, mortar, duct work, steel, graffiti, hip-hop music and an arcade game. It is a joint venture with business partner Dylan Fallon. The soft opening Tuesday night was frequented by many of the two partners’ pals, industry friends and family. You felt the celebratory spirit the second you walked through the door. As they say, there is no better compliment than to be respected by your peers. Everyone was happy to celebrate and witness this moment. You may already know Bac as the chef/owner of Bac Asian American Bistro & Bar in Tremont, which has been operating for four years now.

Ohio City loves Ninja City

Tremont love for Ninja City

Ninja City is a brilliant concept for the University Circle area. In the old Boarding House location — back when cream of mushroom soup (and I don’t mean oyster, chanterelles or morel mushrooms either) was considered “new and exotic.” Ninja City is actually a great example of how far we’ve come. Can you imagine how much better your college years would have been with decent ramen and comfort food? And, as an added bonus you get to enjoy it in a back-to-the future retrospective of the 80s — an amalgam of comic book, hip-hop and video games — all taking you back to a time when “Everybody was Kung fu fighting.”

Ninja City’s fun-tastic logo was designed by Aaron Sechrist, who, along with Designer Jude Goergen, are responsible for the restaurant’s successful look. As you enter from Euclid Avenue, the space is divided into two levels: the lower barroom with some high tops, and a dining room on the second level with four tops. Both areas account for about 80 seats, including the 30-seat bar. There is a garage door facing Euclid that opens up the space, weather permitting, and another 15-20 seats on the sidewalk patio. Fans and wire lighting add the perfect industrial accent, and by “industrial” I mean a factory of fun, complete with arcade game and great food and drink. As Paul Benner of Platform Brewery succinctly summarized Tuesday night, “Just enjoying some wet drinks and killer grub.”

Ninja City Soft Open 9.12.14

Ninja City Soft Open 9.12.14

Ninja City Soft Open 9.12.14

Ninja City Soft Open 9.12.14

Ninja City Soft Open 9.12.14

The fun and casual environment extends to the menu. Similar to Happy Dog and Barrio, there are menu pads to check-off your selections. In every other way, Ninja City is a full-service restaurant. There are three main divisions on the menu: Little Bites, Big Bites and Build-Your-Own Big Bites, where you build your own Banh Mi, Bowl or Buns. There are eleven Little Bite choices. They can be purchased on their own or as a build-your-own bento box combo with three or four choices. We selected a Bento Box with Spring Roll, Gyoza Dumplings, Sweet Potato Tempura Fries and Bacon Guacamole. We also shared a bowl of soul-soothing Chicken Ramen from a list of six Big Bite options and a build-your-own Banh Mi. The Chicken Ramen was all the comfort anyone could want on a cool, rainy summer night. It came layered with veggie miso broth, poached chicken breast, napa cabbage, seaweed, sesame seeds and scallions. We selected pork, cucumber, cilantro. spicy kim chi, scallions and peanuts with lime aioli for our banh mi. As we enjoyed our meal at the bar we talked to many of the guests. Our neighbors who sat to the right of us work at Porco Lounge & Tiki Room, and they graciously allowed us to photograph their eye-catching Bacon & Egg Ramen which consists of pork miso broth, smoked pork belly, fried egg, spicy kim chi, seaweed, sesame seeds and chili aioli. It’s the first thing I will order on my next visit.

Ninja City Bento Box

Ninja City Chicken Ramen

Ninja City Chicken Ramen and Banh Mi

Ninja City Banh Mi 

Ninja City Bacon & Egg Ramen

Similar to his place in Tremont, all of the selections are a fusion of Asian/American favorites. There wasn’t a missed step in the food or drinks. They’re ready to go. For his part, Bac has experience and heritage on his side: Bac’s family has been in the restaurant business in Cleveland for three generations. His grandmother was instrumental in the opening of Minh Anh and his mother is a partner of Bac in Tremont.

Ninja City’s bar list also packs a “kapow” punch thanks to Christopher Flood, Bac’s Bar Manager. The list includes some of my all-time favorites (17th Parrallel, Lychee Mojito and the Tokyo-Politan) along with some Ninja City newbies and a fine selection of beer, wine and sake. Flood says, “We are highlighting Ohio and Asian beers here.”

Ninja City 17th Parralel

Tokyo-politan and Lychee Mojito

Go and experience a unique 80s back-to-the-future dining experience. You’ll be glad you did. I don't know what the process is to become a permanent resident or citizen of Ninja City, but I’m looking into it.

Ninja City
11311 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44106


Prices: $$

Reservations Recommeded