Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Spice Kitchen & Bar: Beating the Odds

Chef/Owner Ben Bebenroth – along with Chef Nate Williams and former Executive Chef Brandon Walukas – have overcome the odds and triumphed in a spot that was plagued with problems. While Spice Kitchen & Bar is supported by other revenue streams, including Spice of Life Catering Co. and their on-location Plated Landscapes dinners, the restaurant itself has become the destination. Effervescent Bar Manager David Hridel is in constant motion – mixing cocktails, offering suggestions about daily specials and attending to the six-or-so tables in Spice’s lively, friendly bar.
Chef/Owner Ben Bebenroth

One late spring evening, we decided to drop by Spice for dinner before a concert at the State Theatre and we couldn’t have made a better choice (love it when you can describe what you have a taste for and the bartender can improvise). I explained that I wanted something light, acidic and fruity. Hridel invented a drink that should be a seasonal special – an expertly mixed cocktail where the sweetness of the berries and the sour of the lemon were perfectly balanced. Sweet but not cloying. The concoction – which he served over crushed ice in a Collins glass – consisted of farm-fresh strawberries, lemon, just the right amount of simple syrup and vodka. Essentially, it was a perfect, potent strawberry-lemonade.
 Strawberry Lemonade + A Draft 

We kept it light for appetizers, selecting two vegetarian options. One was on their Happy Hour menu – a stuffed avocado with chickpeas, sprouts, grilled oranges, crispy red quinoa and  almondona dressing. I have never been a quinoa fan, but they made it palatable: it was sautéed to a nice, crunchy texture (this is how quinoa should be prepared). The complex flavors and richness of the avocado make this dish work.
Happy Hour Stuffed Avocado

The second appetizer was on the Daily Specials Board: the Foragers Plate – chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, butter-fried croutons, shaved asparagus and pea shoot salad, champagne vinaigrette, toasted fennel & beet, avocado oil. Again: wonderful balance. The chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms were the stars of this dish, but I can’t say enough about the exquisite beet avocado oil that finished the salad.
Foragers Plate

Here’s where my dinner companion and I went our separate ways. He decided to order (our favorite) chickpea fries served with Spice’s spicy rémoulade and the Happy Hour chicken wings with lemongrass-ginger hot sauce.
Chick Pea Fries with spicy remoulade 

Happy Hour Chicken Wings
I decided on a new spring house-made pasta dish. I was in Mushroom Pappardelle heaven. The pappardelle were handmade by Chef Nate Williams. Fabulous ribbons with delicate taste and texture. The layering of flavors: mushrooms, beans, creme fraiche in a delicate flavorful vegetable stock made it taste like springtime on a plate.
Mushroom Pappardelle

To accompany my pasta, I relied on Hridel’s expertise again, and again he steered me in the right direction. He recommended a perfectly crisp, slightly acidic white – a Vermentino di Sardegna – to complement my pasta. I enjoyed its intense, fruity aroma, fresh flavor and clean finish.
Vermentino di Sardegna

For dessert, I went back to the cocktail menu, since something I noticed earlier had piqued my interest –Aperol and grapefruit soda. The drink – named Just a Question of Thyme – combines Boodles Gin, Aperol, grapefruit soda, thyme and thyme syrup. It was a perfect finish to a diverse, flavor-rich dining experience.
Just a Question of Thyme

We departed satisfied and ready for Mr. Beck Hansen.

Spice Kitchen & Bar is located at: 5800 Detroit Ave, Cleveland, OH 44102 Phone: 216. 961.9637

Prices: Moderate $$

Reservations recommended

Thursday, June 19, 2014

World Broadcast Premiere Viewing Party

Join the fun this Sunday, June 22 at 7:30pm, Underdog Bar at Happy Dog as Anna Harouvis of Anna in the Raw makes her televison debut on Guy Fieri's, Grocery Games on Food Network. Williams and Harouvis will recreate food from the show. Program airs at 8pm.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The people you run into in this town …

I dropped by at Johnny’s Downtown after a meeting this afternoon and ran into Leah Santosuosso, who handles Front-of-House during the day. Santosuosso recently published a book, East Cleveland: Images of America, available at Visible Voice Books in Tremont and other local bookstores, and online at She is in the midst of reading a fantastic book full of great recipes and inspiration, Painters & Food Renaissance Recipes, and she shared an amazing recipe for veal involtini that is worth the price of the book alone – but the Sanotsuossos know all about how to prepare veal (oh, what I’d give for Vid Lutz’s veal demi-glace recipe.)

Leah Santosuosso
When it comes to restaurant pedigree in this town, few can beat Santosuosso. Her grandmother opened Louise’s Garden in 1918 in the very location where Johnny’s on Fulton exists today. The restaurant had the first liquor license issued in the state of Ohio after prohibition – talk about a trailblazing woman! Santosuosso seems to have inherited some of her grandmother’s trailblazing spirit.

Our conversation led me to conclude that she and I need to get together in the next few weeks to talk at length about her family’s restaurant business, her new book and her ideas about her generation’s future in Cleveland. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: Fat Cats, a Perennial Favorite

These days it seems we have several restaurant openings every month. A new restaurant has a way of commanding a headline – openings are the culmination of years of hard work, from concept to the moment the first order hits the line. It’s a day the chef never forgets.
The greater accomplishment, however, is continuing to thrive 17 years later. That has been Chef/Owner Ricardo Sandoval’s good fortune at Fat Cats in Tremont.  Sandoval has yet to run out of inspiration when it comes to his well-executed Modern American menu with heavy Mediterranean influence.

Fat Cats
Simplicity is Sandoval’s hallmark: he allows the quality of the ingredients to shine through and take center stage. It may appear simple, but there is a lot of skill and genius at play. Extracting the most out of a few fresh ingredients and the perfect blend of seasonings is distinctively Mediterranean; it’s a region where simply but expertly prepared fresh ingredients – fish, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables – are de rigueur. It is also no coincidence that, historically, the use of spices increases as you get closer to the equator.

Fat Cats radiates a fun, hip vibe. You enter by a long bar located in the first of three dining rooms. We’ve enjoyed many dinners at the bar over the years. Our most recent was on an idyllic late spring evening. We were seated in the middle of three rooms, adjacent to the patio. The doors to the patio were open and a gentle breeze wafted inside.

We selected a chilled rosé from the Loire Valley that was as light, acerbic and refreshing as we had hoped. We then turned our attention to the food: one of the keys to Fat Cats’ ongoing success is that Sandoval cleverly offers a lengthy list of seasonal specials in addition to his regular dinner menu. It adds a bit of surprise for returning patrons and keeps the focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Touraine Rosé, Loire Valley
 As we sipped our wine, we settled on a couple of appetizers (we ordered two but three came to the table). The grilled baby octopus salad had a pleasant, smoky char and a delicate texture. The braised mushrooms with triple crème cheese, crostini sherry and tomato was a welcome accompaniment to the baby octopus. And we were genuinely surprised by Ricardo’s spin on a Caprese salad: the layering begins with sliced burrata rather than fresh mozzarella, topped with slices of tomato and a pungent pesto, all drizzled with a luxurious, extra virgin olive oil. The burrata was fresh and sinfully creamy.

Grilled Baby Octopus 

Braised Mushrooms

Burrata Caprese
Our entrees brought out a chorus of rave reviews. The most tantalizing to the eye was the pasta special: a generous plate of perfectly cooked orecchiette with just the right balance of rapini and rich, spicy sausage, all served in a light, savory chicken broth. I ordered the wild halibut special and found it to be perfectly cooked with a fine crusty exterior. It had a nice, firm texture and a mild buttery flavor, which I would attribute to it being wild. The fish rested on a bed of pureed turnips with grilled asparagus and radishes on the side. The wild salmon special was delightful – served on a potato pancake and topped with a fresh, tart garlic scape relish and a side of haricots verts.

Orecchiete Pasta with Sausage and Rapini

Wild Halibut Special

Wild Salmon Special

For dessert, we shared an order of crème brûlée – a rich, lavish custard complemented by a crystallized caramel shell. It had the traditional vanilla flavor and was served at room temperature – as it should be.

Crème Brûlée
The pace of our meal was leisurely and relaxed. The restaurant and patio were nearly full, yet our server seemed to be there when we needed her without hovering (no small feat). Fat Cats provided a pleasant, comforting, memorable meal that will remain with us long after the last bite.

Fat Cats is located at: 2061 W 10th Street, Cleveland, OH  44113, 216.579.0200

Prices are moderate: $$

Reservations recommended

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Platform Brewhouse to Open July 4th

Driving home from dinner at Momocho last night we noticed the windows and doors were open at the Platform Brewhouse. Owner Paul Benner graciously invited us in to have a look around at his barely nascent microbrewery opening on the 4th of July.
Platform Brewhouse

Platform Brewhouse

Benner started The Cleveland Brew Shop -- a homebrew supply in Tremont -- a couple of years ago. The plan is to also move the shop into this 5,000 square-foot location at 41st and Lorain. As the latest addition to Cleveland's Brewery District, Platform Brewhouse. joins Market Garden Brewery, Nano Brew, Hansa Brewery (still in the works) and the grand-daddy of them all Great Lakes Brewing Co. 
Platform Brewhouse - Paul Benner, Owner

Platform Brewhouse - Paul Benner, Owner

Platform Brewhouse is an open, cavernous space and will have communal tables in addition to seating at a long bar that runs the center length of the room. There is also a patio off the main room on the side of the building with garage doors that open onto a beer garden. The open sliding windows give the entire place a feeling of the outdoors. Stainless steel brew kettles line the walls. The highly polished wooden bartop -- compliments of the buildings origins -- is from the Czech social hall's bowling alley that dates back to 1915.

Platform Brewhouse - Bar

Platform Brewhouse - Beer Kettles
Platform Brewhouse - Taps

Since there is no kitchen, Benner will serve food each day from a variety of area restaurants. He went on to mention that every Friday he will feature the banh mi from Jack Flaps. Their banh mi was just named 2014 Best Breakfast Sandwich in America by Restaurant Hospitality magazine. In addition, he plans to have food trucks parked outside on weekends.

There may be a few more details left to do, minor things like hooking up the taps, unpacking the glassware and unlocking the front door. Platform Brewhouse is a welcome addition to a part of Ohio City that is just beginning to develop.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Jack Flaps Banh Mi Wins Best Sandwich In AmericaTitle


Jack Flaps breakfast banh mi topped the 2014 Best Sandwiches In America: Breakfast category, according Restaurant Hospitality magazine. The Vietnamese sausage, kimchi, Vietnamese cinnamon, house-made hot sauce and fried egg sandwich is the perfect breakfast for those looking for a rich, savory start to their day. Congratulations to Jack Flaps Creator/Chef/Owner, Randy Carter!
Jack Flaps - Banh Mi

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Genesis of The Spotted Owl

Entering a space that is nearing completion can feel like treading on someone’s dream. In this case, the dream is about to come true. All the painstaking details — concept, design and build-out — will soon yield to logistics and operation.  
Will Hollingsworth, an affable, young bartender whom you may know from his days behind the bar at Lolita, has obsessed over his new establishment for years, since 2011 to be exact. He sought the advice of veteran (now-retired) adman-turned-restaurateur, Alan Glazen. Glazen not only advised Hollingsworth but hooked him up with four investment partners.
As Hollingsworth greeted us, he introduced us to Jeffrey Eizember who, along with Jonathan Sin-Jin Satayathum, is responsible for actualizing Architect Rick Lalli’s plans. “We think this is where livestock was kept a century ago,” said Hollingsworth, respectful of the newly remodeled space. The naturally seasoned brickwork, stonewalls and dirt floors provide the ultimate backdrop for his concept. Hollingsworth, Eizember and Satayathum have reconciled the past while giving The Spotted Owl the promise of a vibrant future. We visited the space after sundown at Hollingsworth's suggestion, to experience the lighting and drink in the ambience before any libations are served.
The Gothic arched doorway introduces monastic elements that lend a palpable authenticity and spirituality that permeate the space. There are five distinct areas within the Spotted Owl that flow together in an open floor plan. Pointing out the colonial blue as the foundation of the plank wood adorning walls and bar, Hollingsworth said “I want people to think they’re in a bar from George Washington’s era,” eagerly adding, “the glassware is French — the finest glassware for commercial use.” He went on to exuberantly explain every detail. We are, after all, talking about a young hipster who appreciates a fine pair of handmade Italian loafers. Hooks, latches and hinges have all been selected to emphasize the raw, minimalist warmth The Spotted Owl exudes.
“We will have a flatscreen, but not behind the bar. It won’t be the focus — there’s something special planned for behind the bar. But we do live in Cleveland and I want this to be the place people gather and come together for unifying events like elections, sports or special screenings,” said Hollingsworth. Most of the materials that make up the interior decor have been reclaimed and repurposed. It turns out that a weatherworn wooden floor from a central Ohio barn is not only a suitable surface for the bar and tabletops, but — as Hollingsworth explained — he is excited to be using a material that has distressed naturally as opposed to a surface that is made to look distressed.
The bar will serve a list of unique, inventive cocktails including a selection of house-special Manhattans, along with a distinctive shortlist of beers and wines. “We’re not looking to have ‘the most' of anything; we want a well-executed list of libations that will become our cornerstone,” said Hollingsworth. “We have seating for 60. We’ll have someone just inside the door monitoring the flow, and taking names and contact info once we’re at capacity. I want to give everyone the same quality of service and allow them to enjoy the experience.” 
The Spotted Owl is located in Tremont, at 710 Jefferson Avenue, on the lower level of the Union Gospel Press Building — a structure that was constructed over the course of 50 years beginning in 1850. Originally the location for the short-lived “Cleveland University,” it became a printing press for religious publications.
The Spotted Owl - Entrance
The Spotted Owl - Interior Detail

The Spotted Owl - Lighting 

The Spotted Owl - Doors for Tables

The Spotted Owl - Floor for Tabletop
The Spotted Owl - Bar