Opening Night: Alley Cat Oyster Bar

It’s been a delicious and interesting journey observing a restaurant go from concept, to construction, to service.  Over the weekend I was invited to dine at the soft opening of Alley Cat, Chef Zack Bruell’s newest restaurant, and the first tenant to open in the revitalized Flat East Bank project on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

        Alley-Cats-Happy-Hour Jen and Danielle at Alley Cat

I invited my parents, and a colleague, Danielle Serino, who likes Zack’s food even more than I do.  It was a picturesque night along the river, perfect for the open air dining room and a glass of wine on the deck while we waited for our table.Alley-Cats-Bar3Alley-Cats-Bar2

I took it all in, amazed that just ten days prior, on was on a hard hat tour…and this was what the bar looked like then:


The dining room was buzzing with clients, vendors, friends and foodies.  And the vibe was as cool as the display of oysters at the bar.


As is expected on the very first night of service, we sat down nearly an hour after our reservation.  But I could see the kitchen was slammed.  “I’m ready to get my ass kicked,” Bruell told me over the phone earlier that day.  His open kitchens are part of the experience at this, his eighth restaurant.


Bruell was using the evening to begin to iron out the execution of the menu, and the logistics of the whole place.  Guests were invited to donate to the Marjorie & Ernest Bruell Cancer Fund (his parents) in exchange for pretty much anything they wanted on the menu.


We started with a round of appetizers, the Fried Calamari with Kimchi, which was very tender, as was the Steamed Middle Neck Clams.  But the favorite by far were the Alley Cat Stuffed Oysters (with watercress, chicharrone, fontina and breadcrumbs)


They were also serving a limited variety of their fresh, raw oysters.  So mom tried one of each.  (Pemaquid, Chincoteague and East Beach Blonde) She liked them all but didn’t have the experienced palate to really tell the difference.


For an entree, I went adventurous and tried the Grilled Octopus with smoked paprika aioli and succotash.


Dad (like me) is a sucker for lobster, so he selected the Lobster Roll, butter poached with green goddess dressing.  Creamy and sweet!


My mom can never resist scallops when they’re on the menu.  And Zack does them better than anybody in town.  These were off the Catch of the Day section of the menu and were served with lemon grass cream.


And the menu item I can’t resist at any restaurant: HUSH PUPPIES!  I could make a meal of them.  These were fantastic.


I rarely order dessert when I’m out for dinner, but tonight was about sampling the new menu and giving feedback to the kitchen.  So…we took one for the team and ordered three to split! Dad’s favorite was the chocolate caramel cake, Danielle preferred the banana cream pie, but my favorite, hands down, was the coconut cheese cake. (evident by the fact that I dove in and finished most of it before I remembered to snap a picture)


We were full and happy by the end of the meal, and excited for what’s to come in this space.

danielle and zack and jen

I congratulated the Chef on the way out, thanked him for a great meal and wished him luck working out the kinks.  He sighed and told me that a line cook already walked out on the job on night one.  It’s going to be a rough first couple of weeks.  Stay tuned, and hungry!

Dinner Lab Does Cleveland

The culinary scene in Cleveland is something to behold…and devour!  And the rest of the country is finally figuring it out.  Besides world class chefs (including James Beard Award winners) and destination restaurants, other related businesses are flocking to town to feed us foodies.

Dinner Lab is a pop up restaurant concept offering memberships to diners who want to try innovative food from emerging chefs, or new menu concepts from established ones.  The events are hosted in unconventional spaces that exist for a mere 24 hours.

This weekend Dinner Lab officially launched in Cleveland with an event catered by Daniel Espinoza, a chef from Chicago.  As a member, I got an email several weeks ago, revealing the date, and the menu title and concept, “Anomar” Modern Mexican Cuisine.  I was excited to be a part of the first meal so we immediately bought the max amount of tickets allowed per membership, 4.  Then about 48 hours before the meal, the location was revealed.


The host site, smARTspace at 78th, is a mixed use space on Cleveland’s west side, offering up 6,000 sq. ft. of event and exhibit space.  It was nice to wander down the hallway, sipping on the signature cocktail of the night, checking out the various displays.


We chose the second seating, so we got to check out the meals of our fellow diners on the other side of the room as we made our way to our communal table.


Now… after all this hype is was finally time to EAT! Out came the first course, an imaginative calamari salad with chorizo.  (Here’s the part where I regretfully admit that I forgot to take pictures of the plated food.  I was so excited about the meal, that I failed to properly document it.  I’ll do better next time! Grateful for my guests who shared their pics)


Second course was a crispy tostada topped with pork.  A humble, hearty round two.   As we were served, we were also invited to give honest, constructive feedback and reviews of each dish on survey sheets.  It’s an integral part of the Dinner Lab experience.  I was a tougher critic than the rest of our party.  I didn’t care for the consistency of the chorizo in the first course, and thought the tostada could have used a little sauce to top it off   But the rest of the meal was a home run!


We had some exceptional fried chicken, served on a cilantro grits for the third course.  And the final savory course was my favorite, a generous portion of tender mahi mahi, with a green mole sauce (my favorite component of the whole meal!)

Dinner-Lab-Jen and Drew

And for dessert, the make-shift kitchen cranked out a dense sponge cake with strawberries, peanuts, and caramel sauce.  The meal was also accompanied by three drink pairings, all of which were well-matched.


While my husband and I mostly came to visit with our guests (my brother and his fiance, and a friend Danielle who joined us) the Dinner Lab concept encourages a “community dining”, through their communal tables.


We met a nice couple from Pittsburgh who dined next to us.  A Dinner Lab membership allows you to take advantage of events all over the country…which I think is pretty fun.  I’d love to wrap an overnight trip around one of these events in the future.

Chef Daniel Espinoza

Toward the end of the meal, the chef addressed the crowd as a whole explaining the inspiration for “Anomar,” his grandmother, Ramona.  Then after service was over, Espinoza came to visit each table individually, like a newlywed glad-handing guests at his wedding.  Espinoza was charming, gracious and attentive.  He asked us questions and answered ours.

Front of the house staff told me that initially they’ll be hosting events every month until word gets out and membership builds up.  The goal is to offer one every week.  Sounds delicious!

Dinner-Lab-Jen and Danielle

I invite you to join me for dinner at the next Dinner Lab event!  Click here: Member Invitation  and get $20 credit toward your first meal.