Better Service: Elevating Cleveland Restaurants’ Game

When national names descended on Cleveland this summer for the RNC, they were wined and dined and entertained.  No one expressed disappointment in what was presented on their plates.  They did, however, criticize the service level in the city whose restaurant scene is exploding.  Recognizing that there is a gap between the level of cuisine and the level of service, Restaurauer Zack Bruell brought in the big guns: his son, Julian Bruell.  The younger Bruell comes with more than just a name.  The newly dubbed Director of Service for the Zack Bruell Restaurant Group brings with him years of experience at some of the country’s most prestigious dining destinations.  And he is ready to raise the level of service across the city.

Bruell, former General Manager of Sauvage, and former Service Manager of Jean Georges, both in NYC,  is charged with  upholding, training and developing new and elevated service standards for all of the Zack Bruell restaurants’ front of house employees. This includes standardizing and creating beverage, food, service standards, and training materials.  He will also collaborate with ZBRG’s Director of Operations, David Schneider, with development of wine and spirits lists and human resources oversight. He and Schneider wear a lot of hats, according to Bruell.


“Our restaurant group’s goal is to be more polished at our craft than any group of restaurants in the United States. Ultimately, we want our guests to leave feeling like they had a memorable and non replicable experience at our restaurants. We want people to feel dining with us as an enjoyable escape from their every day life,” said Bruell.

Bruell believes that the Cleveland restaurant market is growing extremely fast, potentially oversaturating the city with a below standard service, beverage, and culinary culture. In response, he says, they will focus on educating employees and embracing the creative talent on their teams in order to combat this potential downfall. 

“We want to change and elevate the standard of service, cuisine, and hospitality not just in Cleveland, but throughout the world. We want our guests to feel like their experience in our restaurants is cosmopolitan, culturally enriching, and unique,” Bruell said.


The first two months of Bruell’s return to Cleveland was spent at L’albatros Brasserie + Bar, then two months between Cowell and Hubbard and Chinato Ristorante, and he has just begun training at Alley Cat Oyster Bar. At all of the locations he’s visited, Bruell says they’ve developed more attentive and detail oriented service standards. Some of these changes include teaching of proper verbiage with guests, standardizing day-to-day position training and service manuals, and using the knowledge and tastings of product to tailor and guide the dining experience to each guests desired tastes. 

“I have been really proud of all of the service compliments our staff’s have received, as I want them to take ownership of their craft. They have embraced the many service changes I have made, and are excited to learn more and provide a proper, personalized dining experience that our guests desire,” he said. 

As they move forward, Bruell says they will embrace and take all reviews seriously. 

“We have always understood that every day is extremely important and that we cannot afford to take an off day,” he says.

 

Bruell recognizes that social media and marketing are extremely important as they focus on capturing the millenial clientele, who is constantly engaged and driven by social media outlets.  In the future, look for ZBRG to focus social media and marketing on the feeling of being a part of their restaurant “family” and the feeling of being involved and intrigued with what they do everyday. 

“I was lucky enough to experience 5 years of cultural, personal, and hospitality growth when in New York. I was really inspired by the energy, drive, and new ideas and creativity in New York. I experienced and provided levels of service that were considered the best in the world, and I believe I can develop that level of service in Cleveland and within our restaurants,” he said.

I have already personally heard about the positive changes in effect because of the younger Bruell’s presence.  I’ll be interested to hear about the improvements from other frequent CLE diners. 

Advertisements

Cake Decorating Class at Urban Farmer

Come Valentines Day, sweets are on the brain.  Chocolate to be more specific.  I was invited to Urban Farmer to attend a pastry class, conducted by their pastry chef.  I didn’t know what to expect…baking pies, kneading dough, etc.  When we arrived at the conference room turned classroom, we found three layers of decadent chocolate cakes, a pastry bag full of Italian butter cream, and another one nearby stuffed with chocolate mousse filling.  Jackpot.  This was a cake decorating class!

My friend Amanda and I inspected all the tools placed in front on us and thought…this will be equal parts fun and disastrous.  After all, neither of us claim to be bakers.  That’s the whole reason we were attending this class in the first place.  But we both fancy ourselves pretty savvy in the kitchen.  Adventurous, at least.  But we were still glad to see the tasks of actually baking the cakes and preparing the frosting and filling were left to the professionals. We were just left to do the fun creative stuff.

We were given instructions on how to best cut, stack and prep a layer cake  (along with the recipe for it), and let in on an industry secret…of brushing the layers of cake with flavored simple syrup, to add flavor and keep it moist.  For this cake we used a coffee flavored simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated until dissolved and 2 oz. brewed coffee to roughly 2 cups of syrup.  Game.  Changer.

We piped a “barrier layer” of frosting on the outer edge of each layer, then filled in the rest with the chocolate mousse filling. Ideally you’d throw the cake in the freezer after each step, but in this instance…no time.  Next came the crumb coat.  That luscious Italian butter cream.


We were also invited to to sample and taste the difference between store bought frosting (generic and organic), the grocery store variety used by bakeries like Giant Eagle and Costco, and the house Italian butter cream used by Urban Farmer in the restaurant and attached Westin Hotel.  To me the last was clearly the best. Rich, creamy, velvety.  The kind of frosting you do extra time on treadmill for.

The next part got a little tricky.  We frosted the top and the side, then were tasked with make the cakes smooth, real smooth…with the offset spatula and a painters tool.  I nearly broke my arm patting myself on the back after I conquered this step.  Ironically, all the time and attention I spent on it wasn’t totally necessary, as I covered most of the surfaces with decorative frosting, sprinkles and Oreo crumbs.  Yep…those came next.

When it was time to move on to the REALLY fun part (also the most challenging) we were like kids in a candy store.  We had cake pops, tubs of every color sprinkle in the rainbow, merengue “eyes,” swirls, and dots, pretzel and almond crumbs, Oreos, and gallons and gallons of frosting.  My trouble shooting takeaway? Frosting fixes everything. Recognizing my frosting shortfalls, I went wacky instead of precise…and went for a “Love Bug” theme for my little girls. Others made “monsters” or flowers with frosting.  It was cute to see everyone’s imagination run wild!

love-bug-cake

At the end of the fun afternoon, we were sent off with our cakes, and a gift bag with four recipes used by the Urban Farmer pastry chefs, and several baking tools.  Best part for me…is I’ll be back for more classes at Urban Farmer. They’ve scheduled a series of butcher classes from April to October.  You can sign up for one, or all of them.  I’ll see you there!

urban-farmer-butcher-classes

Valentine’s Day Children’s Photography: A Sweet Photo Shoot

My two favorite things to take pictures of: my kids, and food.  So imagine my excitement when I discovered the adorable and imaginative bakery set dreamed up by the team at Kim Ponsky Photography.  I had to get in on it.  And boy am I glad I did.  


As family photo shoots are going more the way of wedding photography (more candid and less posed) I was happy to bring my children to their studio at Eaton to run wild with sprinkles, cupcakes and frosting.  Cooking together is one of our favorite family activities.  So the images and expressions captured were very true to form and just what I was looking for.


Gabriella and Christie provided the thoughtful back drop and most of the props.  I brought their aprons (bought at fellow Eaton tenant, La Bella Vita) some eggs to crack and a tub of Cool Whip.


To be honest, my oldest daughter is historically a terrible picture taker.  She tends to contort her face into some weird expression, squint her eyes and look no where near the general direction of the camera.  But when placed in an environment that is engaging and entertaining, in front of a charming and warm photographer, she was comfortable and natural.  And the proof was in the proofs.  

 

They clearly had no fun.  No. Fun. At. All. The booking is $75 and includes a 20 minute session (plenty of time, honestly)  and 3 5×7 prints with matching low resolution digital files…and cupcakes of course! 


The last day for the session is Feb 25! The talented team at KPP also does newborns, children, families, weddings, and pregnancy photos! 

Book your mini session today! Kim Ponsky Photography at Eton on Chagrin Blvd. tel:216-229-7427

Bring me food! Delivery options for hungry Clevelanders this winter

I don’t know about you, but lately I have been equal parts busy, hungry, tired and cold.  It’s January in Cleveland.  And that combination has inspired me to look around for new, or established favorite options for making mealtimes easier and more comfortable for my day and my household.  


Meal Prep delivery: Get perfectly planned and measured ingredients for gourmet home cooked meals brought to you once a week.  Blue Apron is the monster in this category but there is also Hello Fresh, Home Chef and Plated, among your options.  Cheftovers bonus: these options minimize waste, as the meals are precisely portioned for the number of people you sign up for.  I have tried several of these. For me, the meal in a box is interesting because it invites and guides me in preparing home cooked meals outside my comfort zone.  However, it does not cut down much on prep time, but it takes the thinking and grocery shopping off your plate.  Pun intended.  

Mod Meals


No cooking required: Mod Meals offers you restaurant quality, chef inspired meals from local chefs.   Bonus: they will also deliver beer from Goldhorn Brewery and desserts from Cafe 55.  Sprinly deliveries within 30 miles of Cleveland (including Akron) and offers organic, plant based meals developed by nutritionists.  For less commitment, and more options from the local favorites you love to chow on, call up Uber Eats and Grub Hub.

Door to Door Organics, photo courtesy Instagram


Grocery Delivery:  Door to Door Organics arrived in the market in spring of last year.  They can bring you fresh produce and natural groceries to your doorstep, with lots of options to swap for your preferences, in the weekly box you sign up for. Presto Fresh will give you unlimited deliveries of locally sourced and specialty groceries from Zagara’s for a year for $89.  If you are loyal to Giant Eagle, they have a curbside express option.  You’ll have to pick out your own groceries online, but they will pluck everything from the shelves and have them bagged and ready for you at an agreed upon time and day.  No need to get out of the car! This was a life saver for me when I had a newborn in the winter. 

Downtown lunches: My new favorite downtown spot can make a quick hot meal, or a quick delivery. I’m pretty picky about my Italian food, but Fanucce’s on the CSU campus is legit! Cleveland Pickle always makes an effort to bring their delish sandwiches and pickles to the masses, and cut out the parking problems that plague downtown restaurants.  

Who are your favorite delivery places in town? 

Polpetta at Porco gets the ball rolling

Meatballs make me happy.  They’re a comfort food, a version of which can be found in nearly every cuisine.  Saucy, savory and satisfying.  And when you base a menu entirely off these Sunday supper staples, you’re on to something.  Enter Polpetta at Porco.

polpetta-meatballs

Friends and fans of Porco Lounge have long loved the potent drinks and party atmosphere of the Tiki Room.  But until now, they’ve only offered things like nachos and tacos for food at the W. 25th St. location.  Now Stefan Was (of Porco), Brian Okin and Adam Bostwick (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens and Dinner in the Dark) have teamed up to bring a fully functioning kitchen in to the kitschy place.

Bostwick tells me he’d been thinking about the concept of a meatball menu for sometime, thinking primarily about a food truck, initially.  But during their recent trip to New York City, to cook at the James Beard House (see previous post, Cleveland Chefs take New York) they dined at The Meatball Shop.  The idea was reignited, and Bostwick says they spent the entire drive home talking about meatballs.  That’s a conversation I want in on.

The concept was fast tracked when they decided to combine forces with Porco for their first location. (no need for a complete build out, only the addition for some shiny new kitchen equipment)  The menu is fast casual, kind of like the ones you see at Barrio, Noodlecat or Happy Dog.  Pick a meat, pick a sauce, pick a side.  All of their meatballs are gluten free, and they even offer a vegan variety.

They’re sourcing everything they can from local makers, like beef and chicken from Ohio City Provisions, produce from Fresh Fork Market and pork from K and K Butcher Shoppe on Warren Rd.

They soft opened on Monday, and will be expanding daily, Bostwick says.  Polpetta will always exist in Porco, but the plan going forward will be to establish more of the chef-driven concept in other locations.  With the captive audience that already flocks to Porco, they’ll establish their following, then spread their flavors, and balls to other parts of town.  Chef Bostwick says there isn’t a food you can’t convert into some kind of “ball.” So I can’t wait to see the creative concepts and fusions they generate at Polpetta.  The scratch kitchen is open Monday-Thursday 5pm-Midnight Friday and Saturday 4pm-1:30am.

It should be noted that I wrote this entire post without making any “balls” puns.  Tough to do. But ownership says there are plenty already being “tossed” around in the first few days of operation.  They’re even thinking about starting a book with all the balls jokes that customers come up with.  Bostwick says food should be fun, and I agree.  🙂

Cleveland Chefs take New York

If chefs are the new rock stars, then cooking at the James Beard House in New York City is like headlining at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a pretty big deal. And who better to rock the house at the famed Big Apple dining room, then a group of chefs from the rock and roll capital of America?  After all, the inspiration for the invitation to JBH was the celebrated Cleveland dining experience, Dinner in the Dark, which is described by its founders as an “open mic jam session for chefs.”

Eight talented local chefs, traveled to New York to eat their way through the city and cook the meal of their lives.  I think they’re still in a food coma, and still inspired by their collective experience.  Brian Okin (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens and Dinner in the Dark), Adam Bostwick (of Cork & Cleaver and Graffiti Social Kitchens), Karen Small (of Flying Fig), Anthony Scolaro (111 Bistro), Jim Blevins (Butcher and The Brewer) Britt-Marie Culey (of Coquette Patisserie) Jeff Jarrett (of Dinner in the Dark) and Chris Kafcsak (of Deagan’s Kitchen) all joined forces last week to prepare a meal for 70 people.  But it wasn’t just any meal.  This one means more than most for this group.

James Beard was a cookbook author, teacher and mentor to countless American chefs.  
His old brown stone was transformed and memorialized and now serves as a restaurant where chefs are invited to cook. Profits from the dinners hosted at the house all go to fund the James Beard Foundation which gives scholarships to young cooking professionals.
“It’s very humbling to be given the opportunity to cook there. With the amount of names that have cooked in that kitchen to be able to cook there and walk in those footsteps is truly inspiring,” said Chef Scolaro.
“After leaving I felt inspired to continue to cook great food and work harder to do it,” he said.
cooking at beard house
Members of the group say getting the opportunity  to cook there validates Cleveland as a culinary player, and destination.  They worked to keep the menu as Ohio focused as possible. Everybody brought their own product, giving them a chance to highlight their favorite producers and ingredients.
“Honey rock melon was the first think that came to my mind.  The fruit is so good in taste, texture, and smell.  I remembered them from days at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal with my family.  I also wanted to showcase items that people are not familiar with in Ohio like, farm raised salmon.  Most people do not even know Ohio is producing some farm raised fish,” said Chef Kafcsak.
rock melon
Menu:
Hors d’Oeuvre
  • Cured Salmon with Honey Rock Melon, Feta Vinaigrette, and Crispy Salmon Skin
  • Frybread with Chicken Sausage, Pesto, Chiles, and Parmesan
  • Fried Ohio Pigs’ Tails with Sweet Corn Johnnycakes, Spicy Ohio Honey, Watermelon Rind Mostarda, and Micro-Radishes
  • Ohio Squash, Zucchini, Eggplant, and Heirloom Tomato Ratatouille with Pepper Jam Gelée and Rosemary–Thyme Tuile 

Dinner:

  • Ohio Artisanal Goat Cheese Study > Fried Goat Cheese; Orange–Goat Cheese Truffle; and Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Del Regno Ohio Honey, Garlic Scape Salsa Verde, and Accompaniments 
  • Cleveland Cabbage Roll with New Creation Farm Heritage Pork, Pork Liver, Beef Shoulder, Smoked Tomato Water, Basil, and Baby Heirloom Tomatoes 
  • Best of Cleveland Harvest Salad > Harris Road Farm Heirloom Tomato Tartare with Bacon, Salt-and-Vinegar Beluga Lentils, Roasted Ramp Aïoli, Spicy Carrot Oil, Red Ribbon Sorrel, and Pickled Cucamelon 
  • Pan-Seared Wild Scallops with Local Corn–Andouille Spoonbread, Stone Fruit–Green Chile Jam, and Local Zebra Tomato, Watercress, and Cucumber Summer Salata  
  • Braised Ohio Beef Short Rib with Sweetbread–Foie Gras Torchon, Crispy Potatoes, Dandelion Tabbouleh, and Ground Cherry Mostarda 
  • Cleveland Cornucopia > Corn Meringue with Sweet Pea Mousse, Pickled Cape Gooseberries, and Peach Pâté de Fruit
local corn sausage spoonbread

Local corn andouille spoonbread. Photo and Styling: Yewande Komolafe

The group had only great things to say about the company they kept, calories they consumed without thinking twice, relationships they built, and inspiration they got out of the experience.
“Some of the best meals I had in my life were on this trip. Not just because of the great restaurants and food they offered, but because of the company of us all. We would go to restaurants and literally order one of everything on the menu,” said Dinner in the Dark Founder, Brian Okin.
There were even a couple Dinner in the Dark regulars who traveled to NYC to support them and join in on their eating excursions. One person in particular has never missed a Dinner in the Dark since its inception 6 years ago.
“We passed the food around and ate off the same plates. It was if we were a tight European family having our regular dinner together. Some people didn’t know each other before the trip, some knew each other very well. There was no rush to eat and go, we went to the restaurant and we left when we were good and ready,” Okin said.
chefs in NYC
The chefs tell me many of their 70 diners at the Beard House say the meal exceeded their expectations.  The diners saw an Ohio themed menu and may have expected to be more rustic or down home, but what they ate was refined and elegant and representative of what Ohio and Cleveland have to offer.
“After leaving, I want to keep focusing on what I am doing and it added fuel to the fire of my drive to cook.  It was a great experience,” said Kafcsak.

The next Dinner in the Dark is September 12th and it’s already sold out.  And no doubt, this experience has helped with regional and national exposure….not to mention how it’s  cemented some life long friendship formed at dinner tables far from home.

Click here for Chef Karen Small’s recipe for the local corn andouille spoonbread she made for this dinner.

The photos in this post are courtesy the Facebook pages of the chefs involved in the Dinner in the Dark night at the James Beard House. 

 

Fabulous Food Show: Cooking Competition, Culinary Gala and an Iron Chef One on One

The Fabulous Food Show is indeed that, a fabulous celebration of good food, celebrity chefs and innovative vendors.  It was an incredibly busy week for me, making good use of time and access to some big players.

fab food show chef michael symon

I got some one on one time with Cleveland’s own Iron Chef, and cast member of The Chew, Michael Symon.  We chatted about how the food show is evolving, his new cookbook (5 in 5 For Every Season) what Cleveland needs to do to continue its trajectory into the upper echelon of the food world, and spoke about the long-awaited Mabel’s, (a sore subject!) Symon’s East 4th St. barbecue joint.  He tells me it is about a year behind schedule and way over budget, but yet still on track to fill a void in the local food scene.  This will mark his 12th restaurant-he has 8 B Spot locations, Lola Bistro, Lolita, Roast (plus 2 Bar Symon locations)  The man is busy but still as gracious, and down to earth as you’d expect.

I was also an honorary table host at the Cleveland Culinary Awards Gala, which recognized industry leaders and icons.

Culinary Ambassador: Michael Symon

Restaurant Vangaurds: Parker Bosley from Fresh Fork Market, and Sokolowski’s University Inn

Beverage Trailblazer: Paulius Nasvytis of The Velvet Tango Room.

culinary awards menu

I was treated to a four course meal and the company of some of the most creative and delicious dinner companions I could dream up.

fab food show contestants

The “main event” of the weekend for me was a Media Cooking Competition on the main stage, pitting WDOK 102.1 FM personality, Jeremiah Widmer and Chef Matt Fish, of Melt Bar and Grilled against me and Chef Matt Mytro from Flour Restaurant.

fab food show cooking with matt mytro

We were given a surprise “main ingredient” to work with, salmon, plus access to anything in the main stage pantry and fridges.  Which, if I’m being honest, was pretty meager.  It was the last cooking event of the last day of the show.  The cupboards were awfully bare.

The pressure was on.  The judges were Gail Simmons of Bravo TV’s Top Chef, Food Author and Host, Mark Decarlo plus newly minted judges from the World Food Championships.

We had 30 minutes.  The instructions from my partner, “stay busy and entertain the crowd.”  I did my best to assist in our salmon poached in chili oil, with a butternut squash puree and creamy apple/celery slaw… including trying to distract our competitors, and bribing our judges with ice cream.

When time was up, we tasted everything we’d made (the most important key to good cooking according to Mytro) and presented it proudly to the judges.

In the end, team “Euctownninjas” (we’re both from Euclid) came up short.  But even as the loser, I still feel pretty good because I have to pay up on a bet I made with Jeremiah, and participate in their station’s annual charity radioathon, benefitting  UH’s Rainbow Babies and Childrens Hospital.

 FFS panel

To cap off a very busy and productive couple of days, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion about the Cleveland culinary scene.  I got to sit alongside Chefs Michael Symon, Chris Hodgson, Jason Roberts, Izzy Schachner and Rocco Whalen to talk about what the city is doing right, what challenges they’re facing as restaurateurs and what they’d like see next for the local food scene.

fab food show jen and jeremiah

After an eventful week filled with such incredible and talented people , I’m exhausted and hungry for more involvement in the local food scene and beyond.  Look out, world.