Cru Uncorked, a new fine dining destination in CLE

Who said white tablecloths were out? Not so. A new fine dining destination is pulling out all the stops to reassure Clevelanders, and visiting guests, that fine dining is not dead in our culinary crazy city. 


Perched at the corner of Chagrin Boulveard and SOM Center Road in Morland Hills, Cru Uncorked is a French New American restaurant five years in the making.  


The property itself is impressive even before you walk in the double doors to the entryway.  It’s made to look like a French Chateau inside and out, and it delivers.


Inside you’ll find four intimate and themed dining rooms, The Wine Cellar Room, The Terroir Room, The Winery Room and The Vineyard Room.  All are decorated slightly different to reflect a certain mood.  General Manager Billy Cutler tells me guests can choose the “scene” they’d like to dine in.  Some are decorated with original vineyard photography, or murals created from such photographs. 


The restaurant seats about 100, plus space for private events in a separate banquet room drenched in natural light in the afternoons.  There’s also a spacious and secluded patio in the back. Everywhere you walk you’re reminded of the time and care that went into creating this space.  


There are thoughtful details like the cedar lined ceiling of the lounge which makes you feel like you’re inside a wine barrel, and the antique grape gathering baskets affixed on the wall.  I was fascinated by the collection of vintage corkscrews, cheese knives and tastevins (small metal cups worn around their necks used instead of wine glasses to taste wine) displayed on the wall of The Wine Cellar Room.


Inside the spacious kitchen I was introduced to Executive Chef, John Stropki, who said it is an honor to be at the helm at such a place.  He was busying working through a dessert from the menu.  No pastry chef here, Stropk says.  He’s behind every item on the menu, which ranges from a burger to halibut and beautiful pasta options. Prices range from $26-$55.  But side dishes are included in the menu price for each dish.  Reps say they believe this makes them competitive in the local fine-dining scene, as a la carte side dishes can add an $15-18 more per entree.


Guests will also be able to choose from more than 200 wines from all over the world, thanks to their massive wine cellar with the capacity for 6,000 bottles.  And for a sweet finish to a meal, they have several dessert wine flights to choose from.


Cru Uncorked is preparing for top of the line service and exquisite meals for those who crave the finer things in life.  They’re accepting reservations now, ahead of their May 16th opening.  Bon Apetite! 

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. 

Better Beef: Certified Angus Beef Brand

We all know what a good steak is when we taste it. But what factors into that perfect bite? The beef experts at Certified Angus Beef brand know exactly what makes the best beef the best.  And they’re spreading their message and their meat to as many retailers and restaurants as they can. 

Their efforts seem to be working, as 95% of consumers recognize their brand on labels and menus, and 84% are willing to pay 10% more for CAB steaks and burgers. Their popularity seems to be growing, too.  There was more than 1 billion pounds of Certified Angus Beef sold last year, for the first time ever.  On average, Certified Angus Beef end meats (from the chuck, round) tend to get $0.50-$1.00/pound over low choice.  Middle meats (rib, strip and tenderloin) can see premiums around $2-3 over choice price.

 
Until recently I had no idea that CAB was headquartered in Wooster. But it’s an incredible resource to restaurants and chefs who are eager to learn more about this high quality meat, how to highlight it, and how many different cuts that can be made restaurant quality, beyond your ribeye and filet.


I was invited along with five local chefs, to spend the day at CAB HQ. We were given the run of their Education and Culinary Center. The day started with a history of the 40 year old non-profit brand, who they are and who they serve.  Owned by the American Angus Association, the brand was born out of the desire to identify the best of angus beef being raised across the country.  Only 3 in 10 angus cattle meet the 10 standards required to be labeled Certified Angus Beef.  The brand deals with ranchers, feeders, packers, chefs, vendors and consumers.  It was amazing to discover just how big the organization is (130 staff members) and to hear about its global reach.


In terms of categories, they have their standard Certified Angus Beef, their Natural option (animals are fed a vegetarian diet, free of hormones and antibiotics) and their Prime options, which only make up 2-5% of the industry. Many have interest and questions about what these cattle are fed.  CAB reps say they work with feeders to ensure that the animals start with grass, then are introduced to corn and carbs, alfalfa and hay.  But most of the CAB influence starts at the packing plant.  Inspectors look for black hides, which are then inspected for safety, chilled then graded.


After our quick study on the organization, it was was time to put the butchers’ coats on and get the knives out.  Meat Scientist, Diana Clark gave us an extensive lesson on the 10 quality specs the sides of beef must meet to get the CAB stamp of approval.

USDA uses the ribeye to evaluate the quality, because it is the most conservative and the most indicative of the rest of the animal. Inspectors check out the marbling and intramuscular fat.  Since CAB reps can’t be present for grading, the only way for them to influence the supply of beef that meets their standards is to work directly with the ranchers to improve product.


So what sets Certified Angus Beef apart? It’s fine marbling, according to Clark. The first three standards deal with consistency of taste. (modest or high marbling, plus medium or fine marbling texture and “A” maturity).   The next three ensure consistency in product (10-16 square inch ribeye area, size of carcass and less than 1 inch fat thickness), and the last four consider appearance (muscling and other aesthetic details).


For the next several hours I watched in awe as Clark broke down a 440 pound side of beef, with ease, and showed 5 male chefs how it’s done. What boy’s club?!!  It was fascinating to see how each cut took shape with every slice, saw or cut she made.  Several of the chefs on site with me were preparing for an event, which brought in a whole cow to be served in its entirety day of.  So it was great to see light bulbs go off and inspiration ignited as they saw how to make restaurant quality dishes with more economical cuts.


When we broke for lunch we were served an incredible meal, prepared by in house chef, Ashley Brenemen. To my surprise, we started the hearty meal with beef charcuterie.  It’s not widely made…but it should be.  Chefs Brett Oliver Sawyer and Mike Schoen couldn’t stop themselves from reaching for seconds, thirds and fourths.  


Next came a dry aged short rib.  Which, admittedly, Chef Breneman said she wouldn’t do again, as it was quite labor intensive and didn’t yield enough to make the process worthwhile in a restaurant.  But for this special occasion, her time was not wasted. Wonderful. 


Next she rolled out bucatini from Flour Pasta Company, a gift from Chef Matt Mytro, and a 65 day dry aged strip steak.  Can’t believe it’s taken me this long to try a dry aged steak.  Why??!!  First impression?  Tender and funky.  But as Chef Matt Mytro put it…it’s the best kind of funk there is. 


It was a crying shame not to finish it, but I was getting full, and a little birdie told me that even in a beef-centric place like CAB HQ, they have a house pastry chef.


After lunch Diana and the chefs put a couple of the new cuts they’d been introduced to (like a culotte, tri tip and the Denver steak from the chuck roll) onto the grill to get an idea of the texture and mouth feel. As if we had any room left!  
We also got a look around the rest of the facility, including the photography studio and the printing room where they can help clients print everything from table ads to menus and other marketing literature. Then there was the last of the animal to break down.  We started talking more about applications and preparation, as Clark gave the chefs and me a few different cuts to experiment with.

I left CAB with so much more knowledge about beef, and what makes their brand superior. I can honestly say I look at menus, meat counters and butcher shops far differently now.

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.  🙂

Brewing up something new in The Flats

Ambitious trailblazer, Chef Zack Bruell is taking on two new projects much different than his previous endeavors. The restaurateur is entering into the brewery business, launching a new brew pub in the old Cleveland landmark, The Watermark, on the East Bank of the Flats, just a stone’s throw from his oyster bar, Alley Cat.
The name is TBD, but the establishment will have instant street cred, thanks to his partner on the project, Luke Purcell. The Great Lakes Brewing Company veteran is leaving the Godfather of the local brewing industry after more than 20 years for the chance to brew out of his comfort zone.
julian-bruell

Source: Facebook

Bruell is also bringing his son, Julian into the mix in Cleveland. But this is by no means a passing of the baton, or changing of the guard. And Bruell tells me this is not the beginning of a succession plan. The chef tells me his son can teach him things about the front of the house that will help elevate the service and overall experience at all of his restaurants. Most recently, the younger Bruell has worked as the General Manager at Sauvage, and the service manager at Jean George’s in New York City, places with multiple Michelin stars.
Chef Bruell says after handling the tough crowd of NYC diners, his son is fully prepared for his role in Cleveland. He also admits, it was hard for him to accept and understand that service is more important than the food itself. But he now believes that it is. Bruell tells me he’ll put his food up against anybody’s in the country. This move, he says, will help take the restaurant group to the next level.
For starters, 27 year old Julian will be spending a month at a time at each of Bruell’s properties (Parallax, Chinato, Cowell& Hubbard, Table 45, Alley Cat Oyster Bar, L’Albatros Brasserie) to assess and raise the service and front of the house. The elder Bruell expects his son, a millennial, to relate to staff better than he can, and in turn, help recruit, train and retain good talent. That’s something he and almost every other chef in the city has been struggling with during Cleveland’s restaurant boom.
Then, the younger Bruell will contribute to the new brew pub. Chef says he doesn’t profess to be a beer person. For that, he’ll lean on Purcell.
luke-purcell

Purcell, right, will join Bruell in his new brew pub business.  Source: Facebook

What’s really interesting about this partnership is that traditionally a brew pub’s menu is developed to compliment the beer. But this time, Zack tells me, they’ll be developing beer varieties to compliment and cut through the richness of his food, much like wine usually does.
Purcell tells me he is looking forward to thinking in reverse. He expects to be working on wheat varieties with more of a tart finish, and some sours, very on trend now, to provide the acidity his partner is looking for.
Right now they are shooting for an April opening, which would require them to start brewing come February. Purcell knows it’s an aggressive schedule, but he is excited and eager to work on something so different. The Watermark is being gutted as we speak. Can’t wait to see what they brew up.

Sol: Redefined

It’s a tall order to offer up something on a menu in Cleveland these days that isn’t already being done somewhere else.  But they’re doing it at Sol, in downtown Willoughby.  The Spanish-inspired scratch kitchen has just launched a new menu, retaining the favorite flavors from the year-old restaurant, but rethinking the structure and approach to make its food more affordable.

The inviting and eclectic dining room, and sprawling patio are the perfect setting for the  experience ownership and kitchen staff are going for, a modern communal and social dining experience.  The changes to their menu will also facilitate that.  Tapas!  They’re not appetizers, more like shared small plates.  I know, it seems like the same thing…but they’re not.  For example, Brussel Sprouts.  Can you imagine ordering a Brussels Sprouts appetizer?  But these are among their best selling dishes when offered as a tapa.

sol-menu

The restructured menu has broken down some of their former entrees into tapas format (with 15 different options), and added a “between bread” section, to shave down the price points, and contribute to a more casual feel.  Affordability and approachability are the two most important goals for ownership right now, they tell me.  Their menu items formerly ranged from $7-$26, but now are between $5-$14 (the traditionally-sized entrees are more, but still less than they were before).  Favorites like their famous flank steak and juicy double bone-in pork chop will remain on the menu.  Phew!

I got a nice sampling of the new offerings, including Spanish Flatbread with Catalan sauce, the crispy Brussel Sprouts, Braised Pork Tacos with charred cabbage and smoked pepper aioli, and a General’s Fried Chicken (my favorite!).  All packed the bold flavors, you’ve come to expect from Chef Michael Schoen.  That chicken was crazy good.  Makes me want to try the rest of it!

sol-chicken-sandwich

Schoen says no menu is ever final, and they’re looking forward to hearing from diners about the changes. They’ve been tweaking ingredients and portion sizes throughout Sol’s first year, culminating with this new menu, full of shareable conversation pieces.

Now, he and ownership hope to see people’s impressions of Sol expand from a “special occasion” destination.  They want their Lake County clientele to think of the downtown Willoughby location as a destination for a fun, uptown communal dining experience, where people will eat leisurely, indulging in the elevated menu of tapas and relaxed atmosphere.

Sol is located in downtown Willoughby at 38257 Glen Ave.  solwilloughby.com

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.