If you were to staple your collection of take-out menus onto the wall, hurl darts at them, and fuse the pitted results into a menu, it might very well resemble the one found at 811. The globe-trotting document takes diners on an around-the-world journey from Japan to Korea to India to the diner down the block.
811 is both the past and future of Cleveland restaurants. Long before savvy operators started building hyper-focused restaurants around niche products like grilled cheese and tacos, the trend was to take a more egalitarian approach. Sweeping menus that offered something for everybody were the name of the game. Today, in an attempt to please an unprecedentedly finicky dining populace, restaurants appear to be reverting to shotgun-style menus.
Few operators personified the old-school edict of doing one thing and doing it well better than partners Brad Friedlander, Jonathan Bennett, Peter Vauthy and Jon Gross, who have built a small fortune by selling fat slabs of prime beef at Red in Beachwood and South Beach.
"When we grew up, if you wanted seafood, you went to a seafood restaurant. If you wanted barbecue, you went to a barbecue restaurant," Bennett asserts.
But times have changed. These days we tend to eat out more often and in larger groups, which means smaller budgets and broader diets to satisfy. That brings us to 811, where the menu ricochets among cuisines like a bumper car with no brakes. That can make for a mighty fun ride in the right hands, or it can spell certain disaster in the wrong ones. Even in capable hands, like those of executive chef Andrew Bower, there are bound to be some flubs.
The ride starts in China thanks to a bamboo steamer basket filled with crispy, colorful shrimp chips in place of the traditional bread basket. The frilly poofs are fun to snack on with a beer or glass of wine while you scrutinize the wide-ranging menu and endeavor to chart a course.
An interesting place to start is in the robata section, a collection of skewered and grilled foods. Priced at $3 to $4 per stick, the idea is to mix and match items like chicken with scallions, southern-style shrimp, octopus or shishito peppers. On one occasion, a few of the items arrived less than hot and with absolutely no char on the meat, which is the reason we bother to grill foods in the first place.
There is range and excitement to spare in the appetizer section. Spice-dusted pork rinds ($3) are as good as they get, and the meaty "Chinese Take-Out Ribs" ($11) are head and shoulders above the sticky-sweet versions dished up in countless Chinese-American eateries. The Korean fried chicken nuggets ($9) remind me of an Indian pakora thanks to the spice profile, but these dark, crunchy and addictive snacks might be the perfect bar snack.
Everybody but the most obsessive sushi disciples will find something to like in 811's roundup of rolls. Well-built models come filled with tempura-fried shrimp and avocado ($13), yellowtail and scallion ($11), and spicy tuna ($9). The sushi rice was close to perfect in flavor and texture, but we found the nori to be tough and chewy, making one roll particularly clumsy.
In an apparent first for Cleveland restaurants, there is an entire section devoted to hummus. A base of nutty, creamy hummus ($8) can be augmented with options like pickled onions and chiles or a more traditional garnish of za'atar, olive oil and fresh parsley. Each order comes with a pile of soft, warm pita bread.
Sections devoted to sandwiches and larger plates present diners with just as much diversity, though there were bound to be some miscues. The first came in the form of a Philly-style steak and cheese sandwich ($14), a gloopy mass of chopped meat and cheese sauce poured into a sub bun. An otherwise excellent pork ramen bowl ($16) was bogged down by the noodles, which clumped together in too many places. But there were zero misfires on the Korean-style short rib dish ($18), tender and flavorful cross-cut pieces of beef paired with fiery kimchi and chiles on a bed of jasmine rice.
The contemporary 180-seat dining room also offers something for everybody: casual lounge seating, which takes advantage of warm breezes flowing through open glass panels; a lengthy bar and comfortable high-tops; and sleek, elegant booths.
811 might not add up to a perfect 10, but there's more than enough diversity, substance and style to satisfy all but the most obstinate diners.
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