As Cleveland's food scene explodes, more chefs are getting burned

Hot in the Kitchen 

As Cleveland's food scene explodes, more chefs are getting burned

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"That is definitely the question," he admits. "I am not sure. But I do know that some things are happening that will move Cleveland forward. The city is at a tipping point – in a positive way."

Bruell finds reasons for optimism in high-profile projects like the Medical Mart and convention center, development on the east bank of the Flats, and the casino. "As these things progress," he says, "we'll have more hotels open in the city. Plus, people want to move downtown these days. There is a waiting list for downtown condos."

Bruell, too, has tasted failure as well as success as a chef-owner. His near-legendary restaurants Z's and Z Contemporary Cuisine were the toast of the town when they operated here in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively. If you ask Bruell, he'll tell you that he single-handedly introduced Cleveland to California cuisine, a marriage of fresh ingredients and French technique that he picked up while working at the famed Michael's in Santa Monica.

But when Bruell shuttered Z Contemporary Cuisine in 1995, he found himself suddenly out of a job. Foregoing ownership for employment, he took an executive chef position with the locally based Ken Stewart restaurant group, with whom he worked until 2004.

As quickly as Bruell's fortunes had changed for the worse, they turned again in the new millennium. First there was Parallax in Tremont, his cool-as-a-cuke Asian seafood house, which he followed with Table 45 at the InterContinental Hotel, the globally eclectic eatery that put a fresh face on the formerly staid Classics restaurant next to Cleveland Clinic. Bruell's next oeuvre, L'Albatros in University Circle, quickly became one of the city's most beloved bôites thanks to its approachable, habit-forming French bistro fare. Bruell duplicated that success soon after with Chinato, a restaurant that does for Italian cuisine what L'Albatros did for French.

He has settled upon a formula that melds a cosmopolitan but casual atmosphere with big-city service and world-class food. And it's working like nothing else in town.

Rather than fight for a continually shrinking slice of the dining pie, Bruell believes that Cleveland's pie is actually getting fatter. By his own account, the chef's early customer base was limited almost exclusively to residents of Beachwood, Pepper Pike, and Shaker Heights — a small pocket of well-traveled folks with a taste for nouvelle cuisine. Nowadays, his tables are just as likely to be filled with diners from Westlake, Euclid, Akron, and beyond.

It is a trend that local operators like Michael Symon (of Lola, Lolita, B Spot, and Food Network fame), Jonathon Sawyer (Greenhouse Tavern), Eric Williams (Momocho), and Matt Fish (the burgeoning Melt empire) — foodie celebs all — are reporting as well. "Food tourism" — the act of traveling to a destination specifically to experience its grub — is ever on the rise, thanks in no small part to the Food Network and others that constantly profile the dining scenes in towns across America. Cleveland, owing to its robust and well-cultivated scene, is fairing better than most cities in this regard.

Of course, every restaurant cannot and will not thrive in a congested marketplace. Diners vote with their feet and their wallets; where they sit determines who stays and who goes in this restaurant reality show.

"The cream rises to the top," says Bruell, perhaps Cleveland's best example of culinary Darwinism.

Giovanna Mingroni, meanwhile, is among those who have opted to withdraw from the competition altogether. While she misses her regular guests at Battuto, these days she finds equal satisfaction in teaching others how to cook at Cuyahoga Community College and through private classes. Better still, she says, is the newfound balance in each day.

"I was so out of the loop with what's going on in Cleveland," she says. "Now I am more involved in life."

More by Douglas Trattner

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