Like many diners, I have come to know Ben Bebenroth through his popular Plated Landscape dinners, which he's been hosting for a half-dozen years. Set amid the bucolic splendor of a countryside farm, these idyllic feasts serve up an experience impossible to duplicate in a traditional restaurant setting. Fueled by kinship, boozy cocktails, wholesome foods, and the fading summer sun, guests seem to loll about in a blissed-out stupor.
While Bebenroth can't bottle the setting and the sun for use in Spice Kitchen, he can abide by similar rules of play in his young Detroit Shoreway restaurant. If those Plated Landscapes are all about bringing diners to the source of their food, Spice is about bringing that food directly to the diner. More than almost any other chef in town, Bebenroth takes pains to root out local, sustainable foods, season in and season out.
That's why it might surprise some diners to not find the names of farms and providers on Benbenroth's menu, a practice that has become de rigueur in farm-to-table restaurants.
He has good reason to buck the trend.
"The farms we work worth change so frequently that we'd be changing it constantly," Bebenroth says of his decision. "Plus, I believe you should just trust that the chef is getting the best food they possibly can."
That tack is great for chef and diner, but murder on a food writer. Since my dinners at Spice Kitchen, multiple dishes have been tweaked, transformed, or just plain canceled. By the time you read this, there likely will be more changes. If writing about Spice is akin to taking aim at a moving target, then dining there is like a delicious game of garden roulette.
What Bebenroth loses in terms of scenery at Spice, he and chef Brandon Walukus gain in culinary range thanks to a fully outfitted kitchen. I can't envision the gang cranking out fresh-made polenta fries for 50 from an open-air mess hall. Hailed at our table as "The world's best finger food," these snacks combine the crunch of a fry with the creaminess of soft polenta and the flavor of falafel.
Same goes for the light-as-air mushroom beignets, which are more like fritters than the trite and typically squishy fried whole 'shrooms. The polenta fries come with spicy remoulade, while the beignets are paired with a heavenly honey-goat-cheese crème fraiche.
By contrast, a thin-crusted flatbread has all the earmarks of a Plated Landscape dish: layered with a bright dill cream sauce, silky house-smoked steelhead trout, and garden-fresh greens. Daily soups, an ever-shifting mode of seasonal expression, swing from a chunky potato and sunchoke bisque to an acid-green foraged ramp and sunchoke soup to a fire-engine-red chilled beet and pickled squash version.
As one might expect, salads here shine brighter than at most places. Sculpted like a flower arrangement, the bountiful bibb, apple, and blue cheese salad looked almost too good to eat. But it was the large, intact leaves that made it almost too difficult to eat.
You can no longer enjoy, as we did, an autumnal risotto studded with firm preserved squash, shredded apple, and crunchy hazelnuts. But you still can get the beautiful, brined New Creations pork loin. Originating just 40 miles away, the pork tastes just as pork should. The accompaniment recently shifted from mashed sweet potatoes to black-eyed peas with pickled ramp relish.
Spice might be one of the few places where diners who order the chicken breast don't suffer their choice. Happy local chickens do taste better — especially when buoyed by spaetzle, bacon, and an earthy-sweet hickory-sherry pan gravy.
Cocktails, however, seem like an afterthought: While creative and progressive, they tend to be weak and pricey.
Of his concise, fluid menu, Bebenroth says there is nothing certain except for change.
"As things become available, we'll make changes," he explains. "You can't force it."
The same can be said about Spice, which started off like a slowly growing winter root but is primed to soar like a pole bean chasing the summer sun.
Spice Kitchen & Bar
5800 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
Hours: TUES. — SAT. 5 pm — 11 pm
Spice Kitchen & Bar Many of us have come to know Ben Bebenroth through his popular Plated Landscape dinners, which bring the diner to the source of their food. At Spice, the team brings farm-fresh food to the diner. Approachable, seasonal and expertly crafted, the food here is a locavore's dream, with the concise menu getting frequent tweaks. Polenta fries combine the crunch of a fry with the creaminess of soft polenta; flatbread is layered with house-smoked trout; soups swing from potato and sunchoke to chilled beet and pickled squash. While treatments change, diners can count on dishes built around flavorful local pork, chicken and beef. 5800 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, 216-961-9637. $$$
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