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James Beard Award-Winning Chef Michael Schwartz's Michael's Genuine Opens in Van Aken in April 

click to enlarge eat1-vinnie_cimino_and_michael_schwartz-photobydougtrattner.jpg

Photo by Douglas Trattner

More than a few years back, my wife and I found ourselves in Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Following the suggestion of some industry friends, we landed at the door of Michael's Genuine for dinner. Located in the Design District, a manufactured retail neighborhood home to such luxe brands as Cartier, Gucci and Versace, the restaurant felt like an unpretentious oasis in an otherwise hostile landscape.

That's good news for Clevelanders because Michael Schwartz, the James Beard Award-wining chef and owner of that 12-year-old bistro, is in the process of importing that concept to Shaker. When it opens on April 8, the restaurant will be the only one in existence outside of the Miami flagship. That's not to say that Schwartz has been sitting on his hands. Under the Genuine Hospitality umbrella are a handful of one-offs sprinkled throughout South Florida along with a growing chain of pizzerias. Cleveland was on the receiving end of one of those pizza shops, in fact, until the chef called an audible.

"When we signed the lease it was originally supposed to be for our Genuine Pizza expansion," Schwartz explains. "But what we saw happening here convinced us to broaden the offerings and not just limit ourselves to pizza."

Here, of course, is Van Aken District, "Shaker's new downtown." Already the Market Hall is abuzz with local food and drink concepts like Banter, On the Rise, Scorpacciata Pasta, Rising Star Coffee and Craft Collective. Columbus-based Brassica opens for business on April 12. Outside the hall proper, Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream occupies a sweet perch steps from the park and Jonathon Sawyer will claim a different prominent spot for his untitled next act.

When asked how he'll duplicate the easy-going but vibrant personality of the original here in Shaker, the chef points out key elements in the 65-seat room, which is rapidly coming together.

"For us, it's the bar and open kitchen," he says. "But it's as much about the intention as it is about the design. As a chef I often say, it's not about the food. The food has to be good, but it's all about the experience: how you are made to feel, what you are seeing, what you are smelling. I think what people resonate with in Miami is that it isn't this high-design restaurant, even though it's in the Design District."

Schwartz and company have a knack for turning simple into special and exacting into effortless. Daily rounds of the farmers markets, fishmongers and small family farms turn into the menu of the day, a seasonal expression of an otherwise fixed roster of dishes. From an open kitchen equipped with a wood-burning oven come thin-crust pizzas, sure, but also blistered eggplant with harissa, dill and lemon, charred octopus with smoked chiles and crema, crisp-skinned cobia with a Moroccan herb sauce, and dinners for two built around sizzling steaks and whole chickens.

Michael's operates off a flexible menu that caters equally well to happy-hour nibblers, dinner-date duos and large group gourmets. Meals invariably begin with raw bar items like oysters, shrimp, ceviche and crudo. Before the main course arrives, snack on small plates like a springy burrata with peas and mint, a savory shrimp toast "banh mi," and a rustic pate with all of the accoutrements. Not-going-anywhere classics like thick-sliced potato chips and dip, deviled eggs and crispy hominy will make the move, as will a stable of sunny salads, lusty housemade pastas and a cheeseburger capped with house-smoked bacon.

To run the shop, Schwartz nabbed GM Katie Syracopoulos, who spent years watching over Chicago's revered Publican, and chef Vinnie Cimino, most recently of Trentina and Greenhouse Tavern. Owner and chef have crossed paths numerous times at culinary events, and the more they explored the union, the more it seemed like an ideal fit.

"When [director of culinary] Brad [Herron] and I started to talk to Vinnie about the project and about food, we would look at each other and say, 'Yes, thank god!,'" says Schwartz. "When you talk to cooks and chefs these days, there are all kinds of styles and approaches to food. But the things that Vinnie valued about simplicity and ingredient-driven and artisan, those are the things that are important to us."

Cimino spent weeks in Florida working at various Genuine Hospitality restaurants to get to know the players, learn the recipes, techniques and cuisine, and generally soak up the corporate principles.

"I was mostly engrossing myself in the culture," notes Cimino. "What is Michael's Genuine, why does it work so well in Miami, how do we translate that culture of hospitality and bring it back to Cleveland."

In Miami, Schwartz is a well-known commodity. But up to now, his reputation largely has been confined to the 305 area code. Will diners in the 216 beat a path to the door of an unfamiliar chef?

"I have a good reputation in Miami, but opening this restaurant is less about me coming to Shaker and more about what the brand represents and embracing people like Vinnie and Katie and the community."

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