The last dining review
published in this magazine – before the hospitality industry collapsed beneath the weight of an airborne virus – was for Alea
in Ohio City. Three days after the feature went live, Alea went dark, shuttered like so many other food and drink establishments in the wake of an emerging pandemic.
Alea, a 33-seat restaurant where the owner also happens to be the chef, is precisely the kind of restaurant that Cleveland needs to stay alive. After decades of remarkable – and, frankly, unexpected – culinary achievement, our fair city was beginning to suffer the same fate as countless other metros. As recently as five years ago, the story (and often stories) of the day was about the fearless chef investing his or her life savings into a project that would instantly up the quality of life in that particular neighborhood. But recently, those types of creative ventures have begun to lose ground to fungible fast-casual shops that look, function and even taste the same.
If Cleveland is to live up to its reputation as an “underrated culinary hot spot,” as media mavens were wont to label us, it will do so on the backs of places like Alea and not that prosaic rice bowl concept “destined for exponential expansion.”
It took owner Athan Zarnas two years of sweat equity (and plenty of the real kind) to convert an oleaginous machine shop into an attractive, minimal bistro. The quirky wood-fired restaurant literally was designed for the neighborhood it calls home. The fit is so honest and true that the notion of it existing anywhere else is nonsensical.
Alea was open all of three months when it was forced to close. In the moribund time since then, the Ohio City shop sold off some wine inventory, whipped up some boozy elixirs for carry-out and wondered when the time would be right to reopen in some capacity.
That time, apparently, is this Thursday. The restaurant’s tentative first steps will revolve around a limited food and drink menu available for take-out. There are machinations to utilize the front garage panel as a walk-up bar, but that move still is in the planning phase.
Beginning this week, diners can support the business by enjoying knock-out dishes like little gem salads with speck, dates and gorgonzola, roasted sweet potatoes with yogurt, nuts and chile, falafel with green goddess, radish and herbs, fried whole chicken legs with za'atar and honey, and buttermilk panna cotta with fruit preserves and oat crisp.
Coincidentally, the word alea means "a gamble" in Latin. Opening a restaurant is “always a roll of the dice,” Zarnas admitted at the outset. But at the time, he was envisioning the usual buffet of challenges that accompany independent restaurant ownership, not those that ride shotgun to a pandemic.