Changing Perspective

If Zach Bruell has lost his edge, here's hoping he doesn't find it.

Parallax Restaurant/Lounge 2179 West 11th Street 216-583-9999; 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday
The Parallax team (clockwise from top left): Tervo Kinoshita, Zach Bruell, David Schneider, and Rob Guel. - Walter  Novak
The Parallax team (clockwise from top left): Tervo Kinoshita, Zach Bruell, David Schneider, and Rob Guel.
At Zach Bruell's Parallax, the most arresting appetizer won't be found on the expansive menu. It floats through the air like the wake of a moth: lazy and languorous, a cloud of fragrance trailing off the beautifully composed plates that servers carry proudly through the dining room. Inhale those aromas deeply and your mouth reflexively begins to water, alerting your palate to the pleasures soon to come.

Yes, fragrance is the ultimate appetizer; so the fact that most of today's dining rooms are olfactorily neutral (massive range hoods, smoke-busting air purifiers, and aggressive room ventilation having seen to that) is one of life's little sorrows. So it's saying a mouthful that, despite technology's best shot, Bruell's creations -- achingly fresh fish and seafood, seasoned in sassy, simple, and surprising ways, as well as some of the best French bistro-style chicken and tarragon-tweaked pommes frites this side of Yountville -- manage to seduce the senses before even the first taste passes the lips.

Watching Bruell stand in the dining room, in front of his open kitchen, fussing over each plate moments before a server carries it off to some fortunate diner, is rather like watching a devoted daddy put the final touches on a Christmas present: Is the bow just right? Are the ribbons nice and even? But for his league of fans, of course, the real gift is Bruell's return to the Cleveland dining scene after an absence of nearly 10 years.

Even at the risk of sounding smug, local members of the culinary cognoscenti will remind you that, in the mid-1980s, the professionally trained Bruell was a groundbreaker, almost single-handedly introducing our meat-and-taters population to modern culinary thinking at his East Side restaurants, Z and Z Contemporary Cuisine (same concept, different locations). In fact, Bruell himself likes to say that he was "doing fusion before there even was fusion," blending classical French technique with Asian-influenced ingredients, for dishes that were uncommonly delicious and just a bit challenging. In the process, it turns out, he and a handful of his peers were opening the door for all the daring chefs and innovative restaurants to come.

Still, breaking ground and opening doors can be hard, thankless work, and by the mid-1990s, Bruell says, he found himself both burnt out and blessed with young children with whom he hoped to spend more time. Thus, at the very point that the Cleveland dining scene was preparing to take off, Bruell dropped out, giving up the grueling glamour of being a chef-owner to work in relative anonymity in the kitchens of Akron restaurateur Ken Stewart.

Today, though, Bruell is back: refreshed, reinvigorated, and aiming to offer a world-class dining experience, with an emphasis on creatively styled, Asian-inflected seafood and fish, complemented by a selection of outstanding sushi. (Also on the menu are a handful of dishes featuring beef, pork, lamb, and of course, that chicken.) And after a series of visits, we are happy to report that, by and large, he succeeds delightfully.

Joined by business buddy David Schneider (formerly partner in Chicago's famed Bin 36 restaurant and wine bar), Bruell opened Parallax in November, on a Tremont corner that was formerly home to Kosta's. The new decor is serene and sophisticated, the ambiance hip and urbane -- and to say the place is jumping is putting it mildly. Five months post-opening, an 8 p.m. reservation for Saturday-night dinner remains as hard to come by as a bushelful of black truffles, and during peak hours, Bruell seems to spend almost as much time shaking hands with old friends and fans as he does supervising his kitchen. (Hopefully, once the crush slows down, he'll spend some time shmoozing with the newcomers too.)

But even if you can't score prime real estate in the sleekly appointed dining room, a seat at the small bar makes a perfect perch for sampling the restaurant's impeccable sushi. (Smoking is permitted here, but we saw very little of it actually going on.) A "combination platter" of nigiri and maki sushi provided a fine stepping-off point, the "roll" part of the platter a generously filled and tightly crafted California roll, and the six huge pieces of nigiri sushi (two each of yellowtail, salmon, and tuna) bursting with pure, clean flavors. Those who crave something a little sexier, though, should consider the oversized unagi nigiri sushi, radiating a high-intensity yin-yang of sweetness and smoke. Or go for the spicy tuna roll (which, for once, is really spicy), with a few droplets of red-hot pepper sauce served alongside for even more eye-popping pizazz. To drink, a French 93 (gin, simple syrup, fresh lemon, and champagne; $8.50), a Saketini (vodka, chilled sake, and a twist; also $8.50), or perhaps a bottle of Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay ($32) from New Zealand make smart companions. (And if you order wine by the bottle, rather than by the glass, the staffers break out the good stemware.)

But sushi, of course, is just one small part of the experience. The remainder of Bruell's menu, ably implemented by head chef Rob Guel and his staff, is a feast of robust flavors, ranging from delectably well-dressed salads and tender-crisp phyllo-wrapped shrimp to grilled swordfish, grilled-and-sliced strip steak (slathered in beurre blanc and served with a tangle of spicy fried onion threads), and rosy seared tuna, its savor set off with sides of caramelized portobello mushrooms, buttery mashed potatoes, and stir-fried peas and carrots. No, not every dish is flawless. A delicate filet of crab-crusted salmon, for instance, was overwhelmed by too much sharp-and-salty ponzu sauce; the otherwise sensual oysters on a sampler platter (two each of Kumamoto, Fanny Bay, and Canadian Cove) contained far too many bits of sharp-edged shell; and a serving of tempura-battered veggies was a little too soggy to earn any kudos.

But then there was the roasted halibut -- one night's special -- topped with a finely textured crust of ginger, butter, and panko, settled on a bed of sushi rice and orange slices, shellacked with a glaze of star anise and orange juice, and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. Slightly sweet, slightly citric, and seductively exotic, the unique combination of flavors made a stunning foil for the mild fish. But the textural interplay of fruit, fish, and crumbs? Now that was simply irresistible. If our mother hadn't taught us better, we surely would have licked the plate.

After dinner, liquid options include espresso, cappuccino, and very good coffee, as well as a small collection of dessert cocktails, ice wines, single-batch bourbons, single-malt scotches, and brandies.

And for a final taste of something sweet, thick and tangy Greek yogurt, streaked with honey and strewn with blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries; or a contemporary version of rice pudding -- now topped with powdered sugar, spiked with poached white raisins and apricot preserves, and sided with a little tub of crème anglaise -- adds just the right grace notes to meals creatively conceived and typically well prepared.

When we spoke with Bruell not long after Parallax opened, he told us that this time around, he was more interested in earning a living than in developing edgy cuisine. "I was a groundbreaker once," he said. "I don't need to do that again."

Undoubtedly, he means that. Still, there's no chance that Bruell will slip into quiet mediocrity. Intelligent, sophisticated, and highly personal, his creations are too remarkable ever to be called merely average.

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