Michael Herschman favors a newsboy cap worn backward. It's the same style he sported when I first met him in 1994. Only 26, he was just starting his career at Players on Larchmere. I pegged him as one of the city's most innovative young chefs, an up-and-coming culinary talent to watch.
Time has proven this assessment correct. After leaving Players, he operated two acclaimed places of his own, Cena Copa and Mojo, and then switched to being a worker bee in exchange for more family time, manning more than a few stoves around town.
Now, he's making the best food of his nomadic career at Menu6, the restaurant he opened in March with partners Said Ouaddaadaa and Danielle Ruppert. Being back on Larchmere brings him full circle.
Growing up, Herschman hung out in the neighborhood because his architect father had an office nearby in Shaker Square. When the deal was sealed for Menu6, located in the former Boulevard Blue space, the elder Herschman helped, designing a casually understated and sophisticated dining room. The walls are thundercloud gray. Coffee and cream colored sheers frame the big windows and curtain off some tables. An industrial aesthetic of exposed brick and repurposed copper pipe sets a hip, casual tone.
The dinner menu is divided into six categories featuring raw seafood, small plates, salads, fish and poultry, meat, and sides. It's also the magic number for excellent house-made desserts and the categories on the wine list, from sparkling to light-, medium- and full-bodied reds and whites. Six was chosen first as an organizing element. "But it doesn't hurt that six sounds like sex, and it's fitting since cooking is older than the oldest profession," Herschman says.
But the food selections, augmented by specials, are as changeable as Cleveland weather. Not merely seasonal, they reflect the chef's irrepressible creative energy. Consider the market-priced "daily raw," part whim plus a way to play with the finest, freshest fish he can get. The night I ordered it, Herschman laid slices of uncooked yellow fin hamachi and ahi tuna on poached red and yellow beets splashed with wasabi vinaigrette. He scattered "noritos" (deep fried tempura seaweed chips) around the edges and in a stroke of genius added a scoop of pickled ginger and tomato sorbet. It was a delicious, edgy concept.
He hit the same high notes with a salad ($14) of wilted baby spinach, fresh mission figs, lightly sauteed wild mushrooms and blue cheese in a sherry vinaigrette. Prosciutto crisps added a satisfying crunch.
Herschman is the gastronomic equivalent of a gearhead. He tinkers with preparations, gauging their success according to a principle known as TC-VOLT. The acronym stands for texture, color, viscosity, opacity, luster and taste.
"If it's missing any of these elements or they're not in perfect balance, the dish doesn't work," he explains. "This is the credo I cook by and the checklist for every single thing we serve." That's evident in a soup ($8) that started simply with pureed parsnips, chicken stock and cream. It got depth of flavor and character with the addition of white miso and a raft of julienned duck breast, bok choy and red pepper mirin syrup. Rare tuna and foie gras ($26) is his rich and eccentric reconstruction of surf and turf. Served with sticky rice fritters and uni butter, a sake reduction that's combined with essence of sea urchin, it's one of his secret ingredients for powering up a plate.
He often turns to Pacific Rim cuisines for inspiration and ingredients. So instead of marinara, Herschman's addictive calamari ($7.50) comes with a sweet and spicy sauce, and the noodles that accompany tender Thai seasoned beef ($6) in a red curry dressing are made with potatoes instead of rice.
This chef is not interested in squandering his Johnson and Wales education on bar food, home-style fare or old standbys. So he'll give you a lamb rack ($29), but don't expect mint jelly. Instead the condiment is salsa verde made from mint, parsley, white anchovies and garlic confit. You can have a steak ($35), and it will be top of the line, but the best part is a silky, seductive foie bordelaise, a traditional sherry reduction finished with foie gras instead of butter.
Diners are the beneficiaries of a Herschman who has never seemed happier or more relaxed at work. Seems he has finally found his home back in the neighborhood where it all began.
When You Go
12718 Larchmere Blvd., Cleveland, 216-791-6649, menu6.org
Mon 4:30-10 p.m., Tue-Thu 4:30-11 p.m., Fri-Sat 4:30-11:30 p.m.
Mon-Sat 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the bar, and all night on the patio. Special menu featuring wine, beer and cocktail bargains, $6 bites, and three-course tasting menu for $26, or $36 with wine pairings.