Brian Okin has spent more than half his life in professional kitchens. Yet anyone mapping his past seven years could be excused for fearing the peripatetic chef had lost his way.
The detour began auspiciously enough in 2006, when Okin launched Benvenuti in Broadview Heights. But the small, 35-seat space made for slim profit margins, so the chef handed off the Northern Italian restaurant to new owners in 2009 and went on to open the larger Verve in downtown Cleveland. Yet despite critical praise, Verve's out-of-the-way location on Carnegie Avenue never drew the volume Okin had hoped for. He was forced to close almost two years later. His fallback plan found Okin toiling in other people's kitchens, including the now-shuttered Fountain in Moreland Hills and a short stint at Luxe in the Gordon Square Arts District.
"I made some poor choices," Okin says frankly. But make no mistake about this: Those years of searching for the perfect fit were anything but wasted. Perhaps, most importantly, they gave Okin a chance to cook up Cleveland's popular Dinner in the Dark series. Founded in 2010 with fellow chefs Jeff Jarrett of Amp 150, and Ellis Cooley, who has since migrated to Florida, the monthly series serves as a showcase for local chefs, while supporting local charities.
The key to the series' success may be encouraging participating chefs to stretch themselves beyond their boundaries, tackling cuisines and cooking styles not usually part of their repertoire. For Okin, that meant a chance to explore cuisine beyond his Northern Italian training. "I finally realized I want to be able to do what I want to do, whether it's cooking with Thai, French, Italian or whatever other ingredients I want to use," says the 43-year-old Okin. "I don't want to be tied to one particular approach."
After seven years of wandering, Okin's path has taken him back to the very space that once housed Benvenuti in Broadview Heights. This April, he opened Cork and Cleaver Social Kitchen with his brother-in-law, chef Adam Bostwick. It's a friendly little restaurant that allows the duo to experiment with their menu and push their culinary limits.
The irony of returning to the same space isn't lost on Okin. But while his decision to fulfill his destiny in the plain-Jane suburbs, inside a less-than-sexy spot in a small strip plaza, might seem puzzling, Okin clearly has his reasons.
"First, it's good to be back in the suburbs, because people know me. Benvenuti's guests came from Seven Hills, Brecksville and North Royalton, as well as Broadview Heights," he says. "And second, as much as I love Ohio City and Tremont, the restaurants there aren't being supported by the locals: Most of the guests are coming in from the suburbs anyway."
If the expanded, 70-seat space — two boxy rooms with a floor-to-ceiling view of the parking lot — doesn't exactly scream edgy urban neighborhood, the menu tells a different story. A concise, well-edited one-page printout is a mouthwatering read, filled with adventurous options ranging from roasted bone marrow and confit wings to a succulent preparation of short ribs inspired by down-home chili. Modest prices — with entrees mainly below the $20 mark — are a plus.
Eclectic, inviting and often amusing, the genre-bending lineup reflects the sensibilities of both chefs. From Okin, for instance, you find the Board ($16), an array of classical indulgences — seared foie gras, plush pork belly and split beef marrow bones — served with lard-fried crostini and jalapeno jam and fruit mostarda. From Bostwick, you'll get those velvety short ribs ($19), slow braised to falling-off-the-bone tenderness, served on a salad of turtle and Peruvian mayocoba beans with a cornbread puree and topped with a fillip of crema and a drizzle of highly reduced, intensely flavored braising liquid, singing with notes of cumin, garlic and chile powder.
"We're at different ends of the spectrum," says the 30-year-old Bostwick, who spent four years in the kitchen of Beachwood's former Melange. "Brian is more classical and really excels at those big, Mediterranean flavors. My style is a little more playful. I like food with a twist. And when we meld that together, I think we get some really cool dishes."
Take those chicken wings ($8), for instance: five plump appendages, dry-cured in a spicy salt rub, covered in chicken fat, then slowly roasted at 200 degrees for four hours before being lightly battered and fried in lard to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. But because both Bostwick and Okin love to play with contrasting flavors, those wings are piled onto a plate garnished with orange zest, cilantro, scallions, honey and jalapeno. The result is a palate-piquing platter of updated bar food: part popular culture and part high art.
Flatiron steak ($19) continues the classical theme, with juicy slices of beef prettily arranged around a bounty of seasonal vegetables, such as butter-poached potatoes from the restaurant's 1-acre garden patch located just down the street. (Currently, the dish comes with fingerling potatoes, sweet peppers, smoked blue fondue and a burgundy onion puree.)
Then there is the pork paprikash ($17), a best-seller that turns the Eastern European standard on its ear. The process includes pressing braised and shredded pork butt into firm bricks overnight; segments are then sliced off to order. Crisp-edged and fragrant, the pork is settled on a vast field of buttery spaetzle infused with smoked paprika and finished with a dollop of creme fraiche. While we found the large portion size to be almost overwhelming, there was no denying the dish's light-hearted appeal.
Sweet endings are Bostwick's purview, and continue the playful theme. Best among them might be the poached pear pot pie ($7), an autumnal offering that finds tender, sweet, but not sugary, slices of wine-poached fruit and raisins snuggled beneath a flaky pastry crust and topped with vanilla ice cream. The perfect ending? A handful of crisp caramel corn, scented with rosemary that provides a crunchy counterpoint.
If you ever needed proof that "all who wander are not lost," Okin's odyssey could be it.