I've been writing about Zack Bruell for eight years, and there's always something new to say. That's because he keeps opening restaurants. The latest, Cowell & Hubbard, is his fifth currently operating in Cleveland.
In 1920, this Euclid Avenue spot — now in the heart of the theater district — was where the local elite came to buy diamonds and pearls. Bruell accepted the daunting task of turning it into a culinary destination for PlayhouseSquare, reviving the name in recognition of the building's glittering past. He began welcoming patrons in February.
The large space has been cleverly divided into several discrete and intimate sections. The handsome (if somewhat austere) design scheme gets a bit of warmth from bright red banquettes and chairs, as well as a few vintage photos of downtown Cleveland.
The menu's organizing principle is the application of classic and labor-intensive French techniques alongside thoroughly modern and original concepts. But the food is more Bruell than Parisian fare. Like all of his restaurants, this one excels in the handling of fish and seafood, the use of Asian ingredients in inventive and unexpected ways, and the creation of dishes notable for their layered, complex and intriguing flavors.
Andy Dombrowski is in charge of the kitchen as the chef de cuisine. He previously played a similar role at two of Bruell's other establishments, L'Albatros and Chinato. The selections here reflect a collaboration between the two men.
"The menu is large and ambitious," Dombrowski says. "Because of our location, we serve a very diverse audience. Our goal is to have something for everyone."
They achieve it with options that include steaks, gourmet pizzas, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and more esoteric and adventurous preparations such as sweetbreads and lamb breast.
A hearty braised beef shoulder ($19), slow-cooked to astonishing tenderness in red wine, should have wide appeal. It is pot roast elevated to a higher level, and the accompanying Dauphinoise potatoes — sliced thin and baked au gratin — are worth every buttery bite. The excellent veal paillard ($24) is another entrée that's easy to love. The large, pounded cutlet is breaded, fried and topped with artichoke hearts, shavings of young pecorino and a tangle of frisee splashed with truffle oil.
I was especially impressed by three appetizers, each of which could have been a main course for me with a starter and a side. Seafood "dumplings" ($11) are fluffy little rounds of ground shrimp, scallops and cod. They're poached in fish fumé and then set afloat with shreds of pickled cabbage in a sea of lobster sauce. Gravlax and blini ($10) is an eye-catching combination of mini buckwheat pancakes topped with ribbons of citrus-cured salmon, all swirled, stacked and capped with a scoop of icy grapefruit granita. There are also pieces of pink grapefruit and a splash of crème fraiche. The textures, temperatures and tastes play off each other in surprising and pleasing ways.
The chicken wings ($9) take three days to prepare, and the result of all that effort — crisped on the outside and moist within — is something special. First they are confitted, followed by a soak in a cumin-laced brine, then cryovaced with herbs and chicken and cooked sous-vide, and finally deep-fried to order. They come with a Tabasco butter sauce, aged goat cheese crumbles, tomato dust and bits of housemade chicken bacon.
The Belgian endive salad ($9) with celery root, pecorino, marconna almonds and truffle vinaigrette is worthy of attention. It was earthy, bitter, salty and crunchy. Another equally interesting composed salad was the haricot vert ($10), a mixture of green beans with pickled onions, blue cheese, tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette.
A soy and ponzu butter sauce gave depth and dimension to a portion of flounder ($20). It had a creamy richness balanced by acidity and salt, reinforced by pickled daikon and carrot threads. I could have done without the veritable bouquet of cilantro used for garnish.
I tried two desserts and enjoyed both. Paris brest ($7) is a split round of light pastry dough filled with a vanilla cream. It sits like a lily pad in a pool of crème anglaise, and I wish it been presented with a spoon instead of a fork. The baked apple ($7), with sweet mascarpone in the cored-out center, was lovely, just like the dining experience delivered at every Zack Bruell restaurant.