Flair for fusion
Story and photos by Michael C. Butz
To eat a dish from chutney b. is to enjoy a sensory experience – one that begins the moment you walk into the Van Aken District’s Market Hall and breathe in aromas indicative of the menu’s wordly cuisine and that lasts through each flavorful, spice-infused bite.
And it’s exactly that type of experience chef Doug Katz wanted to cultivate as he developed the menu for his quick-serve concept, which opened June 25 as a food stall at the Van Aken mixed-use development in Shaker Heights. Specifically, he sought to provide for diners an “explosion of flavor.”
“I wanted people to taste it and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ Katz says of his pre-opening menu tastings. “I think so many places want to do food that’s spicy that they don’t make it spicy. So, hearing people say, ‘Whoa, that was super-spicy,’ in a way, I like that because I think there’s a population out there that really wants that. … To me, doing it in such a way where there’s such flavor in the dishes – and there’s not blandness, and it’s not watered down – is really an important thing. That’s what I was looking for.”
chutney b. – “chutney” for the spicy condiment central to the eatery’s options, “b.” as an abbreviation for “bowl” – evolved from Katz’s many other endeavors. The dishes were largely inspired by the ethnic offerings at fire food & drink, his flagship restaurant in Cleveland’s Shaker Square neighborhood; the spices central to chutney b. are some of the most popular from his Fire Spice Company, which offers home cooks an array of international spice options and recipes with which to experiment; and the food is prepared at his catering commissary on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, a space formerly home to his Katz Club Diner.
“At fire, we’ve always had a tandoor oven, so we’ve really learned to enjoy cooking ethnic foods,” he says. “We do a lot of Moroccan, a lot of Indian, some southeast Asian, some Thai. Out of fire, I developed a spice company, where we toast and grind spices.
“(chutney b.) came about because the space was available and we said, ‘What should we do?’” Katz recalls. “And we thought, ‘Why not expand on this spice model even more?’”
Making the menu
It took Katz about a year to settle on chutney b.’s menu. All told, five tastings were held at his former diner, and various versions of the menu were workshopped before Katz felt confident potential customers could follow his culinary lead.
“When you’re on the inside of that (process), you think it’s simple, but then you start showing people your menu. I must’ve shown (the menu) to 50 people, and it was so hard for people to understand what we thought was simple,” he says. “After asking all those people and hearing what they thought, we were able to keep tweaking it and making it simpler and simpler.”
Of the final menu, Katz says, “It’s super simple. It’s meant to direct you and allow you to experience what we’ve created without giving you too much decision-making.”
Perhaps because chutney is synonymous with Indian fare, there remains one menu-related area where misconceptions still exist, Katz says.
“A lot of people just assume (chutney b.) is Indian, and they’ll ask, ‘How’s your Indian place?’” he says. “What I would say is (that) it’s a fusion.”
Variety is indeed key at chutney b., where customers have the ability to experiment with several flavorful combinations. Their selections begin with a bowl of jasmine rice, on top of which can be placed three warm savory blends: Indian masala, a stew that consists of creamy tomato, eggplant, cauliflower curry; Thai yellow curry, which features carrots, mushrooms and peppers as well as “a lot of turmeric, kaffir lime, lemongrass and ginger”; and Moroccan Harira, a stew made with chickpeas, lentils and butternut squash.
A fourth bowl – rice noodle salad with julienne vegetables, peanut dressing and harissa peanuts – offers customers a cold option.
The Indian masala bowl is vegetarian while the other three bowls are vegan – an important point for Katz, who wanted to offer something other food stalls at Van Aken’s Market Hall didn’t.
“We really wanted to hit on offering vegans a great lunch or dinner. We wanted to make sure vegetarians had options,” he says, also noting the menu’s gluten-free friendliness. “We have a lot of people who come into (fire) who either have celiac disease or who are avoiding gluten and who are looking for things without flour. … So, we really took into consideration dietary restrictions, but we also took into consideration the trends – and then our love for ethnic food.”
Meat-eaters have options, of course. Once a bowl is selected, it can be topped either with masala grass-fed beef meatballs or curried organic chicken. Vegan miso-glazed tofu represents yet another protein option.
With or without a protein, adding a chutney is the next step.
“We have a serrano chile chutney, which has a little bit of cumin, a little bit of cilantro and lemon juice. It adds this incredible heat to your dish and balances the whole dish,” says Katz, noting spices can also be served on the side. “We have an amba, which is a pickled-mango chutney, which adds a little bit of the acidity and the sweet. We also have a yogurt, which is a cooling chutney. It’s a raita, it’s an herbed yogurt. And then we have harissa peanuts, which is a dry chutney, which adds a little bit of heat but also adds fat from the peanuts.”
Rounding out the menu are two desserts – gluten-free coconut cake with cream cheese frosting as well as vegan and gluten-free candied ginger cookies – and various beverages, including DaoLu, a line of locally produced fermented rice drinks.
In detailing the menu, Katz emphasizes that “fusion” theme, using the masala meatballs to illustrate his point.
“In India, they’d never use beef. In fact, it wouldn’t be appropriate,” he says. “But in America, if we were to do a quick-serve concept and use lamb or goat, I think we’d have a problem with our sales. So, we made that decision to use our local grass-fed beef and present it in the best way we can.”
He’s comfortable departing from the traditional, even if others might not be. In part, riffing on the conventional is part of what makes a dish uniquely his creation.
“I have no issue with telling people I’m this white Jewish kid from Cleveland, Ohio, making Indian food,” he says. “Do I have all the answers? No. But I think, in a way, that allows us to be a little bit more creative and to have fun with the flavors – and to put our stamp on what we’re making. Some people would say, ‘Oh, you’re bastardizing it.’ But I think we’re trying to do it as quality as we can and in a way that we’re representing great food, great flavor.”
Also key for Katz is using quality ingredients. One of the early challenges he faced was determining portion sizes and prices.
“We were definitely looking at cost-analysis because we really want to use great quality, but there’s a point at which people don’t really care. They’d rather it be a little cheaper,” he says. “We’re not willing to sacrifice it to that extent. For us, it’s about using the quality, and if it doesn’t work, I’d rather not do it. So, we’re really sticking with what we’ve decided to do. We know this is what we can do it for, and we hope the public loves that. I think people love the freshness, the style, and it has great flavor.”
Another factor was efficiency. Based on what he’d witnessed during the six months between Market Hall’s opening and chutney b.’s first day, he wanted to make sure customers could quickly receive their food. That’s part of why the food is prepared off-site as well as why the menu is streamlined.
“What we learned in seeing all of the other places that opened here is that there were a lot of long lines, and that it’s hard to get through some of those lines,” he says. “If you don’t maximize your efficiency to get people through the line, they’re only going to wait so long.”
So far, it’s all working – as is the location. Katz says when he chose Shaker Square for fire, family history – childhood trips taken to the shopping district via the Rapid – came into play. The same goes for chutney b. and Van Aken.
“I’ve come here since I was 5 years old. I could name so many experiences we had at Mawby’s or at Sand’s Delicatessen. My brother actually had a natural foods grocery store at Van Aken in the ’80s,” he says, referring to his brother Peter Katz’s Green Leaf Grocery. “Even when I was negotiating doing all of this and planning to be here, I didn’t think about him having a store here. It was only after I opened that I thought it could be that chutney b. is actually in the location where his store was.”
Noting Van Aken’s diversity of storefronts and on-site programming, he adds he’s excited chutney b. is a part of what’s taking shape in Shaker Heights.
“We’re able to provide a really amazing experience for the people who live in the Heights – and even further – and I feel really good about the fact that we haven’t opened a quick-serve place and sacrificed what we do at fire,” he says. “At fire, we’re all about quality, but we’re also a fine-dining experience. We’re able to offer that type of experience in a quick-serve environment (at chutney b.), offering really great, flavorful food that’s of the same quality. So, I’m really proud of that.”