By Jane Kaufman
Summertime and the living is easier – at least that’s what local restaurateurs and chefs are hoping for as vaccinations increase, COVID-19 restrictions ease up and outdoor dining becomes a trusty option for diners, even as indoor seating remains limited for some.
For Zack Bruell, chef and owner of L’Albatros, Parallax and Zack Bruell Events, the focus at L’Albatros will be on what’s fresh in the raised beds in the gardens on site.
Ever since founding the brasserie in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood in 2008, Bruell has kept a garden. While a hallmark of a brasserie is an unchanging menu, Bruell says he finds space for what’s growing both as part of the menu and on the list of specials. For example, greens from the hydroponic watercress table are featured in L’Albatros’ Caesar salad. As the languorous days of the season continue and other vegetables come in, ingredients such as tomatoes – both from the raised beds and from local purveyors – will be featured on the menu as well.
While L’Albatros uses watercress year-round, the type grown in-house is different.
“It’s got that peppery flavor that arugula has, but it’s watercress,” Bruell says, adding vegetables are expected to come in early this year, giving his kitchen a jump on summer’s bright colors and flavors.
Diners at L’Albatros are already using the patio and, like summer produce, are also arriving earlier this year – for dinner.
Bruell says it’s not unusual to have a dinner rush at 4 p.m. this season, attributing that timing shift to customers working from home as a result of the pandemic.
That’s not the only late-stage pandemic nuance local restaurants are experiencing as more people become comfortable eating outside their homes. And like Bruell, local chefs are focusing on creative and fresh seasonal ingredients to elevate their menus for a summer that promises to be one of change.
At L’Albatros, customers are still asked to wear masks when walking to or away from their tables and Bruell is maintaining limited seating indoors. Parties are limited to 10, and employees are still donning masks, even at the back of the house. Paper menus aren’t regularly furnished, with customers encouraged to view the menu and specials on their cellphones as an additional precaution.
“I’m trying to be vigilant and do the socially responsible thing,” says Bruell, who worked with Cleveland Clinic to develop protocols for his restaurants.
New flavors at Larder
Jeremy Umansky, chef and co-owner of Larder Delicatessen & Bakery in Cleveland’s Hingetown neighborhood, is noticing more customers now that the pandemic has subsided.
“From a business standpoint, that’s been a huge relief,” Umansky says. “We’re ready for a safe change.”
With summer, Umansky says he’s looking forward to what the forest will offer as well as local farms.
“I’m especially excited to see chanterelle mushrooms to start appearing in the forest,” says Umansky, eager to pour a chanterelle soda for customers.
“It’s not as umami as you would think,” Umansky says, adding chanterelles in this preparation – with sugar and vinegar – actually resemble the flavor of stone fruit such as peach and apricot. “If you were handed a chanterelle soda and you took a sip not knowing there were mushrooms in it, you would probably think it was a peach soda.”
During the pandemic, Larder offered bottled beverages only, but with restrictions lifting, he’s able to put homemade sodas back on the daily changing menu.
“Just the other day, I started fermenting about six pounds of asparagus so that we can enjoy it later in the year,” Umansky says, adding that asparagus has been used in chilled soups, sandwiches, salads and as part of a vegan charcuterie, which he described as “Slim Jim-esque.”
As strawberries come into season this month, Umansky’s wife, Allie La Valle-Umansky, who is Larder’s baker and a co-owner, is making preserves, jams, shortcake, strawberry cookies and strawberry rhubarb toaster pastries.
Umansky also plans to use juneberries, a wild berry that has a very limited shelf life.
“If you buy them from a farmer, you can only get them frozen ‘cause they’re so perishable that within like a day or two of picking them, they start to turn,” he says. “We’re really excited for those. We forage as many of them as we can.”
Umansky says Larder uses them in tarts as well as salads.
While Larder is known for its fried fish, this summer, walleye will be smoked or grilled. “We’re actually at a historical point with the amount of walleye in Lake Erie,” Umansky says, while the price of yellow perch has gone up as the walleye have been feeding on them.
“We want to be able to take a lighter, fresher approach for spring and summer,” Umansky explains.
Michael’s Genuine mixing it up
At Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink at the Van Aken District in Shaker Heights, chef de cuisine Andrew Alvarez says his restaurant will introduce cobia, also known as black kingfish or black salmon on the summer menu.
He says the emphasis will be on “bright, fun, simple” in keeping with the food ideology of Michael’s Genuine. The restaurant’s first location was created in Miami by Michael Schwartz, a James Beard Award-winning chef. The Shaker Heights spot is Schwartz’s second location.
At the same time, the menu will respect Midwestern customers’ tastes, Alvarez says. While his own fine dining training would dictate a beurre blanc, or classic French butter sauce, or an asparagus pairing, Alvarez says, “I’m trying to stay away from that.”
Closer to Cleveland, Alvarez says his menu will include walleye this summer.
“We have a wood-fired oven, so we’ve been featuring lake walleye,” he says.
He says he has been working with duck lately and will offer New York strip steak for steak frites.
In terms of guests returning, dining outdoors at Michael’s will be an easy option, Alvarez says, with booths set up in front of the restaurant.
“I’m looking forward to the general … energy difference,” Alvarez says. “Seeing the mom and pop again or like the privately owned (restaurant) being able to thrive again.”
Alvarez also says he’s also hoping to see more creativity and innovation on menus at restaurants as a whole, which didn’t seem to happen during the pandemic when restaurants were playing it safe.
“I don’t think anyone was trying necessarily to innovate or push anything,” he says. “I think everyone was focusing on surviving last year.”
Surviving – for both restaurateurs and customers – is still of concern even as diners return in greater numbers than they have in the past year.
“In the last six weeks, people have started coming back out,” Bruell says. “I have a lot of customers who’ve come to me and said, ‘This is my first time out in over a year. ‘It’s sort of an honor that they’re coming to my restaurant to dine.”