Finer Delight

Fueled by local goodness, the Katz Club Diner brings new life to a Cleveland Heights landmark.

You'd never know it by visiting today's trendy restaurants, where nearly every dish comes with a local pedigree, but there was a time when Cleveland chefs believed that eggs were laid in factories and tomatoes came from tractor-trailers.

Thankfully, those days are mostly behind us. That's due, in large part, to the efforts of a handful of visionary chefs who took the lead in championing the cause of local farmers and producers. Among them is chef Douglas Katz, a veteran of the Cleveland dining scene and key player in transforming locally sourced foods into the city's current culinary obsession.

The 43-year-old Shaker Heights native has been buying local since 2001, when he opened Fire Food & Drink on Shaker Square, across the street from the weekly North Union Farmers Market. Equally impressed by the farmers' products and work ethic, Katz knew he had found a cause he could believe in. "I quickly saw how important it was to support their efforts," he says. "Just as I hoped the community would support me, I realized I would have to commit to supporting our farmers, too."

He carried that commitment into 2012, with the opening of Provenance inside the Cleveland Museum of Art. Now the same devotion to local ingredients is on display in Cleveland Heights, in the recently opened Katz Club Diner.

If the move from crispy duck confit to corned beef hash seems strange, Katz swears it isn't. "The diner has the same business model that I started at Shaker Square — to serve authentic food and to support our farmers," he says. "The ingredients may be different, but basically it's all about quality and technique. That approach transfers to any form of dining."

It doesn't hurt that the operation is housed in a beloved pair of vintage dining cars, brought to Cleveland Heights in 1997. On the south end, a pre-World War II Centennial holds a swanky cocktail lounge with limited hours. On the north end, the 1949 Jerry O'Mahony is home to the 48-seat diner. A carryout coffee counter, stocked with house-made pastries displayed beneath glass domes, connects the two.

Done up in shades of silver, gray and white, the diner offers well-spaced tables, cushy chairs and a long, comfy counter. Additional luxe comes in the form of linen tea-towel napkins, substantial flatware and stylish white dishes worthy of a Crate & Barrel catalog. The overall impression is spare, sophisticated, but casual: the kind of spot where kids can be kids and their parents can be at ease.

Breakfast, a direct descendent of Fire's popular weekend brunch, is a high point. From the first sip of an expertly made latte ($4) to the last morsel of lean corned beef hash ($12) — not to mention the Faux Hos ($3), house-made toaster pastries ($2) and knockoff Twinkies ($3) sure to appeal to the kid in all of us — the Katz Club version of the most important meal of the day is as tempting as it is fortifying.

Seasonal by nature, the pantry currently includes locally roasted coffee beans, local eggs, real maple syrup and plump, flavor-packed blueberries grown in the Cuyahoga Valley. You'll also find locally raised beef and pork, and artisanal cheeses. Combined with painstaking culinary technique — the staff cures, pickles, grinds, brines and bakes from scratch — these honest ingredients yield authentically good food, as satisfying to the soul as to the belly.

Take the house-made corned beef, for example, cured in a cinnamon, clove, garlic, bay leaf and juniper berry-scented brine. Shockingly lean and flawlessly tender, the thinly sliced meat stars in a cheesy, potato-studded hash where it's topped with two over-easy eggs so fresh, you can almost hear them peep. It makes an encore lunchtime appearance in a Reuben sandwich ($12), where house-made sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and plenty of nutty local Swiss join it on griddled slabs of rye.

While the hash is only available until 11 a.m., the blueberry pancakes ($11) can be had any time — which is a good thing, because pancakes this fine deserve all-day attention. Buttermilk gives the batter a particularly moist delicacy; an ample endowment of juicy local berries contributes natural sweetness. Perfectly griddled, dusted with a bit of powdered sugar and served with real maple syrup and local butter, these fragrant flapjacks may be the best you've ever stuck a fork in.

At lunch, the diner cheeseburger ($11) makes a meaningful indulgence. In typical Katz fashion, the Geauga County chuck is freshly ground on-site, hand-shaped into thick 5-ounce patties, and griddled to order before being topped Mawby-style (a beloved local hamburger joint that closed in the 1960s) with buttery, paprika-doused onions and loaded onto an airy house-made bun. On the side, the shaved onion rings ($4) — a salty, crunchy tangle of crispy fried goodness in a buttermilk batter with a touch of cayenne — are great.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in this young, ambitious operation. During the course of three visits, we found flaws with both the matzo ball soup ($6) and New England clam chowder ($6). Undercooked veggies marred the first; a broken milk-based stock flawed the second.

Likewise, chicken a la king on a house-made waffle ($15) also misfired. An extravagant toss of highly prized chicken oysters (those plush, dark-meat nuggets found on either side of the backbone), fresh-from-the-garden green peas and carrots, and a well-executed cream sauce made for a delicious topping. But beneath it, the waffle became soggy before we were halfway done. Katz says he and his team are aware of these issues, and have taken steps to fix them.

Amazingly, the Katz Club Diner is the sixth operation to occupy the cars since they arrived on Lee Road. Why does Katz think he can succeed where so many others have failed? "I've been training staff for more than a decade to tell our local-foods story," Katz says. "The more we explain it, the more the community responds. Today, it's gotten to the point where I honestly think it has become the secret of our success."

When You Go

The Katz Club Diner
1975 Lee Road, 216-932-3333
Tue-Thu & Sun 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri & Sat 10 a.m.-midnight

 » TRY THIS: Latkes ($5), made with freshly grated potatoes and onion, are sauteed to crispy-edged perfection.

 » GOOD TO KNOW: The Katz Club cocktail lounge, open Wednesday and Saturday evenings, serves boutique wines, craft beer, fine bourbon and classic cocktails.

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