Rows of worn but well-maintained homes with postage-stamp yards and "Beware of Dog" signs stand quiet but full of life along West 76th Street. Here and there a flag or a window box of flowers offers a burst of color against the taupes, whites and dusty blues of the vinyl-sided homes.
Closer to the lake, however, the Gordon Square Arts District neighborhood stands suddenly upright. Gone are the yards, the distinctions between addresses. In its place rise the modern, cookie-cutter townhomes that now define this residential enclave known as Battery Park. Orange clapboard and concrete structures with stainless steel balcony railings and perfect sidewalks beckon with trendy, tidy style.
Bridging it all is Graffiti Social Kitchen. Its location in a century-old red-brick building, overflowing with character and charm, is at once out of context and a welcome divergence from the emerging developments to the east and north. The restaurant is a mishmash of these two disparate worlds: old meets new, tradition meets twist. For chefs and owners Adam Bostwick and Brian Okin, the unconventional setting was a no-brainer.
"We saw what this neighborhood is going to become, not just what it is currently," Bostwick explains.
The restaurant, which opened in mid-February, is the second joint venture of the two men, who are actually brothers-in-law and met nearly two decades ago when Okin dated and then married Bostwick's older sister, Amanda. Two years ago they teamed up for the first time to open Cork and Cleaver Social Kitchen in a Broadview Heights strip mall.
"People said, 'Are you guys crazy doing that type of concept out in the suburbs?' But there's nothing like that out there, and all those people in Brecksville were going to Tremont [to get it]," says Okin.
Like Cork and Cleaver, their newest concept — which occupies the erstwhile Reddstone pub — stands out from its surroundings on purpose and to mostly good effect.
Okin nods and says emphatically, "I think this whole area is the next Tremont."
It's a little too early to unequivocally agree, but the neighborhood has certainly seen a lot of development in the past few years, from nearby eateries Local West and
Cha Spirits and Pizza Kitchen to the anticipated opening of beer, wine and gourmet sausage shop Banter and the $200,000-plus condos and nearby luxury apartments called the Shoreway. As more affluent young professionals and empty-nesters move in, the more venues arrive to serve them.
Graffiti seats about 200 between the casual front bar area, the upstairs dining room and the large back patio. From the moment you enter, even with tables to spare, the atmosphere is lively and loud with a touch of anachronistic charm.
Conversation bounces off the stamped tin ceiling tiles and oak bar (once part of a cruise ship), and bold murals by local artist Bob Peck cover tabletops and walls with sprays of orange, electric green, blue and black. Upstairs, abstract stained-glass windows block streetlight glare as a hulking fireplace warms the industrial metal ceiling panels for a hodgepodge quaint-industrial atmosphere.
"[Gordon Square is] kind of an arts district," says Bostwick. "Graffiti is kind of a modern art, and I feel like that's what our food is."
The menu showcases Bostwick's signature playful style with a mix of classic dishes that have been deconstructed and rebuilt into something simultaneously new and familiar.
Chicken Parmesan ($15) at Graffiti tastes like something you should recognize, but the cutlet is a bulky slab formed with shredded chicken confit before being breaded and fried, and a soft spaetzle stands in for fettuccini.
It's risky to transmute a gold standard, and it doesn't always pay off: Although a spicy tomato sauce saved, overall the dish lacked the bite of al dente pasta, and a thin, pan-fried chicken breast might have been both juicier and crunchier.
The walleye ($19), however, over a textural smoked kielbasa creamed corn and a few generous hush puppies studded with fresh kernels hit all the high notes of warmer weather on the lake. The fish was expertly cooked and the flavors of the dish satisfy with complexity: sweet, smoky, herby, creamy, savory.
The menu is tight, with less than a dozen starter plates, just three salads and eight entrees ranging from $14 to $23. (The exception here is the dessert options, which make up nearly 20 percent of the overall menu.) Appetizers are on the large size, with commensurate prices hovering around $10. But they're crowd-pleasers, particularly the French onion egg rolls ($10), a curious, crunchy, delicious fusion of caramelized onions and Gruyere cheese in pastry dough with a consomme dipping broth. There are also usually a few daily specials, such as the vegetarian and short rib tacos ($3) available during one visit.
"To pigeonhole this to one thing is crazy, because if we want to do Mexican I do Mexican; if I want to do Italian I do Italian," says Bostwick, who typically has command of the kitchen. "I like to take things you know and make them my way."
Okin, meanwhile, takes care of the restaurant's general operations and the front of the house, although he says menus are always a collaborative effort.
"In a lot of ways [our cooking styles] are completely opposite, but that's good," he says. "Adam is very good with reinventing the wheel. I'm a little more straightforward, classical. But you mix the two together and it takes it to another level."
You'll get no argument when you apply that to the desserts here. Often and unfortunately treated as compulsory throwaways in "serious" restaurants, Bostwick does dessert right. "I get teased a lot that I cook like a fat kid," he laughs.
In another reincarnation of the familiar, the cereal ($8) puts a spin on the starch-sweetened remnants you'll happily slurp but rarely savor at the end of breakfast each morning. A subtly flavored Cereal Panna Cotta topped with blueberries, banana slices and Rice Krispies treats made with Fruity Pebbles — a birthday treat for Bostwick growing up — are novel, nostalgic and definitely worth a try.
And a deconstructed s'more ($8) features house-made cinnamon graham cracker crumbles, a decadent slice of chocolate ganache and bruleed Italian meringue — the real stuff made with molten sugar and egg whites whipped for ages into a fluffy, sticky cloud. It was the star of the meal.
But beyond the food and even the cocktails — which are likewise creative but not always very boozy — it's the staff at Graffiti who consistently impress. Servers are attentive but not overly so, and small touches such as cilantro butter flavored popcorn at the start of the meal feel personal.
It comes back to the social in "social kitchen," says Okin.
"It's very intimate," he says. "You have two chef-owners at the restaurant every single day. One of them is cooking, one of them is coming to the table talking to you. It was important to us as we opened this place to make sure we still have that connection."
When You Go: Graffiti Social Kitchen, 1261 W. 76th St., Cleveland, 216-651-6969, graffitisocialkitchen.com, Tue-Thu 5-11 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
No-cook Tomato Sauce
Graffiti Social Kitchen chef Adam Bostwick shares his recipe for a rich, aromatic tomato sauce that doesn't require a stove. Just don't tell Nonna.
"I love this time of the year for cooking," says Adam Bostwick, chef and co-owner of Graffiti Social Kitchen near the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. "I too love when I can achieve a great sauce using fresh seasonal ingredients and not have to turn on a stove." Bostwick recommends using this versatile sauce for pastas and as a dip for crusty Italian bread, or dress it up with fresh herbs such as basil or oregano.
Yield: Approximately 1 ½ quarts
- ¼ cup honey
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 4 cups heirloom tomatoes, roughly chopped
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil (any vegetable oil will do but best flavor will be achieved by using a good olive oil) Combine honey, garlic, tomatoes, lemon and salt and pepper in a blender. "I usually start with a decent pinch of both [salt and pepper]," says Bostwick. "You can always add more but can never take it out."
Turn the blender on high and let it puree all the ingredients until smooth, about 2 minutes.
With blender on high speed, slowly add olive oil in a slow stream. This process should take about 1 minute. "You are creating an emulsion just as if you were making a vinaigrette," he explains. Note that the tomato mixture will look like a whirlpool as you add in the oil. Once the motion stops, your emulsion is done. You may not need to use all the oil, or you may have to add more.
The tomato sauce should have the consistency of mayonnaise. "But [it] will loosen up once you add it to something else and it becomes warmer in temperature," Bostwick says.
Transfer sauce to a container with a lid and refrigerate 1 hour before using.