Being a chef means different things to different people. To some, it's throwing a few ingredients in a pot and calling it a day. For Chris DiLisi, chef and owner of the Willeyville in the Flats, it means a chance to dig deep into the culinary tool kit, exploring processes and techniques few restaurants care to try.
The 40-year-old Lyndhurst native spent 20 years in other people's kitchens at Pier W, the former Inn at Turner's Mill, the former Baricelli Inn (where he served as chef de cuisine under Paul Minnillo for six years) and a brief stint as opening chef and partner at Minnillo's Flour before opening the inventive Willeyville last year.
"Now I have a kitchen all my own," he says. "It gives me more control over cost and quality, sure. But it's harder, too. When you go outside the box, you always wonder, Is it going to turn out? Are people going to like it?"
But therein, DiLisi will tell you, lies the fun. Armed with a dehydrator, flour grinders, smokers, sous vide equipment and a "super-soaker" water gun (for creating steam in the bread oven, of course), DiLisi embraces challenges that most restaurant chefs are happy to pass off to mass manufacturers.
For instance, DiLisi and his staff grind their own corn for flavor-packed taco shells, ferment their own soy for fresh tofu, and break down a 180-pound, heritage-breed hog from Kinsman's Miller Livestock every two weeks for things such as sausage, charcuterie and smoked pork belly.
Driven by a deep and abiding curiosity, DiLisi's do-it-yourself glee is palpable. "Does it make any sense to make our own bagels, just to slice them up and turn them into crostini?" DiLisi asks with a grin. "Well, no. But, why not? That's what makes cooking exciting for me. That's what makes the whole process so interesting."
Settled in the tiny concrete oasis that surrounds the new Aloft Cleveland Downtown, the Willeyville is a harbinger of new and exciting development coming to the East Bank of the Flats. At a snug 88 seats, the restaurant captures a vibe that is at once casual and sophisticated with a chic blend of contemporary and rustic decor. Yet the Willeyville remains something of an anomaly: an exciting dining destination tucked into a no man's land of train tracks, construction zones and massive parking lots.
"We don't get a lot of foot traffic," DiLisi admits. But the 1-year-old spot is starting to gain notice. "We're getting known as a foodie restaurant, and that's all right with me."
DiLisi's approach is to focus on technique more than ingredients. "It doesn't take much to make Kobe beef taste great," he notes. "But making hanger steak melt in your mouth? That requires some skill."
DiLisi relentlessly seeks out local ingredients. Cilantro stems are dehydrated for seasoning blends, day-old sticky buns become bread pudding and pickling liquids transform into house-made vinegars.
"I can get a little wild," admits the chef, recalling a pig's ear terrine that resulted from an attempt to use up every bit of a hog. "But apparently, there are people who like to eat it."
Divided into sections called "Munchies," "Milled," and "Salted/Cured/Preserved," the menu tips its hat to DiLisi's Italian roots with dishes such as fried risotto, gnocchi and an exceptional rendition of gnudi ($15.50) — those trendy naked ricotta dumplings that are sort of like ravioli without the pasta envelopes. In DiLisi's hands, they emerged from the kitchen so light and delicate, they threatened to float right out of their bowl. Fortunately, a vibrant sauce of old-school marinara and zesty Italian sausage kept them safely anchored.
But Italy is only one stop on the menu's international romp. You'll also find a French Canadian poutine, Polish pierogi and Louisiana andouille, among other treats.
Needless to say, virtually everything — sauerkraut, sambal (a finely ground blend of Fresno chiles, ginger, lemongrass and lime zest) or soppressata — is made in house, a fact that seems to endlessly delight DiLisi. Take the tasty ramen ($15), freshly made from rye berries the staff toasts and grinds. ("That's the key to good ramen," DiLisi says. "They stay al dente for a long time.") Tender yet substantial, the sturdy noodles are then set adrift in a bowl of umami-packed miso-ginger broth, goosed with cilantro and sambal, then piqued with thick-cut slices of baconlike pork belly — cured and smoked in house, of course. The final touch: a perfectly poached egg, perched on top. The upshot is a deeply satisfying flavor bomb almost dizzying in its complexity.
"I like flavors that pop," admits DiLisi, a claim substantiated by his ought-to-be-famous Spicy Phat Popcorn ($5), a bar-snacky starter with addictive appeal. Popped in pork fat, the corn kernels are infused with rich, smoky flavor notes, yet remain magically grease-free. Then DiLisi powders the warm popcorn with dehydrated jalapenos and cilantro stems, and finishes them with a generous pinch of lime zest.
Because he's constantly tinkering with ingredients and compositions, DiLisi prints his menu daily. While the changes are generally subtle, they often reflect the chef's urge to showcase new achievements. Take the Sausage Party, an entree that recently morphed into the Sausage Fest ($23.50), complete with a trio of lean, tender, house-made sausages — andouille, Italian and an almost effervescent garlic-ginger number that seemed to tap dance on our taste buds — along with sauerkraut, cornichons, red-pepper relish, a warm soft pretzel and zesty house-made mustard.
Little escapes DiLisi's attention such as the Proper Poutine ($12.50). Typically a humble, junk-food pileup of french fries, cheese curd and mystery gravy, here it's transformed into a legitimate gourmet indulgence. The key? House-made everything: cheese curd, sausage gravy, a scattering of cracklings ... even the Tabasco-style hot sauce that lends the dish a kick. Even the fries — which, mind you, are little more than a substrate for the other bold flavors — get careful attention. No limp, frozen potato sticks here. Rather, the kitchen creates crisp, creamy, twice-fried Belgian-style frites for use in this rendition.
And for dessert, don't miss the remarkably light, not-too-sweet Banana-Chocolate Bread Pudding ($8), made from those day-old sticky buns, sided with house-made vanilla pudding and chamomile cream, and finished with a flambeed banana.
In a world full of shortcuts, DiLisi's drive in the kitchen results in tasty dishes at the table. "It's not that I am trying to out-chef anyone," DiLisi replies. "It's just the way I like to cook."
WHEN YOU GO
1051 W. 10th St., 216-862-6422, thewilleyville.com
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Dinner Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri & Sat 5-11 p.m.