In 1979, a tiny restaurant called Michael's opened in Santa Monica, California, ushering in — along with Chez Panisse in Berkeley — a new style of cooking called California cuisine. Characterized by the use of fresh, local ingredients and the fusion of flavors from throughout the globe, this way of cooking gradually spread from the coasts to the nation, forming the foundation of modern American cuisine. Just a year after Michael's opened, Zack Bruell added his name to the roster of now-famous chefs who worked there, including Michael McCarty, Jonathan Waxman, Roy Yamaguchi, Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel.
"When I came back [to Cleveland], I promised myself that I would hold true to what I do," says Bruell, "that I would not compromise what I did to the market."
Since his return in the early '80s, Bruell, now 63, has become ensconced in the upper echelon of Cleveland's food scene. Pretty much every local foodie is familiar with his background, his work ethic and his reputation: Respectively, he is considered an architect of Cleveland's culinary renaissance, he works like a dog sometimes seven days a week, and he's widely regarded by industry insiders as brilliant but stubborn and difficult to work with.
But that tenacious attitude he exhibited early in his career at his own Z Contemporary and then at Ken Stewart's Grille has helped him cook up a menu of restaurants today, including the new seafood-focused Alley Cat Oyster Bar along the Cuyahoga River.
What's more, he's done all of this in a few square miles with almost no duplication of menu or concept in his 10 restaurants: sushi and seafood lounge Parallax; Table 45, a world cuisine spot inside the InterContinental Hotel Cleveland; French-inspired L'Albatros Brasserie and Bar; Italian restaurant Chinato; modern French-American bistro Cowell and Hubbard; Dynomite, a burger shack in Playhouse Square, Kafeteria, a self-serve eatery in 200 Public Square; Dynomite Uptown, a burger and sushi hybrid; Exploration, a casual eatery inside the Cleveland Natural History Museum; and Alley Cat Oyster Bar, which opened in August in the Flats East Bank.
"The easy way out is just to do the same stuff over and over again. You want to grow as a cook," he says. "People have [certain expectations] of you, so there's that added pressure that it's gotta be done right, otherwise you're going to fail."
Nearly every one of his venues have been praised by critics both regionally and nationally. His newest venture, Alley Cat Oyster Bar, is on track for more of the same.
"What this boils down to as I open up these restaurants is I start preparing the food that I like to eat," says Bruell, who was named a James Beard Award Best Chef, Great Lakes region semifinalist this February for the fifth time. "After a while you get bored with your cooking, and you start cooking something else."
With its coastal vibe and strong Latin and Asian influences (which are overwhelmingly popular in SoCal eateries), Alley Cat harkens back to Bruell's days in Santa Monica more than any of his other restaurants.
"It's a hybrid between the East Coast and West Coast," he says. "Think Maryland and Massachusetts and Southern California."
Thus diners will find a New England-style clam chowder ($4 cup, $7 bowl) and butter-poached Maine lobster rolls ($22) alongside Mexican seafood chopped salad ($16) and shrimp-stuffed peppers with queso fresco ($10), a menu staple in every desert hole-in-the-wall of the Southwest, according to Bruell.
The atmosphere is also a departure from Bruell's other intimate, fine dining establishments. Situated inches from the banks of the Cuyahoga, the new building capitalizes on the view with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to the breeze in mild weather.
The rest of the dining room is just as modern: concrete floors, exposed beams and ductwork, steel-gray upholstery and metal mesh dividers are warmed only by incandescent chandeliers and reclaimed wood tables (well, that and friendly, unintimidating service).
But if there's one thing the chef is consistent with, it's his ability to create and serve a unique and impeccable meal. For instance, given the restaurant's name, many diners start off with a platter of oysters ($2.95 each) shucked a la minute. The wait staff does a good job of describing the characteristics of each of the half-dozen-plus options, from clean and sweet Compass Points (Samish Bay, Washington) to briney, meaty Thatch Islands (Cape Cod, Massachusetts).
Grouper cheeks, one of the entree options in the rotating Catch of the Day section of the menu, offers delicate layers of flavor that invite the diner to discover more with each bite of flaky, fatty flesh swimming in a warm, rich brodo crowded with shiitake mushrooms, bok choy and peppers.
For all that, Bruell will insist the restaurant's lack of white tablecloths was no oversight.
"Alley Cat is supposed to be a shore restaurant. Shore restaurants are mainstream restaurants. They're not supposed to be fine dining," he explains, nonplussed. "If you look across the river, you're looking at Shooters. That's my take on Shooters."
It might be hard to take that claim seriously, but there is truthfully something on the menu for everyone, not just adventurous gastronomes. The fried perch sandwich ($16) is reminiscent of Dynomite's popular burgers, complete with shredded pickled vegetables, brioche buns and messy fingers. And while we can't recommend adding a side of hush puppies ($6) for a dressed-up fish fry — they're inconsistent, at times dry and unremarkable — you won't miss them between the oversized sandwich and heaping mound of crispy, hand-cut fries.
Even the seafood-averse will find plenty to love on Alley Cat's menu. Bruell himself counts the flavorful fatty and chewy pork steak ($20) among his personal favorites, and we can't say enough about the chili braised beef ($20) — except "more please." Its generous, fork-tender shoulder roast is topped with creamy slices of avocado and nestled into saucy piles of pico de gallo and chili crema, while a side of absurdly crunchy plantain chips and the restaurant's standard-issue cilantro and lime wedge garnish offer textural contrast and brightness.
The menu is your oyster here: There are dozens of great options if you only try it. And with Alley Cat in its infancy and its owner's incessant drive toward perfection, Clevelanders have a lot more to look forward to under Bruell's creative culinary direction. As more hot spots replicate themselves for East and West side access, you can be sure any new Bruell joint won't be more of the same.
"It's never good enough. It can always be better. That's the challenge, to get people to produce something better," he says of his restaurant and of the Cleveland scene in general. "I'm trying to reach the masses, but I'm not compromising to do that."
When You Go: Alley Cat Oyster Bar,1056 Old River Road, Cleveland, 216-574-9999,alleycatoysterbar.com, Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri & Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.