There have been attempts to tackle the succulent food of France, but the only local successes in this area are Chez Francois in Vermilion, which is nearly as close to Toledo as it is to central Cleveland, and the year-old Tartine in Rocky River.
But leave it to Zack Bruell, who has been opening restaurants here for nearly 25 years, to blast into the market and create a completely French environment with the most authentic French food Cleveland has seen. He’s discovered a perfect niche for his French brasserie and bar in University Circle at the former That Place on Bellflower. He has also renovated and reopened the 40-person patio the previous tenant was known for, and a bocce court is soon to follow.
“I never even considered that French wouldn’t work,” Bruell says. “This is my food, I knew it would work, I never thought otherwise.”
Bruell’s world is his restaurants. He balances 80-hour weeks between Parallax in Tremont and Table 45 at the InterContinental Hotel, of which he is part-owner. He has practically abandoned his passion for golf, unless it is on one of the restaurant’s televisions. Yet Bruell seems happier now than at any other time in the 24 years I have followed his exploits.
Of course, Bruell is right when he says French will sell in Cleveland. L’Albatros is packed, from its prenoon open to its midnight close with an audience that ranges from students to the corporate elite. The clientele are all here for the same thing: the amazing food, the fine service and the low prices. Of the 21 regular entrées, only four cost more than $20, and even those don’t top $22.
The mazelike interior gives the impression that the restaurant is much smaller than it is, but the little rooms where you get only minimal glances into other seating areas leave you feeling as though the place is all your own.
Jump in with a starter of escargot ($8). Simmering in fennel butter and toasted garlic, these are some of the best snails I have had. The only ones that eclipse them were cooked in marrowbones at a little restaurant in Beaune, France.
If escargot are a little on the wild side for you, try the chicken liver and fois gras mousseline with toast points ($9). This buttery, rich combo works beautifully with a glass of Champagne that cuts through the rich mousse. The onion soup ($7), smothered with cheese and enhanced with bits of shredded beef, is soothing. But as the weather turns, so should your palate — toward the delicious split pea ($6), a creamy beauty.
The French toast ($8) is a simple treat. This toasted brioche topped with a ragout of mushrooms and a little balsamic syrup has to be Bruell’s counter to biscuits and gravy. Then, of course, his take on it is much richer than that Southern staple.
Much of the L’Albatros menu is what Bruell calls simple, everyday food. At least that’s what it is in France. Here, it seems a little more daring. So skip around some of the simpler salads and dive right into the frisée and bacon lardons topped with a poached egg ($9). This salad, with Dijon mustard vinaigrette, chunks of bacon, a runny egg and almost spicy greens, could be an entire lunch.
Grazing through the L’Albatros menu can be a difficult task, especially if it’s your first time here. Should you go with the classic mussels and pomme frites ($16) or the skate wing with brown butter ($18)? Or maybe you’d rather the rich pied de cochon ($17) — meat from a pig’s foot —which looks like the biggest bratwurst you have ever seen.
If you are torn between entrées, it’s really not a problem. Bruell has made it easy to try three at a time. The cassoulet ($22) includes lamb, duck confit and a plump sausage. The Alsace-inspired choucroute garni ($21) with tangy sauerkraut, smoked pork chop, sausage and pork belly offers another heart-stopping trio of meats that keeps you eating to the finish, even though halfway through you swore you’d never finish.
Bruell has long had a deft hand when it comes to seafood, and there are plenty of examples of fish on both the regular entrées as well as on the daily special menu. Trout has always been a favorite of mine, but only if I pulled it from the water; nothing else will do it. Bruell’s almond-crusted trout ($19) swimming in melted truffle butter is stunning. OK, it may be a little rich, but every once in awhile you should indulge in the finer things in life.
The veal short rib ($22) has to be L’Albatros’ most seductive comfort food. The tender veal sits atop a wild mushroom risotto drowning in veal juice gravy. The veal picks up flavor absorbed from the juice and mushrooms. It is a classic dish.
It is possible to eat “light” at L’Albatros. There is a fine vegetable cassoulet ($15), vegetarian pasta ($15), vegetable pizza ($12) and grilled salmon over lentils ($16) — though you would have to 86 the béarnaise sauce on that one. Sacre bleu!
Of the small selection of a la carte dishes, there are a few not to be missed: the pomme frites ($6) and the crispy cauliflower ($6), which is a real sleeper. I requested béarnaise for the frites, and let me tell you, you’ll never want for ketchup again — although it may shorten your life a bit.
The desserts here look quite tempting. They range from frozen Grand Marnier souffle ($6) to pineapple tarte tatine ($7) and a gorgeous chocolate Napoleon ($7). But no one had room for these delights. Forgoing the sweets for cheese seemed prudent. There is an ever-changing selection of top-quality cheese (three for $9, five for $12 and seven for $15), and a few bites to wash down the last bit of wine was the French way to go anyway.