In the early 1990s, Kaplan left his job at a New York advertising firm to become a chef. He got his start in a variety of little-known Italian joints, eventually becoming a chef at Sfuzzi, a popular, upscale Italian restaurant. In 1991, he moved to Cleveland to run the newly opened Sfuzzi outpost in Tower City.
Kaplan’s low-key charm worked well with customers, and it wasn’t long before he had a group of backers knocking on his door. In October 1993, he opened Marlin on East Sixth Street, and quickly grew his mini-empire to include Pig Heaven, a Southern barbecue house, and Lira, an Italian restaurant.
Within a year, it was apparent that Kaplan had bitten off more than he could chew. He closed Lira, then Pig Heaven and, painfully, shuttered his namesake bistro, the one-time must-stop spot for every foodie in town, in the summer of 1998.
Kaplan spent a year analyzing what went wrong. He thought about leaving Cleveland altogether — but instead he jumped into a new project, One Walnut. It opened in September 1999 and has built a quiet but strong reputation for good food in a sophisticated atmosphere.
Now, like a phoenix rising, Kaplan has relaunched himself solidly into the local limelight with Luxe, in the ever-more-popular Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.
My 15-year-old memories of the opening nights at Marlin are reminiscent of my recent visits to Luxe: a boisterous crowd squeezed into a tiny bistro. “[Luxe] is a modest little restaurant, a fun little restaurant,” Kaplan says. “It is a one-of-a-kind, and I plan to keep it that way.”
His vision is evident on first glance: Whatever you do, stop on your way in or out to read some of the great quotes painted on the windows.
There’s Yogi Berra’s “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.” And James Beard’s sage words, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
My favorite is fromMadmagazine’s Alfred E. Newman: “We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons.”
Inside, the 90-seat restaurant features a long, classic bar Kaplan resurrected from an old tavern in Collinwood (part of his efforts to create a green-friendly space, filled with salvaged pieces and funky old place settings).
Energy reverberates through the dining room and bar; neither area is quiet. Noise in a restaurant generally means success, but for some diners it may be a bit much.
The menu has a strong Mediterranean flavor, but there’s still room for Black Angus burgers, a roasted chicken sandwich and several other dishes on the nightly special board. Nearly every section of the menu includes at least one vegetarian dish.
“I didn’t want people to be intimidated by the food,” says Kaplan. “I think we’re doing so well because of the pricing. It is the major component of why we are so popular.” Those reasonable prices, including just-above-retail-price wines, have return customers coming in two and three times a week.
The menu at Luxe starts with shared plates, ranging from a bowl of olives ($4.50) and crispy calamari with fried scallions, spicy tomatoes and lemon aioli ($8.50) to chicken and porkpinchos with a chile garlic sauce ($5.50) and a baker’s dozenharissa-dusted chicken wings with yogurt sauce ($8).
The calamari, crispy and a little spicy, was a good choice for sharing. The lemon aioli was a surprising and successful change from the boring marinara sauce served with this dish in most restaurants.
Another tapas-style dish, the veal-stuffed hot pepper ($7), was a large portion that arrived overstuffed with ground veal. The pepper was definitely on the hot side, and this shared plate was just right for two.
The small-plates section of the menu isn’t very big, but it covers a lot of ground. The onion soup gratiné ($5) with Gruyère and an oversize crouton was delicious. Nicely caramelized sweet onions, a good stock and just the right amount of gooey cheese made it delightful.
The spiced quail with a balsamic reduction and spinach ($12.50) also hit a high note. The sweet quail meat, which on this tiny bird means the two small breasts, was succulent and tangy.
From the list of three salad options, we chose the tasty Luxe Caesar with pancetta, Parmesan cheese and garlic crisps ($6.50). The unusual but simple pairing of pancetta with the dish turned an everyday item into something new and exciting.
There are five different pasta plates on the menu. The fettuccini carbonara with bacon, garlic and a sunny-side-up egg ($12) is an excellent one. The richness of the egg yolk, which becomes a major part of the sauce, makes the dish. Two other good choices are the hearty rigatoni with hot Italian sausage, peppers, onions, fresh tomatoes and oregano ($10.50), and the potato gnocchi with asparagus and tomato saffron sauce ($11). That bowl of rigatoni took me back to Kaplan’s rustic Italian dishes at Sfuzzi, where his big, bold flavors were first unleashed on our city.
The gnocchi, soft pillows swimming in a tomato saffron sauce, showed the 2008 Kaplan, with a lighter, more sophisticated touch. It is also the No. 1 seller on the Luxe menu.
Sandwiches run the gamut from grilled duck with peppers, basil, spinach, provolone and lemon aioli ($12) to a roasted portobello mushroom sandwich with onion straws and garlic aioli ($7.50).
Kaplan offers five “large plate” daily specials. A hangar steak was a good bet on one visit and a moist and tender swordfish steak was also an outstanding selection.
Only a handful of restaurants in this city have started out with large numbers and managed to maintain their popularity over the long haul. Kaplan did it once before with Marlin, and he’s headed down the same road with Luxe.
“I’m struck by the mix of people, from old to young, gays, straight, people coming from the theater all dressed up and others in a T-shirt and jeans,” he says.
This new venture is, in the end, both a departure and a return for Kaplan, who now spends his mornings at the all-grown-up One Walnut and his afternoons and evenings at the young, fresh Luxe.
“My vision was to build this very hip, European spot that fit into the neighborhood, capturing a little bit of what the old Marlin was,” he says.
With the well-received and immediately popular Luxe, he seems to have done just that.