Joshua is tall, ruggedly good-looking and built like a quarterback. As a server, he's also a little bit fidgety, and he doesn't seem quite sure where to look. He introduces himself and offers bread, but he hasn't entirely mastered the technique of manipulating two spoons — almost like chopsticks — to lift the crusty slices to the plate. It's easy to dismiss his slight awkwardness as endearing. But he is also surprising: He explains that this technique is called Frenching, and as he talks, a burst of confidence spreads to his fingers. Now he deftly combs through the basket to deliver the "good pieces." Later, he shares his enthusiasm for spring ramps and divulges the secret of where to forage for elusive morels (dead elm trees). The bread keeps coming.
There are a lot of layers to Edwins Restaurant. It's part fine-dining restaurant, part culinary school, part lifeline to the marginalized. In any other white-tablecloth hotspot, Joshua might stand out a bit. Yet at Edwins, he and any of his human flaws are woven into the restaurant's fabric.
Joshua and 39 of his peers make up the second cohort of students at Edwins, but this is a school of hard knocks. Like those around him - including founder Brandon Chrostowski — Joshua has a criminal history.
"Every day is borrowed time," says Chrostowski, who had "a lot of energy and little guidance" growing up in Detroit. At 18 (he is now only 34), he found himself facing a five- to 10-year sentence for running from the police. It's a story he's told before (see "Food for Thought" in our October 2013 issue). He got off with only a year's probation, but it was a break he knows not many are fortunate enough to receive. He took his second chance and worked his way up through some of the world's top restaurants, including Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and stints at Michelin-starred spots such as Lucas Carton in France and Picholine in New York.
"I said, 'I've got to give back this great opportunity,' " Chrostowski says. "I'll build a restaurant that teaches everything I was taught. All the little lessons of humility and hard work and respect of skill, of a team, of community, all of that." Frustrated with the high rate of recidivism and determined to bring hope to a demographic with little chance of success in a fiercely competitive job market, Chrostowski wrote the business plan for what would become Edwins back in 2004.
He formally launched the organization in New York in 2007. After coming to Cleveland, he worked as the general manager at Zack Bruell's L'Albatros Brasserie & Bar every evening, then figured out the details for Edwins in a donated office in Little Italy during the wee hours of the night. The restaurant finally opened its doors in November 2013.
Chrostowski calls the vibe French Industrial, and the decor mixes Warhol-esque portrait art with a vintage wooden host stand, purple velvet curtains and exposed brick. It feels lush and just a little bit gritty, which perhaps is apropos.
The classic French cuisine is prepared in a form rarely seen in today's rustic-with-a-twist scene. While Chrostowski wrote the opening menu, he has since handed over the reins to executive chef Gilbert Brenot, a born-and-bred Frenchman. "There's nothing better than getting yelled at by a French chef," Chrostowski laughs.
Salade Nicoise, frog legs with garlic, parsley and butter, escargot and braised rabbit (not to mention a generous vegan menu) showcase local produce and give students the opportunity to learn the fundamentals at the elbow of the unsmiling Brenot.
Perusing the menu at Edwins feels exciting, like dressing up in your parents' shoes. There is no condescending maitre d' to spoil the fun, and English subtitles keep the French menu approachable with plenty of options for every diner.
There were flaws. Rabbit pie with parmesan and prosciutto crust ($10) sounded indulgent, but the crust was limp and the taste quick to disappear from the palate. A hugely proportioned country pate ($10) was at the opposite end of the spectrum, containing enough garlic to clear the room.
But the paupiettes de poisson ($29) featured crispy, thin-as-paper potatoes enveloping a perfectly cooked filet of halibut — the type of fish rotates based on what's fresh — swimming in a silky, mauve, perfectly emulsified beurre rouge, a sauce made from reduced red wine and shallots. It was good enough to forgive any transgression, including the accompanying overcooked green beans.
Likewise, sauteed sea scallops with grapefruit ($28) were hit-and-miss. The scallops were cooked with finesse, crispy and golden on the outside, creamy on the inside, and the dish was stunning with its neat pink citrus segments without a trace of pith. But a pile of sauteed ramps were chewy and stringy, and the grapefruit sauce slightly bitter.
While a fussy and critical diner might feel disappointed elsewhere, it is difficult not to fall in love with the place simply for its soul. At its heart, Edwins is a school, and no one experience — good or bad — will ever be truly replicated. Dishes are produced by students who learn in the afternoon and practice in the evening, rotating through the various front- and back-of-the-house roles as part of a five-week crash course in the fundamentals.
"You can buy nice china, and you can buy nice glasses and whatever, but you can't buy energy," Chrostowski emphasizes. Servers like Joshua get nervous making suggestions, because they aren't used to being listened to or respected much. "When somebody orders duck, and [their server] recommends a glass of Bordeaux, that's huge, man," says Chrostowski. "They were living in a shelter, and now they're selling Bordeaux."
When You Go: Edwins Restaurant, 13101 Shaker Square, Cleveland, 216-921-3333, edwinsrestaurant.org, Mon-Wed 4-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 4-11:30 p.m.