Long hours, small paychecks, high expectations — the life of a chef is demanding, stressful and challenging. But when Michael Schoen fell in love with the craft as a teenager, he wasn’t thinking about any of those things. He just wanted to cook.
The Euclid native, who opened the Spanish-inspired Sol 10 months ago in downtown Willoughby, started working in local pubs and restaurants as a dishwasher and busser before latching on at a local catering company where he learned knife skills. It was there that he and his fellow classmate and friend, Matthew Mytro, began experimenting with simple recipes such as macaroni and cheese — and he was hooked.
“We didn’t have milk, so I’m like, Let’s use some cream cheese,” Schoen says. “It kind of showed me that if I played with certain things I can manipulate a dish and make it taste good. I’m just not following the recipe off the back of the box.”
Schoen went on to work at Mytro’s Boulevard Blue on Shaker Square and Heather Haviland’s Lucky’s Cafe in Tremont before working on the Dim and Den Sum food truck with chefs Jeremy Esterly and Chris Hodgson in 2010. But the slow food sales of a food truck during Cleveland’s harsh winters led Schoen and his then-girlfriend to look for opportunities beyond the Cuyahoga.
The couple moved to Chicago, and later married, when Schoen scored a sous chef position at the Hopleaf Bar before moving on as the executive chef at the James Beard Award-winning Mindy Segal’s Hot
A year later, he rejoined the Hopleaf Bar as its executive chef. He learned a lot about running a restaurant, managing a staff, teaching chefs techniques and working with purveyors on food costs. It required long hours, and his wife had just given birth to their first son.
“Most people think being a chef is a cool job, and it is if you have a passion for it,” Schoen says. “But at the same time it’s extremely stressful.”
The pressures took their toll. “Five or six years ago cooking was f---ing badass, you know? That’s all I wanted to do,” he says. “A lot of that gets lost when you go from a professional cook into being a chef.”
So he put down his knives and returned to Cleveland.
“It was just the perfect opportunity for me, my wife and my son to kind of reconnect,” he says. “I was so busy that I kind of missed out on my son’s first year.”
But the clinks and clanks of pots and pans, sizzle of steaks on a hot grill and whir of blenders called Schoen back to the kitchen. After a quick stint helping open Great Scott Tavern in Euclid alongside chef Michael Keyerleber, he partnered with David Bartulovic to launch Sol in the former Gavi’s space in October 2015. The original menu focused on traditional Spanish flavors with lots of tapas and small plates using ingredients such as malanga root.
“I thought it was cool,” he says. “But the general public just did not get it.”
Diners came in asking for enchiladas and tacos. “We’re just not that place, man,” he remembers thinking. “So we went back to the drawing board.”
The latest iteration of the menu, which kicked off in mid-June, blends many of those Spanish flavors but with an Americana twist.
A strong lineup of tapas showcases Schoen’s ability to elevate dishes by using the simplest of ingredients. The Spanish street corn ($6) — a trio of cobs slathered in a delectable spread of basil aioli, espelette breadcrumbs and manchego cheese — shines.
The same can be said of the grilled avocado ($8). Great for those late-summer nights, the creamy appetizer, which comes with a side of plantain chips for scooping, is filled with diced cucumber and fresh corn kernels. A cilantro and lime pesto adds a zesty touch.
Fans of calamari will love Schoen’s spin on the classic ($12). The addition of pickled chilies and a basil aioli brings a brightness to the dish, which is cooked to tender
The tapas menu also includes a duo of toasts. Order the serrano ham and cucumber version ($10). Served on crusty sourdough, a layer of spicy house-made mustard gives way to paper-thin, salty pieces of ham topped with crunchy cucumbers and shaved manchego for a dichotomy of flavors.
While there are only three salads, each is diverse and large enough to stand as a meal. The most impressive — the grilled romaine salad ($9) — shows off the bounty of the summer’s harvest with corn, snap peas and strawberries nestled on a stalk of expertly charred lettuce. Goat cheese and a buttermilk-basil dressing provided some needed zing.
With an impressive list of entrees from grilled octopus, scallops and grilled chicken skewers, there are a few standouts and plenty of choices to keep customers returning.
The cod ($22) is dredged lightly in cornstarch and rice flour before it gets pan-seared. House-cured bacon lardons, crispy baby Yukon potatoes, a tomato and corn succotash, and aji amarillo sauce — a play on romesco sauce using aji chili peppers — complement the dish with a salty, smoky flavor.
The marinated flank steak ($24) has remained on the menu since day one. And it’s easy to see why. The 10-ounce cut is marinated in chilies, cilantro, scallions and house-made fermented black garlic. It’s flash-grilled and served with a house-made garlic aioli and smoked tomatillo salsa.
A grilled double bone-in pork chop ($22) unites both Americana and Spanish cuisines nicely with grilled Ohio peaches, fried green tomatoes and a corn sofrito. A 24-hour brine of lemon and bay leaves gives the chops its tender, flavorful taste.
“You see sofritos all throughout Latin America: Cuba, Puerto Rico. And then they use it a lot in Spain,” says Schoen. “We just made a traditional sofrito and then we added sweet Ohio corn to it. So it’s got sweetness, it’s got a lot of bite from the garlic.”
If you think Schoen is playing to his critics, he’s ready to prove you wrong. He continues to push the envelope even if some of his dishes don’t resonate with his customers. Take the grilled beef short ribs ($20) with fried plantains, red peppers, scallions, and a cilantro and mint salad. Served Korean-style, the meat is cut to naturally be a little bit chewier. But the beef jerky look and texture has been falling short, and he’s pulling it off the menu despite it being one of his favorite dishes.
“It took me that couple two menus to realize you can still make great food, that you can still show yourself on the plate and through your menu,” he says. “But I think it’s even more of a challenge to give people what they want and still kind of squeeze out you.”