During an afternoon snack at Noodlecat, a downtown Cleveland purveyor of noodles and Asian-style steamed buns, reality smacked home like a chuteless skydiver.
This bowl of noodle soup was making me jealous.
It was not only delicious, but thoughtful in its production. The garlicky, almost smoky pork broth was made from the same locally raised pigs that provided the shredded pork in its depths. The noodles were freshly made at another local company. The vegetables were grown at area farms. On another plate, a puffy white bun held a slice of light, tempura-fried Lake Erie walleye topped with bracingly peppery daikon radish. It turns out they grow daikon in Ohio, too.
“Noodlecat re-creates traditionally inspired flavors using locally sourced and sustainable business practices in all areas of restaurant operation,” the menu stated. Noodlecat is a restaurant with a mission statement.
As a business, it can afford to have a conscience because chef-owner Jonathon Sawyer is making good money at his flagship Cleveland restaurant, The Greenhouse Tavern. He was named Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chef for 2010,” and Greenhouse Tavern earned a spot in Bon Appetit’s “Top 10 New Restaurants” that year.
Customers have been coming ever since, from near and far. For tourists who like to eat, the refined rustic glory of The Greenhouse Tavern, with its roasted pig’s head with homemade barbecue sauce and crispy hominy salad, has become its own reason to go to Cleveland. Its spin-offs, including Noodlecat, are gravy, so to speak.
How did Cleveland get so awesome? I wondered, chopsticking up more noodles, and kale salad, and braised octopus, and pork belly. And what’s the chance Buffalo can follow suit?
Reality check: Cleveland is twice the size of Buffalo, meaning there are far more restaurant customers, fueling a more aggressive marketplace, with more potential investors.
I don’t think changes in the Buffalo restaurant landscape amount to a revolution. But in the months that followed my Cleveland trip, there has been a surge of interesting occurrences involving food, drinks and people who provide them to the public. Folks hellbent on deliciousness are planting seeds, shopping for real estate and holding secret seven-course dinner parties in undisclosed locations.
Spurred by the growth of a discerning, digitally expressive cadre of diners, hungry for the new and different, what can the Buffalo restaurant scene become? Given the developments in the last year, it’s a legitimate question to ask.
First, what happened in Cleveland?
In conversations with Cleveland restaurant owners, chefs and critics, four or five main factors contributed to the city’s renaissance as one of the hottest food destinations east of Chicago.
Down on the farm
The best-known one is Michael Symon. The shaven-head, tattooed, proud son of Cleveland cooked his way to national acclaim and onto the Food Network stage, becoming an Iron Chef, then co-host of ABC’s “The Chew,” joining Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali in the pantheon of ubiquity. He had the support of Michael Ruhlman, an award-winning food writer with a best-selling book list and his own television career, who championed Cleveland’s restaurants to his audiences.
As it turns out, Symon was the only the best-known face among a talented posse of chefs who already had opened praiseworthy restaurants before Symon commanded the spotlight as an Iron Chef in 2007.
“When Symon said, ‘Cleveland is awesome, check it out,’ he wasn’t lying,” said restaurant critic and author Douglas Trattner, who co-authored Symon’s “Carnivore.”
“Anybody can get up there and talk about their hometown, but he had stuff to back him up, so it wasn’t just ‘Here’s what I’m doing’ but ‘Here’s what Cleveland’s doing as a dining town, I’d think you’d be surprised.’ ”
But Symon was not the beginning, Trattner said. It started with the ingredients.
In the 1980s, an Ohio farmer named Bob Jones decided to refocus the flagging family farm: He went from pesticide-reliant commodity crops to growing specific vegetables, for specific chefs. He started with zucchini blossoms and baby lettuces, and built from there.
The farm was discovered by Chef Jean-Luis Palladin of Washington, D.C., Jones’ son Lee told Cleveland food blogger Michelle Venorsky. “Once [Palladin] figured out we were willing to pay attention and do it the right way, he got on the phone and called other chefs and said, ‘There is a farmer who is willing to listen,’ ” Lee Jones said. “He introduced us to Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Norman Van Aken, Ritz Carlton chefs.”
The Jones farm became Chef’s Garden, a leading grower of artisanal vegetables for restaurants across the United States and the world’s top chefs. Its fields produce more than 600 varieties of vegetables, micro greens, micro herbs, specialty lettuces and edible flowers.
The Joneses’ farm inspired others, and by the time Karen Small opened her Flying Fig bistro in 1999, she had a number of farmers to buy from locally. Flying Fig led Cleveland’s farm-to-table movement, making “local, seasonal and sustainable” its mantra. Business wasn’t great, and neither was Cleveland’s self-image, but like other chefs, Small “made a commitment to the city,” she said last year. “We were so beat up in so many levels that we sort of dug our heels in and turned to food.”
Meanwhile, the “boomerang effect” was bringing home chefs who had made their bones elsewhere before returning to their Cleveland roots. It wasn’t pure sentimentality – the city has relatively cheap real estate along with its access to excellent ingredients, Trattner said.
The customers were growing, too. “When I asked Cleveland chefs ‘What changed?,’ a lot of them pointed to diners starting to demand a better product,” he said. “Diners like me started demanding more, and less – more quality, less price and stuffiness.”
The new generation of restaurant diners supports local places, and they have influence through their “social media savvy,” said Trattner. “They’re Tweeting, Yelping, talking up these places in a way my parents never would have.”
Setting the bar high
So when Symon opened his flagship Lola in 1997, the conditions were right for a spark.
What happened in Cleveland? “Two words: Michael Symon,” said Cleveland Plain Dealer Food Editor Joe Crea. “A high tide lifts all boats.” The attention Symon brought to Cleveland helped everyone.
As important, Symon set a standard for how a chef should act, Crea said. “He recognizes he’s had good fortune, and he tried to extend and share that good fortune with other people. He set the bar higher, and as a result, a lot of other people said ‘If he can do it, I can too.’ ”
Trattner described the Symon effect this way: “He made it cool to be a Cleveland chef. He made it cool to be a Cleveland diner. He made it cool to be a Cleveland tourist.”
Symon is on morning talk shows now, but a squad of other young chefs like Jonathan Sawyer, who ran several kitchens for Symon before going independent, are helping erase the city’s outdated reputation as the “Mistake on the Lake.”
Dante Boccuzzi, who earned a Michelin star at Manhattan’s Aureole, returned home to open Dante, a modern Italian showcase that has won national attention. Then he opened more places, Japanese, modern American, and a family Italian place where the pasta is all housemade and only the scallops reach $20.
At Momocho, chef-owner Erik Williams has won attention for his modern Mexican, one of many Cleveland places packing them in for sophisticated, satisfying entrees in the $20 and under range. Williams won the undying love of tattooed hipsters and blue-collar types with Happy Dog, a bar that serves 75 beers and $3 boats of Tater Tots with as many of the 19 sauces, ranging from black truffle honey mustard to Oaxacan chocolate mole, as you want. And live polka happy hour on Fridays.
At Crop, chef-owner Steve Schimoller and partners have transformed a big, dead building – a former bank – into a grand room featuring modern American. Special parties can enjoy the bank vault dining room in the cellar.
Crop is kitty-corner from Cleveland’s famed West Side Market, anchoring one end of Cleveland’s West 25th Street restaurant strip. At least eight restaurants have opened there in the last two years, including a Southern place called SOHO, run by former Momocho chef Nolan Konkoski, dishing up pan-fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and a Low Country seafood boil with lobster butter. Prices top out at $18.
Another 25 places are worth mentioning, but here’s the point: Casual, affordable, local bistros are the heart of the revolution.
Farther up the lake
So what’s all that mean for Buffalo diners, besides making road trip plans? Let’s start by taking stock of what we do have.
We have hungry people, looking for more, different, better food. They will be fed. They want more from restaurants, and farmers’ markets, and breweries, and bakeries.
That desire has made places like Five Points Bakery (426 Rhode Island St., 884-8888) possible. Four years after Kevin and Melissa Gardner opened their locally focused whole-grain bakery, they’ve expanded, hiring employees and buying a building across the street. The Gardners’ business is thriving, despite their insistence on relatively expensive organic ingredients, a ban on white flour, and a West Side address.
Not too far away, on the Grant Street strip of ethnic groceries and food emporiums, Buffalo’s growing international community is expanding eating opportunities for everyone. Immigrants have added Ethiopian and Burmese cuisines to Western New York’s menu in the last year.
The demand for local, sustainable food produced with little or no chemical intervention has been rising steadily across Western New York, and farmers have been tuning into the demand for better vegetables. There are at least 16 community-supported agriculture farms serving subscribers, up from three in 2005. In the city, urban farms like the Massachusetts Avenue Project and the Wilson Street Farm are growing food and creating inner-city farm jobs.
Unlike in Cleveland, few local farms are growing specifically for Buffalo restaurants. Three farmer-chef gatherings organized by the nonprofit Field and Fork Network helped connect some buyers and sellers, and another is scheduled for Feb. 24-25 in Niagara Falls.
Buffalo already has a talented community of people working in locally owned restaurants, who have already made the city an excellent place to be hungry. The pool of kitchen talent is substantial, even if it seems like too much of it is dedicated to perfecting chicken parm.
And then there is Omakase, an underground dinner club that so far has held three finely crafted gourmet dinners, with the sites and chefs a tightly held secret. (You can try to get on the guest list at omakasebuffalo.com.)
Ambitious cooks have been leaving town to learn in high-end kitchens elsewhere. Some have returned and now run outstanding places here. But the number of ambitious cooks has outstripped the supply of appropriate jobs, making leaving Buffalo the choice for many.
Partly to combat that, Christa Glennie Seychew started Nickel City Chef. The Iron Chef-like live cooking competition, which showcases Buffalo chefs and local ingredients, has sold out all five seasons. Last year she added Firing Line, a Chopped-style competition, aimed at giving young cooks a chance to raise their profiles.
“I figured if people are going to buy Rachael Ray measuring cups and Bobby Flay cookbooks,” said Seychew, “they might as well know who’s sweating their tails off for them in the restaurant down the street.”
Seychew, now the food editor at Buffalo Spree, has been working to expand the reach of local restaurants for five years, starting with taking chefs on tours of area farms.
“My goal has always been nothing but to help grow, improve, and bring to victorious levels the local restaurant industry,” she said. “I am completely supportive in particular of independent restaurants, independent farms and small independent food businesses.”
This has made Seychew a popular person to seek out with ideas for food businesses. She estimates that she has 20 conversations a week with people who want to pick her brain. “Probably only 5 percent of those ever go anywhere,” she said. “But there has to be somebody people can go to and ask, who’s doing this? How can I do that?”
In July, with leading Buffalo chef Mike Andrzejewski, she started Buffalo’s first official restaurant industry night, where line cooks and other restaurant types can hang out socially. It’s free and open to the public.
Called IN, it’s held at Andrzejewski’s Seabar (475 Ellicott St. 332-2928) every other Monday night, usually enlivened with extras like tastings of whiskeys, fine cheeses or liquid nitrogen-powered mad scientist cocktails. It’s about relaxing, but also about stimulating discussions, ideas, and perhaps one day, partnerships.
All of this food-centric activity is reflected to a larger audience through a robust online community of food bloggers and activists, who provide countless glimpses into the kitchens and eating lives of Western New York. There’s at least a dozen, but Donnie Burtless and Alli Suriani of BuffaloEats.org have set the standard, compiling a vast, detailed portrait of the local eating world, with reviews, photographs and more. Burtless has interviewed more than 50 chefs, critics, owners, purveyors and other denizens of the food world in “Eat it Up,” his chatty podcast, available on the site.
He started with Seychew, the obvious choice as the most vocal proponent of the notion that Buffalo restaurants, as a group, can be better. “I am driven almost to the point of sleeplessness by this vision of Buffalo being considered a place you go to eat something marvelous besides wings,” Seychew told me.
She’s not alone in caring, though. Among those Seychew mentioned was Bruce Wieszala, a chef at Carmelo’s in Lewiston, which has its relationships with local farmers proudly noted on its menu.
Wieszala worked in top Atlanta kitchens and even cooked for an “Iron Chef America” episode, with Chef Linton Hopkins. When he came back to Buffalo five years ago, he found that few local kitchens knew how to break down a whole pig. So he started teaching classes, at conferences and Niagara County Community College’s culinary school. Over the years, he “probably showed more than 500 people the basics” of breaking down pigs, lambs, beef cattle and chickens.
Why? “I think it makes for a better environment in our industry, all around, for this area,” he said.
“It helps people grasp the concept that you don’t have to go through these big distributors to get whatever you’re going to sell at your restaurant. There’s plenty of farms in this area that you can get products from and just process it yourself. It’s a lot cheaper, and you’re actually helping support your own community by doing this.”
Wieszala crafts some of the Lockport-raised pork into Italian cured meats for serving at Carmelo’s and for sale at Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile. While he keeps busy working with chef-owner Carmelo Raimondi, serving meals like their suckling pig dinner for eight, Wieszala is itching to run his own place.
“I would love to have my own kitchen, whether as proprietor or chef. I definitely need to do that,” he said.
He’s not the only one itching for a kitchen. Some of Buffalo’s cooks are presenting their inspirations to the masses the only way they can: through a truck window. You can set up for less than $100,000, sometimes much less, if you get lucky finding a truck.
Lloyd the taco truck, run by Chris Dorsaneo and Pete Cimino, started the modern Buffalo food truck era in 2010. Three weeks into service, the truck’s engine blew. That could have sunk the entire enterprise. Seychew helped organize a successful party to raise cash for a new powerplant.
Last year the Lloyd partners spearheaded the shaping and passage of food truck regulations that make Buffalo a relatively safe zone for food trucks. Now there are 12 out there, dishing up everything from wood-fired pizza (Pizza Amore) to pork belly banh mi on an authentically crusty roll (Black Market). Local Web developer Derek Neuland even coded up a website to make the trucks easier to track: bflofoodtrucks.com.
Dorsaneo said he and Cimino extend a helping hand to the new truck owners. “We want to sit down and talk to them about our failures, because we don’t want to see them go down the same road. We’re willing to help out in any way possible.”
The night before Black Market was going to debut its menu on Elmwood Avenue two weeks ago, the truck’s generator ground to a groaning halt. The Lloyd guys found out, and called them to offer their generator. “That totally saved us,” said Black Market’s Mike Dimmer, and they used the loaner for two weeks.
“These people are going to be our competitors. They’re going to be taking dollars out of our pockets eventually, sure,” Dorsaneo said. “But we want to see the industry flourish.”
Once called a threat to restaurant jobs, the Lloyd outfit has become a job creator, with 13 employees, said Dorsaneo. “Winter slowed us down, it always does, but we’ve been able to pay our bills and keep our employees on for spring, instead of laying off,” he said.
Running two trucks with multiple shifts, Lloyd is considering adding a third in the short term. Then perhaps opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “Not with the Lloyd menu, though,” Dorsaneo said. “It’s got to be different, and it’s got to be awesome.”
So while there’s lots of interesting signs of ferment, Buffalo has a long way to go to match Cleveland in national restaurant buzz. Even if you have most of the ingredients, it doesn’t mean you’ll make a delicious cake.
But it’s a start.