Dining » Dining Lead

A Chef's Dream

Restaurateurs Trade Their Popular Bistro For A Farm-country Adventure

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Nick Kustala is acting like a kid in a candy store. But this store is actually a butcher shop and the candy in question is a freshly slaughtered hog. The locally reared swine hangs from a shiny steel meat hook, and the butcher is waiting for instruction on how Kustala wants it dismembered.

Kustala pulls out a crumpled piece of paper - a piggy cheat sheet he prepared for just this moment - and begins declaring his wishes. With his thumb and forefinger, the chef illustrates how fat he wants the chops sliced. Very fat. Keep the hind legs whole, he says next, because he intends to hang them for prosciutto. The pig's belly is left intact so that it can be rolled, tied and cured into pancetta. One shoulder is cut into stew meat, the other ground up with extra fat for sausage meat. And on it goes until the 250-pound beast has been reduced to a dozen or so tidy paper-wrapped bundles.

"This is the sort of thing I never had time to do when I was running Lure," Kustala says with a grin.

Nick and Giovanna, his wife and business partner, recently unloaded their popular eight-year-old Willoughby bistro, selling it outright to the chef de cuisine. While the restaurant was - and still is - a commercial success, it is clear that the owners were ready for a change.

"I felt like if I had to cook one more crab-crusted grouper, I'd fucking scream," Nick says, only half-jokingly.

What the Kustalas wanted was a nice piece of property where the couple could put down some roots, finally start a family and run an intimate little restaurant. It was a business model the chef had witnessed early on in his career, and it has been a personal ambition ever since.

During culinary school at Johnson & Wales, Kustala worked for a chef who lived in a roomy New England Victorian. He and his family resided upstairs, and on the main floor he operated a small, upscale restaurant. The rambling property had herb gardens, vegetable patches and fruit trees, which the chef looted when preparing the menu.

"I remember thinking how awesome that arrangement was," says Nick. "It was all very European and my boss always seemed happy."

When the Kustalas began the search for their ideal estate, no location was off the table. They looked in Vermillion, Bratenahl, Hiram, Cleveland Heights. When they made their way through Austinburg, a small town in northern Ashtabula County, it was in the midst of harvest season and the aroma of grape jam hung in the air.

"I looked at my wife and said, 'Do you smell that?'" recalls Nick. The couple agreed that the area, the wine-flush Grand River Valley, deserved a closer look. Not a mile down the road they pulled up to a stately red-brick farmhouse with a "For Sale" sign stuck in the lawn. The building's owner agreed to show them inside the house and around the 20-acre compound. Nick wrote him a check on the spot. The "For Sale" sign had been up for just half a day.

That was two years ago and during the intervening months, Nick and Giovanna have been hard at work constructing their dream. When it opens in late January, the Estate on Coffee Creek will be an intimate and elegant restaurant that seats only 25 guests. The first floor of the 5,000-square-foot, 19th-century Italianate is broken up into four cozy dining rooms, if you could call them that. The largest can accommodate about a dozen close friends; the smallest, just two couples.

Luxe touches like Tiffany-style chandeliers, stained-glass windows, a marble fireplace mantel and warm mahogany trim imbue the space with old-world charm; the house was built by a returning gold-rusher and it looks that way. Tempering that gaudy opulence are playful touches like faux-snakeskin wallpaper, a menagerie of wall-mounted taxidermy and a porthole cut into the floor that peers into the wine cellar.

Though the bulk of the house is largely traditional, the new kitchen is decidedly modern. By removing a wall, Nick had room to construct a professional kitchen three times the size he suffered at Lure. The floors are slate, the vent hoods are copper and the walls are wrapped in gleaming white subway tiles. Yards of counter space will facilitate Nick's private cooking classes.

Hanging on the kitchen wall are two framed menus, each signed by the chefs of the respective restaurants. They are souvenirs from an orgiastic food trip to Chicago where Nick and Giovanna dined at Alinea and Charlie Trotter's. While these two restaurants serve vastly different cuisines, they share a bold conviction: that diners can be pampered without being babied. Both restaurants employ tasting menus, which compel diners to eat what the chef feels like cooking.

Similarly, the Estate on Coffee Creek will offer only a prix fixe tasting menu, priced at $125 per person for 10 to 12 courses. Giovanna's wine pairings cost extra. Though items change weekly, the courses will adhere to a fixed arrangement, taking diners on a culinary journey from soup to sweets. Along the way, there are tastes from the garden, the sea, the grill, the wild and from wherever it is cheese hails.

"Are tasting menus for everybody?" Nick asks rhetorically. "Of course not. But if you have a sense of adventure, if you are willing to put yourself in the hands of the chef and let him do what it is he does, then they definitely are for you."

It's not surprising that Nick is desperate for a dose of creative liberty. When he was running Lure, he had no freedom. Even though Lure was a bona fide seafood restaurant, Nick was obliged to keep steak on the menu. ("You gotta have a filet," he groans.) Worse, Lure's tiny kitchen forced Nick to take culinary shortcuts, like serving the same starch and veg with multiple entrées.

Now that much of the heavy renovation is behind him, Nick has the freedom to chase perfection. In his immediate area there are apple orchards, berry patches, poultry farms, pork producers and suppliers of still-warm goat's milk. A short drive south lands the chef in Amish country, where weekly produce auctions keep his pantry well stocked with local goodness. "It's like a chef's wet dream out here," he says.

But are diners willing to drive long distances to pay large sums of money for dinner in this economy?

"We are a special-occasion restaurant and I don't mind saying it," explains Nick. "All we need is 2,000 guests per year to fill our seats." That's about a dozen guests each on Friday and Saturday night, the only days the restaurant will be open. Located roughly equidistant from Cleveland, Youngstown and Erie in the heart of Ohio wine country, Kustala is confident he can succeed.

If you ask him, he already has. Adjusting comfortably in the upstairs living quarters, the Kustalas just welcomed their first child, Nick Jr., into the fold.

"Both Giovanna and I are only children," divulges Nick. "And growing up, both of our fathers worked so much they were rarely around the house. My wife and I knew we wanted to work together and have our family around as much as possible. This allows us to do that."

dining@clevescene.com

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