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The key to the future of Cleveland cocktails may be the vacant lot next door


"Dave," I said with grave concern, "we've got a pork rind situation over here."

The back of my wife's vintage white coat was stained red from the barbecue-dusted pork rind residue on my fingers, and I had no clue what to do. It was a first-world problem, to be sure, the sort of thing that happens only to people who buy their food at gas stations or dine at farm-to-table restaurants. Thankfully, Spice Kitchen's bartender extraordinaire Dave Hridel springs into action with some club soda and manages the situation. Just weeks earlier, he had comforted my wife during a particularly nasty bout of the flu with a hot toddy of salt water, ginger syrup and lemon.

Hridel spends his days pouring beer and slinging cocktails amidst a sea of housemade syrups, infusions, tinctures and still-living potted herbs. But don't be fooled: he is squarely in the business of delighting guests. Little gestures like these are par for the course at Spice, a Detroit Shoreway restaurant that exists at the intersection of hospitality and sustainability.

Chef-owner Ben Bebenroth's farm-to-table approach is at once remarkable and anything but new. "We put our sweat, effort and talent to work for us in procurement of perfect ingredients and letting those ingredients stand on their own," he explains. Much of Spice's meat and produce is grown within 120 miles – or closer thanks to the restaurant's backyard garden and another 10,000-square-foot plot in Broadview Heights.

He's not alone. Down the street from Spice, at Toast, workers have just finished installing raised beds in an empty lot adjacent to the restaurant, which dishes up "revitalized farm fare." Owner Jill Davis says, "I think it's important that people know where their food comes from."

But this is a drinks column, so what's in for me?

At Toast, bar manager Kevin Wildermuth can already imagine the possibilities. "It's going to be so nice to just walk across the street in the morning and find whatever herbs I need for a special that night," he says. Anticipating a bumper crop of fresh lemon thyme, Wildermuth devised the summery Lemon Time, a mix of muddled fresh lemon thyme, Bluecoat gin, gomme syrup, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and lemon juice. "I think we're going to need to invest in a chalkboard menu," he said.

For bartenders like Wildermuth and Hridel, a nearby garden means never having to be bored behind the bar.

Hridel, for his part, is like a kid in a candy store. "If you came in during the dead of winter, we had peaches on the menu." he says, referring to his Peach Tarragon Sipper, a cocktail made from house-spiced rum, Ohio peach puree, lime juice and tarragon syrup. "Our downstairs freezers were packed with peaches, rhubarb, Ohio grapes, strawberries, blackberries and apples."

In fact, Spice's harvest is so vigorous that items like baby arugula – which the restaurant can't utilize as quickly as it grows – are sold off to other Cleveland restaurants like Flying Fig.

In addition to Hridel's regular line-up of garden-fueled cocktails, he will soon launch a four-date Farm-To-Bar Cocktail Series on Spice's back patio. Each class will highlight a different ingredient at the peak of its freshness, beginning with strawberries on June 23 and ending with apples on September 29. Drinks will be made at each table and food will be provided.

"There will be three different applications for the same fruit for each class," Bebenroth explains. "We're going to do one infusion, one syrup, one fresh fruit muddle. If you have fresh strawberries in your refrigerator and did zero preparation, you can still make a fantastic cocktail."

For Hridel, not surprisingly, it all circles back to hospitality. "If you have friends coming over on Saturday, start on Friday and you can be done that night for your cocktail party," he said. "And why not get those fresh berries from the farmer's market while you're at it?"

For more information about the series, visit spicekitchenandbar.com. Classes are $40 per person. Call (216) 961-9637 for reservations.


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