When we talk about Cleveland's robust dining scene, names like Symon, Sawyer, Boccuzzi, Small, Vedaa and Katz invariably pop up. For those with a deeper comprehension, so too do the names Quagliata, Abramof, Bosley, Minnillo, Bruell and Lucarelli, on whose collective shoulders the entire framework rests.
It's forgivable that the name Brad Friedlander isn't often part of the discussion; after all, he's not a chef. But one can argue that he's had just as much of an influence on the current state of affairs as any of those other culinary pioneers. Over the past 40 years, he's been the architect behind a dozen different restaurants, some of them positively groundbreaking. At a time when Cleveland diners were smugly cracking into deep-fried chimichangas at Chi-Chi's, Friedlander and partner Craig Sumers opened Lopez y Gonzalez, where a fresh-faced Rick Bayless dished up ceviches, tacos al carbon and authentic moles in a dining room blessedly devoid of kitsch.
Bayless was the first of many, many chefs who eventually left Friedlander's employ for free agency, going on to start restaurants of their own, either here or away. Lopez opened in 1980, a full seven years before Bayless would open his own first restaurant, the now-iconic Frontera Grill in Chicago.
"A lot of the success that I've had over the years has been based on the fact that I had Rick Bayless as my chef," says Friedlander. "It was like having van Gogh in your kitchen — the way he taught me, and us and everybody around him to treat food; how to take care of food."
When Moxie opened, with an equally fresh-faced Doug Katz in the kitchen, it immediately set the eastside ablaze with its ripped-from-Tribeca interior and gutsy American bistro fare. That Friedlander and Sumers managed to finesse that spectacle out of a flavorless office-park space further cemented their reputation as visionary restaurateurs.
"I used to be in the film business and so, when I went into the restaurant business, it was just like show business," Friedlander says.
Moxie was put to bed this past April after an impressive 22-year run. Its name, along with those of Lopez, Cafe Brio, Boca, Red and other Friedlander-attached projects, will be memorialized on graffiti-wrapped columns outside Blu, the restaurant that will replace it. After countless tweaks, overhauls and adjustments at the Beachwood bistro, the decision was made to make a fresh start.
"Moxie was an exciting restaurant for many years, but it just ran its course," he explains. "Kids have grown up eating at Moxie and they kind of want something new. I'm always trying to appeal to a younger clientele."
Friedlander says that the idea for Blu came to him soon after he opened Red in 2005. Moxie had always been a seafood-heavy restaurant, but it continued to inch in that direction with each additional steak sold next door. Come early July, it will become a full-throated fish house. To prepare for the metamorphoses, the interior of the restaurant has been largely reworked. A sea of tables in the dining room has been replaced by sexy half-moon booths. The effect is to increase style and comfort while trimming seating by nearly 25 percent. Other treatments, like slatted ceilings, will make the space feel smaller.
Also taking up real estate in the dining room will be a raw bar, with seven feet of ice proudly displaying the season's freshest catch. Oysters, clams, shrimp, lobsters, crab and other pristine luxuries will be available by the piece at both the raw bar and tables, where a separate menu will be available.
While still a work in progress, the menu will offer small plates, shareable appetizers, a la carte entrees and composed dishes. All will be overseen by executive chef Joe Lang. Diners can look forward to starters like shimmering seafood towers, charred octopus, scallops St. Jacques, crab cakes and stuffed clams. Larger plates might include bouillabaisse, lobster Thermidor, Dover sole, king crab and live lobster. There will be lighter fare like lobster rolls and shrimp Po' Boys and heavier mains like racks of lamb and grilled steak.
After 40 years in the cut-throat restaurant industry, one might expect Friedlander to want to coast gracefully into his golden years, especially after a few high-profile misses like 811 and the recent closures and restructuring of Red. But the man simply is powerless to resist the siren song, even when the path is rocky.
"Things go wrong every day, but it's part of what I love about this business," he says. "It's all-consuming. If you want to be successful at this business, you have to give it everything. I'm here 18 hours a day and I love it. It's never been about money for me; it's always been about the food."