The Romance between Justin Gorski and Laura Ross began as many good love stories do: in a corner bar listening to a wild-eyed Irish tribute band. Gorski was there that night to see old friends whom he knew through his own band, the Magpies, one of several Irish ensembles to which he contributed his classically trained talents.
As a working performer, Gorski would resume his post at a local catering company whenever he returned to his native Cleveland between tours. As a vegan, he found that experimenting with a cuisine more befitting of his lifestyle — Thai-inspired meals, creative stir-fries, dishes built around quinoa and rice — was leading him away from life on the road.
"He was coming home at night creating these beautiful, healthy vegan dishes," says Ross. "We kept saying to ourselves, 'This is what you should really be cooking, just so people know how flavorful vegan food can be,' since that's maybe somewhat of a criticism."
That laid the groundwork for the husband-and-wife team to launch their own catering company out of a rented kitchen in August, 2012. After two successful years, Gorski and Ross have upgraded to an all-vegan (cash-only) restaurant and café, Cleveland Vegan (17112 Detroit Ave., 216-832-7440, clevelandvegan.com), in their neighborhood of Lakewood. The couple still accepts catering orders.
Tuesday through Thursday, carryout salads, soups, and sandwiches will be available alongside bakery items so popular, they're sold in places such as Constantino's Market, Civilization Café, and even the Parker Hannifin cafeteria. Weekends kick into high gear with full table service and a rotating seasonal menu flush with fall-inspired dishes like butternut squash soup and cauliflower lasagna.
Perhaps most compelling is the planned weekend brunches, including pancakes with fruit compote and coconut-based whipped cream and a vegan version of "eggs" Benedict. The plan calls for making a large portion of the breads from scratch, including the biscuits under the housemade seitan gravy and the almond French toast.
Cleveland Vegan's upbeat and casual interior, featuring cheery yellow walls, does nothing to detract from that sunny brunch disposition. The new proprietors vow to honor the building's former life as the long-lived and beloved Wings Hobby Shop.
"We're going to really try to incorporate that history, the playfulness," Ross says while leaning against the wooden counter.
Directly behind her, the uncontained kitchen space allows for guests to watch all food being prepared. "In every way, we want to be as open and transparent as we can," Gorski says.
The front of the house is run by Ross, who benefits from an interactive background in teaching yoga and non-profit communications. It is filled with handmade, upcycled tables made by Ross, Gorski and friends.
"We're trying to be mindful of the build-out," Gorski explains. "We don't want to be wasteful."
"We're doing it as homegrown as we can," adds Ross.
As all of the work put into the project finally comes to fruition, Gorski admits other plans almost derailed Cleveland Vegan from ever happening.
"Before we started this, we were talking about moving to Austin," says Gorski. "I felt like by doing that I would be giving up on Cleveland a little bit. People here are DIY about taking what we have and doing something great with it."
These days, Gorski wears many hats — and a pretty famous beard — while moonlighting as DJ Kishka, the beloved accordion-wielding master of polka.
"The fulfillment from making music and being creative, I still get that now," he says. "It took me a while to understand that, but I do feel artistic. It's just from a different medium."