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Introducing the New Ohio City Galley Chefs

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It's been nine months since we learned that Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica had plans to bring their innovative food hall concept to Cleveland. Now, we have the scoop on the opening class of chefs — four separate operators who have signed leases to open original fast-casual concepts.

Like Smallman Galley and Federal Galley in Pittsburgh, Ohio City Galley will be a large, animated space with a bar, communal seating and multiple restaurant concepts. Construction is underway on the historic Forest City Bank Building at the corner of West 25th and Detroit Avenue, a turn-of-the-century structure on the National Register of Historic Places. Formerly home to Massimo Da Milano Italian restaurant, the 7,500-square-foot main-level space should be ready to welcome its first guests by mid-October, says Mantica.

Anthony Zappola quickly made a name for himself locally with Lox, Stock and Brisket, the modern Jewish deli he opened this spring near Cedar Center, but his original plan was to open the Rice Shop, a rice bowl concept he first launched in Las Vegas.

As a 12-year staffer of Tom Colicchio restaurants, Zappola landed in Sin City as executive chef of Heritage Steak. When that gig ended he went solo, reworking a strip mall Chinese takeout spot into a buzzy Asian-fusion concept that quickly gained critical acclaim.

"After a year, I knew I was on to something and was ready to take it to the next level, but I also knew that if I opened another restaurant in Las Vegas, I was never leaving — and nobody wants to be in Vegas," quips the chef.

His search for a food-savvy community with a great quality of life landed him in Cleveland, a town he left soon after graduating from Solon High 20 years ago. When he hit upon the space near Cedar Center, he decided it wasn't a good fit for the Rice Shop, so he went in another direction. But when he read about Ohio City Galley, he threw his hat in the ring along with 50 or so other applicants.

"I like that you can focus on what's important," he says of the food hall arrangement. "You can run your own business, have the creativity to do what you want, and not have to worry about all the BS that owners have to worry about. I can focus on how to grow the business and brand."

Zappola describes the Rice Shop as a nontraditional Asian concept that is rooted in Southern American cooking traditions and techniques. That translates into dishes like the Thai shrimp Bayou Bowl, a zesty shrimp gumbo served on a bed of sticky short-grain rice. Uber-crispy rice flour fried chicken is paired with Kung Pao broccoli and rice. Korean beef short ribs are joined by bok choy and kimchi vinaigrette. The Kentucky-fried fish bowl features double-breaded cod, cabbage slaw, jalapeño and spicy aioli.

Joining the Rice Shop is Tinman, with a menu meant to be simple, bold and timeless. On its face, the roster of dishes — burgers, onion rings, doughnuts and milkshakes — might come across as ordinary, even dull. But on the plate and in the mouth, those familiar chestnuts are designed to elicit the kind of response often reserved for loftier foods.

"Yes, it's simple and classic comfort food, even blue-collar, but everything's done with a bit of mystique, from the ingredients and execution to how it's plated, to create that 'holy shit' factor," explains chef Michael Schoen.

Schoen, the former chef of Sol, along with his brother and partner Tommy, have been obsessing over the concept for years. Both have spent considerable time living and working in Chicago, where there is no shortage of culinary inspiration, but the origins actually began much earlier and closer to home.

"It's a menu and concept based on what we grew up eating," Tommy says. "What we wanted to do was take the foods that were important to us and put our own stamp on it."

The signature item is "the Burger," a tidy stack of two diner-size Black Angus beef patties, American cheese, special sauce, and sweet and spicy pickles on a brioche bun. Paired with brittle-crisp onion rings and a vanilla bean milkshake, the meal is gourmet Americana. Also on the menu are double-fried Korean-style chicken wings, a chopped salad and warm cinnamon-sugar doughnuts.

As first-time operators, the brothers say the food hall concept immediately appealed to them.

"When the opportunity came up, it sounded perfect," Tommy adds. "It's a great platform for young chefs and people who want to make a name for themselves. It takes a heavy investment to open your own place, but this allows us to come in and focus on the food, the menu and our brand."

To Victor Searcy Jr., "Sauce the City" is both a business name and a rallying cry. For the past decade he's been distributing a line of seasoning sauces that he developed in college, selling it at retail, online and directly to food-service providers. His signature product, D'E'TE', is a sweet and spicy concoction that goes great on ribs, wings, burgers and fries.

"Sauce the City is a slogan and kind of like a way of life — like, I'm about to take over, innovate and get my flavor to the city," he says.

Searcy's enthusiasm for the craft is evident in his sauces, salesmanship and creations. His signature item at Ohio City Galley will be a gourmet steak burger made from ribeye and short rib. Diners will also get to sample his take on Nashville hot chicken, a buttermilk-brined breast that's fried and spiced to bold heights. In place of french fries, the stand will be serving up Mexican-style street corn.

Even before he opened the Black Pig in Ohio City, chef Michael Nowak has had his heart set on a regional Mexican eatery. The concept wasn't a good fit for the space he originally claimed, so the idea was moved to the back burner. When he learned about the Galley Group's plans to open a food hall, he knew it was time for the idea to see the light of day.

Nowak describes Poca as authentic Mexican cuisine that will highlight ingredients, flavors, recipes and dishes that are not commonly seen in local establishments.

"Every suburb has one or two very Americanized Mexican places and we also have a handful of taco joints that all kind of provide the same thing," says Nowak. "In no way are we knocking any of those places, we're just trying to position ourselves to do something different."

Poca will focus on Oaxacan cuisine, which the chef calls the oldest and most influential in Mexico. He's a frequent visitor who immerses himself in the food and culture of the celebrated "land of seven moles."

The menu will be divided into sections for snacks and appetizers, mid-size plates and larger platters. Diners might start off with guacamole with pickled green chiles and queso fresco or pozole, a thick hominy stew with braised pork. Larger plates include braised lamb tamales with black bean sauce and tomatillo salsa, and braised pork in green mole with white beans and salsa verde. "Grande Plates" come with a choice of roasted chicken thighs, braised beef or pan-fried fish and are joined by beans, mole, potatoes, salsa verde and housemade corn tortillas. Those tortillas, by the way, will begin life not as a mix, but as dried Ohio sweet corn, which the chef will soak, nixtamalize and grind himself to make the dough.

"This concept gives us the ability to be a bit more casual than what we're doing at the Black Pig," Nowak explains. "The food hall gives us an easier, low-cost entry into a second concept. The goal would be to use this as a jumping-off point to create a more full-service restaurant in another location."

In addition to the food component, Ohio City Galley will be anchored by an impressive four-sided bar. The cocktail-focused program is overseen by Galley Group beverage director Tim Garso along with local management and staff. Guests can also expect a strong lineup of local and regional craft beers.

Founder Ben Mantica is thrilled with the talent of those who applied and, ultimately, were selected to participate in what will be the group's third venture.

"We're really happy that we run the gamut from established chefs all the way down to someone who has never run a restaurant before," he says. "I think we'll have a really solid mix for customers to come in and enjoy."

Mantica adds that he and his partner offer as much or as little business advice as operators want, while tacking all the unsexy stuff like real estate, licenses and permits, build-out and equipment, front of house staffing and marketing. But their experience running similar operations in Pittsburgh (and soon Detroit) is invaluable.

"We've been doing this for several years now, so we know what types of menu items work and don't work, what price points work and don't work in a fast-casual communal atmosphere."

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