Like many young chefs, Jennifer Pociask and Alex Asteínza dreamed of opening a little place of their own. Unfortunately, they were living in New York City at the time.
"We were looking to open something in Brooklyn, but the costs are astronomical," says Pociask.
The couple — "We're partners in all aspects of life, just without the piece of paper" — met about nine years ago in Miami. Combined, they have roughly 30 years of restaurant experience. Pociask has worked for years as a sous chef, while Asteínza has held pretty much every post possible, from pastry chef to executive chef. His last gig was as top toque at the popular Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
As luck would have it, Pociask was visiting her father last summer in Ashtabula, just an hour's drive from her hometown of Youngstown. While walking through the historic district of Bridge Street, they spotted a charming old building from the late 1800s that was for sale.
"When we walked in and saw the old glass with the name TJ Rennick still on it, meat hooks hanging everywhere, the facade of the old walk-in cooler, it was obvious to us that we just had to go with the meat market theme," she says.
Rennick Meat Market wasn't designed to look like an old butcher shop: It is an old butcher shop, one that served this community well from 1889 until the 1960s. In fact, the restaurant would feel very much at home in trendy Brooklyn, where farm-to-table meat markets nearly outnumber well-oiled beards. Inside the retro-mod space, the original indestructible tile floors are still intact, as are those old walk-in cooler doors, chunky hardware and all. A beefy butcher block doubles as a host stand, while tabletops are fashioned from cutting board-style planks of lumber.
The industrious hosts do everything from whip up pitch-perfect classic cocktails at the bar to prepare and serve the food. Alex makes a mean rye Manhattan ($9), with requisite Luxardo cherry and large-format ice cube. It goes down all too fast after the long drive east. There's also a great craft beer and wine list, including a spectacular dry riesling from M Cellars in the nearby Grand River Valley.
The menu covers a surprising amount of ground for a "small town" bistro, with more than a dozen small plates and twice that number of entrees. Along with a small basket of warm cornbread and honey-kissed butter, delivered with our cocktails, we enjoyed a variety of flavorful starters. The sausage-stuffed olives ($5.50) are like briny flavor bombs concealed beneath a crispy, deep-fried shell. Rennick's pan-fried potato and cheese pierogies ($7) are a more elegant adaptation of the classic thanks to delicate wrappers. To transform flabby St. Louis-style ribs into crispy, salty and meltingly tender Salt & Pepper Ribs ($10), the kitchen first sous-vides the bones before flash-frying them and drizzling with sweet soy.
Staying true to its legacy, Rennick has a deep meat section, with options ranging from a dry-aged Certified Angus Beef strip steak ($29) to two separate rib-eyes. We went with the increasingly popular bavette cut ($22), which combines the beefy depth of a hangar steak with the tenderness of a flatiron. Served sliced, the 2-inch-thick slab arrives with a fiercely seared crust giving way to a rosy interior. Diners who go the chop route get to add two steakhouse-style sides (creamed spinach, cheddar grits, glazed carrots, and so one) and one sauce (béarnaise, chimichurri, horseradish cream, and the like).
Order the pork schnitzel ($17) and you'll hear it before you taste it. The bone-in, center-cut pork chop is pounded and breaded to order. The crust is absolutely perfect, containing tiny mustard seeds that pop in your mouth. Other Midwesterner-approved mains include Hungarian goulash, beef stroganoff and vegetable pot pies. Burgers — there's a half-dozen — are ground and formed in house.
When Alex and Jennifer relocated from New York to Ashtabula — taking up residence in the apartment above the restaurant — they joined a neighborhood renaissance already in progress. In the past few years, a handful of independent food and drink ventures have sprung up around the Ashtabula Harbor. There's the elegant Take 5 Harbor Bistro, wine-friendly Bascule Bridge Grille, Harbor Perk, a café and coffee roaster, Cones Ice Cream, and Briquettes Smokehouse, which originally opened in the Rennick space before relocating to larger digs.
"Everyone in the community is pulling together," says Jennifer. "They see this little hidden gem that we have here on Bridge Street that has so much potential. We're really working as one to make it the best it can be."
Whatever they're doing, it's working. Thanks to a fresh flush of creative energy, Ashtabula now offers the best dining — and value — between Cleveland and Erie. The tourist-friendly district always had great access to the lake, a river, a harbor and great beaches. Now it's got the grub to keep all those locals and visitors well fed.