Ask Zack Bruell what the secret to his success is and he may just answer "Lemon."
In fact, spy on him while he's working the expo station — that final, critical link between kitchen and guest — and you'll see him reach for a small squeeze bottle. His last move, after pronouncing each plate picture-perfect, is to spritz it with a faint mist of lemon juice.
You spend enough time with somebody — as many of us have with Bruell, the man behind Chinato and L'Albatros, among other local destinations — and you begin to glean their secrets. So when Cowell & Hubbard took its place as Bruell's fifth Cleveland restaurant, diners could bank on the fact that they'd find high-caliber service, an interior pulled from the pages of Architectural Digest, and a menu the size of Atlas Shrugged.
"You have to give people a reason to come back — like next week!" says Bruell, when asked about his penchant for ample menus.
And C&H may have the longest one yet. For a restaurant tucked into theater-rich Playhouse Square, that not only is bold; it's downright ballsy. But sure enough, despite a packed house on an unseasonably warm spring eve, everybody managed to make it to their shows by curtain.
Bruell bills his latest endeavor as a "modern French-American restaurant." He might just as easily have called it New Mediterranean. The flavors flow smoothly from West to East, with as many nods to Morocco as to France and Italy. But in the end, the food is ultimately, characteristically, Bruellian: tidy stacks of meat and veg resting in an opulent sauce, the richness of which is diamond-cut by the acidity of lemon.
In the case of the red fish entrée, for example, an absolutely flawless filet of seared snapper rests in a pool of creamy cauliflower. Lemon in the cauliflower purée keeps it from being monotonous, while an Indian-spiced sauce imparts whispers of cardamom, clove, and cumin.
Though their approaches are increasingly familiar, Bruell and franchise chef Andy Dombrowki still have the power to surprise. The beet and beef cheek salad, for one, still frequents our dreams. Something magical happens when you combine earthy-sweet red and golden beets with Moroccan-spiced beef. Ribbons of fennel, crumbles of feta, and shrapnel of olive add a roundhouse of flavor.
You could dine at Cowell & Hubbard for nearly two weeks and order a different salad each visit. The seared squid should be one of them. Tender grilled baby squid is offset by crunchy fried garbanzos. Perky greens and preserved lemon provide the kick, while an exotic spice rub adds notes of paprika, fennel, and coriander.
Bone marrow fans will find one of the city's best versions here: Flintstone-sized bones, cross-cut, roasted till quivering, and punctuated by horseradish, pickled onion, and parsley. But there may be no richer dish on the roster than the Welsh rarebit. Thankfully, it's an appetizer. Feather-light brioche toasts are served alongside a crock of heavenly cheese fondue. Dip, drizzle, or drown: The choice is yours.
A sweet, fruity sauce of black-currant liqueur seems to penetrate a whole roasted chicken clear to the bone. Also delish: Four little pinwheels of succulent lamb breast arranged atop Moroccan-spiced couscous. The grains were far saucier than we'd prefer, but the dish is still a knockout.
With a menu as broad and deep as this one, there are bound to be some clunkers. Take the deep-fried frog legs, which arrive looking like excessively starched pants in an armor-like breading.
Bruell's designers have a knack for creating spaces that make diners feel important. We might walk into Cowell & Hubbard feeling like commoners, but we're dukes and duchesses at the table. Crusty bread seems to magically regenerate on the plate. Wine glasses are bottomless. Dessert comes not one moment too soon.
You don't build a thriving brand of wildly successful eateries by taking your guests for granted. You do so by filling them with unbounded mirth. Bruell does that, over and over and over again.