As the weather warms up, we find the harvest season beginning to come into full bloom. Farmers’ markets pop up all over town, community gardens are bountiful, and chefs are busy converting hyper-local ingredients into new seasonal dishes that will carry them through the dog days. In the spirit of vernal renewal, we chat up 10 Cleveland chefs to see what spring or summer ingredients have them excited and why.
Randal Johnson | Molinari’s
Randal Johnson has always been a champion of the perennial herald of spring: rhubarb. The colorful plant may usher in the season, but its tartness can be intimidating to chefs not willing to break out of the tried-and-true pie routine. It shouldn’t be, says Johnson.
“It’s actually really versatile,” he says. “You can take it a savory way and make it with onions and garlic or you can take it a more sweet way and finish it with spices like clove or cinnamon. It’s somewhat challenging but really gratifying because everyone still has those memories of rhubarb from when they were growing up.”
The Dishes: Johnson likes to pair rhubarb relish with grilled pork tenderloin. He also creates compotes, which serve as accompaniments to imported cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano. For dessert, rhubarb flavors housemade sorbets and ice creams.
8900 Mentor Ave., 440-974-2750, molinaris.com
Bac Nguyen | Bac
Pineapple, a traditional Vietnamese favorite, takes Nguyen back to hot pot-style family dinners similar to the popular Japanese fondue shabu-shabu. “You cook small amounts of food and put the meat and pineapple into rice paper to make into your own summer rolls,” he explains.
The timing comes perfect for one of Nguyen’s favorite raw fruits, adding, “They’re so refreshing and always remind me of summer.”
The Dish: In Nguyen’s own take on summer rolls, savory seared pork comes together with skewers of sweet pineapple. You’ll find the rice papers stuffed with noodles, basil, cilantro, lettuce and fish sauce vinaigrette. “They’re great for when you want something lighter on a hot day.”
2661 W 14th St., 216-938-8960, bactremont.com
Olesia Pochynok | Olesia’s Place
From a young age, Pochynok was accustomed to always having strawberries around. Her family grew them on her farm and made preserves to eat throughout the year. “Especially in summer, when they were fresh, my mom would just grind them with sugar and sour cream,” she says.
The Dish: Pochynok fuses her love for strawberries with her restaurant’s Ukrainian-American fare when making sweet, cheese-stuffed pierogi. “Pierogies are part of my nationality, they’re part of my life. We grew up with pierogi for breakfast, pierogi for lunch and potato for dinner,” she laughs.
Her summery variety is smothered in fresh strawberries preserves, mint, and honey and garnished with even more strawberries. “The starch can be heavy and the strawberries just cut it all down,” says Pochynok.
11204 Royalton Rd., 440-877-9054, olesiasplace.com
Demetrios Atheneos | Forage Public House
For a chef who spells out on his menu the source of every ingredient, it’s natural for Atheneos to gravitate towards a vegetable like asparagus that is plentiful in Northeast Ohio. “It’s my go-to,” he says. “Using different techniques you can really change the texture and flavor of the vegetable; it’s diverse.”
The Dishes: Atheneos leaves no treatment unturned for the asparagus sourced from various local farms, including Foote Farms in Valley View, OH. Beginning with the “power salad,” in which asparagus is found alongside wild arugula, baby kale, baby radish, toasted pepitas and foraged mountain huckleberry vinaigrette. Soups take the form of a creamy veloute and a chilled variety. The seasonal veg also is elemental in the roasted chef’s garden plate where, Atheneos says, “asparagus is one of the big stars.”
14600 Detroit Ave., 216-226-2000, foragepublichouse.com
Chris Di Lisi | The Willeyville
With his roots as a pastry chef, Di Lisi can’t help but find Crenshaw melons irresistible. “I love the sweetness with the fragrant notes of the melon itself. It’s like eating a dessert,” he says. “When it gets to be summer, you yearn for melon. It’s not a craving you get until this time of year.”
The Dishes: The watery elements of melons, a trait Di Lisi says he loves, makes for an ideal salad to enjoy on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, where Willeyville is located. Di Lisi’s includes arugula, seedless watermelon, pickled red onion, goat cheese, extra virgin olive oil, house-made rice wine vinegar and shaved ham. “The little bites of pork add that salty component,” says Di Lisi.
1051 W 10th St., 216-862-6422, thewilleyville.com
Michael Herschman | Lopez
Soft Shelled Crabs
They say that on the first full moon of May, blue crabs shed their hard shells and transform into the coveted, sweet soft-shell crabs we adore this time of year, says Herschman, who couldn’t resist recounting the folklore.
Much like the lunar cycle that dictates the molting cycle of the blue crab (at least in lore), soft-shell crabs are just as much a sign of the changing season in Cleveland. “You just got through a cold-as-hell winter and it tastes like summer. When the crabs pop up, the patios open,” he says.
They’ll take a break around July or August when they’re done molting their shells and return to the ocean, explains Hershchman. “A couple weeks later, there’s this last harvest. That’s when you know it’s the end of summer.”
The Dishes: Spider roll burritos are stuffed with ancho battered soft-shell crabs, white bean jalapeno puree, grilled asparagus, lemon crème fraiche, arugula and pico de gallo.
In a take on the classic BLT, “softies” are dipped in an ancho chili-infused tempura before they’re fried and placed in a grilled flour tortilla alongside beer-braised pork belly and chilis. Smoked tomatoes, white bean jalapeño puree, and ramp aioli top it all off.
2196 Lee Rd., 216-932-9000, lopezonlee.com
Gregg Korney | Georgetown
For Korney, summer is all about the refreshing taste of watermelon in the sweltering sun. Whether the chef is grilling it, blackening it or pickling the rinds, his favorite pairings are those with ingredients bearing a kick.
“With something spicy or hot, it cools the palate,” he says. “It’s refreshing and cold but then you get the heat of it.”
The Dishes: Pistachio-crusted salmon is paired with grilled watermelon and a sweet and sour pickle with sriracha teriyaki butter. A twist on the caprese salad combines tomato, watermelon, raspberry vinaigrette, mint, basil and either goat or feta cheese. Korney will even create a watermelon broth to serve with tuna, steamed rice and kimchi.
18515 Detroit Ave., 216-221-3500, georgetownrestaurant.net
Joe Horvath | Toast
Horvath, and his wife-partner chef Jennifer, have always been about versatility in the French technique so it makes sense that he’s drawn to the multifaceted, citrusy herb cilantro. “I love how it can freshen up and lighten up any dish you put it in. When I think of summer food, it’s one of the first things that comes to mind.”
The Dishes: Toast’s happy house offers seafood arancini and Horvath will make a cilantro aioli dip for a seasonal twist. Shrimp ceviche can also be found with tomato, cilantro, red onion and a little jalapeño. When it comes to salads, Horvath loves adding the herb in the mix with avocado and tomato.
1365 W 65th St., 216-862-8974, toastcleveland.com
Matt Mytro | Flour
“When you think of spring, you think of seeing flowers, you can smell it in the air,” says Mytro. “English peas remind me of that – they’re in your face.”
It’s not just the sweet and bright flavor of peas that draws in Mytro every year; it’s the hue. “They’re so green and vibrant for making sauces.”
The Dishes: Mytro takes peas that have been blanched then adds a little tahini and lemon juice to make a hummus. For the main course, Mytro offers “a play on peas and carrots – but as a pasta dish.” The agnolotti (small ravioli) are filled with a ricotta and pea mixture. Carrots are juiced to make a bright orange sauce that colorfully complements the peas inside the folded pasta and pea tendrils garnish the plate.
34205 Chagrin Blvd., 216-464-3700, flourrestaurant.com
Tim Bando | Grove Hill
Growing up, Bando’s Italian grandmother grew three things: eggplant, basil and tomatoes. “We always had fresh tomatoes,” he remembers. “There’s nothing better than a ripe tomato right off the vine.”
Before moving to New York, he began growing more than 10 varieties of his own. Since he’s returned and opened Grove Hill, he’s now getting ready to plant tomatoes on the restaurant’s rooftop garden.
The Dishes: Bando’s first step is dicing up heirloom tomatoes into big chunks and seasoning them with salt, pepper, olive oil and a little basil. “The salt draws the juice out of the tomatoes and blends with the olive oil and the acid from the tomato makes its own dressing,” the chef explains. The tomatoes will be tossed with an arugula or a panzanella salad. In Bando’s version of a caprese salad, the marinated tomatoes are paired with burrata cheese and basil.
25 Pleasant Dr., 440-247-4800, grovehillchagrin.com