For years, the mantra in fine dining has been “do one thing and do it well.” Heck, that’s how the folks from Moxie and Red have continued to prosper in a crowded, challenging market. But for their next big act, partners Brad Friedlander, Jonathan Bennett, Peter Vauthy and Jon Gross have tossed aside the playbook and are rewriting the rules.
“When we grew up, if you wanted seafood, you went to a seafood restaurant. If you wanted barbecue, you went to a barbecue restaurant. And if you heard of a restaurant that served both sushi and barbecue, you wouldn’t want to go,” explains chef Bennett. “But today’s diner wants options.”
And options they will have at 811, the contemporary American bar and grill currently coming together at the corner of Prospect and E. 8th downtown. The open, bright and airy restaurant is such a departure for the guys from Moxie and Red that it feels a bit like vacation, says Bennett.
“We’ve been mentally captive about what we can and can’t do for so long,” he says. “It’s been fun to free ourselves. The challenge with doing a lot of different stuff is how do you do it all well. And there’s a stigma attached to that type of cooking. So we picked a few categories that we liked and have been working and working and working them.”
Those categories on the single, all-day menu might sound familiar – sushi, salads, sandwiches, big plates – but the ingredients, preparation and execution will be anything but.
“We’re still cooking the same way we’ve always cooked,” says the chef.
Along with executive chef Andrew Bower, a familiar face to anybody who’s dined at Market Garden Brewery in recent years, Bennett has crafted a menu that attempts to accomplish an impossible task: please everybody.
“It’s always the fifth diner who makes the decision on where to eat,” Bennett jokes. “Everybody’s okay with sushi – except for that guy. Everybody’s okay with steak – except for that guy.”
“And that’s the person who always says, ‘I don’t care where we eat!’” quips Friedlander.
At the far end of the long bar sits a small sushi bar. Next to that is the Robata station, where a custom-built infrared grill will blast nearly a dozen different skewered items meant to be paired and passed. The lineup confirms the chef’s statement that cultural boundaries have been relegated to the rear view mirror.
“We have Old Bay shrimp from North Carolina, there’s kalbi short ribs from Korea, there are pork pinchitos out of Spain. Every culture has meat on a steak,” he says.
That short rib is cooked sous vide first to tenderize the meat before it goes on the blazing hot grill. Other items to come off the Robata include pork belly, shishito peppers, fresh baby corn, and a daily fish rib selection. Yes, fish ribs.
The sushi bar will turn out a dozen different rolls starring spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, salmon belly and King crab.
An entire section of the broadsheet menu is devoted to hummus, which is paired with house-baked pita and any number of toppings. One features chickpea curry and raisin compote, while another has pickled onions, harissa and chiles.
Bennett is particularly excited about the starter section, which is global, playful and delicious-sounding. Tempura-fried shrimp are served with a Sriracha-spiked tartar sauce. Bao buns are filled with hoisin pork belly and pickles. Korean fried chicken “nuggets” are made using marinated boneless chicken thighs.
“The rice flour batter we use keep them crunchy-crispy for 20 minutes!” says Bennett.
Sandwiches range from a light and healthy tuna salad starring tuna tartar and greens in a pita to a diner-style “smashed” burger. The “big plates” top out at $19 and they, too, run roughshod around the globe. There’s Korean short ribs with jasmine rice, Ohio pork belly ramen in tonkotsu broth, fried chicken in mumbo sauce, and a vegetarian roasted cauliflower and lentil dish.
811 seats 180 guests but it doesn’t look or feel that way. Up front, a casual lounge area with soft seating arranged around a suspended fireplace gobbles up some of the space. High tops by the bar offer a “less formal casual” option. That bar stretches for a country mile, with seating for at least 25. Even the leather booths, which run down the center of the space, are open on each end, giving the impression of fancy beer garden. Flexible spaces with pocket doors or chain curtains break up the space and provide semi-private dining when needed.
811 has no patio, but it does boast a façade of hydraulic garage door panels that combine the joys of dining al fresco with the comfort of dining indoors.
Look for 811 to open right after the Republicans pack up and leave town, says Bennett.
“It’s not worth risking a successful opening – which is very important – for three or four days of money,” he says.