Chef Katz introduces Zhug, bringing a shared dining experience to Cedar-Fairmount

When chef and restaurateur Douglas Katz traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel, last year with Todd Thompson and Andrew Mansour, doing research for their next Cleveland-area restaurant concept, they found a culture that celebrates the historical spice trade routes with food, as diners revel in establishments that are a combination restaurant, nightclub, and bar.

“They started early and went late,” says Thompson, director of operations for Katz’s restaurants. “And by nine, 10 o’clock, you couldn’t really tell if it was a restaurant, if it was a bar, if it was a club. They’d have a DJ, and he’s spinning records, and people are dancing, and right next to them, people are enjoying this huge meal. The whole nightlife of that was very open and communal and social interaction.”

Chef and restaurateur Douglas Katz They brought that impression back to Cleveland Heights and developed Zhug, 12413 Cedar Road, in the Cedar-Fairmount district.

Katz secured the 2,000-square-foot, 75-seat restaurant space, formerly Liquid Planet, in January and began renovations in June. Zhug will open Tuesday, Nov. 19, with a grand opening Friday, Nov. 22.

Similar to what he did when he opened Fire Food and Drink at Shaker Square nearly 19 years ago, Katz wants to keep the space’s historic nature but inject a modern feel.

“We really wanted to open up the space of the old building, use the bones of the building as the focus, and then really modernize the inside with really cool features, which are all hand crafted by local artisans,” he says. General contractor Keith Arian ripped out the tile flooring to reveal the original terrazzo floors, removed soffits, and kept the original steam radiators, Katz says.

Shred & Co. made the tables and bookshelves, designed the steel surrounds for the ventilation system, and poured the concrete bar. Potter Billy Ritter made the jugs, bowls, and pots for the shelves, while stylist Kelley Shaffer designed the look of the space and created images of Ritter’s pottery on scrims hanging throughout the restaurant.

While the food concept started as modern Israeli Middle Eastern, Zhug chef Mansour says that after extensive research, the team developed a menu that combines a variety of flavors.

“We coalesced around the idea we wanted to represent not just one small region of the Middle East but show off all of the historical spice trade routes and the fact that the Middle East has been a melting pot from North Africa through India and across Southern Europe for thousands of years now,” Mansour says.

Potter Billy Ritter made the jugs, bowls, and pots for the shelves at ZhugZhug will feature shareable plates, allowing guests to pick and choose many options, Katz says. The team played with Katz’s Shaker Square Fire’s tandoori oven to roast spices and develop dishes both for Zhug and Chutney b., which opened in June in Shaker Heights’ Van Aken District and features Thai, Indian, and Moroccan rice bowls.

“This is more focused on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean and shareable plates where we can still use spices but in a different way,” Katz says of Zhug’s food. “But throughout all of our restaurants, we really love using wood fire, using the spices, sort of getting to the history of the food and doing it simply.”

The restaurant’s name hails from what Katz describes as a very spicy Yemeni serrano chili hot sauce made from green cardamom and herbs, which can be used to fire up virtually any dish. Diners can choose from a variety of shareable plates for a different meal every time.

“Dishes range in size, so it depends what it is,” Katz says. “With Labneh, a traditional yogurt cheese dish, you don’t need a gallon of it, you just need a little bit of it. Even if it’s four people. So that’s a small dish. But braised lamb is a much bigger dish. If you have four people, you can each share the larger portion of it. Then if you want rice or a salad, you can order that to go with it.”

Shareable plates are mainstream in Israeli dining, Thompson says. “In Tel Aviv, the only places you would order your own entrée are clearly for tourists,” he says. “Everything else is done in this style. It’s really fun, it’s fun to get your plates as they come and explore your food with each other and the different flavors, and it spurs conversation.”

The menu features meat, vegetarian, and vegan options. A house-smoked pastrami with celery root purée and pickled red cabbage dish represents the Ashkenazi Jewish influence happening in Israel now, Mansour says, while Katz says he believes the various kinds of hummus—burnt onion and nigella seed; curried braised lamb and apricots; and harissa peanut—are bound to be hits.

“Those three [hummuses] are really signatures for us,” Katz says. “But so many [dishes] are going to be determined by what people find as their signature. I’d say the octopus [with potatoes, saffron aioli, and olives] will become a signature.”

The cocktails, designed by bar manager Noah Biddle, reflect a regional influence and are colorful and flavorful. Katz say the signature cocktail, a Zhug Number 7, is a version of a Sazerac (rye whiskey, cognac, absinthe, and bitters) and will replace the black licorice flavor of the absinthe with arak, which is unsweetened anise flavor.

Zhug is a fiery mix of spices.“This is hot, it’s fiery, and has a licorice flavor,” Katz says. “Because it’s not sweet, we have to add our special infused sweetener that has just a touch of spice flavor to it.”

Other signature drinks include the Zhug Number 1, carrot, mango, white rum, and turmeric; the Zhug Number 2, made with blackberry gin; and the Zhug Number 3, which is Watershed gin and muddled fennel.

The wine list will also be regional. “All wines from the Mediterranean basin, stretching from Portugal, Spain, southern France, Italy, Macedonia, Greece, Lebanon, and Israel,” says Katz. “So, we will have a lot of unfamiliar wines. But they are delicious wines, and they all match the food.”

Beers will be craft, small batch regional brews, nonalcoholic cocktails will be available, and Katz promises the bartenders are well-trained in the science of crafting the perfect cocktail.

Chef and restaurateur Douglas Katz and Todd Thompson, director of operations for Katz’s restaurantsThompson hopes people will think of Zhug as experiential, rather than a typical restaurant where customers sit, eat, and leave. “[In Tel Aviv], everybody’s interacting, walking around, and talking,” he says. “We wanted to design a space where if you want to have a more intimate meal, you can. We have places for that. But I think you’ll see as it gets later in the evening, you’ll see this place become more interactive bar, restaurant.”

Reservations will not be accepted, Katz says, mainly so everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the experience—and enjoy the Cedar-Fairmount District.

“I know if we did reservations, every Friday and Saturday night, none of the people in the neighborhood who didn’t make reservations would be able to come in, and I don’t want it to be that kind of exclusive,” he says. “If we’re busy, put your name on the waiting list, and we’ll call you. There are plenty of places if we can’t accommodate you at the bar, if we’re that busy, you can go to Parnell’s and grab a drink, and we’ll call you. We like our neighbors. It just made it really easy to be a part of this, with [places like] Luna [Bakery], Still Point Gallery, [Appletree] bookstore.

For now, Thompson says Zhug will stay open until 10 p.m. during the week and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. It will be open seven days a week, starting at 4 p.m. each day. Sunday brunch will be added after the start of the new year.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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