When Zack Bruell hosts a dinner party, he invites the whole city to come along.
Zack Bruell kicks off the festivities at Table 45On Tuesday, Aug. 6, I joined a flock of local foodies for a progressive dinner party through five Bruell-owned spots in the Flats (Alley Cat Oyster Bar), Tremont (Parallax), University Circle (L'Albatros), Fairfax (Table 45), and downtown (Cowell & Hubbard). The lively tasting tour marked the halfway point of the annual “Tour de Bruell”—a summerlong promotion that challenges diners to enjoy an entree at each of Bruell’s restaurants between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
According to Bruell, the reasoning behind the Tour de Bruell is simple: “Summertime in Cleveland is a weird time because you’re competing against so many other things to do,” he shares. “We look at it as a way to jumpstart business and keep it going all summer long.”
Though the main prizes for those who complete the passport are awarded in September (a VIP finale dinner for 10 winners, plus an omakase feast prepared by Bruell at one lucky winner’s home), anyone who completed the tour by July 4 got an extra incentive: the chance to attend a progressive dinner party at the midway point.
That’s where I find myself as we kick off the tour at Table 45, Bruell’s fine dining spot at the InterContinental Cleveland hotel. Bruell is in high spirits—after all, it’s the 10th annual Tour de Bruell, and there are flights of sushi and Trinchero wines to be enjoyed. What’s not to love?
When I ask Bruell which dish he’s most anticipating, he reveals that he’s just as in the dark about the night's menu as the rest of us—and ready to be surprised. But that’s not to say Bruell’s an absentee figurehead. In fact, he prides himself on working in all of his kitchens: “I’m kind of old-school that way.”
Luckily, Bruell’s executive chefs don’t disappoint, delivering dishes like sumptuous pan-seared scallops; beef-and-goat-cheese ravioli; plump shrimp atop summer corn and feta; oysters; and other inviting summer fare. It’s all par for the course in line with Bruell’s signature style of California-meets-Ohio cuisine, which he first perfected in the early 1980s as a chef at Santa Monica, California-based Michael’s (working alongside future James Beard winners Mark Peel and Roy Yamaguchi).
Local elementary school teacher Christie Britts can also attest that Bruell puts in ample time at his restaurants—after all, she and her husband ate at all five Bruell restaurants in a week and a half in order to qualify for the progressive dinner party, and she says they spotted him at all of them. Of course, Britts and her husband are likely on a first-name basis with Bruell at this point, as five-time Tour de Bruell participants and diehard foodies who run a blog called The Drifting Spoon.
Britts says their love affair with Bruell’s restaurants started at French fine dining spot L’Albatros, which is where our group concludes the night. Bruell also seems to have a special spot in his heart for L’Albatros (where he proposed to his fiancé, Denise, who’s also along for the ride this evening).
On the bus with BruellBut that's not the story Bruell regales us with as we dig into cheese plates, dessert wine, and key lime soufflé— instead, he shares the backstory behind a photo in the men's bathroom that's become somewhat controversial. (Of course, that prompts the group field trip to view the photo, which may or may not be offensive depending on one's definition of "art.") By this point, it's not much of a surprise to anyone on the tour, as Bruell's been telling ribald jokes since the beginning of the night.
And that seems to be reflective of Bruell himself—raw, real, and not one for pretenses. He says the thing he loves most about Tour de Bruell is the opportunity to interact in real life with diners and patrons: "It's not just a way of growing my business, it's how I make personal contact with customers. That's really important to me, and this is an extension of that."