The ill-fated Ancient Mariner has, perhaps, done as much for albatross fame as any literary work–and not entirely to the noble bird’s benefit. Allow me to correct any misprision and assure the reader that the rare creature has seen a turn of great fortune.
By misprision, I am intentionally referencing the Old French word, in its alliterative English sense–thus, both misunderstanding and that which ought not be done… after all, this is a review of all things delectably French at Cleveland’s L’Albatros restaurant, and it ought not be missed. This very fine establishment, located near Case Western Reserve University on 11401 Bellflower Road, was once my primary locale for mid-day repast (I hesitate to call it “lunch” when it lasts for 2 palate-pleasing hours; it is more of an experience than a meal).
Qualifying more specifically as fusion cuisine, L’Albatros is Neo-French, the work of Zachary Bruell (also of Z and Table 45). Both master chef and restaurateur, Bruell has created a truly excellent menu–and an exciting dining destination. The atmosphere is helped by the unusual construction of the building (which had been several restaurants previously, and looks much like a series of brick constructions round a courtyard). The exposed brick, large fireplace and glass walls on the garden side promote an interesting fusion of in and out, in any season.
I was visiting in Cleveland this fourth of July weekend, and I needed to meet with colleagues at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry (Editor in Chief, Woody Gaines and Assistant Managing Editor, Stephanie McClure). Naturalmente, we went to L’Albatros–fortification for editorial decision-making.
To begin, the welcome is always expansive. Hostess Frances Herskovitz greets us with warmth (and let me add that she has most excellent taste in accessories, always wearing an artisan-created necklace or broach). We then took our table on the patio, among tasteful plantings and bright umbrellas. Dr. Gaines began the meeting (which was a celebratory one, September’s issue being complete) with Cremant d’Alsace: crisp citrus notes, hints of granny smith apple and a subtle-but-not-too-dry finish. Excellent wine. It was paired with crusty, delicately flavored bread and oil. This alone is reason enough to attend a lunch meeting–but of course, there are courses!
I began with my favorite: the restaurant serves an arugula and radicchio salad, always fresh and herbal, red-green brightness in presentation. It is mixed with shaved Parmesan and a light mixture of lemon and oil, a creamy but not overpowering accompaniment that allows the peppery nature of the greens to come through.
Though technically a starter, I cannot pass the Foie Gras Mousseline. A superb and creamy pate of chicken and goose, delicate hint of wine, served with caper berries, pickled onion, cornichon. The feel on the palate is as important as the taste, and both are most delightful. I feel, however, that I should mention the roasted cod with spatzle and aioli enjoyed by my EIC; in his estimation, the crispy cod and noodle dish is magical. The Assistant ME also enjoyed fish–an arugula salad with salmon. We believe in sharing, and it was all incredible.
It might seem customary, at this juncture, to wax poetic about the dessert options at L’Albatros. They are, I assure you, well worth it. However, what preceded the dessert was so exquisite, so fine, so pleasing to the heart and soul of the gourmand, that it deserves a section of its own.
What I speak of, friends, is cheese.
Fromages: reflections of the human soul
There will be those who think I am perhaps being a bit over-dramatic in my cheese love. Allow me to correct the blasphemer! Those who frown on cheese are perhaps like those who frown on love: they have yet to taste from the fountain–they haven’t met “the one,” so to speak. Give them half an hour with Brandon Chrostowski, general manager of L’Albatros, and they will be forever changed. Brandon worked in Paris at Lucas Carton, one of the few Michelan 3-star restaurants; he was also Chef de Partie at Le Cirque in New York and saucier at Picholine before moving on to more management-oriented roles. And Brandon knows his fromage.
After our main courses and a finishing off of the lovely Cremant d’Alsace, we were kindly visited by Brandon who delivered not only lively conversation but an extraordinary cheese plate. Accompanied, each, by unusual history, these carefully crafted specimens absorbed our attention for another forty-five minutes.
1. Tomme Crayeuse is a cave-aged cheese; it is double aged, really, in caves of differing temperature. A goat cheese, it was fruity but with a musk-like smokey edge–the soft chalk-white interior mildly sweet.
2. Winnemere (VT) is a raw-milk farmstead cheese. Brandon told us a little about the gentlemen who produce it there, in Vermont. I found it soft and creamy, near melting in the center, spoonable and lovely. I cannot, however, do better than the review on farmstead inc., the link to which I have provided. They call it the sexiest of cheeses. I believe they may be right.
3. Ekiola Ardi Gasna Fermier –is hard to say five times fast. I have seen it described as “ardigasna” Fermier, and this type of cheese is generally made from raw sheep’s milk somewhere in the Pyrenees. They milk the sheep, and they make the cheese, right there on site–meaning if you want it, you must go get it. This makes it a rare delicacy and it was, I believe, our most favorite of the plate. Meaty–as though it could be a meal in itself; robust, round on the tongue, subtle with a satisfying and mouth-watering finish.
4. Robiola di Capra in Foglie di Castagna is an artisan goats’ milk cheese. Like a good scotch, it catches you in the back of the throat, but is smooth nonetheless. It is more dense than chevre, and it served wrapped in a chestnut leaf. Mellow and earthy, it has a strong but not over-powering character.
5. Parmesan is obviously a more well known variety of cheese, but any cook can tell you there are worlds of difference between types of Parmesan. The first rule is that, if it comes in a shiny green can and needs no refrigeration, it isn’t really food. The Parmesan we sampled was nutty, robust–the flavor remained on the tongue, a whole mouth experience. That is fine cheese.
6. Stichelton might temporarily through you for a loop–at least by name. But fear not; this is the straight man of any cheese plate, the sturdy traditional Bleu Cheese, offering its subtle color and aroma to the rounding out of our course. Why not call it Stilton, then? Well, Stilton is a protected name… and this is a raw milk cheese, pleasant and bright. As with other raw milk products, you can’t have your cheese-cake and eat it too. Regulations win the day, and we win the cheese by changing its name. (In other words, if you don’t pasteurize the cheese, you cannot call it Stilton).
This fine plate was finished with fig paste and bread, and after such marvelous mastication, we didn’t have an appetite left for the sweeter desserts. We finished, therefore, with berries and coffee–and so ended our three hour repast. Ah, who wouldn’t want to meet for lunch with such friends and such table fare? Happy are we when we can join business and pleasure–and should your business take you near Case Western (or Cleveland Clinic, or University Hospital), please do come in for lunch. Alternatively, should your pleasure-seeking entice you to the theatre district or to one of the other cultural events in Cleveland, think of stopping in for a fine dining experience. It is well worth it!