CLEVELAND, OHIO — For almost 20 years, Doug Katz was a one-restaurant guy. Every bit of talent, inspiration, moxie, and charm he possessed was poured into Fire Food and Drink, his iconic, celebrated dining emporium that helped revive venerable and vulnerable Shaker Square when it needed it most.
On Saturday nights, the restaurant sparkled with glamour rare in the Cleveland restaurant world. It was the automatic reservation for every family celebration for many of East Siders, and it was where you schlepped to when you sought a side of panache with your weekend brunch.
Everyone on the well-polished staff may not have known your name, but chances were good that Katz did. Working the room tirelessly almost every night, he was the James Brown of Cleveland chef-owners. Chatting up the newbies, debriefing the regulars, serving up the entrees and then bussing the dishes. No restaurateur kept his ear closer to the customer base than Katz. And it paid off. His unique brand of innovative hyper-seasonal world cuisine marked by rich indulgent flavors achieved cult status over those two decades.
Then last fall, after several years of research and reflection, Katz opened Zhug, his personalized small-plate take on Mideastern food. From the day the door first opened at 12413 Cedar Rd. in Cleveland Heights, Zhug was, literally, a roaring success. A cacophony of music and noise spilled out into the neighborhood as the spill-over of waiting customers (and there was almost always waiting customers) enlivened and enriched the bars and bookshop nearby.
Life was mighty fine until this March, when the coronavirus pandemic officially hit, and in one unimaginable edict from the state capital, dining out in Cleveland came to a full dead stop. We’re not going to unzip body bags here but suffice it to say the city is still littered with the culinary carnage.
Everybody missed at least a beat or two. However, Katz was one of the first to turn his business towards whatever light was left. He shut down Fire for what he thought would be an eight-week hiatus, but within days, he had converted Zhug into a total take-out, curbside and delivery establishment. He admits he was not totally taken by surprise by the turn of events.
“Back in early January,” he relates, “out of the blue, my director of operations, Todd Thompson, asked if I had any contingency plans, just in case. We laughed about it at the time, but the seed had been planted and we had some time to think it through.”
Soon, carry-out exclusive Zhug, named for the fiery Middle Eastern hot sauce that’s an essential element of the cuisine, was running smoothly, with curried lamb hummus, prawns with mejadra rice, beet salads and zhug burgers flowing out the door.
Katz turned his attention to another concept that would have ordinarily taken, well, longer, but was up and running by mid-June. Chimi, short for chimichurri, an equally indispensable culinary component, this time a piquant parsley-based sauce of South American origin, launched in