Inside the creation of Brassica in the Short North
The creative team at Northstar Cafe has batted around the idea of opening a falafel shop for years. But it wasn't until late 2013, when they learned restaurateur Liz Lessner wouldn't be renewing her Betty's Fine Food & Spirits lease in the Short North, that they had the space to create it.
Brassica opened in the tight 1,600-square-foot quarters in September with a simple approach-customers choose a pita sandwich, salad bowl with lentils and rice or hummus plate topped with proteins like brisket and lamb bacon. Vegetables are the star of the line with options ranging from pickled beets to roasted eggplant.
Flavors are inspired by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spices-a nod, and nothing more, to the Lebanese roots of owners and brothers Kevin and Darren Malhame.
"Our intention was to start with those flavors and start with those foods and let it take us wherever we wanted to go from there," says managing partner Sean Jones. "When we think of categorizing the restaurant, we think about how we are making really delicious, wholesome vegetables."
That vegetables would be the focus is no surprise for a restaurant named after a genus of plants that includes cabbage and mustard. True to the restaurant group's core values, ingredients are sourced with an eye on organic and local, including vegetables and greens from Jorgensen's Farms and Dangling Carrot Farms, and feta from Lucky Penny Creamery.
But regardless of inspiration and intentions, a restaurant that puts customers in the driver's seat is bound to hit a few bumps if every component can't work together. And so, Kevin says they exhaustively put dishes through research and development. Take the hummus-a pretty simple food at its base. They tested a variety of organic dried chickpeas and half a dozen tahini brands. "In the end, when we're serving our hummus, we're confident it's the best stuff we can make," Kevin says. It's an attitude that extends across the Brassica line.
On creating a DIY-dish restaurant: Chipotle's build-it-yourself model works because every ingredient on the line can stand on its own or in a group. Knowing this, the Brassica team spent a lot of time talking balance-making sure pickles aren't too aggressive, cauliflower is delicious on its own and that, when put altogether, it isn't overly salty. "It's really as much about what we take away and leave out as what we leave in," Kevin says.
On the perfect falafel: "First and foremost, the most important thing for falafel is it has to be fresh," Jones says. When diners get subpar falafel, it was likely prepared hours earlier and reheated-a classic mistake, he adds. Brassica's falafel is always made to order.
Next, it has to have the right color and spice. "By the time you take a bite, it's got to be bright, invigorating and engaging," Jones says. "It's like when you have a steak and you need a really rich, full-bodied red wine to match up with those flavors. The falafel has to have enough heat to punch through the pita bread."
On the perfect pita: "When you think about the dining experience, the pita is really the first thing you encounter," Jones says, adding perfecting their sturdy pita is an ongoing process that's been in the works since July 2014. To make sure organic whole-wheat dough laminates evenly, they ditched a traditional sheeter for a dough press. "When you use the sheeter, you have to flour the dough. Bake it, and the first flavor you get is flour that can be burnt because of how hot the oven is," Jones says, referencing the 550- to 600-degree oven behind the Brassica counter. "With the press, you've got to use a delicious olive oil on the outside to make sure the dough flattens out the way you want it to. By using the press, you really encourage the perimeter of the flatbread to have all the integrity we're talking about."
On building the perfect meal: The forgivable mistake most first-timers make? Adding a little bit of everything to their pita or salad. "If you went back a second time with a little more restraint, you might find something that is more simple yet more spectacular," Jones says, adding if you're unsure what will pair best with chicken shawarma, just ask.brassicashortnorth.com
The owner's favorite order
For Kevin Malhame, the best order is a tie between a hummus plate with brisket and a falafel sandwich. "When you're making a falafel sandwich here, it [has] to be falafel, hummus, one of the pickled vegetables and roasted vegetables and a sauce," he says. "It is so simple and so good."