Jonathon Sawyer To Open Noodlecat In Cleveland This Summer

At the Scottsdale Culinary Festival last weekend Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Cleveland's Greenhouse Tavern confided that he was working on a new project. Sawyer, a member of Food & Wine's 2010 class of Best New Chefs, will be opening Noodlecat, a 60-seat, Japanese, green-certified noodle joint in July around the corner from the Tavern.

If it wasn't already clear how excited Sawyer is about plans for the new spot (it is) his enthusiasm is evident in this semi-fictional video about Noodlecat's origin. In it, a cartoon, pig-riding, noodle-moustache-wearing version of Sawyer meets a talking cat who tells the chef that if he can catch him he'll show him where to find the most "slurpalicious" ramen in the world. "Like I'm going to follow you somewhere in the world?" Sawyer asks the cat in disbelief before doing just that.

In the following interview, the chef discusses Noodlecat, his favorite ramen in New York, and Noodlecat's 'college ramen' — the new reason to make a Cleveland food-trip this summer.


A new restaurant! Let's talk about Noodlecat.

We've been sitting on the space for about five to six months, me and my current partners. We love the location, love being downtown, we really believe in downtown Cleveland. I've lived in New York and just loved eating this quick, healthy phenomenal food that is Japanese food. These are going to be über-basic noodles, with umeboshe tofu, and chilled noodles with tempura on the side. Really simple, healthy, ingredient-driven dishes. I started putting together a menu from books that I've been reading forever.


What are your favorite noodle books?

Honestly, my favorite is "Takashi's Noodles," but I also have a bunch of Japanese housewife books, not necessarily in English, and I kind of just like to look through them to see how they cook noodles at home. The second step of this though was to send a bunch of my cooks to trail in restaurants in New York, half of them with the intention of them cooking in the new restaurant, half just so they could have the experience.

So where did they trail?

Noodle Bar. I mean, Chang's restaurant group is just great. I wanted this group to have a good experience with how they do noodles there. It wasn't really about learning how they do Korean flavors, but about how they do what they do out of such a small space. By the way, those noodles have always been great, but I think they've only gotten better every year. Same with Ssäm Bar, it's gotten more esoteric, a great restaurant — even more solid. Yeah, so I wrote this menu and we sent those boys and girls out to New York to hang out at Takashi and then we're going to look to open. I haven't put together a final collaborative menu with my sous-chef yet, but we're close.


That's really cool, how often does that kind of exchange go on?

I wish it happened more often. For us it's also a smart business move. The reality of living in Cleveland is that in the winter when things are slow you have a choice: limit people's hours, hire seasonally, or you keep cooks and send them to a place to trail. I send them to New York. I rent an apartment on Craigslist for a month and a half to two months, and send our people there. We do about two at a time, and not two at a time at same restaurant. For us it works because some are salaried, some are hourly, and then all we did was pay for the apartment while they're trailing. It has worked out great. And we've had people want to do it in return so they can find out what we're doing in Cleveland.

Where did you trail?

That's basically how I got a job. Artisanal, Danube, Bouley, Aureole, Union Pacific, and then I took the job with Charlie Trotter at Kitchen 22.


How long did you stay at each of those places?

A day or two. I would love to say longer, but back then the restaurant industry was still pretty cutthroat. People were always worried someone was going to take your job. It even happens at first with some of my guys now. At first it's like, "Who are you and are you going to be trying to get my job." Then they're like, "Ah, you don't live in New York, you're just here for a few months, you're an extra pair of hands, you're just coming in to learn, here, take this, do this."  [laughs]


So which noodle spots formed the basis for Noodlecat? Who makes New York's best ramen?

I think Chang does, but I love Hung Ry, and Ippudo, and Rai Rai Ken. I even like some of the dumpy places on St. Marks. I don't have a problem with Yakitori Taisho. It's still fun.


So how about that talking cat in the video?

The cat was just us having fun. Honestly, the Tavern is such a big, magnanimous restaurant, and we want Noodlecat to be more about people just being happy and smiling and enjoying noodles. It's still going to be certified green. We'll still be doing the same kind of sourcing, the same hyper attention to detail. But I want dishes to be $13 and under. You slap down your money, have some good noodles, and get out — get in and get out and have a great time.


Let's talk about the menu.

There will be two sections: ancient and modern. Dishes in the modern section can rotate. That will be our opportunity to show Cleveland what we can do. What we didn't want was there to be a menu where there was Italian spaghetti, Thai curry, Vietnamese rice noodle, and a Korean-style rice pot all next to one another. One of the problems being in the Midwest is that some places try to do too much, to be all things to too many people. This is a single-country, single-origin approach. Like I say at the Tavern, 'This is the way they'd cook French food in Paris if they were in the Cayuga Valley.' Well, this is how they'd make noodles in Japan if they were in the Cayuga Valley. We have a fishcake recipe that's made with perch, and we'll be doing a shrimp paste made with local prawns poached sous-vide. What normally is outsourced we can easily craft in-house. The same with rice wine vineger — I have a vat of that going at my house.


How many items will be on the menu, and which ones are you most excited about?

About 35. The college ramen is the dish I'm most excited about. It's going to feature Ohio-grown garlic that's dried in-house, Fresno chilies, and then a roasted chicken dashi. So when it comes to your table it'll look like that college ramen you made with that little single-serving pot in college, but when you eat it, it will be so much more transcendental. There are going to be extras too.


In the video you're pictured with Farmer Lee Jones. Talk about your involvement with Farmer.

We use a salad mix from Farmer at the restaurant. And when we first started whenever he had lettuce larger than the largest size we usually saw he put it in a box and ship it to us. Since then we've use him for everything else: asparagus, sunchokes, everything. For us, it's more important to be able to trust someone as intrinsically as we can with him. Farmer Lee Jones is an open book. There's been so much scrutiny and nobody holds their business more accountable than Farmer Lee Jones when it comes to their carbon footprint. I think it's pretty amazing. Furthermore, Cleveland has a lot of vegetarians, and a lot of people who enjoy eating vegetables. About 30 to 40 percent of our clientele are vegetarians, and we expect Noodlecat to be that way if not more. Granted we also do whole pig at the Tavern... But if you're going on a first date and the girl you met on is a vegetarian and you're not, but you don't want to seem like you're a big carnivore, you can come eat with us and everyone wins.


In a recent interview you mentioned you can already get phở, Korean, and Thai food in Cleveland — where are your go-tos?

For Chinese, Wonton Gourmet, for phở I go to Pho Superior. For Korean, Seoul Hot Pot, and for Vietnamese, across the street Saigon is not the greatest, but it's in proximity to the restaurant and I'm happy to have it there. For elevated Chinese, Sun Luck Garden. I've never really been that in love with the food served for dim sum, but I like the atmosphere and the joviality, so we'll go to Li Wah to take the kids there so that they can learn that kind of experience.


How has being recognized last year by Food & Wine as a Best New Chef changed things?

I've always considered myself lucky to be in Cleveland and have people notice us. It was pretty flattering, and it allowed us to do a little bit more of the food we wanted to do a little faster. We would have gotten there anyway, but it would have taken longer. And we were kind of tip-toeing about opening the roof at the time and then Food & Wine happened, and we were like we've got to get this done.


The roof?

Yeah, this year we'll have bar seating up there and hopefully the following year we'll have a greenhouse up there.