Zhug is a new concept by chef Douglas Katz that offers “Middle Eastern Mezze” in a casual, high energy urban space at Cedar Fairmount. Low tables with pillows surround the space filled with tables. There is no hint of its past as a Liquid Planet. The kitchen is tucked in the back right corner. Esquire magazine named it one of 23 Best New Restaurants in America in 2020. Michael Symon visited town a few months ago for the birth of his new grandson and praised it on Instagram as “insanely good .. one of the best and most thoughtful restaurants in the country right now IMHO.“ The praise, combined with a serious lack of parking and the fact that they don’t take reservations, made the restaurant pretty difficult to visit (even though I live very close).
The pandemic changed that for me. Doug wanted to keep the restaurant operating, so he decided to switch to takeout – with curbside pickup and delivery. Doug himself delivered the meals and waved to me on his way back for the next delivery order as I sat in my car waiting for my order. This allowed me to try the delicious choices in the comfort of my own home. I went a little crazy that night – as you can see in the photo below. I ordered the hummus, curry fried chicken, buttered shrimp, crispy brussels sprouts, grilled asparagus, and a cocktail to go (in that cute little jam jar). The cocktail was a lot of fun, and I have reused the jam jar several times to store leftovers. I must have a type of favorite cocktail, because I ordered it when we sat down to eat in the restaurant.
The location doesn’t have the best parking or wait-for-a-table options, but Parnell’s Pub, Starbucks, and Appletree Books are neighbors and allow folks to chill and wait for a table. The dining area is somewhat austere and industrial, with benches piled with pillows lining the walls. The servers are super friendly and knowledgeable, and Doug tends to make the rounds in his restaurants, greeting diners and making them feel like friends.
I adore the Yemenite curry fried chicken (gluten-free). I could eat it every day. Hunks of tender chicken are coated in a curry fried chicken batter and drizzled with harissa honey. It is super flavorful and one of the best chicken dishes in Cleveland at the moment if you ask me. The dipping sauce is also ridiculously delicious.
I also ordered the butter roasted shrimp (see above). I was less impressed with that one. Don’t get me wrong – it was very tasty. It is made with garlic and pil biber chili and is served with toast points. I think I got 5 shrimp for the $18 price tag. Yes, that is fairly normal, but I can just as easily roast shrimp in butter and spices myself. There is no way I could recreate the blissfulness of the fried chicken.
Zhug is also known for its hummus. It serves two kinds of hummus – curried lamb and apricot hummus and nigella seed and burnt onion hummus. I chose the curried lamb and apricot for my first venture and loved it. The hummus is creamy, the curried lamb was fork-tender and I loved the pairing of lamb and apricot. When I met some girlfriends at zhug when things opened up this spring we ordered both. I still preferred the lamb and apricot hummus, but the nigella seed and burnt onion hummus was also a very interesting choice and some of my girlfriends preferred it over the lamb hummus.
One mezze that we went nuts for was the leeks and feta. It is such a simple dish, but is executed so well that I adore it. The leeks are prepared in a scallion-pistachio pistou with roasted shallots and drizzled over a block of feta. I love, love, love it, as did my other friends.
We also very much enjoyed the smoked octopus. It was made with purple potatoes and olives in a tomato-based sauce and decorated with dabs of saffron aioli. My friends and I also chose a simple tomato salad as well. It featured cherry tomatoes cut in half and served with shaved parmesan and torn basil. I’m sure Doug put his own spin to it somehow, but it came across as simple yet delicious.
We ordered all of the desserts and shared them. They were all fantastic. I was skeptical about the tahini sundae, but the flavor blew me away. Topped with pistachios and chocolate sauce, the ice cream itself tasted like a mix between vanilla and chocolate ice cream. The mango sorbet just tasted like a fresh mango, which was so refreshing after our big meal. And although the spiced apples looked kind of dry, it was like spiced apple crisp and was not dry at all. It is made with lebnah, oat streusel, orange blossom and citrus zest. I’d be very hard pressed to pick a favorite; they were all really, really delicious. A really tasty end to a delicious meal.
zhug went back to curbside service during the Omnicron surge, but reopened for in-house dining again on the 1st. I’m really proud of how Doug responded to the pandemic. He was one of the first restaurant owners to go to curbside service, because he was already doing pop-ups and running a ghost kitchen (Chimi) from the diner on Lee. He ended up closing Fire on Shaker Square, which I miss, but he seemed to be keeping his head above water during the pandemic with a second ghost kitchen, Amba, which will soon be turned into a brick and mortar Indian-fusion restaurant in Hingetown. For now, he is focusing on zhug and Amba.
12413 Cedar Road
Cleveland Heights, OH 44106