Historic Sterle’s Country House unveils new menu, chef and updated dining room

At age 63, Sterle’s County House needed a little work.

Nothing major. Just a small facelift for one of Cleveland’s most beloved ethnic restaurants.

“It was time, ” says owner Rick Semersky, seated in the newly repainted bar of the sprawling Alpine chateau-like space that has been luring diners to East 55th Street for authentic Eastern European food since 1954. “I have owned it for five years now, and we decided it was time to spruce it up a bit.”

The updates are nothing wild: fresh paint, more windows to allow more natural light to the dark space, moving the stage to the center of the back wall of the restaurant, doing a major cleaning, and adding brighter LED lights to the cavernous space.

The updates to Sterle’s menu are more obvious, though – there no longer is a menu. In a return to its roots in the days of founder Frank Sterle, everything here will be served family-style, according to what the chef is making that day. After a month of planning and renovations, Sterle’s will reopen again for business Friday, Feb. 10.

“We’re moving forward by looking back to the way Sterle’s used to be,” says Semersky. “This is how food was served at Sterle’s when it opened.”

Sterle’s is also moving forward with a new chef, Natasha Pogrebinsky, a Parma native who most recently was the chef-owner of Bear restaurant in Long Island City, New York. Described as a “modern Russian” restaurant, the lauded Bear went a long way to putting Slavic cuisine on the map of New York foodies.

Pogrebinsky closed it when she decided to move back to Cleveland to be closer to her family. Fortuitously, not long after she moved home, she heard Sterle’s was looking for a chef. Intrigued by the idea of being able to share her love of classic Eastern European cuisine at a classic restaurant she had dined at as child, she called them.

Soon, Pogrebinsky, who learned to cook at the shoulders of her mother, father and grandmother — then later the International Culinary Center in New York — was at the helm at Sterle’s. She loved the idea of no menus, of being able to craft weekly meals featuring the dishes of the Slavic cuisines she is so familiar with.

“This is traditional Old World, has-to-cook-all-day kind of food and sauces,” says the chef as she stirs a giant pot of barley pilaf in Sterle’s newly scrubbed kitchen. Nearby, kielbasa simmers in beer from Semersky’s Goldhorn brewery next door, while handmade pierogi cook and a mushroom gravy simmers for the Wiener Schnitzel. The smell of baking pretzels wafts through the air.

“You can’t fake this, or make this in a hurry,” says Pogrebinsky. “This is made with love and tradition and care.

“Eastern European foods are becoming popular again; this is our moment. I think one reason is because we have stayed with tradition — you can’t change or modernize these foods. They are rooted in culture and tradition.”

Pogrebinsky’s opening-weekend menu will include the barley pilaf, pierogi, Weiner Schnitzel in mushroom gravy, kielbasa and borscht. Usually, the menu will change weekly, but these options will be around Feb. 16-18, too. Menus will be added to the website each week.

The goal is to feature some very popular traditional favorites each week, like the pierogi and kielbasa and schnitzels, but also dig deeper into less well-known but traditional dishes like the barley pilaf topped with horseradish, or borscht. Other items Pogrebinsky says she’d like to serve soon include stuffed cabbage, potatoes stuffed with cabbage and dill salad.

“We want to open up people’s perceptions of Eastern European foods,” she says. That includes many cold salads, and seafood and lighter options in the summer. “People think all Eastern European cuisine is heavy, but that’s not true,” says the young chef.

All meals will begin with bowls of freshly baked pretzels and pickles on the table. Desserts will be made by Rudy’s Strudel of Parma and Translyvania Bakery on East 65th Street.

Dinner will be served at Sterle’s Thursdays to Saturdays, beginning at 4:30 daily. The price is $24 per person; kids’ menus will be available.

A buffet-style lunch will be served Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. $13. Sunday brunch will be held weekly. The buffet-style meal will include many of the dinner items, plus frittatas, kielbasa hash, blintzes, French toast, pancakes and more. Endless mimosas will be available, and Sterle’s Bloody Mary cart will be making the rounds.

On evenings, there will also be an after-dinner drinks cart with everything from Tia Maria to slivovitz being pushed from table to table.