cleveland rocks!

October 3rd, 2008 · 55 Comments

warning: all photos in the following post are from an iphone.  proceed at your own risk.

it’s lola bistro, and i can prove it…

i went to cleveland. cleveland… of all places. and it was good. 

i went to visit my misspent youth at the rock and roll hall of fame where i saw keith moon’s velvet suit, james taylor’s first guitar and marveled at how freakin’ tiny jagger, prince, tyler and bowie are. i mean, they’re like a woman’s size 6. i’d totally break them all in half…  anyway, i had met terry stewart, the president of the ‘rock hall’ when he was visiting nashville and we talked for awhile – mostly about food, and he was kind enough to invite me to visit the museum if i was ever in cleveland. i kindly thanked him while chuckling softly, inwardly rolling my eyes. like i’d ever be going to cleveland… and then a year later he got the phone call and made good on it. and it was a fun couple of hours for which i am grateful to both him and patrick, director of guest services, for showing us around and treating me like the vip rockstar that i’ve always believed i should be.

but i mostly went because on occasion my friend carol and i devise a plan, book a ticket and then we tend to get off a plane and eat something extremely memorable. if you recall, we went here and then here – and now cleveland. let it be known upfront that i knew next to nothing about this city, let alone ohio. i even somehow forgot that cleveland is on lake erie – i must have been sick that day in 5th grade geography. and i never imagined that it was a city with great museums, a top notch symphony and restaurants and markets and well, then there are the actual clevelanders – a few in particular that i quite like. i suppose all this to say that i need to get out more – or perhaps just back to cleveland.

now, not to knock cleveland, as i personally fault the hiltons (who clearly care nothing for the little people) for this artistic travesty, but this was what i looked at for 4 days straight…

yes, residing happily side by side, literally the very same print – each precisely as unattractive as the other. although the coloring may appear to be slightly different, it was merely the lighting in the room. luckily for me this was not to be representational of cleveland. at all…

…but this was. this is a dish that was brought out by the chef de cuisine of lola bistro, derek clayton. he called it ‘fergus henderson meets thomas keller.’  all i know is that you take a hunk of the crispy bone marrow and you slice it onto a piece of toasted baguette and then top it with a good flaky salt along with parsley and then either pickled onion or the salsa verde and a squeeze of lemon and well, boys and girls – it doesn’t get much better than that.

and hey – next time could someone PLEASE remind me to forgo the vanilla pear ginger martini? because i get smashed on liquor and then you add the really, really good barbera – la spinetta ca di pian barbera d’asti ’05 – that we were drinking and well, i tend to forget things. more and more… but i could never ever forget the first dish that michael brought to our table.  it was a cold sausage of forced duck meat, studded with foie gras. ruhlman later told me the proper name for what the studded thing is, but i can’t recall. regardless, it was truly exceptional. one of the better sausages i’ve ever eaten.

this is a picture of michael symon’s entire head next to about 18% of mine.  it is the single worst photo of me ever taken in the history of my entire life. believe me, this crop job was beyond necessary and i did us all a huge service. but that really is me cradling symon’s big bald head and i can assure you the rest of his body was in fact well attached. he is, by the way, an absolute doll. totally adorable. michael symon, i love you. and when things slow down a bit in your life – like in 20 years, let’s hang out. mwah!

after the sausage and marrow, there were sweetbreads and berkshire bacon, and lamb and halibut and the righteous lola fries… and only then did michael send over the 3 desserts – which i proceeded to eat most of… and then i died. happy.

this trip, carol was arriving 2 days after me so i found myself in the amazing care of heidi robb from life in recipesshe works in culinary media and is currently involved with symon on his upcoming book as well as being a personal chef. and in the midst of all of that, she was kind enough to volunteer to schlep my ass all over town for 2 days. we had a lot of food, and a lot of fun. thank you heidi. kindred spirits and friends forever. 

heidi from life in recipes – my lola dining partner and ace tour guide

the next day we went to the cleveland museum of art and feeding maybelle gave us a private tour. she works there and is incredibly knowledgeable of the collection. sadly, we were a few weeks shy of the new exhibit that’s coming in, but still, we got the grand go around and i loved the building which has undergone the first stage of a major renovation, to be completed in 2012. after, we hit chinatown. 

this was the best dish – a petal shaped rice noodle with pork and vegetables. the 3 of us loved it.

then we went experimental and decided to get the bitter melon and shrimp with egg. there is no way to measure the sucktitude of this dish. it was both bad and boring.

white tripe with black bean sauce.  because when heidi and i mustered up whatever it took to order the tripe, she figured black bean sauce was the way to go.  those little fermented beans tend to make anything taste all right. all in all i’d have to say that it was – ummm, textural?  can you see the little villi attached to the little flaps which are attached to the bigger flap of stomach? no? look closer. yep, pretty gross. but we ate some, felt that we could then conquer anything and then went on with our bad selves. but i really took this photo so i could taunt carol (see this), and got great pleasure waving my iphone in front of her face, over and over. because i am her friend and that’s what friends do.

west side market is what’s missing in nashville. trader joe’s may be opening here next month, but they won’t be offering beef hearts and lamb tongues and hungarian bacon and tons of sausage AND cannoli.  ok, we actually have good cannoli. but STILL, we don’t have one butcher that sells calves liver or veal bones or, see below on the very left?  that’s a lamb head.  ok, so maybe i can live without the lamb head but if the brain were still inside i might be interested.


heads and hearts and livers and kidneys and tongues… as it should be. heidi bought 6 lamb tongues for pickling and it was under $5.

the happiest, nicest produce vendors in the building. i loved these vendors. they were truly enjoying themselves and it was contagious. that woman’s melons were outrageous. 

you slice this and eat it as is – cold on a good dense eastern european bread shmeared with garlic. so i’ve been told.

that night, heidi and i were joined by ‘feeding maybelle’ for a dinner at moxie. we had a cheese course that included a briny brau kase from wisconsin that i loved and am trying to track down, as well as a duck confit with pear mostarda that i thought was excellent. there were scallops in creamed corn with nueske bacon, a tomato salad with mozzarella and lemon overtones – and there were 2 bottles of a wonderful argentinian malbec.

more pork for you. ruhlman comes by his love of the stuff honestly… i think cleveland has more pork per capita than any city in america.

speaking of ruhlman, the next day carol and i made it a point to stop by the botanical garden to see donna turner ruhlman’s photography exhibit entitled ‘leaf designs in black and white.’  the prints were stunning and we were lucky to catch it.

the garden has this two level glasshouse.  downstairs, you’ve got yer costa rica – upstairs, yer madagascar.  this plaque (above) was near the elevator and for some reason it CRACKED ME THE HELL UP. poor carol… i wonder how she stands it. but c’mon! i never tire of watching leaf-cutter ants? get a life…


the botanical garden entrance, looking out to the cleveland art museum.

and then finally, that evening – my first negroni. but ruhlman? without the orange slice? we sampled 3 of his recently made sausages and i surprisingly voted for the chicken, a true taste sensation, (turkey with cherry and bratwurst were the others) which michael assured me was loaded with fatback – because i was worried i might not get my daily cleveland pork allowance…

anyway, this is michael, carol and myself (fat again and FRETTING) – photo by donna. we had a wonderful wine soaked evening and as much as i adore michael, and i really do adore michael, his wife is what makes cleveland rock. i’m sure of it.

so for that last night we chose to have dinner at the baricelli inn, owned by chef paul minnillo. we nestled into a table for 4 in a glass encased corner and began with some champagne as paul sent out a tray of salumi and a platter of the last of his garden grown heirloom tomatoes in vibrant green, yellow and red. it wasn’t a night for taking food photos but for those of you who may wonder, we had the 5 spice lamb ribs that came with a chutney slaw that was really quite good and a chilled sugar snap pea soup that didn’t quite rise to what it could have been. we also had a simple salad of greens from the renowned farmer jones, and another that had asparagus, potatoes, mustard greens, a poached egg and bacon vinaigrette – both excellent if not slightly overdressed. for our entrées we had a corn risotto with bacon and sweet peppers, a saffron linguine with lobster and pea tendrils and the duck breast with stone fruit compote, wild rice and figs that seemed to be quite well received. but well, by that time i was ever so slightly blurry, exclaiming "no, i’m fine" just as my elbow slipped off the table. charming. (le sigh…)

besides the great food, the baricelli inn is also known for its cheese and boasts a state-of-the-art affinage cooler, home to about 40 different varieties. so the evening ended with a spread of beautiful cheeses, one in particular that was made with goat, cow and sheep milk. there was a dessert that didn’t quite matter and scotch and some muscato, perhaps the other dessert wine was a sauternes but by this point – what’s the difference? you get the picture. if not, allow me to spell this out. cocktails, champagne, 2+ bottles of wines, dessert wine and hard liquor. and i lived to tell the tale and did not puke, although at 4am it was touch and go…

sunday was a bit tough for me to face. but we slept in, admired the hotel artwork a bit longer, packed up and then rallied, only to hit fire for brunch with heidi. i hate to say it, but even in my delicate state, nothing we ordered qualified as all that good. the chef doug katz did come by and totally seemed like a very nice jewish boy. admittedly, by that time, food wasn’t exactly high on my priority list. and i was hung over. but still, just fair at best. fire has a wonderful reputation and if i find myself back in cleveland, i’d love to try it for dinner.

when you descend upon a city that you’ve never been to before, and you’re there to suck the life out of it, drawing all it has to offer into your brain, your stomach, your heart – sometimes it can overload your senses. but somehow this was not the case with cleveland. somehow, despite the self induced fast pace, it felt homey and comfortable – the kind of place where it’s easy to just ‘be’, the kind of place where you could live. after all my earlier notions, the "rock ‘n’ roll capital of the world" proved itself to be a worthy destination in ways i had not imagined and i know i’ll be back sometime. and when i am, it will be because of the most important thing that any town, village or city can offer you – it will be to see my friends.

Tags: restaurants · travel

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