Salute to Cleveland Week continues with the gourmet side of C-Town. Never thought that haute cuisine and Cleveland would be mentioned in the same sentence? It's sort of like that mousy girl from high school who ended up playing bass for a punk band: you may not have noticed it on the surface, but the talent was always there.
Last time I was in Cleveland the weather was terrible and I didn't have a lot of free time. But during this trip the sun was shining, the snow was melting, and I had the flexibility to move around the city a bit. Number one on my to-do list was to have dinner at Lola in downtown Cleveland.
Michael Symon is an up and coming celebrity chef who aside from his Food Network success has established a great pair of restaurants in his native Cleveland and writes a blog called Symon Says. One of his signature dishes is a gourmet twist on a regional Polish favorite: the beef cheek pierogies with wild mushrooms and horseradish crème fraîche. Of course when I went there I had to order this, and I was not disappointed. Think about the most intense, concentrated beef flavor you can imagine and condense it down into soft fibres of facial muscles that have been slow braised and seasoned to perfection. These are stuffed into delicate pierogi dough and then boiled and pan-fried before being served with the mushrooms and white sauce. Simply amazing. I'm going to be dreaming about these for months.
For an entrée I decided on the smoked Berkshire pork chop with cheesy polenta and BBQ onions. The pork chop was a bit over an inch thick and was served sliced over the polenta. I'll admit that the flavor of smoked pork made me slightly homesick for just a moment. I suppose that's one of the highest compliments a Southerner can give to a pork dish prepared north of the Mason-Dixon line. I enjoyed both dishes with a spicy Argentine Malbec called Terra Rosa.
The place is quite popular and while I was able to snag a small table by showing up at opening time on a Saturday afternoon, I chose instead to eat at the bar. Turned out to be a great idea because of the excellent bartender and the friendly local couple seated next to me who struck up a conversation and recommended similar restaurants around town. Topping their list was...
The Flying Fig in Cleveland's Market Square. I went there the following week and had a salad and meatloaf. Sounds like a depressing cafeteria meal served by some surly Eastern European waitress whose last name has an excess of consonants from the second half of the alphabet, all bathed in the dead lights of flickering fluorescent tubes. WRONG! Best salad I've had in months combined with the finest meatloaf I've eaten in my entire life. This is a charming little restaurant in one of those cool, trendy sections of town comparable to Cooper/Young in Memphis. Lots of great restaurants within walking distance, anchored by the Great Lakes Brewing Company.
The salad was a mesclun mix with a honey vinaigrette, prosciutto, mission figs, roasted pistachios, and some sort of dry goat cheese in thin, broken strips. And the meatloaf... good Lord the meatloaf... It was a veal and wild mushroom blend served with a rutabaga purée and a truffle-sage jus. Bit of wilted spinach for greenery. I'm going to have a lot of fun trying to recreate this one back home. Best thing about the meatloaf: aside from the gourmet ingredients, the individual slices had been pan seared to allow for a nicely caramelized crust on all sides. Not greasy at all, just savory bliss washed down with a glass of 2005 Anne Amie Cuvee A Pinot Noir from Oregon.
I ate at many other great restaurants, including a wonderful Lebanese place and an establishment near my hotel that had an amazing pork osso buco. But why spoil all the details for you? If life takes you to Cleveland, you're in for a pleasant surprise.