I knew Cleveland rocked, after all, the reason for the four hundred mile road trip was to visit the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. But the three day junket to Ohio not only revealed Elvis' Lincoln and Keith Richards' bomber jacket, but a vibrant, trendy gastronomy that left my lapping tongue quite satisfied.
Cleveland has great walking, a cool breeze, museums, monuments, architecture, of course, awesome beer. Cleveland is home to the Great Lakes Brewery and the locals seem pretty proud of their product. Upon check-in, I grabbed a Dortmunder Gold from the lobby refrigerator and was only too happy to drink it down once we got to our room. It proved to be our favorite beer of the trip.
For a food enthusiast, the thrill of the hunt - discovering a great place to eat or drink in an unfamiliar city - is exhilarating, rewarding, and arguably, a great way to become acquainted with the culture and people of an area.
The various Cleveland neighborhoods offer a lot of these opportunities. Vino Veritas in Cleveland's Little Italy, was a charming, proprietor run wine bar, Market Garden in the Ohio City section offered a large selection of local craft brews to accompany the breakfast platter (no eyebrows raised), and my favorite, Society Lounge on 4th Street, a 1920's style, downstairs craft cocktail bar serving up absinthe laced libations.
Mr. Hot and I enjoyed our first dinner at Fire Food and Drink in Shaker Square. Housed in a historic building, with sleek, modern industrial interior, a steely open kitchen, and beautifully lit bar, if you didn't realize that is an upscale joint, observe the Bentley and Mercedes parked ostentatiously in valet spots, just to reconfirm.
The menu at Fire offered popovers, one of my grandmother's staples that I couldn't resist ordering. Four perfectly golden, crisp, hollow pillows served with a sweet honey butter. We also ordered another dish that curiously smacked of home: grilled banana peppers stuffed with house made sausage and spicy marinara. (I had to wonder if the chef is of Czech and Italian descent.)
Hanger steak generally disappoints me, but the tandoor roasted hanger steak at fire proved to be a beefy revelation. Before ordering, I queried the server as to how they cook the steak in the tandoor. The meats (as a tandoor roasted ribeye is also offered) are kept whole, not cubed, skewered and lowered into a 700 degree clay oven where they take on a nice sear and emerge incredibly buttery.
Mr. Hot ordered the blackened tile fish which was moist and not overcooked, but bland. Overall, the accompaniments, despite how well they read on the menu, were a bit lacking in creativity and flavor, and in need of more inspiration.
Dessert, the Fire Split, was simply perfect; a muddy, fudgy brownie with salted caramel ice cream, a dollop of fresh whip cream, and bananas with a brulee crust.
With about an hour and half to kill before Saturday's dinner at Michael Symon's Lola Bistro, Mr. Hot and I found ourselves in Society. An inconspicuous young man in a suit who stood beside a blackboard with cocktail names scrolled on it, opened the door for us and directed us down the stairs and to the left. Society is the kind of place I wish we had in Montclair; cozy yet swanky, you know you're in public, but somehow feel magically invisible at the same time.
Time on our side, we started with two cocktails, Death in New York, a barrel aged cocktail, and the phenomenal, spicy, balanced Mexican Monk. While sipping our cocktails and nibbling on a meat, cheese and nut plate, Mr. Hot (obviously a brave soul) opted for a second cocktail called the Corpse Reviver #2. (What ever happened to #1? The waitress couldn't answer.) I scaled things back and had a small batch Carmenere.
Soon enough, it was 9:00 and time to walk across the street to Lola. Upon entering Lola, you get the feeling that this place has it's act together. The atmosphere is spot on, and the lighting is perfect; hip and unpretentious, the service was prompt, knowledgeable, considerate, and enthusiastic.
The appetizers at Lola were texturally contrasted. The highly recommended pork belly was undoubtedly unctuous, though the addition of the crisp pigs ear left me convinced that the pig had just jumped the shark.
The second appetizer, however, was a phenom: peas and morels with polenta and a perfectly poached egg. So smooth and flavorful, the impossibly creamy polenta was a gorgeous backdrop for the colorful, and crisp verdancy of the peas and the soft, earthy morels.
In an effort to prove that the hanger steak at Fire was really as good as I thought it was, Mr. Hot ordered the Lola the hanger steak. The verdict: fire was indeed that darn good. Though the Lola hanger boasted beautiful color and beefy aroma, it was a bit gnarly and the fries a bit ordinary.
I ordered the sturgeon with Merguez, and unfortunately, the Merguez was enormously over salted and rendered the dish nearly inedible. The staff was very accommodating and offered desserts and after dinner drinks as reparation.
For our final dinner on Sunday night, we went to the Greenhouse Tavern, just a few doors from Lola. At that point, I suspect Mr. Hot and I reached our gastronomic saturation point and stuck to appetizers, beer and wine. The Beef Tartare was delectable, smooth and palate coating. The Confit Wings were fall-of-the-bone tender and juicy, but here, again, I expected more of a flavor punch than the lemon and jalapeno "dressing" offered. The dessert, a buttered popcorn pots de creme with caramel and sea salt was pleasing and disappeared in no time.