Cleveland may not be on your top 10 list of where to go for your next Culinary Adventure– maybe not even on your top 50 list…but that would be a BIG “Pretty Woman” sized mistake on your part. (Don’t feel too bad, it wouldn’t have been on my list either– until I visited there last week for an incredible eye & palate-opening Gourmet Tour.)
To set the record straight, Cleveland’s sooty past is just that, a thing of the past, because Cleveland has worked very hard to clean up its act. The phrase that kept running through my mind as I was exploring the city’s streets was “How Civilized!” For example, I couldn’t believe how clean the city was. I learned that the Downtown Cleveland Alliance not only hires “Clean & Safe Ambassadors” to power wash the sidewalks and keep the buildings graffiti-free, but they also will provide a free after-hours escort to safely walk you to your car. Now that’s what I call civilized (and smart,) because it can’t help but contribute to C-town‘s sizzling restaurant scene, because this place is HOT, HOT, HOT with stylin’ new restaurants springing up in mini-culinary nabes all over town. Bistros, gastro-pubs, ethnic eateries, and chef driven smaller sized restaurants are flourishing, particularly in the historic Warehouse District, the West Side’s gentrified Tremont area and “The Flats” down on the Cuyahoga riverfront.
Here‘s what’s topping my Cleveland’s Greatest Culinary Hit Parade:
1. The West Side Market: this historical indoor-outdoor marketplace specializes in ethnic food, from Italian pastries and Amish yogurt cheese, to Lithuanian sausage and stuffed grape leaves. Blue-haired grandmas rub elbows with blue-haired hipsters stocking up on local produce and exotic specialty foods available at amazingly affordable prices. This 1913 market features a graceful clock tower and beautiful Neo-Classical/Byzantine Style building and houses over 180 food stalls.
While talking to Chef Timothy over breakfast one morning at Muse in the Ritz Carlton (more “Musings” later) he told me to be sure and search out his fave market vendor, Maha’s , which is hidden away in the back corner. Order their world- class fallafel loaded with lettuce, tomato, tzatziki, crispy fried falafel, and the not-so-secret ingredient — hot sauce. Be sure and grab a handful of napkins for this messy delight.
Judy’s Oasis – Great Middle Eastern foods, particularly their spinach and meat pies.
Ohio Pasta – Great selection of all types of fresh handmade pastas in flavors ranging from roasted red pepper, black pepper basil, orange-sesame ginger, Cajun, chipotle, spicy lime and cilantro. Filled pastas offered even more incredible flavor combos–such as asparagus & mascarpone or white truffle/Yukon-gold potato raviolis. (Many local restaurant chefs get their pasta made here.)
Dionne’s Poultry – offered an abundance of chicken sausages in mouth-watering flavors– the spinach/feta links were calling my name.
I couldn’t stop sampling the addictive “Dichotomy” flavored popcorn at Campbell’s popcorn stall–an enticing sweet /salty mix of cheddar cheese and caramel popcorn.
After perusing the market’s culinary riches it‘s no wonder that Cleveland’s restaurants are producing such high caliber food.
2. Blue Point Grille
Located in the trendy warehouse district, the nautical Blue Point Grille, is a seafood lovers dream. Filled with rich dark-toned wood, sparkling chandeliers, and deep blue accents you’ll feel as if you’re dining at the captain’s table on some luxury cruise ship. The kitchen spends much of its time scouting out the freshest quality fish and shellfish and excels at both innovative offerings such as their: MY BLUE (POINT) HEAVEN ~ Lobster Tail Shrimp & Scallops, Lobster Mashers, or more straightforward preparations for the purist.
Crop is simply the coolest place in town. (Even their website is totally cool.)
Chef-owner Steve Schimoler is an innovator and product development guru who runs Crop as a test kitchen by day and hip restaurant by night. The innovative farm fresh food will surprise even the most jaded palate, starting with their Pac Rim popcorn salad, moving on to the “Cherry Bomb” a goat cheese and chorizo stuffed plum tomato stuffed gift- wrapped in a wonton skin then lightly fried. And if Starbucks would begin serving their truffle-scented “Lobster Latte” their plunging stock might start heading in the right direction.
4. Sokolowski’s University Inn
Sokolowskis takes you back to a time when the world was a kinder, gentler place–and carbs weren’t considered the enemy. S.U.I is run by the third generation of the Sokolowski family, and is famous for the kind of food that grandma used to trot out from the kitchen:Pierogies, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, chicken fried pork cutlets…the hit parade continues down the length of the cafeteria line. Oops- don’t forget to grab a bowl of their famous mushroom-barley soup, before you try to find a seat in the dining room packed with old-timers.
I could so see the ”Sex in the City” girls gathering here for a not-so-little brekkie as they rehash last night’s happenings. Tommy is a holdover from the hippie/macrobiotic days, but now combines “healthier” choices with tasty omnivorous offerings in huge lumberjack -sized portions. (Rolling Stone magazine voted Tommy’s as having the “Best Milkshake East of the Missisippi”, which I can attest to after trying their thick-as-molasses Moosetrack- flavored malted shake –for breakfast yet!) When we asked about his rather curious menu filled with peoples names, for example, the Elsie Combo-Two fried eggs, two strips of bacon, mayo, American cheese and peanut butter made into a triple-decker sandwich), Tommy chuckled and said , “When I started this place in the 70’s I was pretty much the cook, waiter and bottle washer so when my regulars would ask for a special sandwich or omelet, it was easier to just name it after them and add it to the menu so I’d remember it for the next time.” When I asked him if he’d name something after me, he replied,” If other people really like it I might.” So when you stop in be sure and order the “Redsie Scrambler” which is scrambled egg whites ( I know —it’s laughable after adding all the other artery-clogging ingredients) loaded with corned beef, tomatoes, onions, Swiss cheese and the piece-de resistance, dill pickles. Sounds weird but it was totally scrumptious. While waiting for your food, check out all the original artwork scattered around if you need some fun souvenirs to bring back.
6. Baricelli Inn
Paul Minnillo, one of Cleveland’s most respected chefs, has long been a culinary trendsetter. When his luxe restaurant, located in an elegant 1896 brownstone in Little Italy, started meeting some price resistance, Minnillo, axed the pricier menu for more affordable options —his pasta’s available in two sizes,” A Little or A Lot’a”.
A long-time cheese fan, Minnillos latest venture was to install a state-of-the-art affinage cooler where he “blooms” over 40 varieties of the finest, hand-crafted and properly aged goat, cow and sheep milk cheeses. We stopped in and happily make a meal from his incredible collection of both European and local cheeses paired with some excellent wines. The gregarious Chef Paul Minnillo is happy to make suggestions, and if you drink too much it’s nice to know that the inn has 7 rooms available upstairs, perfect for a romantic sleep-over.
Melt Bar and Grilled
Since it’s almost anti-American not to like grilled cheese sandwiches, it’s pretty safe to say that you’ll definitely want to hit this place at least once. The heavily- tattooed rocker-looking dude is the chef/owner Matt Fish. He offers more than 32 cheese sandwich varieties including a Chorizo and Potato (with spicy Mexican sausage and sharp cheddar cheese), and a Grilled Peanut Butter and Banana (smooth peanut butter, cream cheese, banana and mixed berry preserves on the side) and can’t forget the ever-popular Big Popper (herb cream cheese and sharp cheddar, “blended” with grilled jalapeÃ±os, poured onto bread, then smothered in beer batter and deep fried. It’s then topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of blueberry syrup for dipping.)
If your tastes tend to run toward the classics there’s always The Kindergarten–just fresh baked bread, any cheese and your choice of add-ons. To wash the sammies down, Melt offers a mind-boggling list of over 100 different beers. I chose the seasonal Pumpkin beer and the creamy Left Hand Milk Stout. But perhaps you’d prefer the Arrogant Bastard on tap?
Looking to go a bit more upscale? My vote for the all-round best dining experience would be Muse, at the Ritz-Carlton, featuring Chef Timothy Maxin’s “simplicity cooked to perfection” American cuisine. One might think that the venerable Ritz-Carlton dining room would tend towards an elaborate, more formal restaurant, but that too is a thing of the past. They changed their whole dining concept when they unveiled Muse, a cozy/casual/chic eatery, beautifully lit to show off the vibrant works of art (note the great glass pieces by The Glass Bubble Project ) created exclusively by local artists.
Their next smart move was to hire Timothy Maxim, a talented local chef, who is passionate proponent of “Ohio Farm to Table“ food. He spends a great deal of time developing relationships with small, artesian specialty growers and works with them to produce more organic, hormone-free products just for Muse. Maxim feels that this is time well spent since “If you buy the best seasonal product and treat it with respect, and let the ingredients take the lead, the end result will be more intoxicating.” His Truffled “Mac & Cheese” is to die for, but you’ll want to save room for a “Snickers” Parfait Milk Chocolate CrÃ¨meux, Salty Vanilla Caramel Peanut Butter Ice-cream.
Grab a girlfriend and stop in for their weekend Afternoon Tea from 12:00-3:00, where you’ll be able to sample a variety of scrumptious sweeties prepared by their artistic pastry chef, Roger Smith. (He brought me a sample of a new dessert creation, an artisan Beer float, topped with brittle shards accompanied by lemon beignets. I’ll be his guinea pig any day!)
If you are a true foodie and would like a more behind-the scenes vantage point, you can join Chef Timothy on one of his FRESH MARKET tours which includes:
– Continental breakfast with the hotel’s Chef de Cuisine to review the day’s events
– Chef-guided tour and food shopping excursion at the historic West Side Market
– Customized Fresh Market lunch at MUSE, featuring the items selected during the morning’s market visit, accompanied by select Ohio wines
– While dining, your own market purchases will be washed, wrapped and properly stored until departure
***A Few Housekeeping Comments:
1. If you’re going to be a wine-snob and snicker at the thought of drinking wines from Ohio’s Lake Erie you’re going to miss out on some very promising new wines. Ferrante Winery, located in Harpersfield, Ohio produces some very good buttery Chardonnays, and crisp Rieslings.
And after one sip of the Vidal Blanc Grand River Valley Icewine produced by Chalet Debonne, a 2003 Wine Spectator award winner, (which is about Â½ the price of any other icewine in the country) you’ll be shipping a case home.
If you prefer a nice cold one, then stop in and try the local home-brewed beer from the Great Lakes Brewery. I particularly liked their “Elliot Ness,” a malty amber lager that has picked up quite a few gold medals. Ness, who frequented the Brewpub’s bar during the late 30’s, was responsible for the bullet holes in the bar still evident today. Margaret Conway, the mother of owners Patrick and Daniel Conway, worked with Ness as his stenographer.