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Like a geographic Rodney Dangerfield, the Midwest gets no respect.
Our culinary consciousness, much like our artistic one, veers to the coasts. Whether it’s the California stylings rooted in locally grown politically vetted food of Chez Panisse or the celebrity studded tables of Mario Batali’s neo-Italian empire in New York, there is often no in-between.
It’s clear why. Much of what happens in the rest of the country, or what is new, started on the coasts. New York City has Broadway, and Detroit has Eight Mile. California has a never ending growing season, while Chicago has frost.
While the coastal areas developed into service and creative based economies, the Midwest kept building cars. Midwestern cuisine is built upon the backs of the industrial revolution. Immigrants came to the Midwest attracted by the booming job market. Shopworn laborers left their jobs, drenched in sweat that fueled the assembly lines, with the boom, thud, plodding of pistons, the clank of the crankshaft, and the gnash of gears, a horrific fantasia still ringing in their ears. Food was about survival and endurance. These laborers were the first waves of Eastern European working poor, and the fare served was usually cheap and directly culled from their immigrant roots. Cast off scraps were converted in to magical charcuterie like kielbasa and carbohydrate comforts were molded into potato dumplings like pierogie.
Yet, the Midwest, with its blue collar denizens, immigrant culture, and industrial engineering has a gritty ingenuity and survival instinct that is as legitimate as the coastal influences. In recent years, the Midwest has cinched up its rust belt and started deconstructing the cuisine that served it well.
Cleveland is certainly a spoke in this food renaissance. While it is not yet a mecca, it’s no longer a one trick culinary pony. I had a chance to check out some Cleveland restaurants last week including Lolita, Great Lakes Brewing Company, Flying Fig, and Fahrenheit. Here is my review.
Chef Mike Symon took the pierogie, stuffed it with crab, and the rest was history. Symon loves to incorporate his culinary heritage. At his first restaurant, Lola, he took comfort food like Mac and Cheese and fancied it up with organic roast chicken, rosemary, and goat cheese.
At Lolita, Chef Symon is calling upon his mother’s Greek and Sicilian roots, serving up a duck confit gyro with oven dried tomatoes, fennel cucumber sauce, and eggplant fries.
The star of Symon’s cuisine has to be the Salume. Lolita house cures a Lamb Heromeri (lamb leg prosciuttio), Soppresatta –a spicy salame with fennel, Red Wine Lomo and Pancetta-pork loin and pork belly respectively, both with fresh horseradish.
The Heromeri may be one of the best cured meats I have ever eaten. Sweet spices like cinnamon and allspice mix with an undercurrent of saltiness, literally melting on the tongue.
Attention to detail is the hallmark of great restaurant, and at Lolita, they are slicing the meats on an antique Van Berkel that looks like a medieval torture device. The hand cranked chrome and red machine doesn’t generate heat like modern automatic stainless machines, so the cure doesn’t melt and the essential flavor of the meat is not lost.
Great Lakes Brewing Company
Famous for craft beers like Dortmunder Gold and Eliot Ness Amber Lagers, the brewery also has a culinary outpost that’s been around for years serving typical Midwestern grub like sausage and pierogie. Last year they got a new executive chef, Kurt Steeber.
There is a bit of a west coast bias at work since Steeber worked for Jeremiah Tower at San Francisco’s Stars, and Tower, along with Alice Waters, was the founding chef of Chez Panisse. The important thing is that Steeber is now plying his trade in the Midwest, tempura battering fresh Lake Erie catch, instead of some Japanese corporate variant.
I admit, being the foodster that I am, I couldn’t stick to tavern fare. I had to order the Sous Vide Salmon. Sous vide cooking is basically poaching of food in a cryovac bag for a really long time at low temperature. Since everything is sealed in, none of the juices or seasonings can run out of the fish, resulting in a tender morsel of protein.
The salmon at Great Lakes was a pure representation of the method. It was succulent and flaky complimented with anise notes from the tarragon beurre blanc. I now want all my salmon sous vide.
Chef Karen Small’s menu is a true New American fusion of culinary influences. While most Cleveland restaurants offer at least one sausage, the only thing Midwestern about the Fig is that they know how to cook meat well.
Of course my dining companion was a vegetarian, and this proved to be a slight hiccup for the restaurant. We asked the waiter for some recommendations and he was stumped, said he would ask the kitchen “if they do anything special.” When he came back, he said that the kitchen won’t do anything off the menu, and then grabbed a menu and scanned until he found the obvious crispy tofu platter. We’re pretty sure the guy was new and we don’t think it was indicative of the restaurant’s general service.
The tofu was good, like Asian French fries with a side of soba noodles and zingy peanut lime dipping sauce, but it was still all about the meat.
A grilled fanned tenderloin over a salad of arugula with Meyer lemon, chili, rosemary, and freshly grated Pecorino Romano, was spicy, salty, sweet, with a slight hint of peppery bitterness from the arugula. Every inch of the palate was stimulated.
The center point of the meal was a braised and grilled short rib with Hoisin glaze - a perfect upscale representation of the Chinese sparerib or Korean bulgogi. The outside was crispy and smoky while the inside was fall apart tender.
For dessert, we had a couple of the house made ice creams. The fig was creamy and fruity. In contrast, we also had the peanut butter chocolate, which had a slightly freezer burnt texture. I immediately wished I was near a 31 flavors tearing into the real deal with fat chunks of frozen peanut butter.
The Flying Fig wasn’t the only place that had me thinking about chain food. Chef Rocco Whalen’s “Chicken and Waffles” still has me drooling. It was like eating Chicken McNuggets ever over an Eggo waffle slathered in honey and truffle. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. The tempura fried chicken was crispy and addictive like McDonald’s, but instead of fused mystery meat scrap, Whalen’s version was pulled-from-the-bone white meat.
It is interesting to note that Fahrenheit was much more accommodating to my vegetarian dining companion. Our waitress had ample recommendations and even offered to have the kitchen cook off menu. My friend opted for menu items like the Indonesian fried rice - fragrant like a spice market, and a cauliflower puree - redolent with sweet roasted almonds that reminded me of earthy exotic mashed potatoes.
Any upscale place will put its attention into a truffle infused foie gras with reduction, but sometimes a classic basic preparation tells you the most about a restaurant. We finished the meal off with a molten chocolate cake. Super moist, and uber-chocolatey, it was truly a “food of love” dish.
Lolita is located at 900 Literary Road. Phone is 216-771-LOLA.
Great Lakes Brewing Company is located at 2516 Market Avenue. Phone is 216-771-4404.
Flying Fig is located at 2523 Market Avenue. Phone is 216-241-4243.
Fahrenheit is located at 2417 Professor Avenue. Phone is 216-781-8858.