Don’t how ask me how Marc, one of my favorite dining companions, convinced me to go to Cleveland in the dead of winter for a bridge tournament, but needless to say, dinner at Iron Chef, Michael Symon’s Lola was a part of the bargain.
Marc also decided that instead of coming up with New Year’s resolutions for himself, he would create resolutions for his friends. Mine? To blog about a place within a week of dining there, to preserve accuracy. That’s not a bad idea, after all, I took much too long to blog about my NOLA trip last year and as a result never wrote about one of the best meals of the year. So, here we go!
West Side Market
I arrived in Cleveland at 8am and by 8:20am we were hunting down breakfast at the West Side Market. It is a large marketplace with over 100 vendors selling: meats, vegetables, fruits, seafood, baked goods, dairy and cheese products, and even flowers. There are also booths that sell ready-to-eat foods, herbs, candy and nuts. We did an exploratory circuit and then returned to Crepes de luxe, where I got a delicious, thin crispy crepe stuffed with ham, brie and asparagus. We also picked up a nice crusty baguette, an apple fritter, a cherry donut, a mini cannoli, pepperoni rolls, cheese covered pretzel bread, tangerines, dried apricots and peaches, bananas and cilantro from various booths throughout the market. If I lived in Cleveland, I would do my weekly shopping here. I loved it.
Sokolowski’s University Inn
Sokolowski’s is a family owed and operated Polish restaurant that has been in existence since 1923. It is cafeteria style; you grab a tray, help yourself to napkins and silverware and point at what you want. I got the beer battered Lake Erie Perch, which is only available on Fridays at lunch, with a side of mac and cheese and potato pancakes. Marc got the famed potato and cheese pierogis with green beans and more mac and cheese. The portions were huge – it could have fed twice as many people. The stuffed cabbage, which I was tempted by, but did not get was the sized of an infant’s head.
I liked the perch, the batter was crispy, but a shade heavy. The potato pancake was awful - limp, soggy and burnt. The mac and cheese was delicious, but the star of the meal was the pierogis basted in a rich onion and butter sauce. I managed to eat three of Marc’s five pierogis. Clearly, he is a good friend for sharing.
The culinary highlight of the trip was definitely my meal at Lola. The dining room is dark with warm brown and red tones. I really liked the space. As we perused the menu, we realized that we were much more interested in the appetizers than the entrées. It seems that chefs tend to be more innovative and adventurous when creating appetizers. We decided to share four apps and an entrée.
1. Charcuterie platter - there was a duck rillette, cured pork loin, summer salami and prosciutto. This was the least impressive app; not that there was anything wrong with it, but it did not wow me in any way.
2. Pork Belly – it was delicious as can be, but really, it’s hard to go wrong with pork belly.
3. Beef Cheek Pierogi – when I think of Cleveland, I will think pierogis. It was a completely different animal than the pierogi at Sokolowski’s, but just as savory and delicious.
4. Crispy bone marrow – I love bone marrow - it’s like a delicious heart attack. If you have never had it, get pass your initial disgust and try it. At Lola, they force out the marrow, so it is in a long cylinder, dust it with rice flour and then deep fry it. It is served with crostini and various accoutrements.
We also shared the smoked Berkshire pork shop. I didn’t taste the smoke much, and the chop was closer to well then medium rare, but it was still moist and piece with the bone had good flavor. It was perfectly acceptable, but, like the charcuterie, it did not wow me.
Sadly, there was a gaffe in service. We were on a time crunch, as we needed to be back for the evening session at 7. We informed our server of this when we were seated and assured that it was no problem. The charcuterie and pork belly came quickly, but then after 25 minutes we had seen neither our server, nor more food. The manager came over to apologize and told us that the next two apps would be there in 2 or 3 minutes. 10 minutes later, still nothing. We flagged down our server, who finally reappeared and the other two apps, plus the entrée came all at once. To Lola’s credit, the manager came over again, apologized and comped us dessert. Marc also didn’t like his cocktail (mine was delicious) and that was also taken off the final bill.
I’m so glad that despite the timing issues, we managed to partake in dessert, because it was fabulous. Marc had the Chocolate and Doughnuts: 2 mini almond and 1 mini cherry doughnut served with a cinnamon chocolate dipping sauce. He loved it, especially the almond doughnuts. I got the signature “6 am special,” which is brioche French toast served with maple bacon ice cream. I put a spoonful of the ice cream in my mouth and I just started laughing. It was so surprising, delightful and whimsical that I couldn’t help but burst out in mirth. At first, the sensation is like any other ice cream – cold, creamy, and sweet, but then you start chewing and there smoky, salty, bacon-y goodness. My favorite thing when dining out is to be surprised with something new, different and unique. This certainly qualified.
They also do a pig roast on Tuesdays that I would love to get to – not that I’m ever going to be in Cleveland again.
Another reason that I was willing to go to Cleveland is because my college roommate Joanna and her family moved out there five years ago, and the miserable friend that I am, I haven’t seen her or met her 3 year old son, Charlie. So, I got to have dinner with her and her family on Sunday night. We got take out from the Saffron Patch, an Indian restaurant in Shaker Heights. I ordered my usual – palak paneer, and it was quite good. I enjoyed it as well as the samosas and pakoras.
So, all in all, Cleveland ended up being a good time – I got to play some cards, eat some delicious food and hang out with friends. Maybe I will get to that pig roast someday. . .