Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Southern Style, West Side Destination

Last Wednesday evening, my husband and I found ourselves on the West Side and hungry. Thinking about where to eat, I realized that it was Fried Chicken night at SoHo Kitchen & Bar in Ohio City, an opportunity to build your own meal around self-selected and hands-down delicious bird parts. I was an easy decision.

Ordering drinks proved to be its own kind of pleasure. The restaurant was running a bourbon promotion — you could choose any brand from their rather large and diverse offerings, get it any way you want it, and then reach into a bag and pull out a token to find out how much the cost will be discounted. My husband, a big fan of the brown spirit, chose a pricey pour, and picked himself a 20 percent off deal. I went for a cocktail dubbed the Cape Hatteras, mostly for the name because we used to vacation there with our kids, and was more than happy with the combination of light rum, St. Germaine, fresh lime and grapefruit soda.

Settling on sides was a challenge. He went with the weekly bargain options: grits and asparagus. I was leaning toward one of my favorites from the regular menu, the Dixie Ceasar. The romaine is grilled, speckled with peanuts, chunks of country ham and avocado, and shreds of cheese then dressed up in green goddess vinaigrette. But at the last minute I went rogue and got fried green tomatoes. Topped with corn kernels, pickled green onion and okra remoulade, they were, as my Savannah friend's mom likes to say, D.I V. Divine.

And then there's those fluffy biscuits. They get me every time. Warm out of the oven and served with soft flavored butter and fruit jam, they're irresistible. Good thing they only give you one apiece on the house. Otherwise I'd be too full to enjoy all the other fine things that come out Nolan Konkoski's kitchen six days a week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Drinker's Dream

Photo by Barney Taxel
A friend turned the husband and I on to Red, Wine & Brew, a most unusual and impressive beverage shop in Chesterland. He gave the place a big build-up, and our visit there a couple of weeks ago confirmed that there was good reason for his enthusiasm.
Opened in 2007, the sprawling store boasts that shelves are stocked with 6,000 bottles of wine from around the country and the world and 1,500 different beers. Needless to say, drinkers can have a tough time making a choice. I certainly did.

Photo by Barney Taxel
 Then I talked to Gabriel Schlesinger. He stepped from behind the counter, offered his help and after some discussion, set us up with a $20 Italian Valpolicello, promising that it resembled a much pricier Amarone. He was right and we enjoyed the wine. Schlesinger's regulars rely on him, and he takes a certain pride in the fact that if customers tell him what they like and what they're willing to spend he can zero-in on something with a high probability of surprising and pleasing them. In addition to buying from the big name producers and representing the well-known appellations, Scheslinger, a self-taught oenophile and self-described wine nerd, seeks out the quirky, the different and the unfamiliar. Trophy wines share space with boutique brands and bargain bottles. He's got — and can tell you all about — wines from Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, Uruguay, Armenia and Israel, plus a sizable selection of sakes from Japan.
Although we didn't get introduced, another staffer has a similar expertise when it comes to beers. But Schlesinger takes the idea of a service to a level that goes beyond his job description. When I was paying for my bottle, and without any knowledge of who I was or that I might be writing about him, he handed me his business card, which identifies him as "The Wine Guy," pointed to the store's phone number, and said, "Call me for advice. Really. Anytime. If I'm here, I'm happy to help, whether you're planning a dinner party or in a restaurant and want to know what would go with certain foods, just ask. I'm not kidding. People think I'm joking when I tell them that. But I mean it."

Photo by Barney Taxel
Try him. Here's his number: 440-729-7376. And if you go the store, which is well worth the trip no matter where you live, he might even give you his cell number so you can reach him with questions after hours.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winner Anthony Marra on Chechnya and His Debut Novel

Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra, the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, speaks like he writes – in ornate, illuminative completeness. He’ll certainly make use of his skill for oration when he comes to Cleveland to give a reading Wednesday at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University.  Constellation, Marra's debut novel, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2013 and a Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year. Marra's work, an exploration of a dark, desolate Chechnya, also won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction. He will receive the Anisfield-Wolf award in a sold-out ceremony and reading Sept. 11 at the Ohio Theatre. We asked him about Chechnya, his characters and winning awards.

Q: How did you end up getting interested in Chechnya?

A: I went to college in Los Angeles, and I took a year abroad. For half of that, I was in St. Petersburg, Russia. While I was there, I lived down the street from a military cadet academy, where I would see these 16 to 17-year-old kids in their military uniforms marching up and down the block. In their parade marching, they would pass a metro station that had become a gathering point for young men just a few years older than them, who were also wearing uniforms. They were veterans of the Chechen wars. Their uniforms weren’t nearly as clean, and their trousers had hemmed because they had lost limbs. It was an eerie moment where you could see these young men in their early 20s looking across the street at their pasts and these kids in their late teens looking across the street and seeing perhaps a potential future. There was something much more than years and a strip of asphalt that separated them, and that was Chechnya.

Q: What’s it like winning something like the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award?

A: It’s been an incredible honor to receive it. I’m not sure you could find a more distinguished jury on any literary award in the world. The books that they’ve awarded in the past have been the very books that made me want to become a writer in the first place. In Washington, D.C. [Marra's hometown], Edward P. Jones is a colossus of D.C. literature. He’s only written one novel, and I think he’s one of the greatest novelists alive. To receive an award that he received is just deeply humbling.

Q: Since the Anisfield-Wolf awards are given to works that touch on racism and diversity, do you think your book is representative of the Chechen experience?

A: I think it’s maybe a little risky for a novelist or any writer to start transacting in peoples rather than persons. The real spark of fiction, of drama, comes from the understanding of what it’s like to be an individual person in any set of circumstances, and that’s what I was hoping to get at. I’d like to think that, if my characters were to come alive and were to walk into a bookstore in Cleveland and pick up the novel, they would recognize themselves and think that I had done them justice. That’s the only test that one can pass.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Chef as Artist

   I got interested in Jamie Simpson, who became executive chef for the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, earlier this year, when he did a photo shoot at Taxel Image Group. My husband came home and told me he'd just met the most unusual and creative individual. So I called Simpson and our conversation confirmed that impression.

   "When I cook," says Simpson, "I want to create an experience, not just another meal. To explain what he means, he describes an imaginary walk through a field in autumn. "The grass is wet. I hear a pheasant in the cornstalks. Green walnuts are falling from the trees and wild fox grapes are raisining in the sun.  He'll use all this, literally and figuratively, to inspire and prepare a menu that captures the moment, a dinner that, he says, "is about a time, place, and feeling."

   His plates are visually stunning: delicate, detailed, and abstract. Assembled with painstaking precision, a painter's eye for color and form, and a storyteller's sensibility, they reveal a palpable sense of intensity and focus. Hardly what you'd expect from a guy who started out as a rock musician and now tends to nine beehives, a pair of Mangalista pigs and plots of heirloom French pumpkins, quinoa and Peruvian corn. Those endeavors are personal pursuits, his private farm-to-table explorations done when he's not busy cooking for and with visiting chefs and experimenting in the kitchen with product from Chef's Garden, the parent company that runs the Vegetable Institute and grower of specialty vegetables and herbs.

  Simpson's excited about being part of the second annual Roots Conference coming up in October at the Vegetable Institute. The keynote speaker will be acclaimed chef Jose Andres and topics to be covered in various sessions include indigenous cuisine, food taboos, food politics and policy, and the intersect of tradition and technology. Although the event is aimed primarily at industry professionals, food enthusiasts are also welcome. Presenters will come from around the country and the world, and many are big names in their fields. Simpson's in awe of the company he'll be keeping. "Myself and Max Bilet, co-author of Modernist Cuisine, will be headlining the conference," Simpson wrote in an email. "The gravity of presenting on a level like this is weighing pretty heavy right now. We will be speaking on art and food." That's a talk I'd like to hear. After my phone exchange with him and time spent looking at a photo collection of Simpson's dishes, I'm certain he'll bring great insight and a touch of poetry to the subject.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fitz and the Tantrums frontman chats about fall tour and new album

Fitz and the Tantrums has been labeled as everything from retro-soul to indie-pop to a latter day version of Hall & Oates. “You can’t use one or two words to describe our music,” says frontman Michael Fitzpatrick, whose band appears at the Masonic Auditorium Nov. 6. “There are a lot of different flavors going on.”

The band has been riding a high since last year’s release of its sophomore album More Than Just a Dream. The album has spawned two No. 1 indie chart hits – “Out of My League” and “The Walker.” “On this album the only thing we weren’t allowed to do was limit ourselves,” says Fitzpatrick.

Produced by Tony Hoffer, best known for his work with Beck, More Than Just a Dream had plenty of material to draw on as the group produced more than 40 songs following a stint on the road. The last song to make the album, “Fool’s Gold,” is one of Fitzpatrick’s favorites. “It’s about something everybody’s experienced at one point; looking back at a relationship with regret while hopefully learning something from mucking it up,” he says. “Our first record was almost exclusively about heartbreak and love still rears its head on this record.”

The LA-based band has a rigorous touring schedule this year, including a recent performance at the Opening Night Ceremony for the U.S. Open tennis tournament Aug. 25. “It’s a very strange experience to be disconnected from family and friends for years at a time,” says Fitzpatrick of adjusting to life on the road. “Cleveland is special for us because it was one of the first places we felt we were having success. It was really a jumping off point for us in the Midwest.”

By Barry Goodrich 

M is for Marvelous

On my recent stop at Pairings, Ohio's new wine and culinary education center, I tasted a red that blew up my ideas about what could be made from local grapes. The explosion came courtesy of the 2012 Meritage from M Cellars in Geneva. It's a blended Bordeaux-style wine, made with cabernet sauvignon, cab franc, merlot and petit verdot, aged in Hungarian oak. Grower and vintner Matt Meineke calls it  a field wine, meaning the fruit is all picked and fermented together, and he's the only registered producer in the state. More importantly, it's a fantastic, full-bodied sophisticated wine with whispers of berries, smoke and wood. Curious about the who, what and why of this 2-year-old winery, I made it my business to go there the following day.

It's a beautiful spot — acres of grapes, a patio overlooking the fields, a handsome modern tasting room and spacious airy dining room where Meineke, his wife Tara and guest chefs host occasional and exclusive wine dinners. In fact, the next one, a celebration of corn and tomatoes is scheduled for September 5 and the menu prepared by Bob Sferra looks amazing.  I had a chance to preview all Matt's wines that will be served and some not yet available ones as well, and they're all pretty amazing too.

His gruner veltliner, uncommon for this region, is unfiltered with intense notes of apple and pear. He's offering another lovely white, Rkatsiti, that is new to me and made from an ancient Ukrainian grape. Matt describes it as "sauvignon blanc without the grass." I love his dry riesling, and the soon-to-be-released 2013 vintage is even better than the year before  — a terrific balance of acid and fruity with a bigger mouthfeel and his earthy rose. The pinot noir is sturdy and round with lots of baking spice flavor. None are typical for this region.

Jillian Davis, owner of Toast, told me she always tries to keep something of theirs on her list." I agree that the wines are surprising and head and shoulders above what anyone else is doing in this area. I keep telling people they're not just good-for Ohio wines. They're good wines!"In Cleveland, some of his wines are also available at Flying Fig,  Bin 216 and the Market Avenue Wine Bar. But the weather's still fine, the drive is short, and the experience such a nice one, so I suggest planning a trip to M Cellars for a tasting of your own.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Seek Sun, Surf and Stand-up Paddleboarding at Weekend Festival

Photo by Billy Delfs

If you lived in Ohio for any length of time, you know summer doesn't last long here. So soak up some late August sun this Saturday at Whiskey Island Paddle Board Race & Festival featuring racing, live music from local band Analog Union, eats from Boca Loca Burrito Factory, a beer garden and free Inner Bliss yoga classes. "It's gonna be a party," says Lynne Nagy, educator at Nalu Stand up Paddle & Surf in Rocky River. Here are three reasons to hit the beach.

Surf's Up: Dive into a 2-mile loop stand-up paddleboarding race at 8:30 a.m., or go big for the 6-mile, three-lap version, with a kids' course along the shoreline starting at 10 a.m. and a relay race starting at 1 p.m. For paddleboarding newbies, try a demo. In a fun twist on the regular demo, Nalu SUP & Surf combines yoga poses with paddleboarding —  right in the water. Don't have a board? Nalu has some available to rent. 

Keep the Peace: The festival goes from surf to turf when Inner Bliss Yoga Studio's Lanie leads a free lakeside yoga session on the shore. “[Lanie's] regular classes always sell out, because she brings something new every time,” Nagy says. Bring your own mat.

Jam Session: Cleveland surfer Scott Ditzenberger’s band Analog Union will bring a taste of California with their punk-infused surf jams. Stick around for a ukulele performance by Brad Sweet, who invites festival-goers to bring their own instruments and play along.