Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Far Will You Go?

Now that the G-20 Summit has come and gone, travel restrictions in and out of Pittsburgh have been lifted. The strategically placed barriers are gone, the anarchists have moved on, and the downtown streets are back to business as usual. Though not invited to share my thoughts on the world economic situation nor being paid to report on the gathering, I was in Steel City last week for a combination of business and pleasure. A high spot of my visit was a meal at Sonoma Grille.

The wine-centric restaurant is the creation of a French chef Yves Carreau, who fell in love with California’s progressive melting pot food and grape culture. He brought that sensibility East and made it the inspiration for this place. There are 115 wines by the glass: no place in Cleveland offers this kind of selection in single pours and it’s a wonderful way to experience new labels and special vintages. In addition, there almost 300 wines by the bottle, plus a separate list of 60 cult bottles at prices that would make most of us think twice. All are from the West Coast and the variety is truly astonishing. Two that I tried and enjoyed: a 2006 Washington state L’ecole no.41 semillion, and an Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir from Sonoma.

Food was absolutely top-notch, and I love the way the menu’s organized to help make pairing easy. Dishes are grouped not by courses, but in categories according to the wine type that complements them: Subtle/Delicate; Tangy/Lively; Fruity/Jammy; Fleshy/Hearty; Spicy/Muscular. Most are sized between small plates and full entrees.
Three of us shared a fabulous five dish feast. It began with an ahi tro, featuring three different tuna preparations- a taratre with white truffle and wasabi mayo, seared with spicy green mango kuchela (kind of a pickle), and a spring roll. Next up were diver scallops wrapped in La Quercia Farms proscuitto with sherry papya gastrique, and the multi-part Study of Duck- the bird was presented smoked, as a confit Benedict with a sunny side quail egg on top, and cured like pastrami. Then we polished off a plate of braised beef short ribs.

For a glorious finish, we had apple bread pudding and Grand Marnier cheesecake.

The restaurant, located near the Convention Center adjacent to the Courtyard by Marriott hotel, is so good that I’d say it’s worth making the two hour drive just for dinner. I don't think that's too far to go for an extraordinary meal. But there are so many other interesting things to see and do on Pittsburgh that you might just want to stay a couple of days. (Then you can go back to Sonoma Grille for lunch).
Photos by Barney Taxel

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Life of the Party: an in-depth profile of Jimmy Dimora

Life of the Party
The most social of leaders, Jimmy Dimora built a career on connections and loyalty. It helped him turn Cuyahoga County’s Democratic Party into a nearly unbeatable machine. It may also be his undoing.

My newest feature, an in-depth profile of Jimmy Dimora, is now online. It tells the story of the embattled county commissioner's 32-year career and the federal investigation encircling him. It also appears in the October issue of Cleveland Magazine, available at bookstores now and other newsstands next week.

I'll be talking about the story on the radio tomorrow morning on 90.3 WCPN. It's one of several topics on the agenda for the Reporter's Roundtable, from 9:06 to 10 a.m.

Tour of the Town

Cleveland got nice ink in Saturday’s New York Times travel section. Writer Brett Sokol’s piece 36 Hours in Cleveland spotlighted some of the great places to spend time in this town. The eating and drinking establishments that got a shout out- Lolita, Sokolowski’s, The Velvet Tango Room, Lily’s Handmade Chocolates, the West Side Market, Tommy’s and L’Albatros- are all deserving and I’m glad to see them praised in the national print media. And the absence of so many unique and wonderful restaurants, watering holes, and food shops- the ones those of us who live here know about and love- only goes to show that 36 hours and 1300 words isn’t nearly enough to do us justice.

But. And there is a but. Actually a few points I must take issue with.

It’s a very positive story. Nonetheless in the first paragrpah, the writer felt compelled to mention the burning river (yawn). Will that story never die? Besides the fact that it happened a long long time ago, it’s a cliché, an overdone hackneyed tale, a cheap and easy way to characterize a complex past that requires neither thought nor creativity.

The section about the West Side Market is headed Farm Fresh. Mistake. I love the Market, don’t get me wrong, and shop there often. But, with a few exceptions, what vendors sell is not fresh from the farm. Like what you find at the supermarket- it’s trucked into the Northern Ohio Food Terminal from all over the country.

In that same section about the West Side Market, Sokol suggests that visitors pull up a chair at Crêpe De Luxe’s counter. Which reveals he’s never been there. The busy aisles offer no seating and the chest high counter is standing room only.

Maybe next time some out-of-towner wants to write about Cleveland, they’ll come hang out here, go exploring, talk to a few genuine local experts, and get more of the real story.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Orchestra to perform in NYC every 2 years; "Cleveland isn’t large enough to maintain... a full season," says exec

The Cleveland Orchestra will perform four concerts at New York City's Lincoln Center Festival every other year. It's part of the world-renowned organization's goal of reaching beyond Cleveland for an audience and donors -- a trend Andy Netzel reported on in-depth in his June 2007 Cleveland Magazine article "Harmony and Discord."

“Cleveland isn’t large enough to maintain on its own a full season of orchestra activity,” the New York Times quotes Gary Hanson, the orchestra’s executive director, as saying. (Read the New York Times story here -- registration required.)

Quotes like that can upset anxious Clevelanders. But out-of-town support is key to the orchestra's plan for future prosperity. Hence the three-week annual Miami residency Netzel reported on and the frequent trips to Austria. One-fifth of the orchestra's financial support now comes from outside of Greater Cleveland, Hanson tells the Times.

Here is the orchestra's announcement on its blog.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Child's Play

I finally went to see Julia and Julie, Nora Ephron’s movie about renowned cooking personality and cookbook author Julia Child, played superbly by Meryl Streep, and the young woman who found purpose- as well as book and movie deals- by following her recipes and blogging about the experience. It was entertaining, though personally I wouldn’t have minded if all the scenes that didn’t focus on Child, her life, and her boundless appetites ended up on the cutting room floor.

I walked out of the theater inspired not to hurry home and whip up a souffle, but rather moved to visit to Bistro 185. The release of the movie prompted owners Ruth and Marc Levine to launch The Julia Child Project. Every evening until the end of September Ruth, who does much of the cooking for the East 185th Street restaurant and Todd Mueller, her accomplished co-chef, pick a week's worth of dishes together based on Julia Child’s recipes, serving something different each night (prices vary). They'e been doing it since August. Selections along with commentary are posted on the Bistro’s blog.

Although the film focused on her love affair with French food, Julia went on to explore other cultures and cuisines, showing home cooks how to adpat them to their own kitchens in her PBS series Cooking with Master Chefs. That explains the southwestern styled dish I had there last Thursday- sea scallops on a risotto with green sauce. It was superb. The scallops had a nice sear on the outside with a metlingly soft interior. The creamy rice had a full of orchestra of flavors and textures: spiciness (jalapenos), earthy (mushrooms), tanginess (tomatillo sauce), sweetness plus color (corn salsa), and crunch (toasted corn “nuts”). My guy went with beef bourguignon- it was on the regular menu, not a Project dish and wasn’t made Julia’s way. But that entree had figured significantly in the movie and he welcomed the opportunity to say “boeuf” out loud.
We brought in our ticket stub from a screening of Julie and Julia: it got us a free dessert (note: that's one per table not per person). We shared a piece of layer cake Mueller had made with almond meal, raspberry lemon curd, butter cream frosting, and whipped cream. The fat slice came with a crunchy little fan of nougatine (a sort of thin cookie fashioned of almonds and caramel).
The great lady who typically ended her TV shows wishing the audience Bon Apetit would have purred with pleasure over this meal. I certainly did.
Photos by Barney Taxel

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pandemonium at CPT

My date had never been to Pandemonium, but she knew it by reputation. "It's one of the best parties in Cleveland!" she said -- then admitted she let out a little cheer at her desk at work when I e-mailed to say we were going.

She's right -- and the 2009 version of Cleveland Public Theater's fundraiser on Saturday exceeded even my memory of the event from a few years ago.

A stage full of actors introduced this year's theme, "Forbidden Knowledge," by peeling duct tape from their mouths, slipping heavy headphones from their ears, and shouting out their forbidden thoughts, which ranged from Marquis de Sade quotes to a fervent defense of Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (from a guy!). As the scene broke up, a woman in a Mardi Gras mask appeared next to me and asked me my secret. I demurred and asked hers. She whispered it so quietly, no one around us heard. (I shall not post the secret here.)

Short plays broke out all across the CPT campus: in an alley, an upstairs attic-like space, the Parish Hall and Orthodox buildings near the main theater, and on the lawn between them. I expect a mix of successes and disappointments from a crowded schedule of performances, but the quality was consistently high. From a fortune-teller who proves that human life is both predictable and mysterious to a happy, happy woman singing an ode to the anti-depressant Cymbalta to a teacher keeping a secret at a high school reunion, the plays were almost all funny and spirit-lifting. Readers perched in Parish Hall's second-floor window declaimed from banned books for the party-goers below. (The transition from D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover to William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch was a bit jarring.) Across the lawn, Vodka and Scotch, a Ukrainian and Scottish folk music duo, played fierce acoustic music from a story-tall platform, beckoning guests back toward the main theater.

After the Pan Award was given to Brian E. Hall -- by Mayor Frank Jackson, among others -- came a "helium aerial dance," or "solo silk act." To Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," Lisa Natoli performed sultry acrobatics on long green sashes hanging from the light beams (pictured). As she came back to earth, the wildest play on the evening's theme entered the room: human dessert tables. Actors dressed like trees, with circular trays at their hips, held apples in one hand and beckoned guests with the other.

I caught glimpses of the mayor, in an open-collar button-down shirt, watching the aerial dance and then walking by one of the dessert tables. I could only imagine what he was thinking, but it was probably something like, No one invited me to parties like this when I was on city council!

The evening ended with Lounge Kitty and her band playing from the balcony above. Kitty sang the best kitchy tunes in her repertoire, from "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" to "I Will Survive," and even added a decent version of "Thriller," which inspired several in the crowd to try to imitate Michael Jackson's zombie video moves.

(Photo by Sarah Zilka)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stack the Deck In Your Favor

If you worry about gaining weight, do not under any circumstances dine with one of those maddeningly thin people who seem able to eat huge portions of everything and never gain an ounce. If you happen to live with a person who fits this description, it’s essential that you find other settings for contact and conversation. Accept the fact that you will have to give up meeting up at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table. Because according to a recently released study published in Journal of Consumer Research what and how much we eat is influenced by who we eat it with.
Photo courtesy of Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

People tend to mirror their dining partner when it comes to food choices and quantity. That makes skinny people with an appetite a danger to the rest of us. Picture this typical scenario. You go out for a meal. Your companion chooses cheese nachos to start, and a burger deluxe with fries. You had planned to order grilled fish with steamed vegetables, no appetizer. The science suggests you and your good intentions are at risk. Chances are high that a “what the hell why not” attititude will take hold and without even thinking about it, you’ll be asking for potato skins fully loaded and a side of onion rings.

Keep this in mind when taking advantage of the The Deck, the latest offer from Cleveland Independents, the association of locally owned restaurants. There are 52 cards in the box, each a $10 gift certificate from a different member restaurant. It costs only $29.95 and cards are good through December 30, 2010. Visit just 10 of the participating places over the course of a year and you’ve saved $70. This is a great deal and would make a terrific gift- I know it would make me happy. Preorder online now- it ships next month. Once you start using The Deck, don’t forget that if you're concerned about putting on the pounds, partner control is critical to portion control.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

LeBron talks to New York Times about his new memoir

LeBron James' memoir, Shooting Stars, comes out Tuesday, and today he's in the New York Times talking about it.

LeBron takes the NYT reporter on a poignant tour of Akron, from basketball practices at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to the tiny public housing apartment where he lived in high school and middle school:

“That’s where I lived from 6th grade until 12th,” he said. “Spring Hill 602. The apartment was about 300 square feet, but the great thing was that from up there, you could see part of the city. This was where the stability started. I knew my mom was going to be there every single day. I had my own key that I wore around my neck. Having your own key to your own crib — that’s the greatest thing in the world. And you learn responsibility, because you don’t dare lose that key.”

He paused a moment and said, shaking his head, “My house now is almost as big as this whole place.”

You can read the article here (registration required).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

This is a Keeper

This is the most bountiful time of year for fresh local produce. I was at the North Union Farmers Market on Shaker Square Saturday morning and was just knocked out by all the gorgeous stuff — onions, corn, green beans, eggplant, chard, zucchini, patty pan squash, peaches, nectarines, and of course tomatoes of every size and in shades of red orange, yellow and green. In a situation like this, my impulse is to buy everything in sight. The problem is using it up before fruit flies, mold, rot and limpness take hold. To me it’s a crime to allow food this good to go to waste. Further complicating the challenge is that not all produce is the same: leafy greens must be handled differently than leeks to make them last. A friend just turned me on to an absolutely great guide for how to best store most common fruits and vegetables published by Berkley Farmers’ Market. It’s a really clear, comprehensive and easy to use collection of instructions for handling fresh produce and keeping it at its peak. I’ve printed the three pages and put them on the shelf in my kitchen with the cookbooks.

The best part of this guide is that plastic bags are not used. There’s something fundamentally wrong with employing a petrochemical product that is clogging up landfills to tote and store sustainably raised local food. The result, it seems to me, is that one good for the earth act is canceled out by a bad one. We Americans are addicted to these handy little items — I read that it takes approximately 12 million barrels of oil to make the 100 billion plastic bags we use annually (according to the Worldwatch Institute). Now I have less reason to use them.
I just learned that there’s a new weekly farmers market setting up shop downtown this week. North Union is launching a satellite location on the Cleveland State University campus starting Thursday, Sept. 3, from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Look for it on Euclid Avenue between E. 18th and E. 21st streets. Perfect destination for a lunch hour stroll, snack, and shop — and thanks to the folks from Berkley, over-buying need not be such a big problem. For more tips about what to do with your farm fresh swag and a list of other area farmers markets, read my article Farm Fresh in the June issue of Cleveland Magazine. (Photo Courtesy of Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group)