Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Happy Hour Mission

It’s my first summer working in downtown Cleveland, so some friends of mine and I made it our mission to sample downtown restaurants by hitting up their happy hours. We tried a new place each week, exploring some of the city’s best dining for a fraction of the usual cost.

I’m singling out those that stood out to us, but I encourage you to strike out on a happy hour path of your own. Some places were mediocre, but most offered delicious food and drinks at reasonable prices.

Our first stop was Chinato on East 4th Street. I was a fan of Zach Bruell’s restaurants already, but Chinato’s 4:30-6:30 p.m. happy hour still left a lasting impression. I chose a white wine ($5) and shared three appetizers with a friend for $5 each, enough to fill two grumbling stomachs. The gnocchi dish was perfect: light, tender and buttery. A panini served with fries and fennel sausage pizza rounded out our carb trio. Drinks range from $3 for Great Lakes drafts to $5 for featured wine and cocktails.

Bar Louie on West 6th Street surprised us with fabulous $5 select appetizers during the 4-7 p.m. weekday happy hour. We opted for spinach and artichoke dip and the bruschetta pomodoro. The dip, made fresh in the kitchen, is heavier on the green than cream, just how I like it. When I needed advice, our server pointed out her favorite martinis and suggested the best cocktails for my taste. I went with a Pom Peche martini ($5), a light, peach alternative to the bitter original.

Zocalo stood out for mixing drink specials with a prime location. Many restaurants only serve happy hour at the bar, but at Zocalo, you can enjoy it on the patio, where the East 4th street scene is exciting after a day in an office. My sugar-rimmed mangrita (mango margarita) was sweet and tropical, fruity rather than cool. The large bowl of fresh chips never ran out, even though we never stopped munching. For atmosphere and great prices, including $5 margaritas and $5 select appetizers, Zocalo’s 2-7 p.m. happy hour is a hot spot.

The Greenhouse Tavern, across the street, remained a happy hour quest left unfinished. We chose to sit on the rooftop patio, a great summer destination, but that meant we couldn’t order food or enjoy any drink discounts. At the first-floor bar, the 5-7 p.m. happy hour includes reduced prices on menu items and drinks and an exclusive: the moule frites (mussels and fries, $13) are only offered on the happy hour menu.

Cool News

There are enough new places to get a scoop or three that I thought the subject warranted a round-up. I’m listing them here with a few descriptive and informative details. I’ve visited some but not all of them. Since this isn’t a review, that shouldn’t matter. Besides, when it comes to ice cream and gelato, individual tastes and preferences rule. I say indulge in what you love. That’s what I do. And given how serious and dedicated each of these dessert entrepreneurs is, I feel confident that every spot on the list is worth at least a try and likely multiple visits. If you’ve been, tell the rest of us what you got and what you liked. The information (here, and from those who add their comments) is sure to make the last few weeks of summer extra sweet.
photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

-Ohio City Ice Cream Company (formerly Dari Delite), mentioned in the July issue of Cleveland Magazine, is in its second season. People have been walking up to the window at this stand for more than 50 years. You can still get a swirl of regular vanilla soft serve but since Bob Mino and his wife Nancy took over, things have gotten noticeably more creative. They’re making egg custards; exotic fruit sorbets; and dense, rich ice cream, liberally studded with goodies such as chocolate covered pretzels, candied kiwi, dried strawberries and bits of baklava. The ricotta fig, fruit soaked in Gewurtztraminer, is pure genius. West 44th Street and Bridge

-Sweet Moses is a recreation of an old-fashioned soda fountain in the Gordon Square Arts District complete with restored wrought-iron chairs and a marble counter. The ice cream for sundaes, scoops, cones, floats, shakes, malts and phosphates is churned in-house. The waffle cones and hot fudge sauce come out of the same kitchen. Hand-packed pints are available for take-home. 6800 Detroit Ave.

-Rosso Gelato brings the look and taste of Italy to Rocky River. A modern minimalist interior is the backdrop for Charles Bartell’s traditional northern style gelato. The cooler usually holds a dozen different flavors. Crowd favorites are salted caramel, stracciatella (vanilla cream with ribbons of chocolate) and chocolate hazelnut. He also makes twelvee water-based, dairy free sorbettos. The most popular are nero (chocolate) and four-berry fruit of the forest. Staff will blast-freeze your pints, so they arrive home in perfect condition. It takes twenty minutes, so call ahead or be willing to wait. 19056 Old Detroit Road, Rocky River photo courtesy of Nancy Bartell

-The Sweet Spot, across from the Beck Center, describes itself as an American gelateria with a twist. Owner Celeste Blau kicked off her first season in July. She’s using Ohio milk, local seasonal fruit when she can get it, and mostly organic and natural ingredients. The Lineup includes some out-of-the-ordinary flavors like carrot cake, smoked s'mores and chocolate mint cayenne. 17806 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

-Lilly Handmade Chocolates is now making small-batch ice creams and sorbets, changing flavors, Amanda Montague tells me, as often as she changes her hair color. She and husband Josh expanded into the space next door this year, so you can sit down for dessert. Among the more unique options are beer floats and a "Choc-cuterie Board," a spread of sugared and decadent mousses, "pates," ganaches and frozen confections. 761 Starkweather Ave.

-Jeni’s, dipping and waffle cone stacking since April, this is an outpost of the Columbus-based company known for using Ohio cream and making a rich, super-premium product. Flavors take you on a trip around the world and into territory where ice cream has never gone before: Bangkok Peanut, Ugandan Vanilla Bean, Sweet Corn and Black Raspberries, and Goat Cheese with Red Cherries. Tables inside. 67 N. Main St., Chagrin Falls

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tomato Time

Most grocery stores sell just three or four kinds of tomatoes. Few people have any idea that that there are thousands of varieties grown around the world. Joe Clutz, a part-time farmer in Newberry, grows 97 distinctive types of tomatoes, and a few years back I had the chance to spend an afternoon sampling some of them with him. The husband documented the event, and then ate the subjects along with me. There were rounds, ovals and heart shapes; one that looked like a red chile pepper; and another that showed a starburst center when halved. The names were as colorful as the fruits. We had Snow Whites, Sun Golds, Rainbows, Ukranian Pears, Banana Legs, scallop-edged Ponderosa Reds, grassy flavored Black Plums, tart Cherokee Purples sugary Ground Cherries, herbally Green Zebras, striped Hillbillies, and Yellow Stuffers that looked exactly like bell peppers. We were both wowed by the differences in appearance, texture and taste.

photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

You have two opportunities for the same kind of experience. Countryside Farmers' Market at Howe Meadow holds an annual tomato tasting. This year it's happening Aug. 27 from from 9 a.m. until closing at noon. Market manager Beth Stropki Knorr tells me that more than 130 varieties are represented at the market throughout the season, and she expects more than 30 will be available that day. Drop by anytime to pop pieces in your mouth. Individual growers will also be offering bites of their best and will have plenty on hand to sell by the pound. At 9 a.m., food writer Marilou Suszko is your guide through a flight of tomato juices at the cooking demo tent; 30 minutes later staff from The Greenhouse Tavern start slicing and dicing for a “friendly” recipe competition called The Salsa Smackdown. Audience members sample the results, choose the winner and then get to enjoy what’s left of the main ingredient.

September is typically a good month for tomatoes in Northeast Ohio, and Na Olson is hoping the weather gods don’t let her down this year. If there’s enough rain, but not too much and not all at once, and temperatures hold steady, she and husband Cory will have plenty of ripe and ready fruit for their 2011 Tomato Tasting on Sept. 10. It’s held from 3-6 p.m. at The Little Red Truck Farm, in Norwalk, where they grow more than 100 heirloom varieties from seed. “We usually have quite a spread,” she says, and most are types people have never even heard of let alone tried.” She ticks off a list of intriguing names: Mortgage Lifter, Kellogg Breakfast, Golden Monarch, Aunt Ruby’s Germen Green, Zogola, Japanese Black Trifele and Cosmonaut Volkov.

photo by Na Olson

Visitors can taste whatever was picked that morning, but the Olsons do want something in return: your opinion. They ask everyone to complete a rating sheet for each tomato, ranking varieties for sweetness, texture, acidity and overall “tomatoeness.” This helps them decide what to grow, and what not to, in the future. If they have enough of a harvest, tomatoes will be for sale along with other things raised on the property, which you’re invited to explore. The event is open to public and free but donations are appreciated. This year the money raised will go to Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides animals for food and breeding to needy communities around the world as a way to combat hunger. Na’s instructions are to park in the field, walk through the garden (ignore the weeds, or if you’re so inclined, pull a few). I’d add: Bring all your tomato questions. She’s a veritable walking Wikipedia of information and has great stories about some of those names.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Avengers aftermath

East Ninth Street, ravaged by a superhero battle.

Looks like someone's finally found a use for the Ameritrust Tower. It really does look like a hive for an evil alien race.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Food Find

While working on a piece about eating your way around Little Italy that appears in this month’s issue of Cleveland Magazine, I made my first visit to Murray Hill Market. The combination mini-grocery store, gourmet shop and prepared-food heaven has been open since January. It’s a pretty place, a revival of the old corner store (there was one in this beautifully renovated and restored building in 1922) only with more and better food. On one side of the space, shelves and coolers are packed with staples (do pints of Jeni’s ice cream fall in that category, I wonder, they have every single flavor), a small selection of fresh produce, and specialty imports and artisan products. The area to the right is the source of all the enticing smells that fill the room. This is where proprietor Michele Buckholtz, a fast talker with the boundless energy of a kid on a sugar high, preps and cooks. The area is so small and equipment challenged that it barely qualifies as a kitchen. Yet somehow she manages to turn out an impressive array of restaurant-quality, made-from-scratch dishes.

There’s a cooler filled with deli meats, sold by the pound, and a variety of salads, a pasta of the day, and a changing lineup of sides. Two bites and I was hooked on the Tuscan potato salad. She roasts the turkey and prime rib that go in her sandwiches; prepares a different soup or chowder daily, such as vegan minestrone, black lentil with ginger, chilled cucumber and melon, beef noodle, chicken Florentine; and gets creative with her sauces and spreads (the spicy Sriracha mayo is a condiment that’s easy to love). She does some classics, including veal picatta and eggplant parmesan; international things like Israeli couscous, Lebanese green beans and tomatoes, Cuban rice salad with roasted corn.; and brings play and pizzazz to specials (a random sampling from the past couple of months includes corn cakes with toasted cumin seeds and cilantro ricotta, burgers stuffed with scallions and Gorgonzola, and an Asian Philly). A few tables outside for immediate gratification. But this stuff is made and packed to travel.

I was surprised to learn that David Budin helps out here. I know him as a musician and a writer with a quirky sense of humor. It seems he’s also a fine cook. Isn’t that too many talents for a single person? Among his creations is the most excellent pastissimo, a combination of tortellini, artichoke hearts, red peppers, black olives and mayonnaise blended with a generous measure of pesto. His other job is to post the specials on the Market’s Facebook group page, which he does, with great detail and the occasional one-liner.

Once I discovered how wonderful Murray Hill Market is, I really regretted waiting so long to get there. Don’t make the same mistake. Your tastebuds will thank you. And if you bring home two of Michele’s amazing porchetta sandwiches (pulled pork slow topped with sauteed kale, toasted garlic and shaved Pecorino Romano), and share with somebody else, they’ll thank you too. They might even mention what a great person you are in their next status update.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Filming for "The Avengers" starts off with a bang

The camera was in place. Police demanded everyone stand back. Crew members shouted, “Cover your ears!” The crowd of onlookers quieted in anticipation as the director yelled “Rolling!” A thunderous roar sounded as fire from dozens of explosions rumbled down East Ninth Street, erupting into one large blast. Cars flipped. Smoke billowed and then, in a matter of seconds, it was over.

Monday was Marvel Studios's first day of filming for "The Avengers" on the streets of Cleveland. East 9th Street between Euclid and Prospect Avenue will be closed until the end of the month. Employees at Medical Mutual caught a video of the explosion from their office that overlooked the action. Bystanders also posted videos of the scene to YouTube.

Marvel Studios will film throughout Cleveland for the remainder of the month, closing streets in the process. Euclid Avenue from East 6th to East 12th streets will be closed Aug. 15-24, Walnut Avenue from East 9th to East 12th streets will be closed Aug. 22-Sept. 2 and South Roadway from Superior to Ontario avenues will be closed f Aug. 17-30. Marvel will also film at the Detroit-Superior Bridge on August 29. The cast and crew will also take to the Chevrolet Powertrain Building in Parma on August 23-24, where more explosions are expected.

The movie combines popular Marvel Studios superhero franchises Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger and stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlet Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner. It will hit theaters May 4, 2012

Friday, August 12, 2011

Midwest Reggae Fest turns 20

In the land of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the reggae music scene often takes a back burner until the annual Midwest Reggae Fest rolls around. Organizer and Cleveland-area DJ Packy Malley is once again bringing a deep lineup to this year's 20th installment, which returns to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Garretsville, Ohio, (45 minutes east of Cleveland) this weekend (Aug. 12-14).

Tropical reggae rhythms will fill the air from noon until 11 p.m. each day, including Sunday, which used to be a half-day affair. This year, concertgoers will be treated to another night of music with the opportunity to stay over until Monday morning. And there is another big change that veterans of the annual festival will welcome: Air-conditioned restrooms with flush toilets and sinks. "[I figured] if I could take the biggest fear people have with camping and turn it into a positive, it would benefit everybody," Malley says.

A $95 tickets covers concert and camping fees. Ice and firewood will be available to buy and you're welcome to BYOB (but absolutely no glass bottles). To find out more, visit Hallie Rybka

12001 state Route 282 (Nelson Ledges Road), Garretsville, OhioTickets: $95, all weekend; $75 starting Saturday; $50 starting Sunday. Fees include camping through Monday morning.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

SoHo at Momocho

Chefs Nolan Konkoski and Eric Williams have come up with a cool and clever twist on the pop up restaurant idea. For one night, on Aug. 22, Momocho, Williams’ Ohio City place, becomes SoHo Kitchen, Konkoski’s new spot a few blocks away on West 25th Street that’s due to open in mid-September. To pull off this bit of culinary theater, they’re changing everything from the sign out front to the printed menus and the food on the plate.

The two guys have some history: Konkoski worked at Momocho for six years. In fact, he helped open it. Williams, excited to help out a friend, colleague, and soon-to-be neighbor, told me “this is going to be a fun fantastic blow-it-out-of-the-water event with lots of surprises.”

Meant to spark some buzz about the restaurant to come, this reservations-only teaser meal offers a preview of the Southern-inspired, modern accented fare Konkoski and his partner (in life and business) Molly Smith plan to serve, along with some of the cocktails and beers that will be on their list. There will be a three-four selections in each category: appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks. Prices will range from $8 to $18 per item. Given the name, an acronym for SOuthern HOspitality, I expect they'll also be dishing out a warm friendly welcome, too.

There are only 100 seats available throughout the night from 6-9 p.m. To be sure you get in on the shrimp and grits and guarantee your portion of chicken and waffles, better grab the phone and call 216-694-2122 right now.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Just Peachy

The New York Times Quotation of the Day last Thursday stopped me in my sweaty tracks: "The key to a good peach is a hot night. What makes it miserable for humans makes it perfect for peaches." -Will McGehee, a Georgia peach grower.

No air conditioners in my house, just fans. Sleeping comfortably has been … challenge. But when I read this my perspective changed. My suffering suddenly seemed connected to a higher purpose that promised rewards, big rewards. Because after all, is there anything better than biting into the sweet yellow flesh of a fresh ripe peach, so full of juice that it runs down your arm? If the oven-like conditions of our bedroom were somehow part of the natural chain of events that was producing an amazing crop of peaches, then my clammy tossing and turning doesn’t seem quite so bad.

Peaches have begun showing up at area farmers markets. And the ones we’ve been eating leave no doubt in my mind that the prize is worth the price. They’re absolutely incredible. We have many chefs in town who make it their business to use seasonal local produce, and I started wondering what they’re doing with this bounty. I tossed the question out into the social media stream and some mouthwatering responses washed up on my digital shores. photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

-Heather Haviland is putting peach-strawberry compote on waffles at Lucky’s CafĂ©.
-At Americano, Vytauras Sasnauskas plans to be making tomato peach gazpacho, tomato peach burata salad and a grilled local pork chop with peach mostarda.
- Jennifer Plank of Greenhouse Tavern told me they’re bringing back bacon-wrapped peaches soaked in Agra dolce and served with white onion soubise. She also mentioned “dabbling” in a saffron tart with braised endive and peach with a bitter caramel.
- For Washington Place Bistro, Jonathan Guest is doing a peach jalapeno barbecue on St Louis-style ribs with creamed Ohio sweet corn.

I was really excited to hear that Brandt Evans is canning them so the rest of us can enjoy them at Pura Vida when the season is long past. If you’re tempted to do the same, or maybe make some pies and cobblers or jars of jam and chutney, consider planning a picking day at Scenic Ridge Farm near Wooster to get your main ingredient. It belongs to the Bauman family, who have been farming in the region since 1929. There are 3,500 peach trees, about 25 different varieties, among them Redhavens, White Ladies, Starfires, John Boys and Contenders. Take home a few pounds or a bushel basket full. It’s as pretty place, with a hilltop view of 84 acres of farmland, and visitors are welcome to picnic.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

East Fourth Street author speaks today at Pickwick and Frolic

Alan Dutka calls East Fourth Street the first of Cleveland's 21st century triumphs.

The retired businessman-turned-author says the one-block strip, which contains many of the city's most popular restaurants, is changing people's perceptions of the city. Dutka's book, East Fourth Street: The Rise, Decline and Rebirth of an Urban Cleveland Street gives readers a historical insight into the now famous strip.

Readers can learn about the all-female orchestra that performed on East Fourth in the 1920s, the Opera House that hosted the popular Ziegfeld Follies, and the restaurant opposite the Opera House's stage door that would give actors fuel during quick intermissions.

Today, you can find Dutka on the street itself. The author is hosting a book talk at Pickwick and Frolic from 4 to 6 p.m. to discuss the history of East Fourth. We caught up with Dutka this morning and found out why the century-old street is a Cleveland gem.

Cleveland Magazine: What was your goal in writing this book?

Alan Dutka:
My biggest goal was interviewing the people who made [East] Fourth Street what it is today from what it was 20 years ago. There's a really good story about how a very limited number of people can accomplish a lot if they put their mind to it. We’re talking two to three people who had the vision to turn a deteriorating street into an exciting place for tourists and the people of Northern Ohio.

You delved deep into the history of Cleveland to write this book. What is an interesting piece of history of East Fourth Street that you discovered?

AD: The story of the Euclid Avenue Opera House [Cleveland's most prestigious theater from 1875 to 1922, located at present-day Pickwick and Frolic]. A lot of people know the opera house was there, but in the text I tried to emphasize the human interest part of it.

CM: If you could describe East Fourth during the 1940s and 1950s in one word, what would it be?

AD: Deteriorating. By and large, it was an area that continued to decline. Today it’s the same kind of vibrant area that it once was 100 years ago, but in between you had three-quarters of a century where there really was a decline.

CM: And today the street has restaurants that are known on a national level. How will this status help Cleveland evolve?

AD: With all the nostalgia that you hear today, you never really hear about great restaurants in Cleveland, and what I’m getting at is restaurants the New York Times would write about. But that’s happening today, and it’s something that has never happened in Cleveland before.