Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Good Match

Back in 1999, Chef Donna Chriszt was drawing on world flavors for the food she prepared at Jeso, her highly regarded Clifton Boulevard restaurant, and J Cafe on the East Side. Now she's at it again, this time in the kitchen of Table 45 in the InterContinental Hotel Cleveland, a Zack Bruell concept. It was defined by his modern interpretations of global cuisine and a series of Chef de Cuisine have done their best to execute that since it opened in 2007. Chriszt, with 30 years experience under her apron, is more than up to the task and — based on dishes I sampled at a private tasting of her new summer menu last week — is making it very much her own.

"I've always been inspired by culinary traditions," she says, "as a way to get beyond basic meat-and-potato cooking. But I like to get creative and put my personal twist on ethnic authenticity."

And that's exactly what she does in a fantastic banana leaf smoked trout entree ($23), plated with smashed yucca and sweet potatoes, jicama slaw and a tomatillo vinaigrette. Cultures combine, but don't clash, to delicious effect in the Thai duck breast ($29) — the bird has red curry crust and is served beside coconut risotto, korean kim chee slaw and baby bok choy.
Other things I ate and enjoyed on our international tour included Moroccan spiced lamb and beef kebabs (based on a staff member's "secret" family recipe) with a North African salsa, naan and tzatziki  sauce ($15); spicy Spanish shrimp and chorizo ($13); a Middle Eastern fattoush salad ($11); and a flat iron steak grilled and presented with an Argentine chimichurri sauce ($32).

Our small group dined at the private chef's table in the kitchen, which seats eight and can be reserved in advance. With the flair of a natural artist, Chriszt delivered courses with plenty of eye appeal as well as tasty and nuanced seasoning. It's no wonder she was something of a national celebrity before there were star chefs on every corner. She was heralded in Food and Wine, Gourmet, and Food Arts, and invited to cook at the James Beard House before many other Clevelanders. She's been laboring out of the limelight for awhile. But she's in her element now. "I come to work happy every day," she says.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Clearing the Table

Photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

This happens often: My husband and I are enjoying a meal in a restaurant. It might be an established upscale place or a trendy new semi-casual spot. Doesn't matter what the price point. One of us finishes first and a server or bus person swoops in and clears the plate while the other person is still eating. We both hate this. It's disruptive and impolite. And according to my personal and professional knowledge, it's just plain wrong. Sometimes they even interrupt our conversation to ask if they can take away a plate that still has food on it simply because there was a pause in fork-to-mouth activity.
Last week, Giovanna Migrone — formally trained chef, culinary instructor and former owner of Battuto, a beloved but long gone fine dining establishment in Little Italy — posted this on Facebook: "It is proper service to wait until all parties are finished eating before your server ... clears plates. That way the person who is still eating does not feel rushed. Also, this allows for the plates to be cleared with the proper technique."

Photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

This prompted me to raise the issue with more industry professionals. The responses were illuminating. It turns out that people in the business know what's right but their customers don't. Here are some of the responses I received:

Molinari's chef and owner Randal Johnson: Never clear until everyone is done, unless requested.

Flour chef and owner Paul Minnillo: The standard is don't touch anything until everybody is finished, but some customers don't like dirty plates left in front of them and they'll complain if we leave them there. So how and when to clear is the million dollar question.

Food writer and former editor and associate publisher of Restaurant Hospitality Stephen Michaelides: Nothing worse than a server — anxious to clear dishes — asking a guest not quite finished eating, "You still working on that?"

Cooking school founder Zona Spray Starks: Clearing dishes while others are eating is like saying, "Sorry, buddy, but you're finished too."

Food writer and restaurant reviewer Elaine Cicora: The "rule" is to wait until all guests are finished to clear, but if a server sees someone is antsy — moving around plates, stacking on the flatware — then clearing is acceptable. Mainly, I think the problem is not that servers don't know the "rule" but that diners don't.

Crop chef and owner Steve Schimoler: We try so hard to wait till everyone is finished, but many of the diners don't know proper etiquette at all and push stuff around the table to clear it themselves. It's so rude for someone's guest who is speaking for a good part of the meal and can't eat as fast as the others who have wolfed their food down.

My daughter-in-law, Shelley Taxel, works at Naha in Chicago. She writes: From my service perspective, I find it awful to clear without everyone being done. However, if a guest gives one of the "signs"  — napkin in or on plate, pushing it completely aside, stacking other dishes on their plate — I clear it. The fact that it happens to you when you don't give any of these signs could be the result of poor training, a push from management to turn the table, or servers who want to get done and go home.

So the question is, what can those of us who prefer a clear line of demarcation between eating and cleaning do? I’ve tried to communicate subtley by saying we’re not in a hurry or that we’d like to take our time. But it doesn’t help. Would it be appropriate to speak more directly and ask our server to please not clear dishes until everyone at the table done or would this be offensive? Speak up. I want to know what you think.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Upcycle Parts Shop Crafts a Creative Concept for St. Clair

The Idea: It's a cozy little space, but the Upcycle Parts Shop has a big mission. A crowd stood outside the St. Clair Avenue storefront on Friday evening to celebrate the grand opening of the creative reuse center that's a part of the Upcycle St. Clair initiative, which aims to bring economic impact to the St. Clair Superior neighborhood through existing resources and manpower. Artistic director Nicole McGee finds all of the store's who's-it's and what's-it's galore through donations of bits and pieces that local businesses don't need anymore: plastic cookie cutters, swatches of wallpaper, bathroom tiles, old neckties, laminate sample tags, tiny glass bottles. The shop prods local artists to consider using leftover supplies instead of buying new ones and it's numerous neighborhood partnerships including student internships create fresh opportunities for the community.

The Experience: Friday's event kicked off with a community open studio, a freestyle reuse crafting session which will be held at the store once a month. As two musicians played guitars out front, I held a colored marker to a paper plate as it spun on an old record player, making a pattern of concentric circles. A woman cut some of the colored plates into spirals and hung them like silent wind chimes outside the shop window. At a table nearby, people tied strings together to play cat's cradle.

Our Take: As I ran my fingers through bins of wooden beads and played with a quiver of arrows, I realized I'm nearly as excited as McGee about the bimonthly themed artist workshops (the first one on July 24 is on paper bag art). Attendees pay $20 for instruction and materials, and bring their own booze — they take place at the reclaimed in-store Art Bar, after all. I look forward to watching the parts shop help the Upcycle St. Clair movement — as McGee's storefront sign says— thrive.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Return of the King

It’s been four long years since Cleveland fans first heard the phrase, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” It’s been four long years since fans burned No. 23 jerseys in the streets of Cleveland, and Dan Gilbert scorned his “cowardly betrayal” in a scathing open letter.

But now LeBron James — the King, the Chosen One, The Whore of Akron — is coming home.

Today, in a letter published on Sports Illustrated’s website, James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still, it’s hard to forget the agonizing four years that he spent in a Miami Heat uniform. So before we parade through the street, let’s take a minute to remember how we got here with these Cleveland Magazine excerpts.

His mom, Gloria, called him a “hometown boy,” but fans were still expecting the worst leading up to his first Decision.

      “It panders to our deep-seated insecurities, our feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. And why shouldn’t it? This kind of stuff has been going on for quite some time. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller bolted Cleveland for New York. BP America packed up and left for Chicago. Hell, even Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was a Clevelander before he became the man who bankrolls our most hated baseball rivals.” — from “King of All Media,” February 2010

For Cavs devotees, it was bigger than James, and it was bigger than sports. James’ move meant we had lost our chance to silence the critics.

   “We've always wanted to surprise the rest of the country with Cleveland's greatness, and he made it happen. People saw us differently because of him. Then, when we ran into a tough time and really needed him, he was gone.” — from “Our Miserable Year,” December 2010

James instantly became the most hated figure in Cleveland sports history. While some made the argument that no one could be more hated than Art Modell, the notorious owner that moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, Esquire writer Scott Raab, author of The Whore of Akron, dismissed that idea. 

   “Any Cleveland sports fan who believes in karma forgets that Art Modell won a Super Bowl. Had the Browns not been restored, Modell would stand alone as the most hated figure in the city's sports history. Now, LeBron stands alone.” — from “Raab Rage,” March 2011

A year later, Cleveland fans were comforted, as James lost his first championship appearance with the Heat. It seemed Dan Gilbert’s promise to “deliver a championship to the city” before James might come true, but former managing editor Jim Vickers knew better.

   “We'll be the first to admit, the nationwide LeBron James bashing that followed was fun. The piling-on was epic, previously unimaginable, really. It felt good. Demons were exorcised. But let's be clear: If we stay at this party much longer, we're going to end up with a nasty hangover.” — from “Letting Go of LeBron,” August 2011

Then, James won two championships with the Miami Heat, and the Cavaliers didn’t make the playoffs. Fans’ hatred hit new heights, but the honest among us were able to admit that they really just wanted him back.

   “Even the world’s harshest critic would welcome back the world’s best player.” — from “The Indecision,” August 2013

Now, the decisions and his days in a Heat uniform are all in the past. James and Gilbert have made amends, and fans have welcomed James back with open arms. As fans storm the city to celebrate the return of the King, there is only one quote to hang onto.

    “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” – from “I’m Coming Back to Cleveland,” Sports Illustrated, July 11, 2014

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

First Look: 111 Bistro

The Vibe: Tucked inside the Montville Centre shopping plaza along state Route 18 in Medina, this spacious new American restaurant boasts a gastropub feel with a large wood bar, brick walls and draft lists written on chalkboards. It's welcoming whether you want to grab a spot at the bar, cozy up in one of the booths or hold court at the 16-seat, family-style table near the open kitchen.

How Ready Are They: Three weeks into the restaurant's opening, the wait staff is still getting acclimated to the menu and the pace of dinner service. Our server was cheery and knowledgeable — though she admitted she hadn't tried certain dishes. The biggest blunder was how fast our food was served. We barely took a bite of our appetizers when our entrees arrived at the table.

We Tried It: Executive chef and co-owner Anthony Scolaro must have a thing for duck. You can find it throughout the menu from bacon on the DBLT (a twist on the classic BLT) to wings. We opted for the latter and enjoyed the six plump duck wings ($9) — definitely larger and meatier than the plain-old chicken variety — coated in a mild chili sauce with a dash of citrus and topped with green onion.

We also tried the pork cheek pappardelle ($15) with guajillo cream, chihuahua cheese, creme fraiche and cilantro. With the guajillo cream, we'd hoped for a little more flavor but the overall effect was somewhat flat and could have used a touch of salt (worth a mention: salt and pepper shakers are absent from the tables).

What We'd Like To See: Walking the line between fine dining and upscale gastropub, a few more burger options than the 111 Burger — an appealing version with smoked gouda, lettuce, tomato, onion and house pickles on an egg bun — would help round out the menu.

If You Go: 111 Bistro, 2736 Medina Road, Medina, 330-952-1122,

What's In A Name

Liz Weinclaw and Caitlin Shea, founders of Meringue Bake Shop, have a problem. And you might be able to help. I wrote about the pair last February. Business has been good since then, with orders rolling in for exquisite celebratory cakes — wedding, birthday, graduation, anniversary — and lines form for their brightly colored macarons and pretty petit fours whenever they show up at farmers markets and the Cleveland Flea. (Attend the next Flea July 12.) Personally, I have a serious weakness for the ladies' Earl Grey shortbreads. And I'm desperate to try the new tasso ham and thyme scones, prepped with local pork from Saucisson. But back to the problem.

A woman in California trademarked the same name for her business. She found out about this local venture and had a lawyer send a letter informing the Clevelanders that they have to come up with a new name, and fast. The partners, unable to think creatively under pressure, have been unsuccessful — so they're reaching out to their fans, friends and anyone else willing to offer suggestions.
"This hard for us," Liz says. "Caitlin and I are attached to Meringue Bake Shop, and people are starting to recognize it. But we don't have a choice. So we decided to get the public involved."
They'll be at the Gordon Square Farmers Market tonight. You can drop your handwritten entry into an idea jar on their table. If you submit the winning concept, there's a dessert surprise in your future, so be sure to include your name and some contact info. Or post your submission on their Facebook page.
"We're trying to stay positive," Liz says. "At least it didn't happen after we got a storefront and put up a big sign. And maybe our new name will be even better."

Thursday, July 3, 2014

First Look: Trentina

The Vibe: Bright white walls and a dark navy ceiling, mirrored tabletops, white leather chairs and gold accents make this tiny restaurant from chef Jonathon Sawyer sparkle. It feels clean and modern, grounded by trendy touches like vintage foiled wallpaper. We especially loved the flapper-era walls in the restaurant's high-tech unisex bathrooms (think heated seats, bidets and derriere dryers). Dress to impress: servers don black bow-ties, though management still mixes dress jeans with blazers and ties.

How Ready Are They: We spent four hours over our 15-course dinner, and there are two variations on each course to give diners "complementary experiences," according to Sawyer.

The first few courses flew a little too fast, with too-frequent check-ins from our servers leaving us feeling a little harried. After about the fourth course, though, the staff seemed to settle into a more natural rhythm. The dishes were immaculate, and the chef made regular visits to the table to explain dishes, at one point bearing a pair of gold scissors to snip open the parchment enveloping the Sable Fish al Cartoccio.

We Tried It: By unanimous agreement, our favorite taste of the evening was the sixth course, the Pasta alla Chitarra. My dish featured three super-long, thick, house-made noodles with a creamy, slightly citrusy sauce, foraged chicken of the woods mushrooms and shaved West Coast abalone.

The complementary dish had a similar sauce, though the noodles were diced, acini di pepe style, and topped with a beautifully runny Ohio farm egg. The experience was topped by a garnish of a burning ember, "for aromatics," according to the chef. Perfection.

What We'd Like To See: Dinner at Trentina is an experience unlike any currently available in Ohio. This is not a dinner-and-a-movie night out but an event unto itself. Still, the space is so inviting that we can't wait until a few a la carte items are added to the patio offerings.

If You Go: Trentina opens July 8. Tickets for the tasting menu are $100. 1903 Ford Drive, Cleveland, 216-421-2900,

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tea Time

The summer I was 18, I worked at an upper-crust barbershop in London called Trumpers. Aristocrats and members of the royal family came in for clips and shaves. My job was to greet them and make tea for both customers and staff. The gentleman who interviewed me asked if I knew how to make tea. "Of course," I replied. I was an American girl raised on Lipton’s. I thought it was a silly question, because the only thing required was to drop a bag in a mug of boiled water. For some reason, he believed me. Needless to say, I learned about my ignorance the first (nightmarish) day on the job. And I got quite the education in the following months.

Bob Holcepl, founder and proprietor of The Tea Lab, also knows a thing — or three — about tea leaves, water temperature and the science of proper steeping. He opened a downtown location in the 5th Street Arcades last September, just as trend forecasters at CBS News and the Food Channel were predicting a tea drinking craze for 2014. They were right. He was ahead of the curve, and there's now a second Tea Lab outpost on Detroit Road in Lakewood. He also sells brewed and loose leaf tea at City Roast, his coffee stand in the West Side Market.
I recently stopped in at the downtown shop, just slightly bigger than a kiosk but packed with a huge array of products. It looks like a hyper-modern apothecary with canisters lined up neatly on the shelves. The contents are a world tour of tea: African red rooibus, Chinese oolong, Moroccan mint and a blend called French Breakfast. There are black teas and green ones, herbals and fruit flavors. He's got all sorts of cool equipment and accessories, too. Staff know their stuff and questions are welcome.

I bought myself a cup of iced tea, sat at a table in the newly renovated and repopulated space and contemplated the tea-making tutorial I first got in Great Britain long ago and the many wonderful "cuppas" in my future.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Light Show: Your guide to Fourth of July Fireworks in Cleveland

It’s that time of summer again: fireflies, cookouts and Fourth of July fireworks, of course. We found the best places to cozy up and watch colorful explosions light up the sky across Northeast Ohio.

Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Lakewood Park: After a day of parades, concerts and picnics, stop by Lakewood Park to catch the perfect end to a patriotic day. Bring blankets and chairs and come early for a lawn spot. Parking: Lakewood Park’s lots near the baseball field and in the center of the park. 9:30 p.m., July 4, free, 14532 Lake Ave., Lakewood,

Cahoon Memorial Park-West: This staple fireworks display brings families young and old back every year. This year, though, Independence Day is in the middle of the annual citywide festival Bay Days (July 2-5), so crowds will be even thicker than in the past. Parking: The lots off of Cahoon Road or Park Lane. 9:45 p.m., July 4, free, 27600 Lake Road, Cahoon Memorial Park- West, Bay Village,

Grindstone Festival: Make a day out of it by taking in live bands at the Grindstone Festival (July 3-5) and sticking around for the 10 p.m. fireworks show. Bring a chair or blanket to get a great view. Parking: Near the gazebo. 10 p.m., July 4, free, Berea Commons, Coe Lake, Berea,

Brunswick Summer Celebration: Between July 1 and 6, Brunswick will not only celebrate the country, but also the city itself. Along with musical guests, parades and activities for young and old, fireworks will light up the city’s sky over Brunswick High School. Parking: The high school’s parking lot and surrounding streets. July 4, $2 per person, free if under age 2, 3553 Center Road, Brunswick, 330-220-1111,

Independence Day Weekend: Independence is celebrating its namesake a day early this year. Food booths open at 7 p.m. and the fireworks are set off at 10 p.m. Festivities continue through July 6. Parking: Independence’s Elmwood Park has ample parking in many areas (near the recreation center, baseball fields, swimming pool), so get there early to grab some grub and a prime spot. 10 p.m., July 3 ( July 5 rain date), free, 6363 Selig Drive, Elmwood Park, Independence,

Clague Park: After an afternoon parade down Hilliard Boulevard, people can join together at Clague Park for an evening of food, music and fireworks to ring in another year of freedom. Parking: Various parking lots around Clague Park, but avoid the parade route along Hilliard Boulevard July 4, free, corner of Hilliard Boulevard & Clague Road, Westlake,

Akron’s National Rib Fest: Nothing says summer quite like barbecue and cover bands. This end-of-the-week celebration begins July 2 and runs through July 5. The Akron Symphony Orchestra will perform patriotic tributes on the Lock 3 stage right before the colors and lights fill the sky. Parking: Multiple downtown lots. Visit for all parking options. 9:45 p.m., July 4, free, 200 S Main St., Akron, 330-375-2877,

A Salute to America: What would the Fourth of July be without the 1812 Overture? Experience real canons firing while our world-class orchestra performs this classic. Fireworks to follow, so bring a blank and chairs for the lawn. Parking: Although Blossom Music Center has plenty of spaces, it's also notoriously known for traffic jams. So do yourself a favor and arrive early or buy a parking pass with your tickets. 8 p.m., July 4, $23-$45, 1144 W Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-920-8040,

Cleveland Indians Game: The ultimate American evening. Watch the Indians play against the Kansas City Royals while downing some Dollar Dogs. Stay after for an extended fireworks display and patriotic tribute with a guaranteed seat. Parking: Choose from the variety of garages around the stadium or save money and take the RTA. 7:05 p.m., July 4, $17.25-$113.50, 2401 Ontario St., Progressive Field, Cleveland, 216-420-4487,

Goodtimes Cruise III: Step abroad the Goodtimes Cruise III for dinner, dancing and fireworks. Reservations required for this classy celebration on the water. We suggest a fourth deck viewing ticket for a front row seat to the finale. Parking: Pier Parking Lot, the Port Authority Lot behind the FirstEnergy Stadium or Burke Lakefront Lot. Rates vary. 6 p.m. boarding, July 4, $20-$79.95, 825 E Ninth  St., Cleveland, 216-861-5110,

By Katy Witkowski