Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Romance, Adventure and Drinks

There is just something about The Velvet Tango Room.

The upscale Tremont bar/lounge specializing in high-end, handmade cocktails is a beacon of civilized sipping and socializing in a world gone sloppy and crass, an elegant out-of-time oasis, a place like no other where craft and quality are never compromised.

And the man who conceived it, built it and now watches over his creation, Paulius Nasvytis, is as unique as his establishment, a guy who can rock a cravat and two-toned shoes; who chases perfection as relentlessly as a man pursuing the one he loves; and a man of many skills, among them a way with words.

Photo by Nicole Bakker 
Nasvytis recently debuted 12 new cocktails and his Facebook posts about them have utterly charmed me. They have an clever, worldly style with a splash of sly humor. Oozing personality, they truly capture the VTR spirit.

In fact, his writing reminds me of the text that made the J. Petermen catalog (and Elaine's boss on Seinfeld) famous: mini-narratives hinting at mysterious events in exotic locales, fascinating encounters with strangers and insider information.

So I've decided to let Paulius' writing serve as a stand-in for my own to describe a few of these additions to his book of beverages. What follows are his musings on what's in the glass.

The Hulett
An homage to Cleveland's smokey, industrial past. As the tale goes, we were walking down St. Clair, and Rick was walking down Ontario. We were holding tequila, and he was holding a Laphroig — and, NO ONE WAS WATCHING WHERE THEY WERE GOING. And well, let's just say that it was a very happy accident. We added lime and secrets.

The Five Fifteen
Sometimes a bartender finds a bar and everyone knows it was meant to be because it is the quintessential pairing. At around her one year anniversary with us, Nina created the 5:15. A frothy combination of cherry and lime, shaken hard with gin. It's sweet, with an underlying current of something more. Just like her.

The VTR Mai Tai
Just the mere thought conjures up dreamy places we would rather be. But in the right here and now, this one can put you pretty close. It's the original Mai Tai improved upon. It's just what we do.

The Vieux Carre'
Circa 1930s and straight from New Orleans, this cocktail is named after The French Quarter. So ... it's not surprising that it's a fun, even crazy blend of flavors. Rye, cognac, sweet vermouth with dashes of Benedictine and two kinds of bitters.

The Boulevardier
Created in 1927 in Europe by American ex-pats during Prohibition. A Negroni turned on its ear, replacing gin with bourbon. A magnificent drink to have as a fallback when you want something richer and more complex than just a whiskey, but can't think of what else to order.

The Rouge Awakening
The perfect way to start the week and shake off "The Mondays." Nina takes her craft seriously, and it shows. A complex cocktail with the bitter pith of grapefruit, the tang of rhubarb and the spiciness of falernum. When balanced well, these produce a full spectrum of flavor. A veritable symphony.

The Final Word
This one should be served only after signing a release form. Our very own twist on the classic Last Word. Substitute the liquor and everything changes. It's bourbon instead of gin. It's 130 proof bourbon. Strong and complicated. Happy landings.

Photo by Derek Cahill
Reading all this, I find it impossible not to yearn for these drinks and the time to sit and savor them — ideally with some soft, live jazzy piano music in the background (this, happily, is a regular occurrence here) and accompanied by a plate of charcuterie, now featuring only the fine products from Salumeria Biellese in New York City. (I detect the behind the scenes influence of the woman in Paulius' life, a lady with a discerning and discriminating palate whose high standards mesh well with his).

Adventures await and the cocktail hour approaches. And one more thing worth mentioning — the back room is available for private parties. Being as this is the season of celebrations, consider booking it for your own chance to create a good story.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Filling the Need

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season: time for family, food, snow-sprinkled trees and enough shopping to make you weak in the knees.

For many, however, the question isn’t what to buy on Black Friday, but if they can put food on the table. So Cleveland Browns legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown and his Amer-I-Can organization teamed up with TownHall in Ohio City for Feed the Need, a turkey dinner serving busloads of less fortunate kids and others in the community in need of a helping hand.

Amer-I-Can is a nationwide organization devoted to developing young people’s life skills and academic performance, and encouraging positive contributions to their communities.

Brown and Cleveland great Reggie Rucker kicked off the dinner, and current players Willis McGahee, Brian Hoyer, Joe Haden and former Ohio State Buckeye Troy Smith stopped by to man the chow line and spend time with fans.

Hoyer, a St. Ignatius grad, was right at home feeding the hungry in Ohio City. “This is the community I grew up in,” says Hoyer, whose season was cut short due to a knee injury. “I can see my high school right down the street. For people to see a local guy helping out, it means a little bit more.”

Haden feels especially connected to the youth who came out for dinner. “My parents raised me to give back," he says. "I’ve been fortunate enough, so I want to help these kids, just to have them be happy and hang out with them."

Smith, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner who played with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes this season, was happy to be back in Cleveland. “Being here with Jim means everything,” says Smith. “We’ve been Brownies since coming out of the womb.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Bird Call

Pancetta-wrapped pheasant breast, butternut squash puree, fingerling potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts and maple gastrique at Amp 150. 

If you have an aversion to cooking — even on the holidays — or would rather skip the messy process of fixing a frozen bird, be thankful for these 13 chef-prepared turkey day dinners. Whether you want to take home a savory spread for up to 12 people or dine on slow-roasted beef tenderloin and Ohio City truffle and rosemary pierogies at a downtown restaurant, there’s an option that will satisfy your taste buds without the hassle. More time for a post-Thanksgiving dinner to nap, right?


1390 W. 9th St., Cleveland, 216-687-9494;; $17, children $11; 1-9 p.m.
Mix it up at Mallorca with a traditional turkey dinner or choose from their Spanish and Portuguese dinner menu, which offers everything from seafood paellas to filet mignon.

1515 W. Third St., Cleveland, 216-623-1300;; $65, children $29; 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
If you’re looking for a Thanksgiving dinner in an elegant setting, this four-course prix fixe meal at Muse will satisfy your cravings. Enjoy roasted pumpkin soup, smoked duck, stuffed turkey breast (or wood-fired mushrooms for vegetarians) and more.

Renaissance Cleveland Hotel
24 Public Square, Cleveland, 216-696-5600;; $75; 11 a.m.
If you’re interested in giving more than just thanks on turkey day weekend, head to the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel Nov. 30 for a luncheon to benefit A Christmas Story House Neighborhood Restoration Project. You’ll be treated to the meatloaf, mashed potato and red cabbage dinner made by Mrs. Parker in the movie, and you may even meet Flick or Scut Farkus.

Sans Souci
24 Public Square, Cleveland, 216-902-4095;; $42; 1-6 p.m.
Sans Souci is known for its delicious Mediterranean dishes, but the more traditional flavors this prix fixe menu offers are closer to home. For starters, try the Ohio City truffle and rosemary pierogi. After that, savor the slow-roasted beef tenderloin, and then top it off with a piece of buckeye pie.


Bistro 185
991 E. 185th St., Cleveland, 216-481-9635;; $45; 6:30 p.m.
If you love the harvest-inspired side dishes but not the bird, Bistro 185’s Vegan Thanksgiving Dinner has you covered. The four-course meal begins with chestnut soup, followed by baby spinach salad, stuffed acorn squash and a pumpkin tart with vegan vanilla ice cream. Wash it down with a glass of vegan-friendly wine.

12387 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-795-0550;; 11:30 a.m.- midnight
If you thirst for more than just a meal on Thanksgiving, head to Nighttown for a dinner and a show by jazz vocalist Freddy Cole. This James Joyce-themed jazz club and restaurant will serve specials, including butternut squash soup ($6), roasted pork loin ($17) and a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings ($17).

Table 45
9801 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland, 216-707-4160;; pickup 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Feeding a big group on Thanksgiving can be rough. Help yourself out and opt for Table 45’s Turkey To Go take-home dinners that feed 10-12 people ($195). The whole roasted turkey comes with a hearty meal of garlic mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, apple sausage and sage stuffing, green beans, roasted baby carrots, cranberry sauce and gravy. Finish it off with your choice of two pies (apple, pumpkin, pecan, and sweet potato). Place your orders by Nov. 25.


Amp 150
4277 W. 150th St., Cleveland, 216-706-8787;; $31.95, seniors $25.95, children $11.95; 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
For a wholesome but not by-the-book meal, pick up roasted pork loin from the carving station, and then hit the buffet for butternut squash ravioli and white bean cassoulet. Add salad and dessert into the mix, and you’ll be tempted to take the rest of the day off.

100th Bomb Group
20920 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, 216-267-1010;; $37.99, children $17.99
Airports can be a nightmare on holidays. But from a short distance, through panoramic windows, with family around you and turkey on your plate, the planes rapidly coming and going can be quite nice. Feast on everything from turkey to crab legs to pastas, and toast the season with champagne and wine varietals.

SB Eighty One
24481 Detroit Road, Westlake, 440-835-3559;; $29.95, children $11.95: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Not the napping kind? Let loose on the dance floor at SB Eighty One this Thanksgiving. Stay for a traditional dinner of roasted turkey, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie, plus seafood options, such as baked Atlantic salmon and shrimp.


The Bertram Inn
600 N. Aurora Road, Aurora, 330-562-2111;; pickup 10 a.m.-noon
Relax and let the restaurants at Bertram Inn make dinner for you. Paws and the Leopard are offering to-go Thanksgiving dinners. Order a 10-pound turkey ($165) or if you’ve got bigger crowd to feed, go for a 20-pound bird ($275). Both come with mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing and pies. Reserve your meals by Nov. 25.

Gamekeeper’s Taverne
87 West St., Chagrin Falls, 440-247-7744;; $32; noon-4 p.m.
Too many choices making your head spin? Make a reservation at Gamekeeper’s Taverne for a simply elegant meal by the falls. Choose between turkey or honey-glazed ham, or both — why not? — accompanied by salad, green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, and a slice of pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream. 

Shula’s 2
6200 Quarry Lane, Cleveland, 216-901-7852;; $26.95, seniors $22.95, kids $12.95; noon-5 p.m.
If you want all the traditional fixings but also hunger for variety, try Shula’s 2. The Thanksgiving buffet will feature roast turkey, honey-baked ham, cranberry-stuffed pork loin, French-cut chicken, mahi-mahi and sides including omelets and pasta dishes.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Posh on Prospect

Photo by Dustin Lopez

   The husband and I were among 300 plus guests at a private preopening event for Red the Steakhouse, which will extend the energy and excitement of East Fourth Street around the corner and onto Prospect Avenue. It was a lavish affair, done with impressive flair and opulence. The wine flowed, the hors d'oeuvres never stopped coming and the buffet tables heaped with platters of arancini, calzone, cheeses, tiny stuffed peppers, cured meats and other delicious expressions were always full. I watched Brad Friedlander and chef Jonathan Bennett graciously endure hours of backslapping, hand-pumping,cheek-kissing and enthusiastic hugging. Along with the two other principals in their restaurant group, Jon Gross and Peter Vauthy, they were marking their first foray from the eastern suburbs (where they also operate Moxie) into downtown Cleveland,  and the launch of the fourth location for their high-end restaurant, which began in Beachwood in 2004, and then expanded south to Boca Raton and Miami, Florida.

  The top-to-bottom renovation of the two-story building, once home to a thriving jewelry business that had gradually morphed into a pawn shop, and a couple of adjacent storefronts, has created multiple sleek and contemporary dining spaces on two levels. The rooms are done up in distinctive red, black and white, and luxe materials and finishes that define all the venues. Twenty tiers of bottles are on display in a glass enclosed walk-in for wine.

Photo by Dustin Lopez
  Bennett gave us a brief guided tour of the upstairs, which includes a second kitchen. There's the elegantly furnished VIP room and another outfitted with multiple flat screens that can be sectioned into separate, smaller places for meetings and private gatherings. These guys clearly know how to throw a great party, and that's what these rooms are meant for. By the time summer rolls around, there will be a rooftop patio too.

  The menu here will be identical to those at all the Red restaurants. Expect expertly prepared meat and seafood with a choose-your-own selection of sauces and toppings and a la carte sides, plus classic pasta dishes. Dinner service started Nov 17. Lunch is scheduled to begin by mid-December. With this group of seasoned and successful professionals in charge there is every reason to expect that food and service will be impeccable.

Photo by Dustin Lopez
   It's terrific that they've chosen to become a part of the resurgence of the city's center.  As we waited for the valet to bring our car, I remembered what it used to be like in this area when I arrived in 1971. The words sad and seedy came to mind.  The transformation took my breath away and the place literally and figuratively glows with energy. To all who paved the way and pioneered the resurgence of the Gateway District and to the most recent arrivals, I say cheers and thank you. To everyone else, my message is the lights are on, and there's a table waiting for you!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sunnier Sundays

 Eggs taste better when somebody else makes them. That's a fact. Not having to do the work seems to add a little something extra. It surely explains why going out for brunch is so appealing. And the local choices for that decadent and self-indulgent meal have just gotten better by one. As of this week Bistro 185 will begin serving chicken and waffles, crab Benedict, frittatas and all sorts of other  morning to midday fare on Sundays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

  My first thought, when I heard about this, like everybody who knows this incredibly hardworking couple, wondered why the restaurants owners Ruth and Mark Levine would put something else on their already full plates. I considered that they might be in the grip of serious lapse of sanity and wondered if a friendly intervention was needed. But once Ruth explained the backstory, it all made perfect sense.

 The push to do this came from a new and in her words, "extremely capable, creative and organized" team in the kitchen headed by Julie Branstein, who started there while still in high school and then left   to earn a culinary degree, and recent hire Miguel Chevres. "They wanted to do it and I am confident they can pull it off," she told me. Better yet, Ruth, who normally dresses in chef whites, can wear nice clothes and hang out in the dining room, something she only occasionally has time to do schmoozing with customers.

   The husband and I were guests for a first dry run and tasting last Sunday. One look at the menu and I was in trouble: this isn't the usual selection of pancakes and French toast. I wanted everything, except the Pain Perdu, croissant bread pudding, because it came with bananas (among the only foods I can't abide). There was a Croque Madame on brioche with Gruyere, eggs sunny-side up and applewood smoked ham from Nueske's; corn pudding and potato pancakes. Exercising a modicum of self control, we went with three dishes for sharing. He chose scrambled eggs (local and organic) with duck confit and sauteed onions. I selected the hash which featured house-made corn beef, potatoes and peppers. Both were outstanding. And then there were the cheese blintzes, light, golden, pillowy and worthy of the official babushka seal of approval.

  The extra touches here push everything way beyond the ordinary. The blintzes come with luscious Abby's Orchard fruit preserves, made in town from local fruit by Lisa Battista.  Cheese curds for the Montreal-inspired poutine are produced in-house. Mark's in charge of smoking the salmon for the gravlax platter and the pork loin that's served with the Benedicts (there are two versions). He has plans to try his hand at making cream cheese, too.

  Combine good food with a classy start to the day with drinks including Bellinis, mimosas and passion fruit sour, and you have the ingredients for a exceptionally fine day of rest. Post-brunch naps recommended, but not required.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Screen Time

Blood Brother

Before its 20th anniversary, the Ohio Independent Film Festival was tucked into art galleries, community theaters and music halls. This year, the Nov. 7 -10 lineup of short and feature films finds its rightful home in a movie theater – Euclid’s Atlas Cinemas. "We started initially because there was no place to show locally made films, and filmmaking 20 years ago in Cleveland was virtually nonexistent," says artistic director Bernadette Gillotta. Twenty years later, Gillotta and her board continue to curate this annual collection of little-known films they wish could get more attention. Gillotta highlights three films to see.

Blood Brother
Nov. 7, 6 p.m.
This Sundance Film Festival winner tells the story of Rocky Braat, a Geneva-on-the-Lake native who finds his heart drawn to a group of children living with HIV and AIDS after he passes through their orphanage in India. The documentary explores Braat’s journey of letting go of his life in America and creating a new one with these children in India, whom he loves deeply. “It’s heartfelt,” says Gillotta. “I’m hoping that [the film] has helped Rocky build on what he’s trying to accomplish there with these kids.”

Losing LeBron
Nov. 8, 6 p.m.
The impact of LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat was emotional to say the least. Two filmmakers explore how fans and their families were affected by his move, what James meant to this city and how the community is redefining itself in light of The Decision. “It's well done. It's interesting. It's from a fan's perspective," Gilotta says.

Broken Side of Time
Nov. 9, Noon
“This is a tough film,” says Gillotta of the movie about an Internet model’s quest to figure out her next step. “She’s had this life online, which is so pertinent to our existence today, and she is looking for something else, something more.” Not only is Gillotta intrigued by the exploration of the Internet’s impact on our lives, but she also describes the film as visually stunning.

To purchase tickets and view the list of films showing this weekend, visit or call 216-926-6166.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Make Something Good Happen

    I've gotten wind of an intriguing and visionary effort, still in its infancy, that deserves widespread attention and support.  The brainchild of the folks at the St Clair Superior Development Corporation,  it's called the Edible History Project. It represents a genuinely innovative way to approach the foreclosure crisis and save an urban neighborhood while improving the quality of life for those who live there.

  The organization acquired a vacant and vandalized home, built before the Civil War, on what is now East 71st  Street. According to local historian Christopher Busta-Peck, it is a fine example of a style known as Greek Revival, and one of the only existent models on the East Side. He has unearthed a great many details of the home's storied past, which he recounts on his Cleveland Area History blog. The property has had relatively few owners and was occupied and well maintained until nine years ago. But once it was empty, looters stripped it of everything that had value. That included the aluminum siding. But this proved to be a good thing because exposing the original exterior revealed the structure's true age and architectural importance.

   There are two large and beautiful trees on the site, one in front and another in the rear, hinting at what the area might have looked like a century ago before abandonment, blight and decay took hold. The initial "Thomas Lewis"parcel spread more than 10 acres. Portions were sold off in the ensuing decades, but many of the houses that were built are now gone.  St. Clair Superior has acquired four adjacent parcels including a large empty lot next door.

  And this is where things get really interesting and exciting. Assessing the neighborhood's needs, looking to other cities for inspiration and aiming for a concept that could be replicated elsewhere, led St. Clair Superior executive director Michael Fleming and urban planner and housing specialist Andrea  Bruno to the idea of creating a gathering place and garden that encourages health and wellness. "This area is a fresh food desert," says Fleming. "We want to grow food and healing herbs and use the house as a distribution center for a co-op, that might also purchase produce from other urban farms."

  The outside of the house would be restored with historical accuracy, Bruno explains, but inside there would be a lofted great room, and space for demos and classes in nutrition and cooking. "Nothing good has happened on this street in a long time," she says. "Just taking the boards off the windows of the house and replacing them with these new, nonbreakable ones donated by SecureView (a local company that's manufacturing a patented transparent window alternative) has residents excited."
 There's clearly a great deal of work to be done. And it takes money, lots of it. To begin acquiring the necessary funds, Fleming and Bruno applied to the Enterprise Nurture an Idea Crowdrise Challenge. The Edible History Project was selected as a finalist which lets them solicit contributions online. They keep whatever is given, but the project that raises the most, there are 10 others competing, gets an additional $10,000. Nov. 8, this Friday, is the last day to donate. "We know it will be a long journey to realize every aspect of this project," says Fleming, "but we're inspired and determined."

   Like every journey, it begins with a first step, here and now. So the moment you finish reading this post, I urge you to go to and give whatever you can. Any amount helps. There's so much good that could come from this.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fine French

To those wary to welcome Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute — chef and restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski's Shaker Square restaurant staffed almost entirely by formerly incarcerated men and women — into Cleveland's fine restaurant fold, let us say: The only incident we witnessed at its grand opening Friday was a spilled water pitcher. It was, otherwise, a success.

The French restaurant welcomed more than 180 guests for its opening night, according to the host, who checked our coats and sat us at an intimate two-top clothed in simple white linens and topped with a glowing tea light. The dining room was filled with patrons at 9 p.m., who talked over booming jazz music and marveled at the room's painted murals and comforting fireplace. By nearly 11:30 p.m., the space was still packed.

The menu — organized in a traditional French fashion, in which entrees are appetizers and plats are main courses — boasts a variety of mouthwatering options, from Provencal-style artichokes to sauteed scallops, but we started with what Chrostowski has built his reputation on: Wine and cheese.

A Rhone Valley Grenache ($12 per glass) was full and fruity, and paired well with four cheeses ($3 each), whittled down from more than 20 varieties by a server eager to share his new-found knowledge and love of creamy and stinky options. A triple-creme Delice de Bourgogne was a favorite — so gooey and delicate it dissolved on our tongues.

Main courses were less exciting than the cheeses, but still savory. The paupiettes de poisson du jour ($28) — grouper wrapped in thinly sliced potatoes and served over green beans — was simple but filling, while a duck confit and wild mushroom risotto ($23) was rich with a delightful texture.

The star of this show, for us, was not the food. It was the pleasant attitude of the staff, who went out of their way to ensure our comfort throughout the evening, and who excitedly discussed the menu and aided us in our choices. We also weren't rushed to get our check — a novelty for an American restaurant.

To get the story behind Edwins, read my profile on Chrostowski, "Food for Thought," which appeared in the October issue of Cleveland Magazine and can be found on our website.