One Old, One New

Yesterday involved two different holiday meals, one at the long established Johnny’s Bar on Fulton, the other at the newly opened Market in Rocky River.  Both of them shared some positive qualities:  attractive settings, attentive service and good company.  Yet somehow they were very different experiences.

Johnny’s, the original location of a trio of restaurants, is in the slightly down-at-the-heels neighborhood of Clark Metro.  You would drive past this place a hundred times without noticing it.  It is a hidden gem and this becomes obvious as soon as you step inside.  A welcoming bar dominates the lower room, along with a couple of white tableclothed four-tops along the side.  A few steps up place you in the main dining room.  Indirect cove lighting in the ceiling, grooved rosewood paneling and an Italianate mural set a sophisticated tone.  The inclusion of leopard print carpeting strikes a snazzy note at your feet.

The lunch menu is a brief affair, a short excursion through some Italian classics.  A couple of salads, a few simple apps and soups give way to a short list of entrees.  We have always focussed on the house specialities here, which we have gauged from watching what the locals around us are ordering.  For a starter, the choice is the Stuffed Banana Peppers.  Hot peppers, char-grilled and stuffed with ground veal, are then baked in marinara.  Deftly served by the waitstaff, using a pair of spoons, these gems hit all the right notes of heat, spice and savory richness.  With plenty of Italian bread to sop up the sauce, this makes a fitting start to any meal here.  A salad follows, just leaves of lettuce with vinaigrette, no other vegetables to distract you.  The Italian dressing is light as air, with just a whisper of garlic; the blue cheese is creamy and rich with clearly evident chunks of cheese.

For our entrees, there were thin scallopini of tender veal, finished with lemon and white wine and capers, a perfect rendition of Piccata.  A pounded chicken breast came cloaked with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and an intensely flavored demi-glace.  The sides included perfectly seasoned scalloped potatoes and perfectly cooked haricots verts, given a final turn in the pan with a swirl of butter.  There was nothing racy or avant garde about any of these plates, but they all came out of the kitchen beautifully arranged and deftly seasoned.  Clearly, this has been the case here for decades and there is no reason to mess with success.

We finished with an enormous slice of Triple Chocolate Torte; tender cake, tall layers of mousse and a thick drift of ganache on top.  It would easily satisfy four diners, although the three of us managed to kill it off handily.  Freshly brewed coffee, dark and strong, is poured from silver pots into a proper cup and saucer arrangement…no casual mugs here.  The well-used china, with its slightly worn gilding, is a graceful complement to the hefty silver service in your hand.

As we watched the snow fall through the enormous plate glass window at the front, we contemplated the last of our martinis and sank back into a sense of satisfaction.  “This is a grown-up restaurant,” we all agreed.  A restaurant for grown-ups, yes, but also a scene that has matured across the years.  A well rehearsed staff; a solid menu of outstanding dishes; a setting that is at once elegant and comfortable.

Market, on Linda Street in Rocky River, has been open only a few weeks at this point.  The structure was built specifically for this restaurant.  With a stone and timber lodge feel, the main room is all high ceilings and huge windows.  A massive horseshoe bar dominates the back of the space, with rows of flat screen TVs above.  An enormous television in the dining room played cable news all during our dinner, although there was no sound, nor was there closed captioning.  Basically, we had a mural of talking heads with a ticker of news headlines across the bottom.  (Can anyone explain to me why we always need to be watching television while we eat out?  I do watch at home during dinner, but when I am in a restaurant, paying for my meal, attended by a waiter, can I please have it without the distraction of a flickering screen overhead?)

The list of beers and wines is extensive and should satisfy just about everyone.  The menu is, clearly, market driven and seasonal.  There are the usual choices, such as a burger, a wedge salad, a strip steak and grilled salmon.  There are some less usual items like a bison burger, sesame crusted tuna and truffled mac and cheese.  Then there are some very ambitious dishes like Chicken Roulade, stuffed with chorizo and smoked gouda, served with pine nut risotto, or Blackened Grouper served over Crawfish Jambalaya.  The roulade was delicious, although the accompanying four spears of asparagus were tough and without any seasoning.  We also tried a Reuben sandwich, made with house smoked brisket.  The sweet potato fries alongside were crispy, hot and served in a generous portion.  A Black Pearl Porkchop arrived atop a pile of sweet potato mash.  Cooked exactly as requested, the chop was grilled on the bone and was juicy and flavorful.

For dessert, we tasted a slab of house made carrot cake that was a clear winner.  Less enticing were my Deep-fried Uncrustables.  This little junk food indulgence involved taking the frozen kids snack (a white bread pocket of peanut butter and jelly) and frying it to a golden turn.  Sadly, the flavor of the fish fried in the oil previously was the dominant flavor of the crust.  This was disconcerting at best and downright unappetizing by the third bite.  If you are going to prepare desserts like this, a separate fryer is a must.

There are some issues at Market that have to do with the place being so new.  The room’s enormous size and generous ceiling height made us feel like we were in a warehouse.  The space lacks any real character of its own; one can hope that will come with time.  Perhaps, once it’s more established this sense of newness will fade.  The reach of the menu is a concern, as well as the pricing.  The inclusion of Lobster Linguine and Veal Chops, along with some of the more unusual sides (Sweet Corn Red Pepper Beurre Blanc? Bamboo Rice?), seem out of place in this setting.  With some entrees pushing the $24 mark, and even the sandwiches all riding at $11 to $14, the pricing is high.  Our entrees, priced in the upper teens, came with neither bread nor salad.  At this price point, I was surprised to see everything a la carte.

Aside from the few mis-steps mentioned, the food was generally good and the portions reasonably sized.  Hopefully, once Market has been through its paces a few times and grown more comfortable with itself, a return trip will feel more successful.


Dante’s Chef’s Table

I was honored with a surprise birthday gift last week from a dear friend: dinner at the chef’s table in the kitchen at Dante. It was just the two of us seated at a private booth in the midst of all the action and we had an amazing evening. We were escorted to the table and left with a wine list and a cocktail list, but no menus. Dante Boccuzzi himself stepped over to the table and introduced himself. His only questions regarded allergies (none) and the number of courses (seven). With that simple preamble, we were off!

First up was a deceptively simple plate of tuna sushi. Hawaiian big eye tuna, delicately rolled with rice, wasabi and nori, topped with a sliver of foie gras and briefly torched to melt the liver over the sushi. This garnish, along with a sprinkling of crisp rice, really took things to the next level. Next up was a tower that began with a thin round of hearts of palm, then a crunchy tempura of shiitake and finally a deliriously fatty slice of hamachi. A shot of yuzu foam covered the fish and helped to cut the intense richness of this plate. The chef’s training at Nobu in Milan was clearly at play here.

An enormous butter poached shrimp followed. Resting atop roasted fingerling potatoes, laying alongside was a swath of spicy sweet corn puree, some sauteed corn kernels and a few leaves of baby spinach. A crumble of toasted cornbread, scattered across the plate, gave a little nudge of crunch to the plate.

A crispy piece of roasted Pacific sea bass was next, served with tender braised radishes and meltingly soft polenta. A pair of luscious dayboat sea scallops came over next, quickly seared and plated with some gorgeous, meaty mushrooms and sauteed watercress, the whole thing sauced with decadent hollandaise. The final savory course was a few slices of rare rib-eye steak, nestled atop a bunch of flash-fried watercress. House pickled ramps provided a welcome, tangy relief to the parade of richness.

By now, more than two hours have passed, along with a couple of cocktails and glasses of wine. We settle back in our seats and are presented with a miniature pre-dessert: poached local peaches, vanilla ice cream and a tiny spoonful of hot caramel to pour over the whole thing. It was luscious and we felt stuffed. The pastry chef, though, had different ideas. After a personal consultation at our table, she brought us two different plates. The first was a blackberry buttermilk panna cotta, cool and fragile, trembling like a lady’s decolletage. Topped with a white chocolate dipped shortbread, it was amped up with a scoop of intense raspberry sorbet. (All the flavors of sorbet and ice cream are made in house.) The other plate was centered around a twice baked brownie wrapped in crispy phyllo dough. This was accented with a seasonal stone fruit compote and a cubical “scoop” of pink peach sorbet.

At this point he kitchen had quieted down considerably and the chef came over to spend a few minutes with us. We talked about our personal favorite restaurants in New York, about his experience there, and about how much we had enjoyed our dinner. The final treat of the night, presented to all guests at Dante, is a rolling cart laden with candy. Everything from DumDum suckers and Tootsie Rolls to exotic imported hard candies, we were just too full and asked for a bag of goodies to take home with us.

All told, we had spent more than three hours at table and consumed way more calories than I care to think about. It was a magical evening, made all the more special by the company I was lucky enough to share it with. I’ll remember this one for a long time!


I have had a string of disappointing meals lately. Not horrible food or terrible service, just meals that were not as good as I had hoped or expected. I usually focus on the successful dining experiences that I am lucky enough to have. In between those, there are plenty of mundane evenings out. Quick runs through chain restaurants for an easy, on-the-go type supper, or a stop at someone’s favorite local hangout for a burger and a beer. There are also a few truly bad meals that I won’t waste the keystrokes to write about. What I am talking about here are restaurants that come with excellent recommendations and then turn out to be less than stellar.


The most recent was last night at Tremont’s Fahrenheit. Ask me what my favorite “special occasion” restaurant in that neighborhood is and I will automatically say Fahrenheit. It has been my go-to spot for entertaining out of town guests for years. I have had some incredible dinners there. Last night, after a stop at the weather-challenged Tremont Farmers Market, Tony and I headed up the street for some Happy Hour bar snacks. The bar at this Tremont standard bearer is a narrow space to the right of the front door. It offers about a dozen seats at the bar, plus 4 hightop deuces set against the windows looking out onto the street. Arty pendant lamps cast a warm glow over the coppery tabletops. The service is friendly and thoughtful.
The menu is limited, but offers up some good values. It’s standard bar fare, including pizza, burgers, hot dogs and cocktails. We chose the Butternut Squash Pizza, the Vietnamese Chicken Springrolls and the Chicken & Waffles. The Springrolls came up first, two of them cut a sharp angle, served with a couple of Boston lettuce leaves, a sweet chile dipping sauce and a sharp cucumber salad. The filling was perfectly seasoned, the crust shatteringly crisp and the sauce and salad a nice counterpoint to the heat. My first question was, “Why only two lettuce leaves, when there were four pieces of springroll?”
Next up was the Butternut Squash Pizza. This was topped with a few leaves of spinach, some cubes of squash, a couple of crumbles of goat cheese and a thick layer of melted mozzarella. The pie was dominated by two things: the pale crust and the flabby mozzarella. The few toppings scattered across this wan looking surface could not compete with the pedestrian base. I am not one who wants the “Ultimate Supreme” pizza with 25 toppings. I am of the “less is more” school of pizza making, but the sad qualities of the basic canvas overwhelmed the otherwise delicious toppings.
Our final choice of Chicken and Waffles was well executed. We were presented with a tower of waffles, topped with three beautifully cooked chicken tenders. The whole thing was drizzled with truffle honey and presented on a platter lined with a paper printed with the Fahrenheit logo. My main quibble with this dish was that some of the edges of the waffles were burned. While each part was delicious, we decided that chicken and waffles was exactly that…fried chicken served with waffles. I also wondered why the name of the restaurant had to be presented to me again on my plate. It seemed a little too corporate for my taste.
All in all, it was a nice evening. Our bartender took good care of us; the food was hot and fresh; the portions were good sized; the price was certainly right (all of this , plus a bottle of Dortmunder Gold, came to $27). Unfortunately, there was nothing that made me perk up and say WOW! There was nothing that made me want to hurry back for Happy Hour, either.


I was also underwhelmed by a group outing to Quince in Olmsted Falls a few weeks ago. Aside from the setting in a tooth-achingly sweet, old fashioned “railroad junction” development, the room is a triumph of minimalism. Glossy wooden tables and large windows make for a clean, uncluttered space. The placement of the bar on the second floor makes the bar service a little clunky, but keeps the dining room calmer. The service is friendly and helpful, if not completely professional. The plates and platters themselves were many and varied. Between three courses for four people, we didn’t see one piece of porcelain twice. (What a nightmare for the dishwasher!)
The menu, sadly, is overly ambitious. First off, it is quite large for such a plain setting. There are some fifteen starters, plus three more that were read off to us as specials. The entree list totaled eighteen choices, not counting the three verbal additions. Add to this the fact that any half-portion of salad can be added to any entree for just $3.50 and the eyes start to glaze over. Admittedly, my most memorable restaurant meals of all time have been in rooms where there is little or no choice (think Chez Panisse or Per Se). If have agreed to eat somewhere, I would like to think that I trust the chef enough to make choices for what I should eat that evening. A menu this large makes me doubt the ability of the kitchen to pull all of these dishes off successfully. Which things are really good, and which are just okay? What is the chef’s favorite dish…the one he is most proud of? That’s what I want to know going in.
Virtually every dish sounded good in the beginning, but then each took a turn for the worse further down the menu description. In some cases, there were unlikely pairings; mostly, it was a case of just too many things going on.
For example, an “unsprung sushi roll” of tuna and vegetables was made confusing with the inclusion of tomato, watermelon and papaya. A spinach salad was perked up with the counterpoint of sweet peaches and salty prosciutto, but the brie on top left us scratching our heads. My entree of shrimp & scallop tortellini, summer vegetable sauté and brandy lobster reduction, was a muddled mess on the plate. The “tortellini” were gigantic purses, properly seasoned but unevenly cooked. The vegetables had been overcooked to the point of mushiness, with no real texture and no distinct flavors. The brandy and lobster notes were completely lost in the mix. There were also edamame in with my saute, which seemed out of place. Many of the preparations include sort of beans or legumes, in addition to whatever the center of the plate protein is. Some other examples from the menu: Stuffed chicken, cavatelli, pesto and white beans; Orecchiette, meatballs, tomato, gorgonzola and green beans; Saffron pasta, pork bolognese, portobellos and white beans. In my opinion, this renders each of these dishes much too heavy.
My fellow diners had similar complaints about their meals. The portions were also huge. Each of us had at least one carryout container for leftovers and few of our plates were really finished. I wish the kitchen would just pull back a little and focus in on a few good, simple dishes. I am not afraid of fusion cooking or unusual combinations. I have eaten out enough in my life to understand creativity and new things. I was disappointed that Quince could not just relax and trust that simple does not mean uninviting. I have eaten this chef’s cooking before and loved it. I hope he can take a cue from the decor and lighten up in the kitchen.


There are other examples, but I think I have made my point. It’s painful to write about these disappointments. I am a big supporter of the Cleveland restaurant scene. I try to eat out locally as much as possible. Sometimes, though, I am much more impressed by a happy hour at the Tremont Tap House, a burger at the B Spot or a sundae at the Honey Hut than I am by a complicated, overwrought dinner. Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the restaurants I am choosing. All in all, I love eating around town. In the future, I’ll stick to writing about the meals that impress me the most.

The Baker’s Magic Hour

2:00 in the afternoon and she’s been on her feet for 10 hours at this point. The coffee and malformed croissant she nabbed off the tray at opening some seven hours ago are long gone, having given up their energy for the morning production. She now faces a prep list of some length. Alone in the kitchen, she pauses to eat. She mindlessly nibbles on a bowl of salad. She spares the washing of the fork by pinching the greens with her bare fingers. She stares into the empty space around her. She tears at pieces of a rough brown loaf and dips them in a small bowl of olive oil left from dressing the focaccia. She is awaiting the second (or third) wind that she’ll need to get through the remainder of the day.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay?” asked her coworkers an hour ago. She insisted she would be fine, that she only wanted to get a few things prepped for the morning. There was levain to feed; two cookie doughs to measure out and mix up; one more turn on the croissant dough was required; then the cleaning at the end. Good God, she thought, I’ll be here two more hours! Better get started.

With the dish man gone, she carefully reuses measuring cups and spatulas. Earlier in the day, with the whole scene humming along, people are almost reckless with their use of utensils. The parsimony of the late day is a welcome respite from that frenzy. One worker, one project at a time. There can be found, once again, the joy and the zen that brought her to these ovens in the first place.

The pull of the pile of bills waiting in the office falls away. The thought of writing next week’s schedule takes a backseat to the magic of flour and water in the bowl. There are only the few ingredients before her and the alchemy that heat and time and mixing can bring to them. The point of the business is solely the second word in the name: Bakery. All the other expectations can be set aside for now…for this magic hour in the kitchen.

Lolita’s Happy Hour

All day long I was dreaming about those brussels sprouts. The last time I ate them, it was snow and bluster and gray. The opposite today, with blue skies laden with clouds straight out of a Dutch Masters’ painting, had me thinking more of tomatoes and zucchini and peaches. At my lunchbreak, I dutifully feasted on those things, scented with fresh basil and fine olive oil. When I was released from work, I headed directly to Lolita to scratch my itch.

These crispy, salty gems have haunted me since I ate them last winter. I ate other things that day. I had a milky, light ricotta spread with perfectly grilled slices of baguette. Topped with a trickle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, it was simply milk, solidified. I splurged on paper thin slivers of La Quercia prosciutto, the Acorn Edition. This melt-in-your-mouth indulgence did, in fact, taste faintly of the acorns on which the pig had gorged himself before making the supreme sacrifice. (Warning to swine everywhere: If they start feeding you acorns, watch your back.) There was even sticky toffee pudding, warm and oozing and satisfying.

What I remember most from that afternoon, though, were the brussels sprouts. These babies had been fried. No boiling or steaming here! Cut into quarters, the edges had turned crispy and brown. They had been tossed with walnuts, capers, parsley and anchovy.  I was not disappointed tonight. They were just as outrageously flavorful as I remembered. These are NOT your Grandma’s brussels sprouts. They are a grownup, citified, 21st century vegetable. They are reason enough to stop in at Lolita. I also snacked on a dozen mussels, cooked off with chorizo, sliced garlic and wine, presented in a miniature cocotte. A wee basket of french rolls came alongside for sopping up all those juices. These bivalves offered the protein I needed to make a “balanced” meal, but really they were just an excuse to order the sprouts.

These items are all part of the Happy Hour menu. Available only at the bar in the early and late shoulders of the evening, the menu is small but well-tuned. In addition to the above mussels and brussels, there is a chickpea spread which has since replaced the ricotta. There is a half order of mac and cheese with rosemary and chicken, as well as the famous Lolita (Lola) Burger. This is on the menu at all of Chef Symon’s venues. It starts with a hefty beef patty and adds pickled onions, cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg. During Happy Hour, it’s an astonishing five dollars! (Each of the HH menu items is just five bucks.) There are cocktail specials, too, all at $2, $4, and $5. The full Lolita menu is also available at the bar, if you want to round things out with a pizza or add on a dessert. The service was friendly and low-key. My fellow barmates all seemed to be enjoying themselves, too, with our main topic of conversation being the food in front of us. My hour there certainly made me happy!

Facebook | Tremont Farmers’ Market

Facebook | Tremont Farmers’ Market.

On Tuesday I became the Tremont Farmers’ Market’s first Customer of the Week.  Jody Lathwell, the TFM’s head honcho, interviewed me and even took my pic for the Facebook page.  I guess this is my fifteen seconds of fame.  If you are a fellow Clevelander, please check out the market.  Jody has brought together an awesome group of vendors and created a great  community there in Lincoln Park.  Friendly folks, great food, live music and (so far) perfect weather make for a wonderful experience.

Happy Dog and Honey Hut

Tonight we worked the local angle on dinner. After my trip to the Tremont Farmers’ Market, we headed up to the Happy Dog for some of Eric Williams’ hot dog heaven. The chef from Ohio City’s much-loved, Mod-Mex restaurant Momocho updated this neighborhood bar last year with a creative tubesteak menu. Situated at Detroit and 58th in the vibrant Gordon Square Arts District, the corner taproom centers around a large oval bar with old-fashioned round stools…the kind you used to spin on endlessly as a child. (Avoid doing this now or the combination of craft brews, hot dogs and french fries may prove too much for your adult stomach!) The front of the room is dominated by a stage where live, local bands perform most nights of the week. A few booths line one wall, but the majority of the seating is at the bar.

The menu is a single sheet of paper, printed on both sides with lists. The front offers a choice of a quarter pound hot dog or a vegan option, followed by dozens of toppings. Ketchups and mustards; barbecue, steak and hot sauces; chimichurri, chutney, mole, aioli, remoulade and hollandaise; garlic tomato jam and even peanut butter are just some of the condiment choices. Vegetables make a healthy showing, too, ranging from tomatoes, onions and dill pickle spears to giardiniera, piquillo peppers and marinated portobellos. House made additions vary, but might include bourbon baked beans, sauteed rainbow chard spiked with nubs of Nueske’s bacon, Caribbean coleslaw or garlicky escarole. Would you like cheese with that? How about brie, smoked gouda, Tillamook cheddar or even Cheez Whiz? Are you still wanting more? There’s two kinds of chili, bacon and even a fried egg if you really want to gild the lily. Still not enough? Maybe rainbow sprinkles or Froot Loops will crown your pup.

The back of the menu allows you to choose either french fries or “tater tots.” Then you’ll need to pick the dipping sauces to go with them. Most of the same options for the dogs are offered here as well, some at an extra cost. As with the front of the page, you can choose as many things as you would like. (One supposes choosing EVERYTHING would be frowned upon!) The menu looks like one of those multiple choice tests from school where you fill in the little circles next to what you’d like. Tiny pencils are provided at each table. Luckily, the order slips are read by a person and not a computer, so you won’t lose points for being messy. A laminated sheet also offers some popular combinations, but mostly you are encouraged to customize your own.

My combination of garlic tomato jam, chard and cheddar was a real winner. The skin of the sausage had some definite snap to it from time spent on the flat top griddle. It was big enough to feel substantial without being too big to eat. The tots were excellent. Lighter than the traditional kind, it’s the sauces that really make these outstanding. Creole remoulade was cool and creamy, with a bit of a kick; house made ketchup was like what you want the stuff in the packets to really taste like; Brazilian chimichurri offered a bracing bite of vinegar to stand up to the crispy potatoes.

There is a full bar here, but the setting really dictates that beer is the drink of choice. Hot dogs and martinis just doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it? The beer list is large and generally reasonably priced. There are Happy Hour specials until 7 pm, like $2 domestic bottles. Seasonal brews, select imports and more than twenty draughts round out the options. There are even classics like Stroh’s, Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon, this last served in a 16 ounce can. What more could one ask for?

The Happy Dog is open from 4 pm everyday except Fridays, when they open at 11am. There is street parking or a small lot across 58th Street. The hot dogs, served on a poppyseed bun, are $5 each with as many toppings as you can stand. Each order of fries or tots, served with dipping sauces, is $2.50, with premium toppings adding a dollar to that price. Service is friendly and efficient. It’s an unusual and yet simple concept. The hard part is making up your mind how to dress your dog!

What better for dessert after meal like this than ice cream? We made our way south to our neighborhood favorite, the Honey Hut. Open only eight months out of the year, the Hut offers a small roster of regular flavors along with a couple of special ones that rotate as the seasons change. There are shakes and sundaes and malts and sodas…all the usual suspects. There’s also something called The Destroyer for $20 that I have seen only once and it was obscenely huge! Even the regular size dishes of ice cream are two scoops, so you can choose two different flavors every time. We had Chocolate Pecan, loaded with salty, toasted nuts, and Chocolate Cherry Chocolate Chip, a seasonal offering. I sometimes love a Red Raspberry sundae, especially with Raspberry or Blackberry ice cream. This is topped with real raspberries, not just syrup. The other standby is the Turtle sundae. I like this one made with Coconut ice cream. Hot Fudge, Hot Caramel and salted pecans on top of this flavor remind me of an Almond Joy bar.

I have been to Malley’s for ice cream and I have been to Mitchell’s. I have tried East Coast Frozen Custard, Rosati’s and even Dairy Queen. To my mind, Honey Hut beats them all. It’s a real neighborhood place, attracting Little League teams, families and the local firemen, too. Young and old, married and single, every shape, size and color…sooner or later, everybody ends up at the Hut. Starting on St. Patrick’s Day and going through the Saturday before Thanksgiving, they are open from 11 am until late into the evening, mostly depending on how busy they are. Get yourself some Honey Hut today!

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