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!

Disappointments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Dante

One of Tremont’s latest additions is the restaurant Dante.  It is also one of the greatest.  Four of us enjoyed a really extraordinary meal there last night.  The setting is an old bank building on Professor Avenue.  Stately stone columns flank the entrance.  The interior is a soaring space, typical of an early twentieth century bank lobby.  The ornate ceiling remains in all its glory and the back of the room is focused on the wide open door to the vault.  The room is divided down the center, separating the lounge from the dining area.  The bar area is accented with a row of handblown glass hanging lamps.  Above it all hangs a crystal chandelier with elegant ribbons of  color adorning it.  The tables are topped with individual rubber placemats, low slung water glasses and modern, quirky flatware.  A frosted glass hurricane held a floating votive in the center of our beautifully wood-grained table.

The cocktail list includes some intriguing options.  We chose some seasonal specialties, including one with fresh raspberries and another with cucumber and mint.  The wine list is accessible and completely reasonable.  The first two pages feature 50 under 50:  fifty wines available by the glass, or by the bottle, all falling under the fifty dollar mark.  While were sipping away, the signature breadbasket arrived, made from an old vinyl record album (in our case, Grand Funk Railroad), filled with Stone Oven Bakery selections and served with house made hummus instead of butter. I was grateful for this lighter spread, given the rich dishes I was about to devour.

Two of us chose the five course Chef’s Tasting Menu, while the others made a la carte selections.  I was pleased that the kitchen was willing to split the table in this way.  The tasting menu includes two set appetizers, along with a choice of one of the pastas, one of the entrees and one of the desserts.  Our first plates soon arrived…the Selection of House Cured Meats. Three types of salame, prosciutto, two terrines and foie gras mousse shared a wooden board with grain mustard. giardinera and some intriguing cracker bread.  Everything was outstanding, from the silky prosciutto to the velvety mousse, all nicely countered by the vinegary punch of the pickled vegetables.  A scallop shell also appeared, containing Dayboat Scallops, gratineed with spinach, house made pancetta and Sauce Royale.

Next up was a beautiful plate of Tuna Tartare.  A perfect circle of finely diced, rosy red tuna from Hawaii was surrounded by olive caper remoulade and crowned with a poached egg and a crispy potato nest.  The tuna was immaculately fresh, the remoulade playing a rich and salty harmony to its sea-breeze melody.  Our companions also loved their choices.  There was a dish of Braised Artichokes, filled with chevre mousse and topped with a tangle of balsamic laced arugula.  Another of our companions chose to taste her way through the risotto section of the menu, starting with the Arborio and Rhubarb version.  This was somewhat sweet and came topped with toasty garlic chips and drizzled with orange essence.  We agreed this would also work as a dessert.

Our pasta dishes came next, starting with Dante’s take on Carbonara.  Fresh fettucine, tossed with pancetta, cream and parmesan cheese and topped with (yet another) perfectly poached egg.  Next to me arrived a plate of spaghetti, dressed with pesto, braised shortribs and snap peas.  Redolent of summer, this was one of the table’s favorites for the night. The second risotto variation was made from Bhutanese Red Rice and asparagus, scented with tarragon.

Now we were ready for our entrees.  At this point, the room was really buzzing and the plates were coming out of the kitchen fast and furious.  There was a plate of Braised Veal Shortribs “Oscar.”  Classically, this is a veal cutlet topped with crab, asparagus and hollandaise sauce.  This version was made from meltingly tender shortribs, finished with crispy fried asparagus, the requisite crab and a lemony hollandaise.  It was, in a word, divine.  There was a dish of Sesame Crusted Salmon.  It came plated with barbecued eel, sake braised cucumber and rice.  This was our least favorite dish of the night, but probably the only one we didn’t love.  The salmon was too sweet for my taste and just a tad overcooked.  We also tasted an outstanding serving of polenta, enriched through the addition of mascarpone, parmesan and gruyere cheeses.  The final risotto of the evening was made from brown rice and finished with English peas and pearl onions.

Feeling almost stuffed, we settled back into the chairs and considered the dessert menu.  A martini glass filled with peanut butter mousse, chocolate and toffee ice cream was a real winner.  A circle of panna cotta was a quivering mass of not-too-sweet goodness and came topped with a scoop of intense chocolate sorbet.  Surrounded by filets of bing cherries, dots of chocolate ganache and a puddle of cherry syrup, it was probably my favorite of the sweets.  Affogato al Cafe was presented in a highball glass:  two scoops of chocolate almond biscotti ice cream, over which was poured a shot of espresso, arrived plated with a pair of biscotti. The sorbets and ice creams also wowed us.  Fresh mint and chocolate chip, topped with kataifi; lemon and lime, stuck with a heart shaped tuile onto which had been baked Fruity Pebbles;  powerfully scented peach with an oatmeal cookie.  All of these flavors really shone through.

The final treat of the night is Dante’s version of the after dinner mint.  The waiter rolls up a huge cart laden with gigantic bowls and vases filled with the candy of our childhoods.  Bubble gum, fruit flavored taffy, sour lemon candies and suckers are just some of the choices proffered along with the check.

All in all, we were thrilled with the entire evening.  The waitstaff struck a professional and friendly balance, making us feel welcome and allowing us to take our time (we were there for three and a half hours!).  The room is beautiful, albeit a bit noisy when it’s full.  The menu offered familiar dishes with enough flair to make them interesting, while keeping them “safe” for less adventurous diners.  The prices are in line with the rest of Tremont’s fine dining spots.  Appetizers are $4 to $19; entrees are $15 to $28;  desserts are $4 to $8 (a cheese course is $12).  The Chef’s Tasting Menu is a relative bargain at $50 and also comes with wine pairings for an additional $35.  Chef Dante Boccuzzi’s operation is definitely firing on all cylinders at this point.  I highly recommend a visit!

A Burger at Lava Lounge

Lava Lounge in Tremont is part of the Cool Places to Eat group, which includes Fat Cats, in the same neighborhood, and Felice, on Cleveland’s East Side.  They have an awesome Happy Hour here with a wide-ranging menu of bar food and cocktails for $3, $4 and $5.  Roasted Pepper Hummus, Chicken Satay and Crispy Spring Rolls are among the choices. Twice I have been there recently and twice I have been tricked into sharing the hummus.  It was well worth it.  It arrives topped with their signature olive tapenade and ringed by triangles of hot pita bread.  They make a perfect foil to the smooth creaminess of the dip.  The first time we went, I had a hankering for red meat and ordered the burger.  (The second time, I was so taken by it that I happily ordered it again!)  Served on a toasted ciabatta roll, it’s a big big burger.  I’m not sure how they season the meat, but it is remarkably flavorful.  It comes topped with really gooey melted Havarti cheese and caramelized onion jam.  I usually want to add ketchup or mayo to my burger, but this one requires nothing additional.  On the side is served a small pile of sweet potato fries.  These are made crisp with a crunchy batter and are among the best sweet potato fries anywhere.

I have eaten more than my share of Michael Symon’s burgers at the B Spot and Lolita. This Lava Lounge burger is right up there with the best of them.  I have always been a fan of Fat Cats and Lava Lounge.  I have only rarely ordered anything that wasn’t right on the mark.  This burger is certainly the best one in the neighborhood.  It’s a bargain, to boot, at just five bucks with the fries!

An Evening in Tremont

It’s only recently that I am really taking advantage of all that nearby Tremont has to offer.  It’s basically just up the hill from the house, less than ten minutes away.  I have been coming here all along to eat dinner in the myriad restaurants the neighborhood has to offer, but there is so much more.  I am making myself a regular at Civilization, where the lattes are excellent and the vibe is consistently mellow.  As much as I am a fan of Starbucks, they are generally a high energy environment.  Bright lighting, loud music, lots of hustle and bustle all combine to make for lots of distractions.  Civilization, in contrast, is quiet and low-key.  The music is set so low that it can barely be heard.  When the place is nearly empty, the only sound is the tapping of laptop keys (thank you for free Wi-Fi!) and the quiet conversation of the staff.  I feel very comfortable here.  There is a constant stream of neighborhood people through the door and everyone seems to know everyone else.

Yesterday, Tony and I walked through the Tremont Farmers’ Market.  There are about thirty vendors this year.  There are farmers with produce, although it’s so early in the season that some of them were still featuring starter plants.  We did see plenty of lettuce, scallions, radishes and a few vegetables.  There were baked goods, hot sauce, cheeses, teas, flowers, spices, pierogies and meats.  There was live music, a chef demo, knife sharpening and even a Reiki practitioner!  Although it’s not as extensive as some markets I have been to, it scored big points for accessibility and friendliness.  The vendors were not swamped with hundreds of customers; they actually had time to stop and talk about their products.  We bought only some radishes, but the weather was beautiful and we had a great time.  We’ll be back!

Afterwards, we walked over to Prosperity Social Club for a bite to eat.  The barroom is a treasure from the past.  It is preserved with its original 1938 decor, a real piece of Cleveland history.  There are tables up front and a game room behind that, complete with pool table, a tabletop bowling machine and scads of board games!  The patio out back was drawing a big crowd while we were there, too.

I ordered a Dark ‘n’ Stormy, a cooling blend of Goslings Rum, ginger beer and lime.  It was perfectly refreshing after the heat of the afternoon.  Our food arrived shortly thereafter.  Tony had the Tavern Cheeseburger, a $5 special on Tuesdays.  It was a decent burger, topped with American cheese, tomato and lettuce and served with hand-cut fries.  I chose the Bratwurst Sandwich.  A toasted brat bun was filled with a split, griddled sausage.  The whole thing was topped with a distinctive red sauerkraut studded with bacon.  Nothing like some pork with your pork!  There were also fries on this plate, a bit soggy but perfectly salted.  (What is up with restaurants being afraid to salt their fries properly?  If they are not salted straight away when they come out of the fryer, no amount of salting when they hit the table is going to help.)  The food was good, the service was friendly and the room had an awesome feel to it.

Making these discoveries so close to home makes me want to branch out in Tremont.  Going to the Farmers’ Market every week will give us an opportunity to try out some different Happy Hours around the neighborhood.  The area has a good vibe; parking is easy and it feels good to be supporting local merchants.  Look for more from this area in the future!