Food is an essential part of any trip I take. I scour travel guides and websites looking for the best restaurants and bars, wanting to make sure I try something different and don't miss anything along the way. I once made a trip to Chicago in which getting a slice of deep-dish pizza from Gino's East was one of my primary objectives.
When it comes to eating in Cleveland, I take the same approach. Our city's dining scene has a dual nature that makes perfect sense. On one hand, we have iconic restaurants like Sokolowski's University Inn, the Tremont spot that's been serving homemade Polish and Eastern European food such as pierogies and kielbasa since 1923.
On the other, we have a dining scene packed with young, inventive chefs and time-tested ones who have given the city its reputation as a dining destination. Connecting both worlds is Michael Symon, who became the city's most famous chef by taking inspiration from the ethnic and Midwest foods we love so much and reinventing them.
If you want to get to the heart of ethnic food in Cleveland, it's not long before you end up at Sokolowski's. Stacks of maroon and gray cafeteria trays, silverware and napkins greet you inside the door. The line first passes the desserts — rows of pie, cake and rice pudding — before arriving at an ice-filled plastic bin packed full of beer and Sokolowski's own bottled sodas. Then, the real decision-making starts.
My friend gets one look at the softball-sized stuffed cabbage and orders it. I pick the monstrous chicken paprikash, which is so tender I didn't need a knife. Each meal comes with your choice of two side dishes — pierogies, red cabbage, green beans, corn, sauerkraut or mashed potatoes.
Symon once described Sokolowskis' pierogies as "America at its finest," so the potato and cheddar dumplings soaked in butter are an easy choice. They remind me of watching my grandma and aunts making their own years ago, flour strewn around the kitchen, piles of dough on the counter and the endless potato peels, and how I could never wait until it was time to eat.
Symon understands that sort of emotion tied to food. That's why, in 1997, just a few blocks south and west of Sokolowski's, he started taking Midwestern favorites such as pork chops and macaroni and cheese and presenting them with a contemporary twist. He called the place Lola. Food & Wine magazine called him one of America's best new chefs in 1998. Five years later, he closed Lola so he could prepare for its relocation to East Fourth Street, and re-opened his flagship restaurant's original location as Lolita.
On the second night of our Cleveland culinary tour, we get a cozy spot right in the corner of the restaurant overlooking Literary Road. The brick walls, lanterns and great mix of '80s music set the mood for a relaxed night.
Looking over the menu, I immediately take note of the fried Brussels sprouts. Our waitress tells us that they, along with the macaroni and cheese, have been served since Lola's earliest days. We immediately order both without hesitation.
The Brussels sprouts are fried perfectly and mixed with capers, anchovies and walnuts. We quickly devour the bowl of them and contemplate ordering more, but we've still got the macaroni. Give me a box of Kraft and I'm happy, but this version is so much more, loaded with goat cheese and chicken and flavored with rosemary.
Symon's ability to elevate these simple dishes has raised Cleveland into the national spotlight. It's shown other local chefs that they too can have success in our city, and not just downtown or in Tremont. Chef-driven restaurants are helping the renaissance of other Cleveland neighborhoods such as Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway.
So a night after dining at the spot where Michael Symon's road to the Food Network hit the expressway, my best friend and I head out to dinner at one of these new hot spots: Spice Kitchen and Bar in the Gordon Square Arts District.
Chef and owner Ben Bebenroth opened the restaurant in February after the success of the catering business he started in 2006. He's working alongside chef Andy Strizak, who left his executive chef post at Lolita last summer to team with Bebenroth.
Spice Kitchen's location has seen restaurants come and go recently: La Boca Barrio and Marlin Kaplan's Roseangel. Bebenroth has updated the décor to a natural, woody feel that reflects his small seasonal menu, which focuses on local, sustainable ingredients. He's spent his career using local vendors such as Lake Erie Creamery and works with more than a dozen local farms. He also has more than 10,000 square feet of land in Broadview Heights, where he has two hoop houses used to grow produce.
At first I'm a little nervous since there are just five snacks, two salads and six entrees on a very tiny menu. My friend and I exchange worried glances. But then I look a little closer and I get excited seeing polenta chickpea fries with a spice remoulade and mushroom beignets with a honey goat cheese crème fraîche. And, like a best friend should, she shares my enthusiasm. We place our orders and focus on catching up.
In no time, both snacks arrive, light and airy and perfect. I slather the mushroom beignets with the goat cheese and declare them my favorite. The rest of our meal is full of bright, tangy ingredients. The andouille burger is unlike anything I've had before. The smoked sausage patty, topped with pickled peppers, roasted onions and house-smoked cheddar, is bursting with spicy flavors.
It's new, unexpected and just the type of surprising dish I was hoping to discover on my trip. And it's something I'll be back for.
As we pay our bill, our waitress tells us to be sure to visit in a few weeks. The menu will be changing just like the season. Positive that I'll need another vacation in the summer, I head home, break out my calendar and start planning my next food journey.
It's a date, Cleveland.