2010 Best of Cleveland: Food

Candy Bar Donuts
The folks at Jack Frost Donuts must not be the calorie-counting type. They've taken the already indulgent breakfast food and elevated it to the extreme by adding devilish amounts of candy bar toppings. Your taste buds will wake from their slumber excited with the promise of tasting chocolaty goodness before sunrise. Chomp on the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup donut — a classic airy donut dressed up with chocolate icing, chocolate frosting, mounds of the crumbled candy and a final touch of peanut butter morsels. Still craving more? There's also Butterfinger, Heath Bar, Nestle Crunch and M&Ms. Stop counting those calories, and try them all. But be sure to plan ahead — these ones are only available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays or if you pre-order during the week. 4960 Pearl Road, Cleveland, 216-351-3638

Diner Car Revival
The stain of a failed restaurant can be tough to erase. Three consecutive flame-outs in the same spot? That's like lifting red wine and permanent marker out of your white couch. So when owner Clyde Mart created Clyde's Bistro and Barroom out of two retro dining cars in Cleveland Heights, he spent 6 1/2 months on the transformation. "If you have failed restaurants, you don't want to open up the same restaurant because you inherit some of their history," he says. Every square inch of the place has been gutted and redesigned: One car serves as the dining room and one car as the barroom. The restaurant now boasts a cool, supper club vibe with zebra print carpet, red chairs and booths, and sassy chandeliers. (There's also a free valet Friday and Saturday.) The menu also got a makeover, now offering anything from braised short ribs ($18.80) to sauteed calves liver and onions ($16.90), a popular dish that Mart swears by. 1975 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-7100, clydesbistro.com

Gravy Fries
If you grew up in Canada or eating at greasy diners, the words "fries" and "gravy" used together probably make your heart beat a bit faster (if your arteries are capable of handling it). For the rest of us, it took chef Brian Okin of Verve Restaurant to make us realize that gravy trumps ketchup as a fry's most satisfying sidekick. At Verve, in keeping with its "creative comfort food" mantra, Okin reinvents the dish by replacing typical beef gravy with a veal stock and garlic sausage one. "I think it's a little lighter, a little more elegant," he says. Still feeling pangs of food guilt? You're not alone. For the freshly cut fries, the restaurant's most popular side ($3 at lunch), Okin estimates Verve uses 15 to 20 pounds of potatoes daily. Tasty, eh? 1332 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland, 216-664-5500, vervecleveland.com

Who knows how long that Slim Jim has been in its slick plastic wrapper. But no problem, right? Jerky lasts forever. Not the good stuff. The Sausage Shoppe's all-beef jerky is nitrate-, preservative- and chemical-free, so you have to devour them quick (about a week after opening). That shouldn't be a problem since this jerky sings with a rich, tangy flavor: healthy lean meat, hickory smoked on-site and seasoned with the Shoppe's hand-blended spices. Over the past two decades, the original beef jerky has amassed more awards than a best-in-show bull, capping 2010 with a first place nod from the Ohio Cured Meat Show. 4501 Memphis Ave., Cleveland, 216-351-5213, sausageshoppe.com

The traditional French pastries Britt-Marie Horrocks Culey pumps out of her Cleveland Heights kitchen shouldn't be confused with the coconut macaroons your mom used to make. Horrocks Culey's pastel-colored sweets are delicate, airy and versatile. Although her business, Coquette Patisserie, offers many French desserts, the macarons are where she experiments with flavors such as sour drunken cherry and St. Germain liqueur alongside more traditional offerings such as blueberry and mango. "I'm doing my own twist on them for sure," she says. "I'm obsessed with St. Germain liqueur, so I thought, I have to do this." Horrocks Culey even takes requests. Last month, she whipped up candied garlic macarons for the Cleveland Garlic Festival. And though the pastry may seem a bit alien to you now, she expects it won't be that way for long. "They're actually getting bigger around the world," she says. "They're being called the new cupcake." 216-570-7193, coquettepatisserie.com

Reinvented Classic
Stadium Mustard, Cleveland's greatest condiment, is surprisingly versatile. Michael Symon proved so at Bar Symon, when he invented Stadium
Mustard sauce, a beurre blanc with beer and Stadium Mustard added. The Classic Cleveland entree — two sausage links, four pierogies and a pile of cabbage — comes with the sauce drizzled over it. So does the $5 pierogi snack at happy hour. Executive chef Matt Harlan says it's an example of Symon tapping his Midwestern roots for inspiration. "He's been a Browns fan however long. He's eaten Stadium Mustard his whole life. He wanted to bring it into another dish." (Symon whisked the city's all-star mustard into a Brussels sprouts dish during his Fabulous Food Show appearance in 2007.) The sauce is "vinegary, buttery, mustardy — delicious," Harlan says. 32858 Walker Road, Avon Lake, 440-933-5652, barsymon.com

Taste of Fall
The color of the banana butternut squash soup at Dante hits you first: a burnt yellow, conjuring images of fallen leaves and sunlight pouring through tree branches. It's a fall treat made possible by the bounty of squash, tinged with a tangy note of harvested apples, sweetened — in chef Dante Boccuzzi's impetuous style — with bananas. The soup consistently appears on his fall menu in all its creamy, dreamy finery. This season it's adorned with a dainty cinnamon creme pouf, studded with chunks of pumpkin seed brittle. It begs for the swan dive. The spoon breaks the surface, scoops through silky soup, captures an indecent portion of sweeter-than-pie creme and procures brittle for the perfect bite. Luscious sweet melds with savory warmth: Dinner meets dessert. Is it wrong to wax poetic about soup? Not when it speaks the language of fall. And that's exactly what Boccuzzi's cornucopia of flavor does. 2247 Professor Ave., Cleveland, 216-274-1200, restaurantdante.us

Tot Companion
Tater Tots are a time machine back to the grade-school cafeteria. And while there's nothing wrong with dousing those crunchy potato bites in grocery-aisle ketchup, head over to Happy Dog where your beloved Tot has been elevated to gourmet status. The Tots are the same fried goodness you remember. The dipping sauces are the grown-up twist. For a lunch-money price ($2.50), you get a big bowl of Tots and your choice of a dozen house-made sauces (order them all at no extra charge). Traditionalists have ketchup (regular or chipotle) and mustard (Dijon, whole grain, yellow). For the more adventurous, there's spicy (Sriracha hot chili sauce), sweet (Kansas City-style barbecue sauce) and just plain fun (saffron aioli). And even though the kid in you may be suspect of black truffle honey mustard, try it. It's a sweet and earthy way for Tater Tots to play dress-up. 5801 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, 216-651-9474, happydogcleveland.com

Twist on Chips
These chips have been bad, very bad. They coax you to dig in again and again and again until you realize there's only one proper punishment: devouring the entire overloaded plateful. Melange's Dirty Chips are a mix of potato, sweet potato and beet chips served with creamy, smoked blue cheese fondue. That would be enough by itself, but the addition of scallions, halved grape tomatoes and tiny Nueske bacon lardons cement the dish as a devilish delight. Dirty Chips have no conscience about the fact you'll have to work out twice as hard tomorrow to make up for tonight's dietary indiscretions. They know you will have a tough time resisting their allure. They must be disciplined for such an attitude, and you're the one to do it. La Place Plaza, 2101 Richmond Road, Beachwood, 216-378-9755, dinemelange.com

Vegan Treat
If you're the sort who equates the word "vegan" with sprouts and soy, it's time to visit Sweetie Pie Bakery. Its Loaded Vegan Cookie is a full house of oatmeal, chocolate chips, pecans, coconut, dried fruits, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. The only thing missing is the egg (that's where the soy stands in), but you'd never know it. The cookie is super-chewy, a little crunchy, sometimes sweet and at other times tangy. It all depends if you bite into a dried cranberry or cherry, an apricot or a raisin. It may look big enough for two, but even those who haven't sworn off eating animal products will want this joyous $1.95 treat all to themselves. 18101 Detroit Road, Lakewood, 440-360-0472, sweetiepiebakery.net
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