Silver Spoon Awards 2004

It's been a wild ride on the dining scene this past year, a rocketing roller coaster of openings, closings, arrivals, departures and resurrections. See who you, our readers, picked as the best in the biz.

Welcome back to the Northeast Ohio Dining Scene, the thrill ride that never ends. Watch amazed as roofs collapse, stars and diamonds glitter, pots are thrown and the dearly departed rise from the ashes. The stretch of track we're on right now is bumpier than it's been in years, but every drop and loop eventually leads to another upward climb. And no one can call this coaster a yawn.

The rough patch of 2003 saw the shuttering of such mainstays as Hap Gray's Watermark in the Flats, the Warehouse District's Greek Isles and Akron's Treva. We lost both chain outposts (Nick & Tony's, Carvers) and homegrown independents (Quarryman Taverne, Kosta's, Mojo). Some new spots opened and closed so fast it was like watching the culinary equivalent of mayflies: Blink and you missed them.

But great restaurants (as well as the not so great) close in the best of times, with or without an influx of chains at new "lifestyle centers," and even now new kitchens are gearing up, menus are being finalized and doors are opening. We've also learned that goodbye isn't always goodbye, as illustrated by the return of Classics and downtown's New York Spaghetti House ("brown sauce" and all).

To select the best on our ever-evolving landscape, whether old faves or new hot spots, we once again asked you, our readers, to cast your votes. Ballots were bound into subscribers' December 2003 issues and were also available on our Web site. Your votes were tallied in house, as well as by the accounting firm Meaden & Moore.

Here then are the places you chose as the best Northeast Ohio has to offer. Hang on to any loose articles and keep your hands inside the car at all times.

Best New Restaurant - Three Birds, Lakewood

James Bell has worked three kinds of wonder in fashioning his new restaurant in the headquarters campus of his family's Bonne Bell Cosmetics at the western end of Lakewood. Both the space and chef John Kolar's menu blend the classic with the modern and cosmopolitan.

A wall of glass looks out over a lovely courtyard that was once a tennis court, while the exposed-brick exterior walls of surrounding buildings enclose the rest of the interior. Kolar has so far offered diners everything from the simple (heirloom tomato salad) to the pleasantly surprising (crispy duck breast with seared foie gras and corn-grits cake), always attractively presented and made with quality ingredients.

In a year when not all the news was good, one of the high points has been watching Three Birds take wing and soar.

Best Greek - The Mad Greek, Cleveland Heights

Twenty-seven years after its opening, we have to ask: What is it that got the Greek so honked off?

The tale begins at a Chagrin Falls import shop called The Elephant's Trunk, owned by Loki and Nicki Chopra. He was Indian, she was Greek. The shop relocated its beads, silks and incense burners to Coventryard in Cleveland Heights in the 1970s. ("They actually started the hippie movement on Coventry," claims current co-owner Bill LaRue.)

After one of Coventry's endemic fires destroyed that incarnation of Coventryard, Loki and his manager decided to open a Greek eatery, but they had no ideas for a name. Inspiration came as the pair discussed how to break news of their venture to Nicki, who had grown up in her parents' restaurants and who they knew would be furious at the notion of returning to that business.

Sure enough, her reaction was all they anticipated. But The Mad Greek went ahead regardless --quot; having earned its moniker.

The eatery opened in a former Brown Derby at Cedar and Fairmount that Loki bought from some of Nicki's Greek cousins. In the '80s, Indian dishes were added to the menu, making the Greek Cleveland's only source for Indian fare at the time.

Loki's mother taught LaRue how to prepare her recipes. "She couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Hindi, but our sign language kinda worked because it made us famous," LaRue says.

When Loki passed away two years ago, LaRue returned from another career in Indianapolis, as did Loki and Nicki's son, Chris Chopra, a professional golfer who'd been living in North Carolina. Both wanted to preserve "the institution, the legacy of Loki Chopra," LaRue explains. "We didn't want that to go away."

Best Japanese - Daishin, North Olmsted

Don Park and his family opened the original Daishin in a little Westlake strip mall in 1990. That eatery was long virtually the sole outpost for sushi west of the Cuyahoga, treating the few, the cognoscenti, to miso soup, a delightful gingery salad dressing and nigiri assembled before their eyes at the tiny sushi bar.

That cozy restaurant still thrives •quot; despite competition from its big brother, the second Daishin that Park opened just south in North Olmsted, near Westfield Shoppingtown Great Northern, in January 2003.

The second location is a quantum leap spacewise, with hibachi seating for 98, standard seating for 50, 30 seats in the bar and room for 10 at the sushi bar. And every seat has been needed (and then some) when we've visited on weekend evenings. Diners pack in for the showbiz of their own cook and his flashing knives at the hibachi tables, as well as for traditional sushi and sashimi or nouveau versions that might include guacamole or other cross-cultural ingredients inside the hand rolls.

This is a real story of West (Side) meeting East •quot; and loving every bite.

Best Plate Presentation - Classics, Cleveland

Sixteen people labor in the large, gleaming kitchen at the reborn Classics restaurant. But at the end of the line is one last station. Not a single plate leaves for the dining room without an examination and a few finishing touches by chef Guillaume Brard.

Each dish must embody the proper interplay of color, flavor and texture so that it's a treat for the eye and palate alike.

"A lot of people say I am an artist. I don't like this word because I don't consider myself as an artist. I consider myself as a chef," Brard says simply.

And while he reluctantly dmits some similarity between culinary practices and crafting a sculpture, he won't be venturing into the old tower-of-food trend. Brard is old-school French gastronomy.

"It's very difficult for me to twist the tradition," he says. "I'm very conservative."

He also won't single out any dish as the epitome of his skills because that might imply standing still. "I think I don't have a masterpiece because I always try to create something new," he explains.

Having begun to learn pastry-making at age 11, he started formal training at 15, working in a restaurant three weeks out of the month and attending school the remaining week. Graduating two years later, he launched into a decade of learning by doing in some of the finest kitchens in France, particularly that of Pierre Gagnier in Paris.

Artistic denials aside, Brard's talents do extend beyond the culinary. He's painted, sculpted and worked in wood in years past. But, at present, Classics is his consuming passion.

"It's got to be perfect, perfect, perfect all the time," he says. "That is the rule in our profession. We can't say, •Oh, I will do better tomorrow.' Non. Every time, every day, every minute, every second."

How do guests at Classics respond to the fruits of such devotion? They gaze at their plates and gush, "You are an artist!"

With a small shrug, Brard nods. "Yeah, OK."

Best Puerto Rican - Lozada's, Cleveland

For more than 20 years •quot; since 1994 within a baseball's toss of the West Side Market •quot; this family-owned restaurant has dished up traditional Puerto Rican fare that blends the cuisines of native Taino and Arawakan Indians with later African and Spanish arrivals. Outwardly a neighborhood joint, the restaurant is something of a shrine to the Great American Pastime inside, with team banners, posters, autographed pictures and trophies everywhere •quot; testament to both the Latino pro players who patronize Lozada's and the local softball teams it sponsors.

Run by founder Santos Lozada Sr. and his son, Santos Lozada Jr., the kitchen turns out dishes you'll be hard pressed to find elsewhere in town, from conch soup to scrambled eggs with bacalao (dried, salted codfish) to alcapurrias (meat-stuffed fried banana balls).

There's nothing fancy here. The bilingual menu is sometimes short on description and service can be hit or miss (many of the servers seem to be cousins or other relatives). But rather than detracting, all that seems to add to Lozada's homey charm and the sensation that you're on a culinary adventure. And there are treasures for the adventurous, especially when you bite into warm, cheese-stuffed sorullos de queso or a plump, crunchy empanadilla.


Best New Restaurant

1. Three Birds
2. Theory
3. The Cheesecake Factory

You have to wonder what owner James Bell and chef John Kolar plan to do for an encore. Only a few months after their Three Birds opened last year, Esquire's restaurant critic named it one of the 20 best new dining spots in the country. Our readers concur, judging by the votes that propelled it to victory (albeit a close one) over Gretchen Hyland and Doug Petkovic's hot Tremont newcomer, Theory. You don't come out of the gate much stronger than that. Bell and Kolar know they'll have to stay in top form to meet the high expectations they've generated. But as Kolar says, their goal all along was to "raise the bar."

Best Fine Dining

1. Ristorante Giovanni's
2. tie: Blue Point Grille/ Lockkeepers
3. Johnny's Downtown

You don't last more than 27 years in the restaurant biz, especially at the high end, unless you have your game together. And that Giovanni's does, which edged it (narrowly) past even such worthy colleagues in upscale dining as these.

Best Cheap Eats

1. Chipotle Mexican Grill
2. Aladdin's Eatery
3. Yours Truly

By Cuisine

Best Seafood

1. Blue Point Grille
2. Blake's Seafood Grill
3. Pier W

The top finishers are the same as last year, despite a close run by the new fish in the pond: Cameron Mitchell's place at Eton in Woodmere. Unlike the old days, "finding fish" in Cleveland is no sea quest now, with fine fresh seafood readily available, whether you're east, west or downtown.

Best French/Continental

1. Sans Souci
2. Chez François
3. Le Bistro du Beaujolais Ltd.

The Renaissance Cleveland Hotel's Sans Souci certainly has no worries. It's still le grand fromage, as it has been since 1993. Vermilion's Chez François notches back into the top three for the first time since 1998, while Bistro du Beaujolais tumbles, yet still hangs on to third despite its closing in December. Claude and Georges d'Arras' restaurant may yet reappear if the couple can find acceptable new digs.

Best Italian

1. Ristorante Giovanni's
2. Battuto Ristorante
3. Stino da Napoli

From impeccable service to superb food to handsome décor, Carl Quagliata's Beachwood flagship can take on all comers with calm authority. That's why, although it's been displaced from the top a few times in the 12 previous years •quot; never slipping below second •quot; Giovanni's has ruled this category at No. 1 for eight of those years. Making its first appearance in the top three, Mark and Giovanna Daverio's Battuto employs much the same formula of quiet assurance on a smaller scale in Little Italy (mere mention of the place gives us a hankering for Mark's flavorful Bucatini all' Amatriciana).

Best Italian (chain)

1. Carrabba's Italian Grill

Best Indian

1. Cafe Tandoor
2. Saffron Patch
3. Indigo Indian Bistro

This marks four years in a row at the top for the Cafe Tandoor mini-chain, with its closest rivals exchanging places from last year.

Best Chinese

1. Pearl of the Orient
2. Hunan by the Falls
3. Hunan on Coventry

After two years of the popular East Side Hunans trading the top spot, Pearl of the Orient charges past the chopstick duel to grab the crown for itself. Having locations East Side and{West Side can't hurt, especially when both have been dishing great Szechwan and northern Chinese cuisine for two decades.

Best Japanese

1. Daishin Japanese Restaurant
2. Sakura Japanese Restaurant
3. Shuhei

Talk about knowing how to make an entrance. In its first appearance as a Silver Spoons finalist, Daishin secures the top spot. About time, say those of us who long enjoyed the original strip-mall Daishin as the West Side's only sushi house in a wilderness once dominated by fast food. Now that it's expanded to a second, much larger eatery near Great Northern, more West Side diners are discovering they can get good sushi without having to cross the Cuyahoga. Unleashing sushi beyond its former East Side bastions also surely helped propel the Sakura restaurants, in Lakewood and Brecksville, to their own impressive debut at second.

Best Other Asian

1. Lemon Grass
2. Weia Teia
3. #1 Pho

The top two hold their ground •quot; under a new partnership, the Great Northern Weia Teia has changed its name to Wild Mango/Weia Teia, while the original Oberlin eatery retains the old moniker •quot; but that sizzle they hear behind them is the up-and-coming #1 Pho, a newcomer making a fast entry among the finalists. Combining sleek ambiance with mom-and-pop prices, this Superior Avenue pho house is the upscale showpiece of the current popularity of Vietnamese noodle soup.

Best Soul Food

1. Phil the Fire
2. Alexandria's on Main
3. Fat Fish Blue

Upscale, Southern-style comfort food is another hot property, with diners of all backgrounds gravitating toward such homey dishes as mac and cheese, chicken and waffles, catfish and sweet-potato pie. Hence, the explosion of voting in this category since Phil Davis and Jim Buchanan opened their respective eateries. But Davis keeps a lock on the lead with his second Phil the Fire opening downtown last year in the expansive ex-Diamondback Brewery space. Knowing Davis' ambitions, we'll keep an eye out for more Fires to blaze up around town.

Best Mexican

1. Luchita's Mexican Restaurant
2. Nuevo Acapulco
3. Lopez Bar & Grille

With outposts from West 117th to Mentor, the local mini-chain hangs in at No. 1 by a comfortable margin.

Best Greek

1. The Mad Greek
2. Niko's on Detroit
3. Greek Isles

No reason for the Greek to be mad this year, as the venerable Cleveland Heights restaurant takes back the top spot it owned from 1992 to 1999. The West Side's Niko's surges into second and Greek Isles goes out in style with a strong third-place showing despite being sold and then closed last August for transformation into XO.

Best Middle Eastern

1. Aladdin's Eatery
2. Nate's Deli

Aladdin's must have used one of its three wishes to lock up this category, which it has dominated for the past seven years with its real-fruit smoothies, Greek and Middle Eastern fare and decadent desserts.

Best German/Central European

1. Balaton
2. Frank Sterle's Slovenian Country House
3. Old Prague Restaurant

Frank Sterle's and Balaton switch places in yet another tight race, a duel that's gone on ever since the old Hofbrau Haus shut down.

Best Spanish/Portuguese

1. Mallorca
2. Viva Barcelona
3. Marbella

A near-identical finish to last year, save that the former Picasso's in Pepper Pike is now Marbella, a sister operation to the local king of Spain, Mallorca. (To the reader who lamented that she "can't find tapas in Cleveland," keep an eye out for the n‰¥w Bossa Nova at Eton in Woodmere. With chef Michael Herschman of Cena Copa and Mojo in the kitchen, you can bet on loads of tapas specials.)

Best Puerto Rican

1. Lozada's Restaurant

One might be forgiven for thinking there are no other Puerto Rican eateries in town, based on Lozada's nabbing nearly every vote cast in this category. "Where are they?" one reader wrote plaintively on his ballot. Well, you can find some of them through our dining listings in this issue, including, of course, Lozada's and Rincon Criollo (home of the jibarito); there's also the little sit-down/carryout El Kafon in Lorain.

Food & Drink

Best Ribs

1. Tony Roma's A Place for Ribs
2. Damon's Restaurant
3. Rick's Café

The Damon's chain edges out Rick's in Chagrin Falls for the second year, but there are no bones about it: Tony's Roma's can boast Cleveland's favorite hot slabs workout for six years running.

Best Steak

1. Hyde Park Grille
2. Ruth's Chris Steak House
3. Morton's, The Steakhouse

This category is also a duplicate of last year •quot; and the year before that. But the three leading the steak stampede aren't about to ease up, not with such beefy competitors as John Q's, the Cleveland Chop House, Austin's and the Cabin Club thundering on their heels. And with the low-carb diet craze now in full swing•

Best Pizza

1. tie: Geraci's/Mama Santa's
2. Angelo's Pizza
3. Danny Boy's Italian Eatery

Mama finally snagged the spot from Geraci's last year •quot; after seven go-rounds as a bridesmaid but never a bride •quot; and now the two have to share, with the vote tally being a toss-up.

Best Hamburger

1. Heck's Cafe
2. tie: Moxie/Yours Truly
3. Bearden's

Heck's regains its lead after being unseated last year, while the Yours Truly's array of meat and meatless burgs tussles it out in second against Moxie's two-handed Moxie Burger with Niman Ranch bacon, Grafton cheddar and herb aioili.

Best Sandwich

1. Max's Deli/Slyman's Restaurant
2. Panera Bread
3. Corky & Lenny's

Our local samitch choices stack so high that counting the votes for your faves is like eating a mile-high corned beef on rye: It takes both hands. Max's holds on to No. 1, but has to ëhare this year with 40-year-old downtown rival Slyman's. The Panera chain, which seems to open a new restaurant somewhere around town every month, debuts in the category by barely nipping past the venerable Corky & Lenny's for second.

Best Soup

1. Panera Bread
2. Soupermarket (A Soup House)
3. Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille

Unlike most new categories in their first year, this one garnered a respectable bundle of votes right out of the gate (could be that having the ballots out during December's bitter chill skewed things in soup's favor). The offerings of the ubiquitous PanFra chain bubbled to the top, but the Soupermarket kept things heated.

Best Desserts

1. Max's Deli
2. The Cheesecake Factory
3. Century

You have to delve all the way back to 1992 to find a year that Max's dessert case hasn't won top Spoons honors from local sweet teeth. Despite that legacy of victory, heavy is the head that wears the crown now that the popular Cheesecake Factory has made its long-awaited Northeast Ohio appearance •quot; debuting in a strong second that knocked the Ritz's fine afters down a notch.

Best Vegetarian Selections

1. Tommy's
2. Aladdin's Eatery
3. Johnny Mango World Cafe & Bar

"We didn't get to the top of the food chain by eating veggies," groused one reader. Granted, anything green (other than beer on St. Paddy's Day) may still be a tough sell for some in this meat-and-potatoes town, but there are more and more menu options available for expanding your palate beyond what can be killed with a pointed stick and thrown in the fire. And these three places, along with many others that readers noted, make what's good for you taste darn good, too. Tommy's in Coventry Village make it 10 straight years at No. 1.

Best Wine List

1. Lockkeepers
2. D'Vine Wine Bar
3. Blue Point Grille

Established by the late John Unger •quot; then fostered after him by fellow master sommelier Larry O'Brien, and now overseen by Chris Oppewall •quot; this wide-ranging list of more than 1,000 bottles is tough to beat but a delight to explore.

Best Beer Selection

1. Winking Lizard Tavern
2. Great Lakes Brewing Co.
3. The Boneyard

The Lizard's 100-label World Tour of Beers (plus 30 mass-market beers for the less adventuresome) tap it for first again in a duplicate of last year's finish.

Best Local Microbrew

1. Great Lakes Brewing Co.
2. Rocky River Brewing Co.
3. Willoughby Brewing Co.

Everybody who's surprised, raise your glass. The jostling continues at second and third, but GLB has first bottled up, as it has since the category debuted eight years ago.

Specific Interests

Best Sunday Brunch

1. Pier W
2. Century
3. tie: Cleveland Chop House and Brewery/ M. Bistro/ Swingos on the Lake

Pier W and the Ritz-Carlton have split this category over the past dozen years, each grabbing the brass ring six times. We'll see whose Sunday spread breaks the tie next year.

Most Romantic

1. Pier W
2. Baricelli Inn
3. Sans Souci

Pier W's lakeside view of the downtown lights has had a lock on our hearts for the past four years, ever since the old Classics (which was the spot for dewy-eyed glances across the table for six years running) met the wrecking ball. Now that Classics has risen again, we'll see if that old magic can be rekindled or if we stay true to the lady on the lake.

Best Sports Bar

1. Champps Americana
2. Winking Lizard Tavern
3. BW-3

Like last year, a photo finish, but this time it's Champps breaking the tape by a mere handful of votes in its perennial rivalry with the Lizard.

Best People Watching

1. tie: Blue Point Grille/ Shooters on the Water
2. Metropolitan Café
3. Johnny's Downtown

Best Place to Be Seen

1. Blue Point Grille
2. Johnny's Downtown
3. Metropolitan Café

The Warehouse District remains the place to strut your stuff among the powerful, the power-hungry and those just plain hungry for a fine meal.

Best Outdoor Dining

1. Gamekeeper's Taverne
2. Shooters on the Water
3. Viva Barcelona

Gamekeeper's courtyard hangs on to its alfresco crown, with Viva Barcelona's lively patio sashaying into the top three for the first time.

Best Local Chef

1. Michael Symon, Lola Bistro
2. Doug Katz, fire food & drink

Between TV appearances, print news and books •quot; not to mention exposure to the diners packing his Tremont eatery •quot; Symon's mug is probably more familiar to Clevelanders than most of the presidential candidates who trooped through town in the past year. Considering how content and well disposed toward the world one feels after an exquisite meal, we wonder how he'd feel about a write-in campaign•

Best Plate Presentation

1. Classics
2. Wild Mango/Weia Teia
3. Century

Returning phoenix-like, Classics has made a swift impression with understated artistry and attention to detail overseen by chef Guillaume Brard. And despite the passing of the brief tower-of-food fad, diners still seem to enjoy the fun Jia Wei obviously hΩs in creating the inventive flourishes and fun assemblages at his North Olmsted restaurant. (But one combination needs to go if he's determined to change the place's name: The hostesses answering the phone have to cut the cord and start using only the &ew moniker, not "WildMangoWeiaTeia.")

Best Service

1. Ristorante Giovanni's
2. Classics
3. Century

Giovanni's completes its 3-2-1 climb to first in this category, though with Classics back on the block, this could become a black-tie dogfight next year.

Best View

1. Pier W
2. Blake's Seafood Grill

Best Decor

1. Circo/Zibibbo
2. Blue Point Grille
3. Classics

The flamboyantly colored, Seussical retro-deco at Circo proves most appealing for the third time in five years.


Best Deli

1. Max's Deli
2. Corky & Lenny's
3. tie: Joe's Deli & Restaurant/ Slyman's Restaurant

Max's hangs tight against its perennial East Side and downtown rivals, who are joined in the chase this year by Joe's in Rocky River.

Best Pastry Shop

1. Corbo's Dolceria
2. tie: Max's Deli/Presti's
3. Lucy's Sweet Surrender

After four years as runner-up, Corbo's regains the lead it last held in 1998.

Best Place to Buy Bread

1. Panera Bread
2. tie: Heinen's/ West Side Market
3. On the Rise Artisan Breads

Any way you slice it, the Panera chain has the top bread spot all rolled up with an overwhelming number of votes. Second place is where the action got toasty between the Heinen's chain's bakery counters and the West Side Market baker-vendors. Adam and Jencifer Gidlow's 2 1/2-year-old European-style bakery in Cleveland Heights debuted in a close third.

Best Cheese Selection

1. Heinen's
2. West Side Market
3. West Point Market

"Whey to go!" to the Heinen's supermarket chain's cheese shops, which hold the throne they claimed last year in the same 1-2-3 lineup.

Best Wine Store

1. Minotti's Wine & Liquor
2. Heinen's
3. Trader Joe's

Minotti's nips ahead by a nose to take first place, with the new Trader Joe's at Eton entering the chase in third.

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