Table Talk

Sometimes writing a monthly column is a lot like going out to eat.

You know the feeling: It’s dinnertime, you’re hungry and not interested in cooking. You could always hit the neighborhood place around the corner, where you tapped out the menu months ago. There’s also that TGI Franchise at the mall, where the kids will be happy and you’ll have leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. Or there are the independent restaurants, where things are more interesting, maybe a little more expensive, and “Top Chef” means more than something you watch on television.

Making the independent choice takes effort, maybe even a baby-sitter.

So it is with column writing. You can drum on a familiar topic, stamp out what’s in the issue or create something you’ve never tasted before.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is the chain restaurant of columns, but there will be a 40-minute wait to be seated. Here’s a menu to look over.

Along with our readers’ picks for the 2008 Silver Spoon Awards, this year’s Best Restaurants issue offers up a healthy serving of motivation for thinking (and eating) independently: 16 chefs who are changing how we eat and 52 dishes to tickle your taste buds.

As an editor, I’ve always been frustrated by chefs who say that their philosophy is based on using “the finest and freshest ingredients.” It sounds so cliché, so basic, like the ballplayer who contends that he shows up at the field every day just hoping to help his team win.

Like with a championship ball club, however, I don’t underestimate the value of the finest-and-freshest mantra. A focus by our chefs on best, fresh and local has produced greater emphasis on sustainable farming, artisanal products and organic choices in Northeast Ohio’s restaurants.

But as a customer, I sure as heck hope the ingredients I’m getting are good and fresh. The editor in me knows there’s more to it than that, even if “that something” isn’t so easily expressed to a writer.

In interviewing our chefs this month, we pushed for motivations behind their creations, their understanding of flavor and how fresh, seasonal and local come together.

Take the responses from our cover trio: Lola’s Michael Symon, Flying Fig’s Karen Small and Dante’s Dante Boccuzzi. (Several chefs contend that three is the magic number when combining flavors, so we gave that rule a try in constructing our cover.)

Small’s from-scratch philosophy and use of local, fresh ingredients, for example, is grounded in her grandparents’ backyard. “They had a plot in the back of the house and grew it all,” she says, “from tomatoes to herbs to fennel and celery.”

Boccuzzi connects his cooking with his rock ’n’ roll sensibility. “With music, all the notes come together to make a melody,” he says. “Same idea with cooking: All the ingredients come together to make the dish.”

And Iron Chef Symon claims the secret to his success is pretty simple: “I’ve learned by putting food in my mouth. That’s the best way to learn everything you need to know about flavor.”

Needless to say we were willing to do some extra credit, and collected an entire year’s worth of dishes for just such a lesson — salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (the mysterious fifth taste). It’s amazing to experience how philosophy and flavor come together on the plate.

Chef Zack Bruell admits that he hadn’t even heard the term “umami” until recently, but he knows fish sauce adds a sparkle to Table 45’s Thai coconut broth soup. “It brings dimensionality, complexity and balance,” he says.

And you’ll want to make the extra effort to seek out restaurants such as Bistro 185, where Mark Levine gives salmon an 18-hour cure in brown sugar, sea salt, cinnamon, allspice, garlic and vinegar to create his own gravlax, which is served atop potato pancakes.

Yeah, it’s worth it.

Bet you’re getting hungry. That’s OK. Your table is ready.
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