The Insiders' Guide to Wining and Dining

It's easy to feel burned at a restaurant. It took weeks to get a reservation. The hostess who greets you looks like she should be on a runway. The wine list leaves you pondering the difference between "varietal" and "progressive." As you brace yourself to

Getting the Best Table

Before you get the best table, you have to know what it is, stresses Fernando Nuñes, owner of Viva Barcelona in Westlake. His reservation book is full of names of guests with specific table numbers scrawled next to them. "We have the same customers all the time," he says. "They'll tell me •table seven, table 20.' Of course, I will do my very best."

While everyone is treated well at Johnny's Downtown, manager Dan De Chagas says that if two people want the same table, it's the repeat customer who gets it: "We have regular customers who get their regular tables."

So what if you're irregular? Don't just say that you want "a good table," a term that means something different to everyone. Instead, Nuñes advises saying you want a seat by the window or a seat with a good view of the action. Or maybe you prefer the patio; just specify whether you want to be near the band or in a quieter spot.

If you're seated and you don't like the table, Nuñes says it's always OK to ask for a new one. Just do it as quickly as possible. "As soon as you sit down," he notes, "you're going to feel whatever it is you don't like."

How One Waitress Actually Lost Money on a Table

During summers home from college, I used to wait tables at Joe's Deli in Rocky River, where the customers were usually both polite and generous. I did this to earn money, although it didn't always work out that way.

One afternoon, an elderly lady came in alone and ordered a grilled-cheese sandwich and a glass of water. When it came time to settle her bill, which was probably all of $2.50, she handed me her Golden Buckeye Card.

"I'm sorry," I said. "We don't take those."

My customer proceeded to get very angry — and I'm not talking sweet-old-lady upset. She was furious, debating me relentlessly until — exasperated — I did something I'd never done before. Standing right in front of her, I fished in my apron pocket and pulled out a quarter, which is what her Buckeye discount would have amounted to. She silently accepted the coin.

Then she stiffed me on the tip.

— Colleen Mytnick

Dining dilemma

Is it OK to blow my nose at the table?

If you have to blow your nose, then you have to, but if it can wait a second, then excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, advises Dick Blake, who's been teaching etiquette in the Cleveland area for more than 30 years.

The bigger question is what you use to do the job. While Blake says men should always tuck a white handkerchief in their breast pocket, we wondered what the 99 percent of the population that doesn't wear dress shirts should do. "You should carry it in your back pocket," Blake says, sounding a bit dejected at the prospect of a poorly dressed diner. Women should carry a linen handkerchief in their purse or discreetly tucked in their sleeve (like your mother-in-law). Kleenex is a next-best option. Your cloth dinner napkin should never be used.

How to order in another language — without looking like a jerk

It's hard to screw this up. But people do.

First off, remember that it's fine to just order by reading the English translation that invariably follows the words you can't pronounce, says Jeff Hauck of Guarino's in Little Italy. But if you're feeling worldly, go ahead and try the Italian, French or whatever.

Here is the key: Unless you are 100 percent certain that you are correct, follow up your order with a quick disclaimer — "Is that right?" or something of the sort. Or you may order so loudly and boldly that it's clear you're spoofing yourself and everyone — hopefully — gets a kick.

"The wrong way to do it would be to say it with complete confidence and say it wrong," Hauck says. Ninety-nine percent of the people who do this, he notes, are men.

Marrying Food and Wine

Wine is made to accompany food. Whether you're sipping a Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, savoring foie gras with luscious Sauternes from Bordeaux or raising a glass of Chianti with friends on pizza night, wine makes food taste better. Lucky for us, today's global cuisine and exotic ingredients make the matchmaking process even more exciting. Gone are the days of white wine with fish and red with meat.

Here are some tips for selecting wines to complement specific food types:

Foods that include ingredients such as tomatoes, pungent cheese, lemony seafood and vinaigrette are high in acid. High-acid foods require high-acid wines that won't fall flat: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chianti are classic examples of lip-smacking wines that can tackle most acidic foods.

In the case of fatty foods, try pairing up wines that contain a bit of tannin: Beaujolais with marinated chicken, tenderloin with Merlot, strip steak with Cabernet Sauvignon; the more fat in the food the more wine tannins (found mainly in red wines) are needed to scrub your palate clean.

Global flavors such as hot peppers, barbecue, mole sauce and curries are full of spice and heat. Since alcohol accentuates the sensation of heat, try to select a moderate- to low-alcohol wine when pairing with hot dishes: Vinho Verde from Portugal, Pinot Grigio from Italy or cool-climate Rieslings work nicely. For Asian and Mexican spice, try a lightly sweet German Riesling or a fresh, bubbly Processco from Italy.

Most importantly, match the body of the wine with the body of the food. Poached fish requires a light-bodied white such as a Sauvignon Blanc, while a slow-cooked stew calls for a spicy red such as Syrah. If the weights of the food and wine are a match, the flavors and other components usually follow suit.

But remember that rules are meant to be broken, so relax and have fun with your pairings. As a respected colleague often said, "There are very few food and wine disasters."

Reading the Wine List

Picking the right wine for the table requires neither years of study nor an extraordinary palate.

But it helps to know what type of list — traditional, varietal or progressive — you're holding. And in case you'd like to order up a bottle of Mulderbosh Sauvignon Blanc from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, priced $34 a bottle (it's Classics sommelier Manuel Nieves' favorite wine find to recommend from his list), we'll help you find it.

Type Traditional Varietal Progressive
How to recognize it Categorized by the country or region where the grapes are grown A modern twist on the traditional, organized by grape variety; Merlots from various countries and regions are found under the dame heading, for instance. Groups wines by flavor, moving from light-styled wines to fuller-styled wines
Ease of navigation Complex Moderate Simple
What you need to know How each country styles and names its wines; For example, a white Burgundy is actually a Chardonnay from France. A simple understanding of the body and flavor profile of each variety; for example, how does a Merlot from France differ from a California Merlot? Find a wine you enjoy and, since others under that heading share similar characteristics, you'll probably like those nearby.
Where you'll find Mulderbosh Sauvignon Blanc South Africa Sauvignon Blanc Light-bodied whites

Understanding Wine Prices

The state of Ohio sets the minimum or suggested retail price that restaurants and wine shops can charge for a given bottle. Typically, wine retailers across Greater Cleveland keep their pricing close to the state's recommendation. Restaurants, on the other hand, mark the price of the wines higher than state minimum to cover overhead costs associated with serving the beverage (such as clean glassware, labor and storage). This bottle markup can be anywhere from state minimum to three times that amount and varies depending on age, vintage reputation and other factors.

Removing old-vintage wines from the equation, it's easy to evaluate a restaurant's pricing policy. In broad terms, a moderate restaurant markup is not more than double retail price. Many restaurants price their glass pours at 1/4 or 1/5 of the bottle's list price, which is fair provided you're given a full 5- or 6-ounce glass pour (the industry average). For example, a bottle that costs $18 at your local wine store should sell for about $36 at a restaurant or $9 a glass.

How to test the wine — without looking like a jerk

The No. 1 mistake people make is smelling the cork, observes Classics sommelier Manuel Nieves. "The cork should smell like a cork," he says flatly. If you like, you can feel it to make sure it's spongy, but this step can be skipped.

Next, give the glass a quick swirl and smell the wine to make sure it hasn't been corked or oxidized. But will an amateur be able to detect such a defect? "It just smells bad," Nieves says. "It smells like moldy, damp basement walls."

Lastly, taste the wine to make sure it's to your liking. If the sommelier suggested it and you don't care for it, Nieves says it's acceptable to send it back. If you chose it, however, and don't like it — assuming the wine is not flawed — then you should expect to pay for it.

Nieves stresses that you should ask as many questions as you like. The only thing that makes a person look stupid, he says, is using terms like "legs" incorrectly in an effort to show off.

Getting inWithout a Reservation

Say it's Valentine's Day — or any Saturday night for that matter — and you and your date want to eat at a hot spot, but didn't think of it till just now. Unless you want to dine on early-bird or night-owl time, your best bet is to hit the bar. We tried just that this Feb. 14, claiming a cozy bar table overlooking the courtyard at Three Birds Restaurant in Lakewood. It turns out there's something very romantic about excellent service and perfectly prepared beef tenderloin, no matter where you're sitting.

What's more, many people actually prefer the lively atmosphere of a nice bar spot. No one's rushing you in hopes of turning the table, and it's easier to chat with the bartender and other diners. Three great choices for just that are Flying Fig in Ohio City, Fahrenheit in Tremont and Metropolitan Café in the Warehouse District. The Cleveland Chop House and Brewery, with its partially ice-topped bar, appeals to those who like their whiskey or scotch "neat," but cool. Further afield, try Ken Stewart's Lodge in Bath Township, with its beautiful and spacious bar.

A last word of advice: If you choose a restaurant other than these, be sure to call first to check that food is served at the bar.

How to give your server a good tip — when management is being a jerk

Your server was great and you want to leave him or her an equally great gratuity. So you tip a healthy $10 on a $50 tab, using your credit card to do so. Did you know that, at some restaurants, money could be taken away from your server to compensate for the extra 1.5 to 2 percent the restaurant has to pay as a processing fee to the credit-card company? To make sure your server gets their fair share, ask him or her what the policy is where you're dining and, if necessary, tip with cash.

Dining Don'ts

We asked around and searched Web sites set up by disgruntled servers to find out what we shouldn't be doing.

• Don't ignore your crying baby.

• Don't ask your server why she isn't in church when you go out for breakfast after spending the morning ostensibly becoming a kinder person.

• Don't leave cards reading, "Jesus is the best tip of all."

• Don't ask for separate checks and then allow one person to pay for them all.

• Don't ignore your server when he or she greets you.

• Don't obstruct walkways by putting a highchair at the end of a booth.

• Don't continue with your conversation as your server tries to tell you the specials.

• Don't make jokes about your server's name, hair, accent or clothes.

• Don't neglect to say please and thank you.

• Don't expect free cake on your birthday.

• Don't pretend it's your birthday to get free cake.

• Don't complain about the free cake.

• Don't go on and on about your diet.

• Don't leave strollers in the aisle.

How Much to Tip

Is 20 percent the new 15 percent? You just paid $5 to the parking valet, must you tip on top of that? What do you give the bartender? We asked around on your behalf.

  Server Coat check Valet Sommelier Bartender
Patrick Rooney, manager of Metropolitan Cafe in the Warehouse District 18-20 percent $1 a item $2-$5, depending on whether the service is free 10 percent of the cost of the wine $1 per drink
Marianne Frantz, founder of the Cleveland Wine School and wine columnist for Cleveland Magazine 20 percent $1 an item $2 10-15 percent* $1 per drink
Catherine Holloway, etiquette coach 15-20 percent, but lean more toward 20 percent $1 an item $1-$2 10-15 percent $1-$3
*At all but the finest restaurants, it's the server who opens your wine. In such a case, Frantz says, you simply tip 15 percent on the entire bill. If however, a sommelier serves your wine, you may choose to tip him or her at the end of the meal. In this case, tip 10 to 15 percent of the cost of the wine (and deduct that amount from the portion of the bill on which you tip). In reality, though, Frantz says very few Cleveland restaurants offer a lone on the credit-card slip for tipping the sommelier and, therefore, leaving only one tip has become acceptable.

Dining dilemma

Should I get on the floor and clean up the mess left by my baby?

It's not your responsibility to pick up fallen items at a restaurant, including forks, napkins and, yes, Cheerios, points out Cleveland etiquette guru Catherine Holloway.

"To see a mom down there scraping up a mess is not a pretty picture," she says. "It's not your job." But it is your job to be a decent human being. So if your toddler throws her chewed-up-spit-out remains of a dinner on the floor, you should let the server know what they're in for and communicate your appreciation with a nice tip.

How to grease a palm — without looking like a jerk

No Cleveland restaurateur to whom we spoke would give us any advice on this at all, instead going on and on about how such an evil would never happen at their place of business.

As one manager says, "I think it could be done better with charm than with a fiscal thing." Be sincere, he advises, and let the host or hostess know what you need and why, as in a whispered "My wife thinks I planned this night for her birthday; but I forgot all about it and am going to get nailed unless you are so kind as to help me." That, he says, will always work better than a boisterous "Whatcha doing? What's goin' on? You sure look lovely tonight."

But if you must incentivize with cash, we found out the following (as long as we didn't use the source's name): "It doesn't work here," we were told by one manager. "But I know for a fact that it works in other restaurants."

You simply fold a bill, put it in your palm and shake hands while leaning in and making your request. Find the maitre d' or manager, though. The host or hostess is unlikely to have the authority to help you.

And don't expect a fiver to get squat. "It's anywhere from $20 on up," says our insider.

Ordering by the Glass or the Bottle

Before ordering, ask the server to tell you the size of the glass pour and how much a full bottle of the same wine would cost. Otherwise, you might be overpaying. In general, if there are four or more diners at the table, ordering by the bottle is probably your best option for freshness and price.

As American diners become more focused on wine, restaurants are responding with interesting by-the-glass programs featuring international selections. Ordering wines by the glass is a great way to taste different grapes from lesser-known regions.

A good glass-pour list will be moderate in size and price with 5- or 6-ounce pours, making it a nice option for small parties or single diners.

Tale of the Grape

Restaurant The List Through the Looking Glass Price Range
Sans Souci 10 reds and 10 whites listed progressively Classic pours from Europe, like an Italian Chianti, German Riesling and Spanish Reserva Rioja, make this an ideal wine list to complement Sans Souci's Mediterranean cuisine. Bartender Dian Vunderink also recommends Cakebread Chardonnay, a well-rounded wine from Napa Valley $5 to $14 per glass
One Walnut Approximately 20 wines Noteworthy for unique apertif wines not commonly found on local menus, such as Lillet from Bordeaux and Tio Pepe Manzanilla from Spain, add a European flair, while two great food wines from Ohio, Harpersfield Cuvee d'Alsace and Chalet Debonne Riesling, add local color. $5 to $14 per glass
Fleming's Steakhouse and Wine Bar 100 wines With a list of 100 wines by the glass that changes weekly, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the selection at Fleming's. Try a wine flight to sample three wines for the price of a single glass. Start out with a Chardonnay or Merlot from Meeker Vineyards in Sonoma County, a boutique winery that produces only 500 cases of its specialties a year, or sample one of the many Ohio wines, which are just coming to fruition this time of year. $5 to $14.95 per glass


Weird Food

We tried it so you don't have to -- unless, of course, you really, really want to.
by Michael von Glahn

A lingering childhood/adolescent memory is of watching Moe Howard chowing down on a bizarre sandwich as he sighed with relish: "If there's anything I like better than honey and ketchup, it's baloney and whipped cream — and we haven't got any."

The idea of honey and ketchup never did anything for me, but somehow the combination of baloney and whipped cream always teased just a bit. After all, fried baloney is a breakfast treat in parts of the South, often with butter and a little cane syrup, so why not the sweetness of whipped cream? The texture would be mighty strange, of course — fluffy combined with slippery/greasy.

But I never got up the gumption to explore the possibilities. The same cannot be said of some culinary practitioners who are definitely thinking outside the food pyramid with their concoctions.

So I tooled around town on a quest for some of the more outlandish menu items to be found in Northeast Ohio.

Granted, outlandish is in the palate of the taster. I skipped items that might seem weird to some merely because they derive from another culture, such as tako (octopus). And I passed up others that simply seem outré to me, such as boiled tongue (I hate tasting anything that can taste me back). The dishes I wanted to find had to be the sort that would prompt a double take from diners of almost any cultural background.

I came, I saw (and, in some cases, despite seeing), I sampled.

As one customer heaves off his barstool to depart The Town Fryer, the waitress calls after him, "Be good!"

"What fun is that?" he asks over his shoulder.

"OK, then don't!" she amends just as cheerily.

That pretty much sums up The Town Fryer's philosophy regarding a good (a.k.a. sane) diet. As the name implies, if it fits in a basket or a pair of tongs, it's fair game for the deep fryer. Not just such usual suspects as chicken or onion rings or catfish fillets. Think dill pickles, mac-and-cheese, lemon squares, Oreos and Twinkies.

As the menu notes, "it's a Southern thang." Maybe it's all the heat and light they get down there, but one wonders what possessed some anonymous Southern cook that first time, to look at a Twinkie and then at the deep fryer, then back at the Twinkie•

I try the mac-and-cheese first, a maple-brown, baseball-sized lump that steams when forked into. In truth, the result isn't all that weird, since homemade mac-and-cheese usually has a bit of baked crust on top. This just has more of that, which actually detracts a little from the otherwise pleasantly gooey center (but if your favorite part of mac-and-cheese is the crust, you get it in every bite and this is your dish).

Pushing back an "ER" flashback of someone rubbing paddles together and yelling, "Clear!", I move on to the famous deep-fried Twinkie. It's been many years since I thought of those yellow cakes filled with white, tongue-itchy-sweet something as an actual food item. There is nothing of Nature in the Twinkie to begin with, so to then dunk one in a deep fryer seems like really begging for a slap on the head from the gods.

Liberally dusted with powdered sugar (I opt to try it on its own merits, without the addition of drizzled chocolate, strawberry or maple syrup), my battered and fried specimen arrives looking like the Mark McGwire of its kind, the heat of the fryer having puffed it up to twice normal size. Digging in, the crust is thin, the spongy cake softened, not at all greasy — it's almost like a little soufflé in the round. The Crayola-yellow is muted to a more foodlike beige and the white center is custard colored and liquid. It's sweet but no longer cloying.

A steady diet is certainly not doctor's orders (Dr. Kevorkian possibly excepted), but as an occasional indulgence it's certainly a leap better than the original Hostess treat. And what fun is being good all the time?

One strange concoction we were unable to try is Scotch eggs: hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, then dipped in egg batter and deep fried (again with the deep fryer!). Don Woodward, a partner in Geneva-on-the-Lake's Old Firehouse Winery, rightly refers to the dish as "heart attack in a ball."

Alas (or fortunately, depending), Scotch eggs only seem to be available at one place and time locally: the Celtic Feis Scottish and Irish festival one weekend every August. Old Firehouse Winery's kitchen makes up about 50 to 75 dozen and sells most of them at the two-day event. Any leftovers are frozen and eaten during the winter, Woodward says, though he notes that the flavor doesn't hold up well.

Traditional recipes call for ground pork, but the Firehouse crew found that it had no taste, despite salt, pepper and other seasonings. So they opted for fresh sausage instead, a necessary "Americanization."

Preparation is something of an art as well. Pack the sausage too thin and the hot oil will crack it; too thick and it won't cook through. The result is the size of a tennis ball.

If you dare, the 2005 Feis is Aug. 27 and 28.

There's something about owning a deep fryer that seems to unleash a cook's inner Frankenstein. How else to explain not only the previous items but the tempura cheesecake at Tomo Sushi Hibachi in Strongsville?

At Tomo, you get two slices of plain white cheesecake that have been covered with tempura batter, flash-fried and then topped with whipped cream. The coating is light and crisp while the cheesecake itself is still firm and even chilled in spots, a real mélange of textures and temperatures.

They also do tempura bananas and tempura ice cream. I suppose once you've paid for a fryer, you want to get the most use from it you can.

At Cleveland Botanical Garden's Bugged Out! exhibit last month — and at Cleveland Metroparks' annual BugFest on Aug. 13 at the Garfield Nature Center — edible insects are on the menu. CBG's program offered little cups of "grub party mix" and chocolate-covered crickets.

I could eat the party mix all together, but all I could convey then is how the Cheerios, Chex and pretzels taste — which wouldn't tell you anything about the prize ingredient. So, after a brief staredown with it, I pop the inch-long grub solo.

It's crispy, vaguely salty, with a hint of carbon. Unlike a potato chip, I can eat just one.

The crickets are mired in little blobs of dark chocolate, a bare leg sticking out here and there as if they've been engulfed by some confectionary Pompeii. As expected, the flavor of the chocolate dominates. Texture is another matter.

"How is it?" my wife asks dubiously.

"Kind of chewy and poky," I reply. The soft chocolate is chewy; the pokiness is the cricket's knobby little legs. A moment later, I remove a stiff little fragment from my tongue, presumably a bit of wing.

They're probably an acquired taste. But the rationale for acquiring it is beyond me. On the other hand, I'm ready to give baloney and whipped cream a whirl without a blink. n

Old Firehouse Winery

5499 Lake Road, Geneva-on-the-Lake

(440) 466-9300

Tomo Sushi Hibachi

15163 Pearl Road, Strongsville

(440) 878-0760

The Town Fryer

3859 Superior Ave., Cleveland

(216) 426-9235

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