Month after month, I sit down with chefs and restaurant owners and struggle to find new ways to ask old questions. Along the way, I’ve come up with a couple that seem to work every time. So, after a couple visits to Tremont’s new restaurant, Lolita, I arrange a meeting with chef/owner Michael Symon and toss him two of my ringers: “What is your favorite dish on the menu?” and “What dish do you wish more people would try?”
To my dismay, bucatini “carbonara” ($18) is Symon’s answer to both questions. He speaks glowingly of its flavor and composition and laments the public’s resistance to the veal tongue included in the dish. My brow moistens because I didn’t try it. I find myself nodding my head vacantly as Symon goes on about the delicious, comforting qualities of the bucatini before deciding I must confess. Luckily, doing so reminds me that there are two equally brilliant facets to our reigning celebrity chef’s success: his food, which I have always found delicious, and he and his wife and partner Liz’s genuine sense of engaging hospitality. The couple rides the roller coaster existence of restaurateur with a sort of convivial ease. Both seem to possess an unforced Zen for entertaining.
Symon and I while away my late afternoon visit discussing mutual friends, dining and, occasionally, Lolita. Toward the end of our conversation, Michael disappears downstairs to make a fresh bowl of bucatini, which is every bit as wonderful as he suggests. The pasta is perfectly cooked. Brightly flavored peas, crisp pancetta, tender cured veal tongue, freshly poached egg and a brash, well-calculated use of garlic and hot pepper make for a fabulous take on the classic carbonara dish. This one visit would be sufficient to tell of Lolita’s wonders, but I have tried other dishes — all are excellent and each contains flavors that stand out in my memory.
Before I get too carried away, I should provide some background in case you don’t know about Lola, Lolita or Michael and Liz Symon. A little more than eight years ago, the Symons opened a restaurant in Tremont named Lola. It was a smash hit and helped turn a failing neighborhood into one of Cleveland’s trendiest spots. Michael’s cooking gained national recognition, including exposure on the Food Network, and everything was well.
Then, earlier this year, Michael and Liz, along with Theory’s Doug Petkovic, announced plans to join forces, move Lola downtown to East Fourth Street (which will happen later this fall), and open a new Mediterranean bistro concept, Lolita, in Lola’s Tremont location.
“The Lolita concept is more like what Liz and I wanted to do originally,” says Symon. “People said it was too much of a gamble though, so we did the Midwestern cuisine thing that Lola became known for, instead.”
With the success and acclaim that Lola enjoyed, it’s hard to lament the choice, but it’s almost too bad we couldn’t have had Lolita sooner. Lola’s little sister has grown up fast and beautifully. Thanks to a cast of Lola alumni and the addition of talented co-chefs, Jonathon Sawyer and Jonathan Seeholzer, the Symons’ new restaurant is likely to make the same sort of seismic culinary waves that the region first felt in the late ’90s.
The most successful feature of the new Lolita menu is the way it blends the increasingly popular small plate concept, a natural way of dining in Greece and other Mediterranean countries, and the appetizer/salad/entrée format that grew up in northern Europe and America. Either way, you’ll be pleased.
The most fascinating and delicious offerings on the Lolita menu are the house-cured meats. Symon, Sawyer and Seeholzer are creating some of the best, most flavorful and refined Mediterranean charcuterie that I have tried outside the Old World. A changing variety of salumis and cured meats are featured on the menu in the $7 and $8 range. One can create a wonderful antipasti starter (or meal) by combining several of the meats with a nice selection of Italian artisanal cheeses such as Robiola ($6.50), a triple cream, or the slightly pungent, nutty Taleggio ($6.50). The Big Board for Two ($18) allows the kitchen to assemble everything for you — sometimes with tasty surprises not included on the menu.
The small plates section of the menu provides another chance to begin a meal or create a full dining experience to your liking. Priced at $4.50 each or three for $12, the items in this section offer a fabulous array of Mediterranean flavors and something to please any palate. Not in the mood for meat? The molten croquettes offer a crisply coated three-cheese Mornay with zesty pepper sauce. Soft polenta is warm, satisfying and topped with imported Parmesan and woodsy wild mushrooms, while the phyllo pies stuffed with spinach, feta and pine nuts may actually redeem the overdone spanakopita’s good name.
A classic example of Symon’s ability to transform an ethnic or old-fashioned favorite (see lobster peirogis, crab tater tots, foie gras bratwurst, mac and cheese, etc.), the lobster grape leaves are a stroke of genius with the hints of citrus pairing perfectly with the mild, flavorful lobster meat. These are no dull dolmas. The little meatballs, on the other hand, were something of a surprise. On two visits, they were seasoned with what can only be termed a liberal amount of cinnamon. While the flavor was not unpleasant, I can’t help but wonder the extent to which this very Greek rendering will appeal to the average Plumtown palate. But who knows. Symon has made a career of knowing what tastes right, even if the rest of us have not yet discovered it.
Among the apps and salads, one finds more wonderful flavors from the sunny, south side of Europe. The escarole and mizuna salad ($6) offers fresh, slightly bitter (in a good way) greens that pair perfectly with a loose lemon vinaigrette and salty, shaved Parmesan. On one visit, the salad was further embellished with arugula that had been freshly picked from Lolita’s kitchen garden. The tomato and bread salad ($8), with fresh, flavorful tomatoes, olives, feta and cucumbers, offers a more expected, yet equally excellent combination of Italian and Greek flavors. We also sampled the immensely satisfying grilled flatbread ($8) topped with prosciutto, manouri (a Greek goat and sheep’s milk cheese with a cream-cheeselike consistency) and fresh mint. The mint adds a refreshing counterpoint to the rich saltiness of the prosciutto and the smoky grilled flavor of the crisp bread.
If you have somehow made it to the entrées without filling up on Lolita’s beguiling array of small plates and starters, another cadre of well-crafted dishes awaits. The linguini with shellfish ($18) swims mussels and cockles in a tasty pan sauce of prosciutto, garlic and tomatoes. My dining companion said it was one of the best things she’d ever had at Lola or Lolita. The Prairie Grove pork chop ($18) was another hit with sautéed escarole, guanciale and cannellini beans. My personal favorite for flavor, execution and creativity is the duck confit “gyro.” A great take on the classic Greek favorite, this dish presents tender, cumin- and spice-scented braised duck leg wrapped in tender flat bread. Olives, fennel, oven-dried tomatoes and cucumber complete the flavor profile of a gyro without miming it too precisely. Eggplant “fries” round out the dish.
Ultimately, the entrees bring us back to the bucatini, which is where you came in and where I ended my visit with the Symons in their new (or renewed) Tremont bistro. This is where I leave. It follows, then, that this is where you put other plans on hold, pick up the phone and reserve a seat at Lolita.
Lolita, 900 Literary Road, Cleveland, (216) 771-5652. Hours: Mon-Thu 5-11 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Sun 4-9 p.m.