Nothing says celebration quite like a plate of red meat — rib-eyes on the grill for summer holidays, a filet on Valentine's Day, a New York strip for that promotion at work.
Though I usually don't consider myself an avid carnivore, my husband and I marked our engagement years ago with a dinner at Red, the Steakhouse in Beachwood. While the bill was shocking for two recent college graduates, I loved that our shared dessert spelled out "congratulations" in chocolate, making me still think of an expensive, indulgent steak whenever something worth celebrating occurs.
That's certainly been the case for Northeast Ohio in recent months. The return of LeBron James, the impending Republican National Convention in 2016 and our elevated culinary scene has added plenty of sizzle to our city's reputation.
So it's fitting that two of Cleveland's best steakhouses expanded last winter — Red with a location on Prospect Avenue downtown and the Warehouse District's XO Prime Steaks second outpost in Pepper Pike — to accommodate all those good vibes.
"The customer in Cleveland is educated, cultured," says Red CEO Brad Friedlander. "They're foodies, they know food, they appreciate food, they understand it. And you don't get that everywhere else." Diners in Cleveland are also willing to pay, usually without question, for superb-quality food and staff.
Paradoxically, chain restaurants accompanying the development of Legacy Village in 2003, and Eton Chagrin Boulevard and Crocker Park in 2004 deserve some credit for the restaurants moving into and out of Beachwood, according to Friedlander and XO owner Zdenko Zovkic.
Eleven years ago, before downtown dining experienced a revitalization with the likes of Lola and the Greenhouse Tavern, chains prompted XO Restaurant and Bar to transform into XO Prime Steaks.
A creative kitchen in a downtown environment not quite ready for it, XO hoped to turn things around and get to the next level. "We just had to retool," says Zovkic. "We did not push aside our creativity, but rather inserted a steak concept into our creative menu."
Now, Zovkic sees the increased East Side traffic and more demanding palates citywide as a chance to offer Pepper Pike better choices. So he's incorporated elements of XO downtown to create a signature look, but intends to offer markedly different experiences.
With large windows and a view of Tower City Center, XO downtown is sprawling. The East Side location feels much more intimate with a predominance of wood, dark walls, lower ceilings and dim lighting.
More notably, Zovkic's roots and professional training in Germany are clearly reflected in the service at XO.
White napkins were exchanged for black to prevent lint from showing up on my black silk dress. Our server was always nearby but never hovering, expertly walking the line between attentive and out-of-sight that is not often found in Cleveland.
The menu, too, was a pleasant surprise for a steakhouse. Of course there is a hefty appetizer list — try the crispy tomato and eggplant napoleon ($12.95) — as well as chicken, chops and the usual strips, rib-eyes and tenderloins. But XO's three-page menu also included a selection of A-9 grade wagyu beef (market price or $65 for a 5-ounce strip, for the truly discerning diner) and a seven-item Chef Compositions section that offered an impeccable sea bass dish ($36.95).
Zovkic moved to Cleveland 17 years ago and has called Moreland Hills, which borders Pepper Pike, his home for the past four years. "So you get to appreciate a community from that angle," he points out.
That notion isn't lost on Red either. As one of Beachwood's most popular destinations for almost a decade, it has thrived among the big-box restaurants with its bright, modern decor and high energy. Yet Friedlander wanted the opportunity to set up shop among the trendy, independent hot spots.
He grew up in the city. His father owned a concession stand in Cleveland Municipal Stadium and three Albie's delis. "I was downtown as a kid working when I was probably 9," he recalls. "I love Cleveland." He owns another Red, the Steakhouse location in Florida but says he prefers spending time in his hometown. "After doing business in another state, you can really appreciate how wonderful the people are," he says. Attitudes, the level of engagement and interaction from customers, even taste buds seem different here.
"It looks like Prospect is becoming an extension of East Fourth [Street], which is a beautiful thing," says Michael Tolosa, executive chef at the downtown Red.
It's a natural fit for a contemporary steakhouse frequented by monied Clevelanders. Thus Red's menu, decor and energy is intentionally similar in its new spot.
A rooftop patio, floor-to-ceiling windows, burnished metal walls, glass and red leather exude city sophistication, as do most of Red's patrons, who are dressed in a mix of casual game-day, hip concert-night and stiff after-work wardrobes.
A sleek iPad appears on the table to present us with drink options. Perhaps a tad gimmicky, but the gesture seems to complement the crowded bar and our bouncy, smiling server. With the exception of appetizers, the menu is not extensive. While there are options for those merely accompanying steak lovers, the minimal menu descriptions ("Fish of the Day, market price," for instance) make it clear what Red specializes in.
Tolosa says he is afforded a certain degree of creative license, but frequently collaborates with the Beachwood chef to ensure consistency between locations. A perfectly broiled 8-ounce prime filet ($39.90) saved the slightly soggy calamari appetizer ($14.90) that preceded it.
I prefer rib steaks, but at Red I ordered an 8-ounce tenderloin as the mammoth rib-eye would have scaled in at a full pound. I wasn't disappointed. Crispy on the outside, soft and pink inside, Red's old-school presentation — a bare steak in the center of a large, white plate — declared, "We do steak."
It's true their openings may not have generated the buzz our James Beard-favored chefs caused when announcing their newest concepts on East Fourth and University Circle. And neither place will wow culinary adventurers looking for the next trend in foraged ingredients or Iron Chef-worthy technique.
But XO and Red do what they do with excellence, helping to elevate the city's culinary scene by marking a turning point. What are we, as diners, willing to pay handsomely for? Great food, flawless service and a vibrant city worth celebrating.
When You Go
Good to Know
XO's bar scene offers more of a tucked-away, intimate lounge experience compared to Red's front-and-center location, where bargoers can crowd around and still people watch. Red offers happy hour specials from 2:30 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
It's easy to get tunnel vision with all of the beef at both steakhouses, but don't neglect the sides. Try the bourbon apple potato pancake at XO and the Ohio sweet creamed corn at Red. The former is almost dessertlike, though the sweetness of the apples is cut by a tangy chive creme fraiche, and the potatoes are crisp. The latter is heavy but addictive with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs and a smooth base bursting with fresh corn kernels.
How to Cook a SteakMichael Tolosa, executive chef of the downtown Red, the Steakhouse, shares his secrets for a perfectly cooked steak.
As any good cook will explain, the quality of a dish always depends on the ingredients that went into it. In other words, you can't make good food from bad ingredients. That's just as true for a perfect steak: Start with high-quality beef. Brad Friedlander, partner at Red, recommends aged, prime, certified black Angus beef to truly wow the taste buds. "It's the top 2 percent of meat in this country," he says. "It's the best you can buy. It's much more expensive than anything else." But you get what you pay for, and for his money, he's sticking with his personal favorite: rib steak, which has more muscle development (and thus more flavor) than tenderloin.
For a steak that might measure up to a night out at Red, follow these steps, shared by executive chef Michael Tolosa.
First, "pull out the steak and season it with salt and ground Tellicherry black pepper," says Tolosa. That's all you need — no fancy rubs or marinades — to highlight the flavor of the beef. Allow the steak to come almost to room temperature, as refrigerator-cold meat may seize and become tough.
Next, though the chefs at Red use an ultra-high-temperature broiler to sear each side of the steak, you can get a similar effect with a very hot pan. "You're talking pretty high heat," Tolosa advises. Lightly oil the steak, set it in the pan and don't press down. Flip the steak when enough of a crust has formed to allow a spatula to slip cleanly under the steak, a little less than two minutes. Repeat on the other side then start checking for temperature.
Chefs at Red don't use thermometers, instead relying on the touch method. Feeling adventurous? Give it a shot: Make a circle with your thumb and index finger and, with your other hand, gently squeeze the fleshy part of your palm near the base of your thumb. That's what a rare steak should feel like. For each increase in temperature — medium-rare, medium and medium-well — add another finger to the circle. As the flesh of your palm tightens, it will mimic the feel of the steak when you squeeze the unseared sides. Don't cook very high-quality steak to well-done, as most of the advantages of aging and marbling are lost at that point.
For a more foolproof technique, pull out a thermometer. Rare steaks should be 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the center; medium-rare is 145 degrees; medium is 150 to 155; medium-well is 160.
Finally, "the important thing is to let it rest," Tolosa says. "I mean, you can put a steak in, throw it right on the plate as soon as it gets to temperature and send it out. But any great steakhouse is going to let it rest so the juices can redistribute through the steak." Remove the steak from the pan and let it sit for a couple of minutes before slicing. "If you cut into a steak right after it's been cooked, all that juice is going to bleed right out," he says.
Serve according to your own tastes. "Before we bring [a steak] out to the table, we brush it with a light garlic oil," Tolosa explains. Enjoy plain or top with blue cheese, horseradish sour cream or butter.