When I first saw Michael Symon on Iron Chef America I was impressed by his innovative flavor combinations but wondered; what’s up with that crazy laugh? I admit it got to me at first. I watched a few more episodes and it clicked; he laughs maniacally because he loves what he is doing. That’s key to cooking a fine meal obviously but you know what else I noticed? Anyone else he works with just seems to have a blast with him. I had been to Cleveland a few years back (also on NFL opening weekend where the poor Browns lost a heartbreaker to the Vikings and yes they lost again to Miami this time) and although I loved how much the city embraced its sports teams and was just generally mad about sports, I did not enjoy any of the food experiences the first time around. In these last few years the food scene has exploded across the planet and has people cooking more than ever, travelling just to eat at specific restaurants more than ever, and simply opening their minds to trying crazy dishes. We skipped football this time around but we all figured that Symon deserved a shot at winning us over so we booked a table at Lola months in advance and drooled over the menu far too many times before we finally got there.
The interior of the place when we walk in is warm and inviting, sharply designed, and has a nice open flow, which is a rarity in many restaurants these days. We grab a place at the bar while we wait for our table and the bartender is amazing. She greets us as she makes drinks for a couple, engages in small talk with all of us, all while working at hummingbird speed. Oh, and the drinks were kick ass. On top of that as soon as we showed interest in how the drinks were made she took the time to break each ingredient down for us, let us sample some of the funkier ingredients to help us understand how they fit into the drink and all of this was done while serving a full bar of people. I remembered her name at one point but a few drinks later things got a little hazy but I digress..that isn’t her fault but mine. When I consult my cohorts they also seem to have suffered this temporary amnesia. Peculiar.
We get seated close to the open kitchen, which I love. Always fun to see top notch chefs lined up and running like a well olive-oiled machine. Sadly, Michael Symon is on the road promoting his new book so we don’t get to see him in action. But as you’ll soon see he left us in good hands. We share a plate of oysters to start because, well, oysters are awesome. These don’t disappoint, super fresh and sweet with a sexy mignonette sauce. I ordered a pork terrine with an arugula salad with some gherkin pickles and dijon mustard. All of the flavors combined together had a great balance, with the pickle cutting through the other ingredients and bringing everything together nicely. The genius of this plate, as with Pete’s bone marrow plate that I’ll soon get to, is the grilled bread. Grilling it instead of toasting it added a delicious smokey undertone to every bite. The bone marrow plate, shown in the picture, was the star of the whole night for me along with a main dish I’ll talk about later. Understandably, Pete didn’t share too much of this plate but the bite I had with the spicy yet sweet bacon and date jam, that’s right people, bacon in jam, was knock your pants down awesome. Once I pulled my pants back up Pete had finished this divine plate before I could grab any more.
My buddy Wayne, who was on the last Cleveland trip along with Pete and I, went with the beef cheek pierogi with a wild mushroom sauce and a horseradish creme fraiche. Beef cheek is a cut that you can slow cook for hours and really infuse a ton of flavor into. I am a mushroom addict and mushrooms always work well with beef and with pierogis so this all worked well together. As I’ve mentioned before, I am of Ukrainian descent so once you’ve served me a good pierogi you’ve made a friend for life. So, here’s hoping I get an invite chez Michael at some point soon!
Stop! Tangent time!
At this point in the night I could see how Symon’s laugh and attitude towards food and dining is infectious. From everyone to the hostess, bartender, our awesome server Liz, and everyone we dealt with, they were all smiles, friendly, and efficient. Watching him in action on TV you see that he loves to take chances with food, he uses non-conventional flavor combinations, and most of all he loves what he does. He has done a good job of surrounding himself with staff that fit his ideal of cuisine and service and it translates to a really enjoyable night. A night of great food can be fun but let’s be honest, a fun meal can be weighed down by slow service, non-chalant staff and whatnot. But when you combine a great meal with great service and staff that seem to genuinely care whether or not you have fun? Well, those are the nights you remember, well so long as you don’t have TOO many of those kick ass drinks! We travelled from Montreal pretty much specifically to eat here. They seemed to be happy to hear that and it showed in the service we got. Ok, I suppose you want to hear about the rest of the meal right about now…
It is rare indeed when I get fish at a restaurant. I’m not sure why. I love fish and I cook it often enough too. I suppose I tend to reach for a wild game dish if I see one but the sturgeon with garbanzo beans, chorizo and preserved lemon is calling out to me. My father in law is from South America and he makes a fantastic preserved lemon that I have become hooked on so I think this is what pulls me in. Great dish, nice meaty fish that reminds me of swordfish. The chorizo and lemon balances everything out nicely. Pete gets a hanger steak with pickle sauce, chilis and Lola fries(which I am pretty sure were fried in sweet sweet duck fat….if only someone could invent bacon salt). The steak is cooked perfectly and tastes as if it is a nice aged cut of meat. Another hit! And then….Wayne….in a genius move orders what you see in the last picture: pork shank with roasted corn, chilis, lima beans and heirloom tomato. Hot Dang this was good! Corn and hot peppers always works and well, what can you say about a nice juicy shank? Lucky for Pete and I this thing was a heavenly monstrosity and there was plenty to go around for all of us. We finished off with some Vietnamese coffee ice cream, raspberry ice cream, a strawberry and lychee sorbet(I think? there was a dense fog descending onto my brain at this point) and Pete got a nice cheese platter which I am not sure how he managed to find room for but which looked pretty good too.
Overall, none of the three of us were overly in love with Cleveland the first time we came to town. We all loved the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and going to a baseball game since we all desperately miss our Expos 😦 But it’s amazing what a second trip can do to change your mind. We looked into the food scene a bit more this time around and kept an open mind about food and beer. We ate here on our last night and it was a great way to cap off a great trip. So if you are around the Cleveland area or are looking for a fun road trip Lola is a great place to hit up. Cleveland does indeed rock!