Wednesday, November 25, 2009

America's Best According to Esquire

I attended a great party at L’Albatros last week. The French bistro with an Ohio heart made it onto Esquire’s annual list of Best New Restaurants for 2009 and a crowd of friends and fans that filled two rooms gathered to celebrate. The twenty picks from around the country are detailed in the November issue and the write-up about Zack Bruell’s brasserie appears on page 83 with a photo of sautéed walleye and lobster quenelles (fluffy dumplings) in a buttery sauce Americaine. Happily, executive sous chef David Uecke was cooking up that the very dish for guests at the shindig while his boss was kept busy enduring a steady stream of hugs, cheek pecks, handshakes and back slaps. John Mariani, the magazine’s longtime columnist and food critic and the guy who decides which places are worthy of a spot in the line-up, came to town for the occasion.
Cleveland hasn’t always been on his radar. In fact the professional eater didn’t see much reason to come here until 1999 when he got an invitation from his colleague Stephen Michaelides to attend the opening of Moxie, which thoroughly impressed him. It was the first step in an ongoing campaign launched by Michelides, who had been editor and then associate publisher of Restaurant Hospitality from 1970 to 1998, and his wife Jeanne to make Mariani aware of all the great local places they thought he should at least consider when assembling his yearly roster of noteworthy new restaurants. He’s returned regularly since then to check out the dining scene, and has put praises in print for 3 Birds; Red, the Steakhouse; Fahrenheit; Lola; and Zack’s other two ventures Parallax and Table 45.

Mariani, who chronicles his dining adventures in a weekly e-newsletter called The Virtual Gourmet, no longer entertains any doubts that this city is home to some very talented chefs making food as good as anything found anywhere in America. It feels good to have him in our corner, and to know that his readers are getting the real story about Cleveland. It feels even better to live here and be able to have dinner at such superb spots every night of the week.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Witness Protection Program

If you're the sort who's concerned about the lack of good decisions in local government lately, be reassured by the fact that Cleveland's design and review committee was reluctant to bow to Nike's proposal to replace the "We Are All Witnesses" 10-story billboard near The Q with a "Prepare for Combat" billboard featuring James shirtless with skin resembling body armor. Besides, the whole Kellen Winslow-ism of comparing sports to war when Americans are risking their lives in real combat every day, there's something troubling about Nike's decision to switch up its LeBron billboard downtown.

The current billboard has become a landmark. It is a rallying point, a source of pride. Yes, we know it's an advertisement, but a really good one - the kind we're used to Nike delivering.

There's something just plain empty about the "combat" billboard. Before, Nike was selling a product, sure, but it was wrapped in the phenomenon that is LeBron James. The current advertisment just seems to be selling ... well ... is it shorts they're selling? Who knows.

The design committee sent the matter to the planning comission for further recommendation. The comission meets Friday morning. Stay tuned.

UPDATE 11/20 @ 1 p.m.: Planning commission give it a big 'no' on this one.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Convenient Truth

How weird is this: I didn’t know about an innovative Cleveland project to bring good food to city residents until I saw a reference to it in the national media. The local food scene is my subject and I’m as linked-in, facebooked, and well-connected as anybody but the article in the New York Times about the Healthy Corner Store Initiative was news to me. Apparently it was also discussed on American Public Radio’s Weekend America though I didn’t find out about that broadcast until I did some follow-up research.

It’s an important effort co-sponsored by CWRU, OSU Extension, and the Cleveland Department of Health. The goal is to improve the “food environment” of urban neighborhoods and make healthy products readily available to people where they live and shop. The method is to stock convenience stores, where shelves are typically filled with salty, sugary, high-fat snacks and beverages, with a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, getting customers to buy and eat the stuff is a whole other thing. That’s why the project is also organizing on-site cooking demos and giving away free samples. A long range goal is to source much of that produce from local farms. In a perfect world, those farms would be located in the same communities as those corner stores, with empty land converted to agricultural production. The result would be a grand sustainable closed loop food system that would bring many micro and macro benefits.

The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is a good thing for Cleveland and its residents, and an undertaking deserves attention and support. The country’s already heard about it. Now it’s time to spread the word here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"I will stay if ..." comes to Cleveland

It’s a cold, cold day in Cleveland when the next local initiative is titled, “I will stay if …” The campaign, led by the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), gives Clevelanders a chance to voice their ideas about how to polish up our city. It launches tomorrow night at Speakeasy on W. 25th Street, below McNulty’s Bier Markt, from 5:30 until 8:30 p.m.

City councilman Matt Zone will talk about shaking Cleveland’s rusty image, along with Randell McShepard of the think tank PolicyBridge and Lillian Kuri of the Cleveland Foundation. There’s no fee, but you can donate $5 to the cause (includes drink discounts, a coupon for Bianco Pizza, raffle entry and participation in campaign photos).

Clevelanders have already picked up on the idea and given some feedback to the campaign. Some responses were trivial: “I will stay in Cleveland if the city finally coordinates its traffic signals and takes down the 300 that are completely unnecessary,” one woman said.

Another resident cited more pressing issues:“(I will stay if) we stop talking about sustainability and start talking about environmentalism.”

Though we’re not exactly strolling along the Flats’ East Bank these days humming “Cleveland Rocks,” other Rust Belt towns are in similar straits. Before the campaign came to Cleveland, it paid a visit in two other teetering cities: Pittsburgh and... Detroit.

Besides not being Detroit, there are many great reasons to live in Cleveland. We chose 112 favorites in our October issue, but here are 10 more awesome reasons we should all love our city:

1. Our resident Iron Chef Michael Symon and his three restaurants.

2.We're close to Put-in-Bay, which makes for a great weekend trip during the summer.

3. Phenomenal pierogis.

4. The Cleveland Clinic is ranked number one in heart care in the nation, and fourth overall by U.S. News and World Report.

5. The Browns Cavs

6. Jonathon Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern, Ohio’s first certified green restaurant.

7. We’ve capitalized on a burning river.

8. LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.

9. The Great Lakes Brewing Co., specifically Christmas Ale.

10. We’ve got nine more reasons than Detroit.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Original Dawg Hanford Dixon comments on Browns games at Scorcher's

Can’t make it to the Browns Stadium to watch Cleveland take on Baltimore tonight? Try Scorcher’s at Reserve Square downtown, where the father of the “Dawg Pound,” Hanford Dixon, will be commenting on all things Browns.

Dixon, cornerback for the Browns during the ‘80s, is manning a microphone at Scorcher’s (1701 E. 12th St., 216-696-4649) during every Browns game day this season. His commentary starts tonight at 8, a half-hour before kickoff.

Dixon, who played in three Pro Bowls and is tied for eighth place on the Browns’ all-time career interceptions list, earned his beloved place in Browns history for his habit of barking at opposing quarterbacks and bestowing the Dawg Pound name on the end-zone bleachers in Municipal Stadium. Game night specials at Scorchers include the “Dawg,” named after the cornerback turned commentator: an all-beef hot dog smothered in chili, onions and cheese for $4.95.

Despite the Browns’ 1-7 record, tonight’s game could be dramatic: Brady Quinn gets second shot at starting. (Here’s hoping it goes better than his first one.) Though the Ravens soundly beat the Browns in their last meeting, they’ve lost momentum, with four losses in their past five games. But if it doesn’t go well for the Browns, at least you’ll have an ambassador of a better era in Browns history -- and Scorcher’s Wall of Drafts -- to console you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Get Lucky

The idea of serving a wonderful home cooked, everything-made-from-scratch Thanksgiving dinner has universal appeal. But not all have the time to live the dream and there are those, let’s be honest here, that are just not up to the challenge. Heather Haviland can help. She’s offering a full line-up of sides, sauces, and desserts to go. Many of the dishes feature local produce, including fruit and vegetables that she and her staff put up during the summer. There’s jalapeno scallion spoon bread; green bean casserole with fried shallots; sage scented stuffing; winter squash soup; caramelized sweet potatoes; pumpkin black current brioche bread pudding and apple pie with pecan praline crumb topping. Heather told me that the gravy, made with a demi glace from turkey stock that’s reduced and reduced until it turns into a thick rich concentrate, is so good “you’ll want to bathe in it.”

The full menu is available online. Food MUST be pre-ordered by November 19 and can be picked up on the west side at Lucky’s in Tremont or on the east side Vine and Bean on Larchmere with instructions for re-heating and serving.

Whether you chose to tell your guests where the food came from or opt to let them think you spent days chopping, mixing and baking is a personal decision. But while she’s happy to supply all the “go-withs,” Haviland leaves her customers to their own devices when it comes to the turkey. “You have to roast the bird yourself,” she insists, “to get your house smelling just right.”

Friday, November 6, 2009

How to eat fresh, local foods — even in the snow

Another cold Cleveland winter will soon be upon us, and the brilliant yellows, reds and greens of bustling outdoor farmers markets are fading away. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up sustainable, savory and nutritious foods during the winter months. And why would you, considering the soul-warming possibilities of homemade comfort foods, perfect for frigid temperatures? From stews to soups and chili to pot pies, warming up is more delightful when you have fresh, tasty ingredients to work with.

Beth Knorr, the farmers market manager for the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, shares some tips so you never have to forfeit your healthy summertime eating habits, even when the weather outside is frightful.

1. Freeze it. It “does take a little bit of planning if you know that you want to continue eating locally throughout the winter,” Knorr admits. “Freezing things when they’re in season certainly will make that easier.” So buy a surplus and prepare for the long haul.

2. Make new friends. If you’ve established a positive relationship with the farmers at your summer market, keep it up over the winter, suggests Knorr. Ask your favorite vendors if you can contact them directly to purchase produce during the off-season to tide you over until the weather warms up again. Thanks to new technology, there’s a decent chance that vendors will have a steady supply of leafy, juicy, vine-ripened, organic and otherwise wholesome foods available, even when it’s below freezing and icy out.

3. Seek shelter. Though not nearly as plentiful as markets in July and August, indoor farmers markets do exist during the winter. At Happy Days Lodge on State Route 303 in Peninsula, for instance, farmers markets will be held on the third Saturday of every month from now until April.

All of these tips will take a little bit of time and planning to put to good use, and it might be easier to just open a can or heat up a TV dinner after trudging home through the snow and slush. So why should you stick with fresh, local food? Well, if not because it’s good for the environment, the local economy and your health, do it for the taste. The amazing flavor of fresh, local food keeps people craving it all year long. “It’s really not even comparable to what you find in the grocery stores,” Knorr says. “It’s unmatched.”

Missed the markets this summer? Check out the farmers market guide from our June issue and see what you can look forward to next year.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Keller is Coming

Thomas Keller is coming to Cleveland. And make no mistake- this is a very big deal. A world famous chef and author, he presides over multiple highly acclaimed restaurants. He has won seven James Beard awards and earned more Michelin stars than any other American. But Keller is much more than the sum of such facts. Known as a fanatic perfectionist, an exacting teacher, and a creative genius, he’s a man whose exacting dedication to what he does is legendary. His approach to food attracts passionate fans, acolytes, and disciples. And if you don’t find all this sufficiently impressive, consider his Hollywood credentials. Keller was selected to mentor the creators of the animated feature film Ratatouille about a rat with gastronomic aspirations, and created the movie’s signature recipe.

Keller will be on stage Friday night, 7 PM, November 13 at the Fabulous Food Show at the IX Center, talking about how ordinary home cooks can apply some of his techniques in their own kitchens. This is a rare and exciting opportunity to be in a room with one of the most renowned culinary figures of our era and hear what he has to say. The program, dubbed “A Conversation with Thomas Keller” will be moderated by writer Michael Ruhlman, who is his friend and a collaborator on multiple book projects. There is no extra charge for attending his talk- it’s included in the regular admission fee.

The appearance kicks off Keller’s national tour to promote his latest cookbook, Ad Hoc At Home, a collection of family style, comfort recipes.
There are a limited number of special $60 packages for advance purchase that include admission to the show, the book, which retails for $50, and a guaranteed spot in line for the book signing that follows his presentation. Books will also be available for sale at the Show. There’s a nice review of it and a recipe for leek bread pudding in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Friday is great day to come to the Fabulous Food Show. There will be a tasting of Fair Trade coffees, cooking demos featuring grass fed beef and heirloom poultry, and workshops about how to eat locally, sustainably, and economically. Some area farmers and artisan producers will have their goods on display for this one day only. It’s fitting that Keller will be the star of the show that night because he has long been a champion of the farm to plate ethic.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day advice on Issues 5 & 6, Cleveland mayor and council

Next door at the Cleveland Magazine Politics blog, I'm offering some Election Day advice.

See this post for advice and links about Issue 6, which would replace Cuyahoga County's government with an elected executive and 11-member council, and Issue 5, which would establish a charter commission to write a different proposal.

Cleveland is deciding whether to replace Mayor Frank Jackson with challenger Bill Patmon. City council elections may determine whether Jackson ally Martin Sweeney remains city council president, or whether rival Matt Zone can unseat him. For links to reports about the mayoral candidates and the contest for the council presidency, click here.

The polls are open until 7:30 p.m. To look up your voting location and see a sample ballot for your precinct, click here.