Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Add Some Sparkle to Your Soirees

For years, I found the idea of drinking champagne much better than the actual experience. The taste was disappointing and the toasting always left me with a beastly headache. That’s because I was filling my flute with inexpensive bubbles. Turns out, I wasn’t quaffing the real deal- which comes ONLY from a specific district in France and can’t be had for anything close to $20 a bottle. Even the quality equivalent of Two Buck Chuck
or Yellowtail costs $40-$50. I didn’t know that cheap champagne is an oxymoron. Doesn’t exist. Anything that purports otherwise is a bad imitation, a poseur in a bottle.
Photo by Barney Taxel

Then I discovered prosecco. And popping the cork became much more pleasurable. This sparkling wine comes from northern Italy and is made primarily from a white grape native to the Veneto region in the foothills of the Alps. It’s clean, crisp, light bodied, and fizzy with a flavor that marries citrus to honey. Happily it is easy to find and there are many good choices in the $12-17 range.
I turned to local expert Bob Fishman, owner of The Grapevine, an excellent wine store in Cleveland Heights, for some specific recommendations this season. He’s raving about Ca’tuillo, a dry prosecco that retails for $14.99, and a slightly sweeter version from Bortolotti at $15.99. Another option is their less bubbly, lower alcohol cousin frizzante- try the San Simone for $12.99. Someone else is supplying the beverages for the New Year’s eve party I’m attending but in preparation for what I hope will be many celebrations of all sorts in 2010, I plan to keep all three on hand. Other sparklers I'm just beginning to explore are sekt from Germany and Spanish cava. My education will involve much glass clinking.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Baricelli has a Big Birthday

Over the years, the Baricelli Inn has been the scene of so many celebrations. People have chosen the charming manor house setting to mark anniversaries and graduations, toast brides and grooms, honor achievements and milestones. But last week, the place itself turned twenty five and the event provided the prompt for a party. That kind of longevity in this industry is quite an accomplishment and a testament to chef and owner Paul Minnillo’s talent and determination. He was preparing extraordinary food long before guys in the kitchen had the cachet of rock stars. Many of Cleveland’s most prominent younger chefs, including Michael Symon, acknowledge his influence and the importance of his contributions to the local dining community.

Minnillo’s quarter century adventure began when he purchased the 19th century stone mansion on the corner of Cornell Road and Murray Hill in Little Italy from the Baricelli family estate. It had been empty for years and his son John, who now works with him as front of the house manager, told me it was in utter disrepair without functioning electrical or plumbing systems. The renovations required four years to complete. My twin sons were born the same month Paul opened the restaurant. I was thinking about both those new beginnings, and all that’s happened since then, while enjoying the wonderful birthday dinner he and his staff created for family, friends, and fans.

The menu and pairings were outstanding: lobster bisque/ Robert Foley Pinot Blanc 2007; duck sugo (a stewy sort of slow simmered sauce) on pappardelle/ Jos. Drouhin Chorey-les-Beaune 2006; braised lamb shank with celery root puree and wine reduction /Domain La Roquette Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005: artisanl cheese plate/ Chateau La Vielle Cure 2004; and pear tart tatin/ Warres 10 year Tawny Port.

This was without a doubt a very special occasion. But don’t wait for one of your own to visit. A couple of years ago, responding to changing preferences and economic realities, Minnillo retooled his approach, moving away from a purely fancy fine dining model to one that is includes more casual and moderately priced options. So any night’s the right night to enjoy what this landmark restaurant has to offer, no event or reason, other than a desire for something good to eat and drink- required.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brass band plays Christmas music at West Side Market

The West Side Market filled with deafening, bombastic Christmas cheer today as a nine-piece brass band performed holiday carols from the balcony. I photographed the hornblowers as they oompahed through "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." At one point they raised half-full plastic cups of what looked like a blond ale and toasted the crowd in a language I didn't understand.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

These Competitions are Sweet

The Mitchell family has been selling their wonderful chocolates in Cleveland Heights since 1939. I’ve been a fan (with a special soft spot for their dark dipped apricots and orange peels) ever since moving to the neighborhood 30 plus years ago, and there are many like me. I once carted a box of Mitchell's candy all the way to mountains of northwestern Panama, protecting it from customs inspectors and the vicissitudes of three plane flights, because it was the birthday gift of choice for a local expat who runs a fabulous boutique eco-resort there called Rancho de Caldera.

Chris and Penelope opened the first store at the intersection of Coventry Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard, next to the movie theater. Now Bill Mitchell and his mother, who carry on what Chris began, sell their handmade barks, pecan turtles, truffles and nut clusters from a shop on Lee Road.
To celebrate the business’ 70th anniversary, they’re sponsoring two writing contests. The author of the winning essay about a favorite Mitchell’s memory will be rewarded with a two pound box of chocolates. The best submission in answer to the question “What was your family doing in 1939?” earns the writer a whole gift basket of goodies. Both entries must be 250 words or less and submitted- in person, by regular post or email- no later than January 16th. Complete details online. Personally I recommend stopping in at the store in the next couple of weeks. to find out everything you need to know about the contests. That way you can multi-task, also picking up gifts for all the lucky chocoholics on yourholiday list, and get yourself a tasty little something special to spark creativity and start those literary (and salivary) juices flowing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Talking Twilight with Chaske

On Saturday Chaske Spencer was at the Lake Erie Monsters game at the Q Arena. I caught up with him to talk about his character in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Sam Uley, as well as other aspects of starring in the smash hit.

What was the workout regimen for New Moon like?
We went and worked out with this guy named James Metropolis, and he helped out on the 300. And so we did a lot of muscle confusion, and it was pretty intense training. It was a lot of circuit training, so it burned fat as well as put on muscle. So, we were pretty jacked by the end of the shoot. During the middle of it we were all working out, and we could see our veins popping out. Kinda cool. First time I’ve ever seen anything like that.

What do you think of the character of Sam?
When I was reading it, I thought he was a very tragic figure. He’s the beta wolf, and the beta wolf is the second in command, because Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is the rightful leader. And [Jacob’s] not manning up to take his alpha destiny, so I’m sort of taking the place. So I look at him as a guy who’s doing the best he can for the job he’s given. He never wanted to be a werewolf — none of them really did — but his story is that no one was there to help him become a werewolf. It just started happening; he freaked out, didn’t know what was going on with him.

Do you find you have a lot of female fans?
Yeah, I have a lot of female fans. A pretty big gay following too. The more the merrier. But it’s cool. I know we are beefcake, we are the objects, which is fine.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Don't shoot your eye out, Chicago!

Will the Turnpike get clogged with Chicagoans road-tripping for Cleveland Christmas cheer? Maybe so, after the Chicago Tribune's rave this week about our little home of holiday pop-culture obsession, the A Christmas Story House.

Writer Phil Marty really got into the Ralphie-iana, referencing the leg lamp, tongue-freezing fence, and even the Lifebuoy soap that washed the F-word out of our hero's mouth. He gave would-be Christmas pilgrims good advice for finding the museum, in the anti-posh south end of Tremont ("don't think you're lost when you find yourself driving through a nondescript neighborhood"). He was in-the-know enough to send visitors to two other local highlights, the West Side Market and the Rock Hall's Springsteen exhibit.

But he left out a few obvious recommendations for visitors on a Christmas Story quest. What about the live stage version of the Christmas Story story, playing at the Cleveland Play House for the (allegedly) final year? Or Cleveland's official drink of December, Great Lakes Christmas Ale?

Finally, I cannot fail to recommend the eating and drinking establishment just a few doors down from the House, the Best Throwback Bar in Cleveland Magazine's 2009 Best Of issue: the Rowley Inn.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Local Restaurants Earn On Air Praise

Have a listen to a great piece on National Public Radio about the local dining scene. Of course I've been saying the same thing for a few years.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Musing on Carols and Chestnuts

Although most people don’t actually eat them, let alone roast them over an open fire, nothing says Christmas like chestnuts. An expression of the kind of irony that makes real life so much funnier than anything imagined, the 1944 song that forever after linked chestnuts to Santa Claus, Jack Frost, and mistletoe was written by two Jews in July. Nonetheless thanks to the iconic holiday tune, chestnuts on the table are just the thing for getting into a December state of mind. You can do it in style downtown at Muse at the Ritz Carlton where they’re the featured ingredient on this month’s Farmer’s Market Menu.

Chef de Cuisine Constantine Vourliotis, recently promoted to head up the kitchen, has put together a three course tasting to show off the nuts’ unique qualities. It begins with a chestnut almond bisque, sea scallop, crispy prosciutto, and toasted brioche. The entrĂ©e is roasted chicken breast and braised thigh meat ragout with Brussels sprouts and chestnuts. And for dessert there’s chocolate chestnut torte with vanilla raspberry compote. The prix fixe dinner is available nightly for $30 per person, $45 with wine pairings until January except for Christmas eve, Christmas day, and New Year’s eve, (when there are other special dinners and overnight packages scheduled).

I ate at Muse in November when the Market Menu featured mushrooms, and was very impressed with the originality and quality of Chef Vourliotis’ food. So I have no doubt that his celebration of chestnuts will be exceptional. Throw in the glow from the fireplace that warms the room all winter and maybe the velvet voiced Nat King Cole providing a soundtrack and you’ve got the makings for a merry and memorable meal. Yuletide spirit is optional.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pick Pier W

Pier W, that landmark Lakewood culinary destination with stunning lake views (gets my vote for best place to watch a storm-- rain or snow-- in full squall), and impeccable service, has just debuted a new something-for-everybody winter menu, marking the first big change in the selections since the restaurant was remodeled and reinvented four years ago. Executive Chef Regan Reik, a culinary perfectionist, told me he spent many months developing recipes that broaden the offerings beyond the seafood (for which the place is so justly famous) to satisfy meat-eaters and vegetarians, plus provide for those who want simpler, more approachable and affordable dishes.

The top quality oysters, lobster tails, and king crab legs are still available. You can spend big on a surf and turf combo or a prime 14 oz NY strip. But now you can also choose a less expensive flat iron steak, pork tenderloin with creamy polenta, or the Lamb trio, pictured above, that includes braised shoulder meat, a rib chop, and a sausage in a savory herbed jus.

I sampled a number of his creations and found much to like. Among my faves were Reik’s playful lobster sliders- scoops of a lusciously chunky and creamy lobster salad were stuffed in a buttered and toasted brioche style “hot dog” bun. The beef in the short rib pierogies is slow cooked for 15 hours and the result was outstanding. Humble talipia got a tasty upgrade with a pistachio almond crust and a puddle of lavender honey butter, surely among the most extraordinary and delightful flavors I’ve encountered.

The breaded Japanese eggplant served with tomato jam, a spray of watercress and Parmesan shavings atop gnocchi with marinara sauce and a drizzle of basil oil was fine from first bite to last. (Chef said the kitchen can tweak to make this suitable for vegans). And if dessert is what really gets you going, don’t miss the housemade ice creams and truffles.

T’is the time of year when dining out is about more than just eating. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the season with friends, family, and colleagues. Pick up the tab and the meal is a way to say thanks. Wrap up a restaurant gift certificate and you’ve got a present that will definitely elicit squeals of joy. And of course, enjoying good food in a lovely setting with a staff that’s paid to take care of you offers a great lunch or dinner break from the annual marathon of shopping, cooking, and creating happy holiday memories for others. Take it from me, Pier W is the perfect place for all these purposes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vidstar, top independent video store, to close at year's end

Vidstar Video, the independent video store on Cleveland Heights' Coventry Road, is closing Dec. 31 after 26 years in business. It's a huge loss for local film fans.

Vidstar, the best video store in Cleveland, prides itself on huge selections of classic, foreign, and independent films as well as current Hollywood releases. It has a section devoted to the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Movies list and entire shelves set aside for great directors and legendary actors: Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart. Its cult classics section was dedicated to the memory of B-Ware, the long-defunct Lakewood video store (Vidstar bought some of its inventory).

An employee who broke the news to me last week blamed the usual suspects: Netflix and downloadable movies. So yes, this is a lament that our changing economy and consumer habits have done in another locally-owned cultural outlet.

But it's also a tip for movie-lovers who will miss Vidstar and stores like it: Its entire stock -- thousands of movies on DVD and VHS -- is for sale, most of it for $10 or less.

If you take pride in your video collection, or if you're looking for some rare or lesser-known movies, I recommend a trip to Coventry Road this month.

I just got back from my while-I-can splurge: I raided the Bogart section for The Big Sleep and the Casablanca-esque Passage to Marseille, then scored copies of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil ("the best B-movie ever made") and Beauty and the Beast -- the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, not Disney.