Wednesday, February 29, 2012

LIGHT-ing Up the Dining Scene

March marks five years since Light Bistro opened for business. It just doesn’t seem like that long since I attended the friends and family launch night and wrote my glowing review of the place six months later. The Ohio City restaurant has survived the tough economy, developed a loyal following, and earned a spot on the list of best places to eat in C-town. To celebrate, chef/owner Matt Mathlage and partner Eric Dietrich have some special events planned for next week. If you’ve never been here or haven’t visited in a while, this is the perfect time to discover- and rediscover- the particular pleasures of this spot.

There’s an open to the public drop-in party on Thursday March 8 from 5-9 PM with free tapas and drink specials in the Carroll Court room. A five course wine dinner is scheduled for the same evening, starting at 7. Greg Graziano will be on hand to pour and talk, showcasing what he makes at Graziano Winery in Mendocino, California, and sharing his family’s story. When I spoke with chef Mathlage last week he was still developing the dishes they’ll be serving, but told me that he’s been testing a preparation made with wild boar and another that involves duck and red rooibos tea. The cost is $55 person plus tax and gratuity and reservations are required (216-771-7130).

A “Best Of ” tasting menu will also be in place from March 8 through Sunday, March 10. It too features five courses for $55 that reprise some of the chef’s personal favorites and Light’s most popular items, among them Crab and Shrimp Cake with honeydew curry sauce and yellow pepper ceviche, and Cuba libre braised pork belly with pineapple carpaccio and spicy cous cous, two dishes that I praised back in 2007. Those who opt for this anniversary trip down memory lane will also be treated to the house pickled shrimp, another thing I loved from my first bite.

Mathlage calls his style Progressive American, with an emphasis on fresh local and seasonal ingredients. In the past I described what he does as adventurous, audacious, and out-there, showing some playfulness in presentation, and offering a break from the standard appetizer to entree dinner progression. All that is still true (though he does have pizza, burgers, paninis, and regular sized mains). His tapas, appetizers and bar menu are full of interesting options like crispy clams with fried olives, lamb meatballs with tomato mint sauce, truffle frites, and honey ham and cheddar croquettes. He continues to offer quail as he did from the beginning- the current version is southern fried- and his wonderful grilled flatbread with arugula and Lake Erie goat cheese is a fixture. The last time I had it, I was sitting on the sidewalk patio with a good friend. It was a warm starry night. We were drinking mojitos and catching up. We're still a few months away from dining outside, but happily I don't have to wait to go back for more good food and drink.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Musical Mondays at La Dolce Vita

We just finished our antipasti- slices of fried eggplant with a dab of tomato sauce; a chunk of roasted red pepper cupping some sausage stuffing; a big bite of the classic caprese combo- when the singing began. The packed room fell suddenly silent, forks ceased their steady movement from plate to mouth, and every head turned to watch the young woman in a red dress the moment she burst into song. It was Opera Monday at La Dolce Vita in Little Italy and I was there with my daughter-in-law, Diana Farrell, an opera singer herself, for an evening of music and food. Every table was full, suggesting Clevelanders have quite an appetite for the combination of pasta and Puccini.

Here's how it works: there's a prix fixe, $40 per person menu. Wine is optional and you can get a good bargain priced glass pf Barbera or splurge on an excellent bottle of Amarone. The meal is served in courses, and in between each one, a changing cast of performers, most students from the Cleveland Institute of Music's opera program, fill the intimate space with their big voices, singing solo selections or duets.

Owner Terry Tarantino introduced them. It was clear he loves the art form and gets real pleasure from sharing it with his customers. What's nice is the chance to listen without all the formal trappings that are usually part of the experience. Sometimes the singers stayed on the small stage, but for one piece the soprano strolled between tables, and for another the tenor positioned himself behind the bar to great effect. Adam Whiting, the pianist, deserves special mention for coaxing lovely notes out of the 130 year old upright that provides the accompaniment.

Tarantino's been hosting opera nights like this for two decades but the programs been on hiatus for about 51/2 years and just recently resumed. It happens twice a month- the next one is scheduled for February 27. You must arrive between 6:30 and 7 PM. Reservations are required and there's only a single seating.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Brite Winter Festival Lighting Up Ohio City

Sunglasses are in order for this Saturday’s free Brite Winter Festival on Ohio City’s Bridge Avenue.

This year, the third annual arts and music celebration will embrace its name with a theme of light and ice. General Electric is donating enough lights to decorate a whole town of Christmas trees.

The fest will remain aglow from start to finish thanks to a wall made of 15,000 shades of LED-light-injected ice bricks, lit custom ice sculptures, open-sided box trucks with lights pulsing to music and lit balloons hovering at the doors of all seven walking-distance indoor music venues.

“We’re hoping that it gets overfilled throughout the evening,” festival co-chair Thomas Fox says.

Forty bands, most of them local, will play between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m., including Lighthouse and the Whaler, Black Taxi, and Modern Electric. Guests can fight the frost at the outdoor stage or huddle in heat in the seven indoor locations on West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, from Touch Supper Club to Joy Machine Bike Shop. The event is designed so visitors can’t see every performance and will feel overwhelmed by all the options.

“It’s amazing to feel that way,” Fox says. If you’re not happy with one band, he adds, just move to the next one.

Along with the 15 art displays and eight music venues, a 24-foot game of Skee-ball will challenge even the most seasoned Skee-baller. A grown-up version of grade-school “Telephone” will let grown-ups listen to a whisper in the “Whisper-ma-phone” and then try to repeat what they heard.

The Brite Winter Festival has grown since its inception in 2010 when two Case Western Reserve University graduates decided Clevelanders needed something to look forward to during the slush and mush of winter months. They threw the party with financial help from Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and Case student organizations.

Now, the festival has 15 sponsors and has moved from Hart Crane Park in the Flats to Ohio City. Organizers expect to more than double the turnout from last year.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Local Food Doers and Makers

If your interest in local food goes beyond merely eating it, then consider attending E4S’s Third Tuesday networking event on Feb. 21 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. The get-together, held at Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Tasting Room, is a kickoff conversation for the Year of Local Food 2012, one of the focal points for Sustainable Cleveland 2019, a multi-part, multi-year initiative to build a thriving region around a green economy and environmentally responsible agenda.

Jenita McGowan, chief of sustainability for the city, will speak along with representatives from organizations at the forefront of making change here including Community Greenhouse Partners, Growhio, Menu For The Future, SlowMoney Cleveland and Tunnel Vision Hoops. They’ll give presentations about an astonishingly varied range of topics from a conscientious investing strategy that supports healthy food, farms and families to affordable and movable all-weather “greenhouses” and rainwater harvesting.
photo, Community Greenhouse Partners

Every time I attend one of these gatherings, a combination of set programing and lots of spontaneous interaction, I learn something and meet new and interesting community activists. If you want to get involved and be a part of what’s happening with our developing and expanding local food system, this is a great opportunity to get some ideas about how to do it.

It’s free, but you must register for this event

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Click and Clatter

The summer of 1967 has an unforgettable and distinctive soundtrack for me. It’s not a mental mix tape of "It’s My Party" (Lesley Gore), "Heat Wave" (Martha and the Vandellas) and "You Really Got a Hold on Me" (The Miracles) (though I remember and love them all) or any other chart topping songs. When I think back to that time in my life, what I hear is the distinctive click and clack of mah jongg tiles.

I lived on the Jersey shore and my family belonged to a beach club. I spent my days earning pocket money by babysitting. While their husbands worked, housewives brought their kids to the club Monday through Friday and paid 11- and 12-year-olds like me (older girls were too busy sunning and making out) to watch them for hours. While I made sure their children didn’t drown, built them sandcastles, and kept them happy with a fortune’s worth of sodas and ice cream cones, these ladies, greased from face to toe in suntan lotion (the kind that bronzed not protected), smoked, drank and played the game. Sitting in groups of four, the obsessive players spent entire afternoons engrossed in what’s essentially a complicated version of rummy that uses pieces made from bone or plastic instead of cards, imported from China in the early 1920s. Shuffling the tiles, dealing and discarding them produced the memorable noisy clatter.

The play and the players intrigued me in equal measure, and now I can revisit that fascination. Project Mah Jongg, a traveling exhibition currently showing at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwwod, explores the traditions, history and meaning of the game. Originally put together by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, this version of the show also features vintage mah jongg sets and rule cards supplied by Clevelanders, period costumes on loan from the Kent State University Museum, and a short documentary by local filmmakers Amy Wasserstrom Cummings and John Cummings called May the Tiles Be with You: Cleveland's Love Affair with Mah Jongg.

In a nod to the cross-cultural nature of the craze, which is enjoying a revival, the Maltz has organized three bus trips downtown to Li Wah in Asia Plaza Feb. 15, March 14 and April 17. The day starts at 10 a.m. with a tour of the exhibit and a nosh, and then moves on to the restaurant for a light Chinese lunch and some mahj playing in a private room at the restaurant. $15 per person, reservations required.

Another culinary-centric event this month, though not exactly related, is a conversation with three area chefs on Wednesday, Feb. 22 7-9 p.m. Sergio Abramoff (Sarava, Sergio’s), Michael Herschman (Lopez Southwestern Food Kitchen ) and Doug Katz (fire food and drink, Cleveland Museum of Art CafĂ©) will talk about their Jewish root, eating, family and table-time traditions. $10 per person in advance, $12 at the door.

More info on the Happenings calendar at Tickets for all events and programs can be purchased by calling the Museum at 216-593-0575.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Defend Music Night Supports Small Clubs

Music clubs and bands have a symbiotic relationship. The bands need somewhere to gig and get their music heard, and the clubs depend on the bands to draw people to shows. Without each other, their existence becomes bleak.

Kristen Klehr understands this. One of the "Sexy Singles" in this month's issue of Cleveland Magazine, Klehr is also a musician, a concert producer, co-chair of Cleveland Young Arts Professional Network and a Cleveland Orchestra concert assistant. She understands how vital live music is to the culture of a city.

Klehr is the young professional representative for the Cleveland Music Club Coalition, a group that supports proposed legislation to exempt smaller clubs from Cleveland's 8 percent admissions tax. The coalition is putting on a concert this Friday, Feb. 10 — or really, several concerts all in one night. Defend Music Night takes place at small music clubs all over the city, including the Happy Dog, the Beachland Ballroom and the Garage Bar. More than a dozen bands will play, including Herzog, Restless Habs and Tenafly Viper (featuring members of Mushroomhead).

Klehr is trying to drum up support for her cause among other young professional groups she's involved in. Her hope is to have different young professional groups host each venue.

"The young professional community really has a lot of power because they are people that are energetic and ambitious about these things," she says.

Klehr points to April's upcoming Rock Hall induction ceremony as a chance for supporters of Cleveland's small clubs to attract more support. She hopes it will shed a national spotlight on the issue.

"Some of the people that are in the Rock Hall right now wouldn't be there without having gigged in places like the Agora," Klehr says.

The full list of venues and bands can be found here. Our coverage of the admissions tax debate in November is here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

It's Time to Party

Lent is a time of austerity and denial. Carnival and Mardi Gras, which precede it, are the opposite: celebrations of indulgence and pleasure. Of course, it would be great to be in Rio or New Orleans for the annual revelry. But if that’s not going to be happening for you, may I suggest a visit to Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar between now and Feb. 21? The Woodmere restaurant has a variety of promotions, events and special menus planned. Removing shirts or wearing skimpy, sparkly outfits with extravagant feathered headgear is optional.

The list of small plate South American street food specials has some very appealing options: smoked chicken croquetas and fresh tomatillo salsa; chorizo-stuffed corn fritters with black beans; jibarito short rib sliders topped with pickled red onion and carrot slaw sandwiched between crispy plantains; Brazilian churrasco trio-skewers of grilled skirt steak, chicken and chorizo sausage; grilled portobello and queso blanco empanadas drizzled with a roasted garlic and pasilla, and chile spiked chocolate brigaderos (fudge).

- Through Feb. 5: Half Off Bottles of South American Wine
- Feb. 6-12: Half Off Appetizers (one per guest)
- Feb. 13-21: Half Off Mojitos

Things really get smokin' on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 21) with live music from Latin band Saborit Latin Soul, 8 p.m.-11 p.m. Free beads for wearing and tossing. Merrymaking goes on until 2 a.m. Reservations suggested (and make them soon if you want to be sure to get a table). Tonight (Feb. 1) also kicks off the 18th annual Taste of N'Awlins event at Salmon Dave's. The kitchen's cooking up Bourbon Street shrimp, voodoo salmon and tenderloin Creole and other Louisiana-inspired dishes, and the bartender is doing Hurricanes just like they do at Pat O'Briens in the French Quarter. Live jazz and $10 off the regular price every Sunday through Feb. 19. And then comes the big blowout with the Dave Kasper Quartet for Fat Tuesday (Feb. 21, reservations suggested).

I suspect that knowing a period of somberness and sacrifice is soon to come makes the partying even more fun. But even those of us who have no plans to give up anything for the pre-Easter season can appreciate the chance for a little carousing.