Friday, March 30, 2012

Highlights of film fest's final weekend

On the last 2 1/2 days of the Cleveland International Film Festival, the hallway outside Tower City Cinemas will fill with tightly-packed throngs of moviegoers. Getting into the films you want to see can be a challenge.

Advance planning is important. Plenty of films are already on "standby," which means the same thing at the film fest as it does when flying: it's not quite sold out, but those who don't already have a ticket may or may not get a seat.

So here are a few tips based on the buzz I've heard at the festival. These films all still have tickets available (as of Friday afternoon). To grab tickets in advance, go online, call 877-304-FILM, or stop by Tower City. You can receive a $2 online ticket discount by using the code CLEMAG.

1. Under African Skies. This documentary tells the tale of Paul Simon's masterpiece album, Graceland, his collaboration with several South African musicians. Their creativity, and footage from a 25th anniversary reunion concert, duets uneasily with the album's troubled political history: Simon recorded the album in South Africa despite a United Nations cultural boycott, meant to help end apartheid. WCPN's Dee Perry interviewed Simon about the film this week (click here to listen; the interview starts at 2:00). Tomorrow's showing is on standby, but Sunday night's isn't yet.

2. The Art of Love. This French comedy by Emmanuel Mouret, known for his ensemble comedies that owe a lot to Woody Allen, plays tonight at 9:20 pm and Sunday at 12:05 pm. These times aren't in the program; they were rescheduled due to a snafu. The festival accidentally received an untranslated version of the film and didn't discover the mistake until last Saturday's screening. So a subtitled version has been air-freighted from France.

3. Hot Line and Come As You Are. Tomorrow morning, early risers get one more chance to see the two racy European comedies that have generated a lot of word-of-mouth among hard-core festival-goers. Hot Line, at 9:15 am, follows three German women who decide to keep their little village shop afloat by starting a phone-sex line. In Come As You Are, a quirky Belgian road comedy showing at 9:30 am, three disabled guys head for Spain in hopes of losing their virginities, under cover of taking a wine tour.

4. Best of the shorts. Programs of short films dot the festival calendar all week, but Sunday is the best day to indulge a short attention span. During the fest, judges watch every shorts program, and audience members rate the films on the way out the door -- all to compile the Independent Shorts Audience Awards program at 11 am Sunday and the Independent Shorts Jury Awards show at 2:30 pm.

5. Fountain Films, free on Saturday night. Those who get shut out of the Saturday night showings can watch a free shorts program at dusk near the Tower City fountain. The Fountain Films show includes shorts from past years, including The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, winner of an Oscar for best animated short film.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

March Madness

I haven’t been to Mia Bella on Mayfield Road in a while. Had dinner there with a friend last week and am happy to report that it’s just as nice as when I reviewed it in 2010. Responding to the weather rather than the calendar, staff had set-up tables on the sidewalk and we enjoyed a lovely leisurely al fresco meal. Of course, the restaurant can’t take credit for the unseasonably warm night or the energy of all the people out and about in the neighborhood but the good food definitely added to the ambiance that kept us in our seats for three hours.

We shared- and enjoyed- a fresh buffalo mozzarella appetizer with prosciutto and roasted red peppers, and no doubt it will be even better when local tomatoes are available. I had a generously sized arugula salad dotted with orange and zucchini slices in a balsamic vinaigrette along with lamb kafteds, technically a starter but plenty in combination with everything else. Most of the menu leans Italian but this delicious dish of meatballs in yogurt cucumber and mint sauce reflects the chef’s Albanian roots and broader Mediterranean palate. My companion went with the last portion of the night’s special, lobster ravioli, and she looked very happy with her choice.

Nobody hurried us- of course it was a Wednesday and there were plenty of empty tables. If that were not the case, I’d have ordered more drinks or moved on to another venue-always try to be sensitive about that. For a catch-up evening of conversation, the setting and the meal was perfect.

You could wait until the next summery day to visit- but that might not come again until June. Or you could go sooner, sit inside, get a pizza or a plate of pasta

Friday, March 23, 2012

'Nesting' opens Cleveland Film Fest

The Cleveland International Film Festival, in its 36th year, has developed plenty of traditions, and all of them returned like familiar friends at last night's opening celebration.

Every year, a festival official introduces each film and gets people excited by telling them they're (once again) part of a record crowd.

"This is the biggest attendance at an opening night in our history," announced festival president Jules Belkin. It's no surprise anymore; the film fest grows in popularity every year, always adding more screenings. So every year is a record-setting year, unless a blizzard hits. There's little chance of that this year. "And [it's] our warmest opening night in our history," Belkin added.

Every film in the fest's 11 days is preceded by the year's playful, locally produced trailer. This year it's an animated montage of silhouetted animals -- a rhino, a whale -- dangling from balloons, soaring over landmarks from the Cleveland Museum of Art to a Guardian of Traffic, depicting the theme, "Be Carried Away." The trailer's soundtrack song, "Second Star (Straight Until Sunday)," by local musician Alan Madej, is a quirky indie-pop love song, reminiscent of The Twilight's "I've Got Love" from the 2008 fest. I bet festival devotees will be singing it by day 11.

The opening night film, "Nesting," written and directed by Chagrin Falls native John Chuldenko, was above-average opening night fare, a fun comedy about a couple in their 30s struggling with the slow slide from hipsterism to yuppiedom. Male lead Todd Grinell channeled a lot of Paul Rudd and a bit of John Cusack as he played reluctantly aging cool guy Neil (who's always wearing indie-rock or ironic T-shirts -- "Ski Iraq," says one). The film kicked off with some elements of a men-behaving-badly comedy, but swung quickly to the tensions between Neil and his wife Sarah, an ex-bohemian turned careerist. Ali Hillis, playing Sarah, seemed more convincing as Sarah once she began to reconnect with her past.

After the film, the opening-night attendees (in dress ranging wildly from semiformal to casual to artsy chic) threaded through Tower City to the reception at MK Ferguson Plaza, the old post office attached to the Terminal Tower complex. Full wine glasses arranged on tables and counters greeted the first arrivals. This year, the party had a sultry vibe thanks to the dimmed art-deco former lobby, where the light came from period lamps on tables and signs over shuttered service windows ("General Delivery," "Wholesale Stamps").

The Cleveland International Film Festival continues through April 1. Check the festival website or download the new CIFF Android or iPhone app for film info. Get tickets in advance; some films for tonight and tomorrow night are already on standby.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Right Spot

The Wine Spot is a new place in Cleveland Heights to buy wines not usually found in most supermarkets, craft beers, artisanal cider, sake and port. It’s also where you can go to taste these things, talk about them with owner Adam Fleisher, and even have a private beverage-centric book club meeting, birthday party or a girls-night out.

It opened in December, on Lee Road, in the former Seitz-Agin Hardware store. Walking in, I can’t quite believe it’s the same place I came to for plumbing and electrical supplies, odd sized nails and brass screws, and more than 30 years of home repair advice. The big space is airy, open and modern, outfitted with a six door glass fronted cooler, shelves filled with bottles sorted by continent and country, some hi-top tables, and a couple of couches. The area where guys once mixed paint and fixed broken windows is now a lovely tasting room. It’s also a gallery for work by students from Cleveland Institute of Art.

The building, dating back to 1926, originally housed two separate storefronts. Until the mid ‘40’s, one side was home to Bruder’s, a dairy business. When workers were doing the renovations, they found the original floor with the name spelled out in black and white tiles. It’s now part The Wine Spot’s décor. Fleisher recounts how an elderly woman walked by, saw it through the window, and came in to tell him that as a child she lived down the street and used to walk up the block with her sister to get an ice cream cone here.

Fleisher, who grew up in the neighborhood and is a Heights High alum, likes the idea of preserving this bit of the community’s heritage and keeping alive its tradition of small shops owned by locals that can offer a very personal kind of service. He gave up a corporate job- and lots of time spent on the road- to take this entrepreneurial leap in partnership with his wife Susan and is clearly happy about the changes in his life and livelihood. “I try everything I sell,” he says with a grin, “and enjoy turning people on to the things I discover and the stuff I love.”

The plan going in was to be a friendly unpretentious store where customers would find value priced choices and someone who could answer their questions, share the stories behind everything in stock and help them make choices, in fact the very sort of place he liked to frequent in his travels around the country. But this has morphed into more because people like to be here. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights they pour flights of reds, whites, and brews (per person prices is very reasonable). They bring in distributors for presentations; create private custom tasting events (with food if desired); and host educational and themed sampling events-like 'em on facebook to stay in touch with what's scheduled. It’s a great addition to the street and to my side of town. In fact, I'd like to make a toast to that., but I'll have to ask Adam for a recommendation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sans Souci Revisited

If you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance you haven’t been to Sans Souci for a long time. With so many great restaurants around town and new ones opening all the time, it’s easy to forget this place, two decades old and with no street ‘face’, in the downtown Renaissance hotel. And there’s no denying that the food has not always been all it could be: it doesn’t take more than a single disappointing experience to bump a restaurant off anybody’s list. But I’d been hearing about staff changes and re-visioned menus and decided to visit recently and find out what was going on for myself. Glad I did.

The husband and I had a lovely meal there. The dining room, with a timeless charm that has held up well over the years, is still a pretty and comfortable space. The wine list has appealing options. Table service and plate presentations are high end (but prices are moderate). The kitchen is in the capable and experienced hands of Executive Chef Brett Montgomery and Executive Sous Chef John Aldewereld, and the dishes we ate were delicious.

Things got off to an excellent start with a generous complimentary basket of rolls and flatbreads accompanied by honey butter, a mix of olives, sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, and basil pesto. We then did some serious small plate grazing- my favorite way to eat. I loved the chorizo ragout (they make the sausage in-house) that topped seared scallops and creamy herb polenta. The tender boneless beef short rib was glazed to a patent leather shine and shredding the caramelized Brussels sprouts into a sort of slaw was a nice touch. A recommended glass of French Bordeaux was indeed a fine match-up. Also had- and enjoyed- the down-scale upscale combos of potato pierogi with duck confit and mushrooms, and mac ‘n’ cheese made with orzo, smoked salmon, and Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese. Also tried a light but full of flavor fish entrée: sea bass served with a poached egg, pickled carrots and radishes-a nice contrast- spinach and green beans. Some of these will be on the spring menu that starts March 19.

Both chefs stopped by the table to chat and encouraged me to return for the brunch buffet. Though I generally prefer to have my morning coffee and croissant in pajamas, this could be enough to tempt me into an AM outing. In addition to all the standard cereals and pastries, they offer cheese crepes and strawberry sauce; Belgian waffles; eggs Benedict; fingerling potatoes; and marinated tomatoes with mozzarella. It’s just one more good reason to go or go back to Sans Souci.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Your Own Personal Chef and Farmer

Brian Doyle, a well-known personal chef and Cleveland caterer, has always been ahead of the curve. He was the driving force behind the Gypsy Gourmet dinners, one-night only dining experiences, in 2007, preceding the current local craze for pop-ups by a few years. Now he’s got another innovative project going, expanding on the idea of a CSA- essentially an agricultural buying club- to include meals prepared from the harvest.

The operation, in its second year, is called Sōwfood, and Doyle is equal parts farmer and cook. He raises vegetables on an urban plot at W. 47th and Lorain, adds local sustainable meats and cheeses, plus seasonal produce from other area growers, and turns it all into restaurant style heat and eat dishes. It’s the perfect solution for those who want creative, healthy, high quality food but don’t have the timeto spend in the kitchen, the skill or the motivation to make it.

This works much like a traditional CSA model. Participants purchase shares that entitle them to three main courses with sides for two adults every week, plus surprise “extras” like a desert, homemade bread, an appetizer or salad. The season is 16 weeks, from the beginning of June to the end of September. Menus are created weekly and it’s a one size fits all package. Anyone with special dietary requests or a desire for 100 percent vegetarian or vegan fare has to pay extra for the personalized service.

Some examples from last year's entrée menus:
-Eggplant Parmesan, pasta with chunky style sauce and a side of Roman green beans
-Lime and garlic marinated grilled chicken with fresh corn, carrot and pepper succotash
-Bison Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts
-Duck confit, Sweet potato hash, collard greens
Roast Pork loin, whipped rutabaga-sweet potatoes and broiled radicchio with blue cheese and balsamic
- Ramp chimichurri marinated grilled grass fed steaks, potato-collard stew
-Roast Chicken, mac and cheese, bacon-greens and beets and pumpkin puree
-Veggie Stir fry, eggplant, broccoli, carrots, red cabbage, onion and peppers with a side of rice

Pricing beats dinning out. The total may seem high at first glance- $1520. But if you the pay upfront for the full season it breaks down to a mere $15.84 per meal. Paying month to month is slightly more- $16.67 per meal. There is the option to try out the service for a month and the cost for that would be $17.50 per meal. Those who sign up as full subscription members by Earthday, April 22, will get a fourth meal each week at no extra charge, an incredible perk.
If you already belong to a CSA, Doyle will use the ingredients from it and reduce your meal charge accordingly.

Right now, pick-ups will be on Tuesdays 4 pm to 6 pm at the farm. He’ll consider a second eastside location if there’s sufficient subscriber demand. You can get more details on how the whole thing works on the Sōwfood website. Sign-up (and ask questions) via email at with Interested in CSA in the subject line. The acronym usually stands for Community Supported Agriculture, but Doyle's reinvented the concept as Chef Supported Agriculture. I think it's a really cool idea that can benefit many in this community.