An Updated List

Periodically, we update our list here at “Jeff & Michele Eat Cleveland.” For some reason, it is difficult to add and subtract lines in the current format, so we need to upload the entire list and reinsert the hyperlinks. If we were more skilled with computers, we’re sure there is a solution. When faced with an overhaul however, it gives us a good opportunity to see what needs to be eliminated and also remind us of the places we need to revisit, or visit for the first time. Here are a few “New List” observations.

Sorry to see you go.

This year, two wonderful spots decided to shutter. Cork & Cleaver and Grove Hill. Both were a distance from our Cleveland Heights home, but regardless, we happily traveled there. C & C was an especially enchanting draw and we found ourselves in suburban Broadview Heights more than at any other time, probably in our life! We are going to miss both spots.

Boy, we haven’t been here for a long time!

As we reviewed the list with fresh eyes, it became apparent that a few old favorites have inadvertently been overlooked for longer than we thought. We are going to do our best to visit the following in 2019. Beach Club Bistro, Fahrenheit, Lola, Minh Anh, Osteria di Valerio & Al, Russo’s and Red, the Steakhouse.

Wait, we have never been here? Really?

New places come, followed by more new places and before you know it, we never get to a place that was initially, so hot. How does that happen? Life goes on; the buzz dissipates; we get a hankering for another spot. We won’t guarantee it, but we are going to try and sample at least a few of these recently (sort of!) opened spots we’ve missed. We stopped into Barabicu shortly after opening and it smelled SO good, but alas, no seats. They told us, they’re coming. We never checked back. Gigi’s on Fairmont sounds great to Jeff, but Michele is leery of wine bars. Couple that with a miniscule food menu and many specials. We’ve called, but that day’s special didn’t appeal. Jeff has a business dinner at Luca, but it was an event menu and Michele wasn’t there. But their just sandwiches. Thus our failure to respect Larder Deli has resulted in our failure to try the place. The Marble Room Steaks looks like a magnificent place and if you had ever been in this banking hall, as we have, you understand the grandeur. Unfortunately, we are just not steak people, so the place never pops up on our radar. Maybe 2019. The Schofield Building is another fabulous structure. Because of that, we have always meant to visit Parkers Downtown, almost for as long as we have wanted to check out The Burnham at the new downtown Hilton. Excessive parking costs have kept us away. Maybe this year we’ll have a better chance. Michele is not really crazy about Injera, the Ethiopian centerpiece bread, so a visit to Zoma is not likely in the cards, but perhaps Jeff will have an opportunity.

The moral here is that Cleveland has a huge variety of eating options. Sure, some places close, but more open each week. Even though we dine out more than the average person, we still miss a few. What we like to do is sample as many places as possible and find new favorites and revisit past greats. A list of the best in the city is simply an opinion at the exact moment it is posted. Next week, something might happen causing a spot to disappear, a new place may open that demands that opening. All of this transition is good and only possible because we live in the very vibrant Cleveland with a host of amazing Chefs and Cooks. Enjoy.

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November 24, 2018 at 12:13 AM Leave a comment

Balaton

The first time we dined at Balaton, it was at some point in the 1980’s. At the time, Cleveland Magazine named about six places in the city they felt worthy of being called, “The Best of the Year.” Those of you who are of a certain age will likely remember Pan Asia, Au Provence, Earth by April and our beloved, Middle East. Balaton was among those so honored. At that point, the place was located on Buckeye Avenue in an old storefront. The interior was paneled, tables and chairs were less than trendy and menu specials were tacked to the wall. It was a very collegial place, but we were always made to feel welcome.

During the renovation of Shaker Square, Balaton decided to relocate into a featured corner of the historic center, while still retaining an “old-world” motif, the look created was definitely a step-up. Today, many years later, it remains warm and inviting, just like the food.

Michele ordered the Chicken Noodle Soup and it was the perfect antidote to the chilly late fall weather. Large chunks of white meat and handmade noodles, the broth is not too salty, always a good thing. Jeff hadn’t had Potato Pancakes for a while and our friends wanted to taste them as well, so we ordered the appetizer, which consisted of two massive pancakes. Balaton’s version features more garlic and a wider variety of spices than either Jeff’s mom’s version, or our friends, grandmother’s preparation. For a strangely simple food, there are scores of ways to prepare it and most are wonderful. Balaton’s is no exception. A salad comes with the entrée and it was serviceable. The slightly sweet Hungarian vinaigrette was good, but certainly not a reason to dine here.

Dinner arrived and the four of us each ordered something different. Our friends enjoyed their Chicken Paprikas and Hungarian Lecso, the Lecso being of particular interest as neither Michele of Jeff have ever tried this. Smoked Hungarian sausage was mixed with a stew of peppers, onions and rice. They felt it was excellent and it was the only dish that did not go home as a leftover! Jeff has always loved their Veal Paprikas and it remains a challenge to order anything else. The veal tips are tender beyond belief, mushrooms remain crisp and the rich sour cream-paprika sauce, while a bit thin this visit, has terrific flavor. The accompanying Hungarian speatzel comes alive after a dip in this sauce. Michele likewise has a hard time straying from the Chicken Schnitzel. Pounded ridiculously thin and breaded with a flavorful mix, the plate is enveloped with the poultry. Even after passing a slice to everyone at the table, a large amount went home. Portions are sized that way here. Both sides of the table shared a slice of Dobosh Torte, the classic 8-layer Hungarian treat. It was very good, but the caramel topping was a bit thick and did not “snap” when popped with a fork. Our friends took home a Napoleon for later. All four of us were stuffed!

It has been a while since we have visited this “new” upscale Balaton. We probably ate at the old storefront more than the new place. That is our mistake. After this visit, we are going to make a concerted effort to get here again soon. There is lots to like about this restaurant and over 50 years in business proves that they certainly do it well.

http://www.balaton-restaurant.com/home.html 13133 Shaker Square Cleveland, OH 44120 216-921-9691

November 11, 2018 at 8:18 PM 2 comments

El Rinconcito Chapin

A little while ago Scene Magazine published an article, “The 30 Essential Cleveland Restaurants.” As is always the case, the usual suspects are listed that virtually anyone who pays attention to food in Cleveland regard as the “best” of the city. L’Albatros, Fire, The Black Pig, Salt, Greenhouse Tavern, Spice, Momocho, Soho, Flying Fig, Nora, Ginko, you know the parade. A few ringers are also tossed in to tickle some conversation and contreversy. “Does [fill-in the blank] really belong on this list?” Finally, no list published in a major local media is complete without the confusing and unknown. As we reviewed the list of 30, two places popped out. (More on the other one at a later date.) Is someone really cooking Guatemalan food in Cleveland and we are unaware? How did we miss this place? As we began to investigate, we learned that the owner had previously worked at Picolo Mondo, one of our favorite closed establishments. We had to go.

We started with the Dobladitas, incredible light fried masa stuffed with shredded chicken and topped with beautifully flavored cabbage. While this was listed as an appetizer, Michele immediately stated that she would have loved to order this as a main entrée. It was so good, we couldn’t wait for our food. Michele had the fried chicken. It was pounded flat and spiced perfectly. Unable to eat beans, she asked them to double up on their fabulous flavored rice. Despite arriving after Jeff’s meal, she was done before him. It was that good. Jeff asked the server for advice and she pointed him to the Hilachas, shredded beef stewed in a flavorful sauce and served with carrots and potatoes. The same rice and some sautéed plantains accompanied the dish. He too scrapped the plate clean! Our dessert was the, oh so remarkable South American treat, Tres Leches. Chapin’s version is a single layer of milk-soaked cake. The only negative was the “Cool Whip” topping as opposed to real whipped cream. They also used chocolate sauce and we can’t remember that feature before. Guatemalan, or just the Chef’s preference? Regardless, it was great.

Rinconcito translates to “little corner” and can also be said to mean “my little corner of the world.” In Cleveland, where Eastern European food is abundant and Mexican food almost ubiquitous, finding a spot that served the more mildly spiced Guatemalan cusine is in fact, “a small corner.” Don’t let the smallness prevent you from trying this delightful treasure. Try El Rinconcito Chapin. It is indeed one of the 30 essential restaurants of Cleveland.

https://www.facebook.com/elrinconcitochapinCLE/ 3330 Broadview Road Cleveland, OH 44109 216-795-5776

October 28, 2018 at 12:14 PM Leave a comment

Eatin’ in New Orleans 5

Breakfast of Champions! Café au Lait and Beignets at Café du Monde.

This was a quicker than normal trip to New Orleans We arrived late on the first day and departed early on the fourth. This left us just enough time to catch a quick late-night snack at Kingfish, a place where we have twice had only a snack, but never sat down for a “bread to dessert” meal and we should. It has always been good. We also indulged twice at Café du Monde for our beloved beignet and chicory-infused Café au Lait before Jeff started work. Michele also snagged a solo lunch while Jeff worked one day. That left us with only two complete dinners at two new, never sampled places. We are happy to report that New Orleans food is alive and still able to surprise!

Snapper Escovich at Compere Lapin

Curried Goat with Gnocchi at Compere Lapin

The last time we were in New Orleans, we were blown away by Sac-a-Lait. It was our unquestionable favorite and we have been evangelizing on their behalf since. Our new religion is Compère Lapin. “Brother Rabbit” (in French) is run by a Chef from St. Lucia and she has combined the flavors of the Caribbean with the excitement of New Orleans cooking. It is a match made in heaven. We knew it would be good upon delivery of the biscuits. Warm, light and fluffy, they were served with two types of flavored butters, apparently different each day. We shared the Conch Fritters appetizer, but unlike the quiet versions typically served, these had a fiery snap that was cooled by the Remoulade dipping sauce. The Cobia appetizer reminded Jeff of crudo, this one prepared with passion fruit and grapefruit acids and of course, the perfect amount of spice. If you are in a restaurant run by someone who hails from the Islands, you must have goat. The Curried Goat was flawless. The sweet potato gnocchi that accompanied it was inspired and we believe helps to understand the level of sophistication you’ll find here. It also fully defines the Chef multifaceted culinary life that runs from the Caribbean, to French cooking school, into work at an Italian restaurant, culminating in the unique food of New Orleans. Michele normally does not eat Snapper, but the Escovitch version they offered was too tantalizing to pass-up. Escovitch could be described as a warm version of ceviche, where vinegar and spices are added to the fried preparation of fish. Served with a Beurre Blanc sauce, it was heaven on a plate. The Banana Zeppole was like a beignet stuffed with Nutella and served with a caramel-rum dipping sauce. From the factory chic interior to the energetic servers and especially to the food, Compère Lapin should be the place you visit on your next trip to NOLA.

Michele did not have an appetizer at Compère Lapin because she snuck away for a quick lunch at Muriel’s. Tucked into the northeast corner of Jackson Square, Muriel’s is a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of touristy New Orleans. We often stop here, if for nothing other than a cold Abita beer at the bar tuck WAY in the back corner. A quick bowl of Seafood Gumbo and a few minutes off her feet and Michele was ready to conquer the city again.

Our final new adventure for this trip was Coquette. Located west of the French Quarter along trendy Magazine Street, this is spot that has taken the wonder of area cooking and combined it with classic French cooking sensibilities. The result is fabulous food. To start, we had the massive Gulf Shrimp served on a bed of horseradish-based remoulade. Michele has been spoiled by New Orleans gulf shrimp, almost since our first trip and this is the reason. They taste like no other, even with this ultra-simple preparation. Likewise, she could not say enough about her Gulf Seafood Stew. When you are that close to fresh seafood, it is almost impossible to mess-up. Combine that with Chorizo and okra and you’ve got a real winner. Jeff could not believe the tenderness he found in the Smoked Short Ribs. It was also full of flavor, but the green mole added an extra element that mixed so well with the beef. The crispy rice upped the meal with extra texture and the pumpkin seeds scattered across the top finished it nicely. Basil semifreddo? What an inventive and refreshing finish. Coquette is a small place, but with food this good, it packs a big punch.

A lot has changed in New Orleans since our first visit in 1990, but the one thing that remains the same is the quality and uniqueness of the food. There is a New Orleans flavor that is unmistakable and indicative of the area. For that reason, we expect to return for at least the next twenty-five years!

https://kingfishneworleans.com/ 337 Chartres Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504-598-5005

http://www.cafedumonde.com/ 800 Decatur Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504-525-4544

http://www.sac-a-laitrestaurant.com/ 1051 Annunciation Street New Orleans, LA 70130 504-324-3658

http://comperelapin.com/ 535 Tchoupitoulas Street (at the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery) New Orleans, LA 70130 504-599-2119

http://muriels.com/ 801 Chartres Street New Orleans, LA 70116 504-568-1885

https://www.coquettenola.com/ 2800 Magazine Street New Orleans, LA 70115 504-265-0421

October 7, 2018 at 7:35 PM Leave a comment

Szechuan Gourmet

Whenever we lament about the lack of great Chinese food in Cleveland, we are continually told, “You need to try Szechuan Gourmet!” We drove by the place once and Michele told Jeff, “I’m not eating in there! It looks like a warehouse!” Still, we were continually drawn to the place because of the overwhelming good reviews from virtually every facet of the Cleveland food world. Michele finally acquiesced and we gave the place a try. Unfortunately, we should have trusted Michele’s initial gut reaction.

It started with the tea. Rather than the bold flavorful brew typically served at even the cheapest Chinese restaurant, this was a tepid, watery version, no doubt at the end of the batch of leaves. Our Crab Rangoon appetizer was mistakenly interpreted as Scallion Pancakes. When presented we hurriedly refused the greasy plate of unappetizing dough triangles, but were rewarded with something not much better. The Crab Rangoon were heavy pinched-dough blossoms rather than the light-airy treats we have experienced in the past. Michele’s Shrimp and Broccoli was sitting in a pond of extra-salty brown sauce and Jeff’s Kung Pao Chicken was a fraction of the treat he experienced in China, or even locally in the past. On the positive side, the Coke was cold!

For multiple years, we have lamented the dearth of premium Chinese cuisine in Cleveland. People recommend; we try; we are disappointed. Rinse and repeat. We check highly reviewed placed online, in print and almost every other place and we are greeted with mediocrity. There are a few places that serve reasonably good Chinese food and those are the spots to which we return. We will gain an optimistic outlook when James Beard returns from the grave, arm-in-arm with Julia Childs to present the Best of Cleveland Award to a new Chinese restaurant. Until that happens, we will cautiously try new Chinese spots, but neither of us are holding our breath.

https://www.facebook.com/Szechuan-Gourmet-258602604242428/ 1735 E 36th Street Cleveland, OH 44114 216-881-9688

September 22, 2018 at 10:19 PM Leave a comment

Sol

There has to be something connected to the building. When this structure (a very cool 1920’s era power substation) housed Gavi’s, it was the talk of Cleveland. We visited a number of times. While we enjoyed each meal, we never quite understood the crazy fervor it managed to acquire. When Sol opened, we never felt the draw to visit. Jump ahead to today and friends wanted to sample one of the MANY restaurants in Willoughby. When we told them we had never been to Sol, they immediately decided that was the place we should dine! The building was dragging us in, this time, with better results.

Rather than the tortilla chips served by most every Mexican or Central American restaurant in the city, Sol serves Malanga chips. Malanga is a root vegetable and the tuber is sliced thin and fried to produce a substantially more interesting chip. Combined with a nice salsa, we were off to the races!

Our friends ordered the Avocado Pasta and Pork Vieja. While the Avocado Pasta was judged to be “wimpy;” the Pork disappeared immediately. Michele devoured the Salmon with a zucchini and squash ratatouille and Jeff could not finish his Chorizo Bolognese, a wonderful pasta with a sauce that combined the best of Mexico and Italy. While a touch heavy, the Lecce dessert was very good.

Overall, we had a very good time at Sol. Our Server (Autumn) could not do enough to make our visit perfect. She was friendly when needed and out of the way when we were in the middle of a conversation. She could teach a masterclass in restaurant service, but we do believe the entire place is geared in this way. We sure felt comfortable visiting and everyone wanted us to have a good time and return.

Based on our server’s recommendation, we stopped for Brunch a few weeks later and found it to be equally interesting. Michele fully enjoyed the Chicken and Waffles. The Crab Cake Bennie (Eggs Benedict with the crab cake replacing the English Muffin) was a properly decadent brunch offering for Jeff. That menu alone featured another half-dozen dishes we want to try.

We will be back. Not for the reason of the building dragging us, or with the idea we want to confirm a marginal restaurant, but we are looking forward to more great meals.

http://solwilloughby.com/ 38257 Glenn Avenue Willoughby, OH 44094 440-918-1596

September 8, 2018 at 5:13 PM Leave a comment

Flying Fig

It has been a long time since both of us have been to this classic Cleveland restaurant. Shortly after they opened, we tried it, like we do almost every new spot. Jeff was a fan, but Michele was served an undercooked piece of fish. With that sour taste in her mouth, she never had a desire to return. Jeff on the other hand has made a number of subsequent visits, most recently with a group of out-of-town business guests. Each of those follow-up stops have been excellent, without exception.

What is so lovely about Flying Fig is the overall impression that you are invading a boutique operation run by a close collection of friends. The atmosphere is relaxed, languid and calming. A look outside the front window delivers a view of the hustle and bustle of the Great Lakes Brewing Company. Even more reason to enjoy the Zen inside Flying Fig. After this long period of operating a restaurant, everyone knows how to deliver service without interrupting a quiet talk, or a raucous moment. Servers quietly appear at the right time to introduce the menu, answer questions and are fully aware when glasses are empty and plates are clean. Bus help sidles in and surreptitiously fill water glasses and plates are delivered with care and minimal fanfare. You are in the hands of pros here.

Jeff entertained a table of a ten and the selections were as varied as the menu offers, Halibut here, Pork Loin there, Bolognese and Chicken interspersed with a vegetarian special. No one was disappointed and everyone felt they were treated to one of the best places in Cleveland…and guess what, there were. It has remained a viable dining room over a long period of time because the Chef has kept her eye on the prize. She has not expanded, built new places or appeared on reality TV. That attention to a place has provided countless customers a quality meal virtually every time. For that concentration, she was recently recognized as a James Beard Semi-Finalist. Our guess is that while this is an honor, it matters very little to the way she runs her place. “Forget about the awards, we have people to feed.” Amen.

 http://www.theflyingfig.com/ 2523 Market Avenue Cleveland, OH 44113 216-241-4243

August 25, 2018 at 10:29 PM Leave a comment

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