One way and another, I have served a pretty significant amount of time in the state that is “round on both ends, and ‘hi’ in the middle.” Ohio has served me well, but has largely occupied in my mind in the same category as my ironing board and my 2000 Ford Windstar: serviceable, but nothing to write home about.
My mother grew up in Ashtabula, and for about the first twenty years of my life I spent every Thanksgiving and Passover at 5105 Chestnut Street in Ashtabula, as well as making numerous other visits for birthdays, funerals, weddings, and the viewing of honored relatives from far away places like New Jersey and Florida. We also visited my grandmother’s sisters in Warren and Youngstown, where I received my first exposure to some of the worlds great wonders including blue toilets, tiny baby lamb chops and shrunken ladies who are apparently hundreds of years old, have no teeth, and appear to be incapable of speech aside from rousing themselves long enough to tell people they’re getting too fat.
Due to my high rate of recidivism I returned to serve three years of college life in Oberlin, Ohio, where I learned to smoke, eschew commercial radio and write five papers in one night. In the summer of 1988 I worked as a law clerk in Warren, driving the 300 odd miles back and forth every weekend because I was living in the home of my boss (also my second cousin) and understood early on that he had invited me to spend the summer at their house without having asked his wife if it was okay. She was the sole of graciousness, but now that I am more or less grown up, I can imagine that housing a 28 year old law student with a smoking habit and a tempestuous long distance break-up could not have delighted a woman with an immaculate house, two little girls and a busy schedule.
As usual, I digress. When I was in college in Ohio in the mid-80’s, Cleveland was kind of a joke. This was particularly true for the many students from Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco, who referred to Cleveland as “Cleve-burg” because there was really just not much point in going there. The “flats” area was beginning to perk up, and it was possible to eat a decent meal and hear some good live music, but you could also do both of those things in Oberlin without driving an hour round-trip.
Last Thursday, Rob and I headed to Cleveland for a 24-hour whirlwind vacation centered mainly on eating at Michael Symon’s Lola. On the way, we stopped in Oberlin, where I had not been for thirteen years. We ate lunch at a hip little restaurant called The Feve, which occupies the space which was, during my college life, a disreputable joint called The Tap House. In a pretty room with original tin ceilings, exposed brick walls and wood floors, I ate one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time, along with tater tots. Tots are a specialty at The Feve, and can be had with a variety of spices and dipping sauces ranging from Thai Peanut to Spicy Mango Barbecue; I had mine plain because I am pretty orthodox about my tots. Rob had a spicy chicken sandwich and an order of Fresh Garlic Fries, a plate of fries covered with a sauce of butter and diced, fresh garlic. The garlic had been thoroughly sauteed in the butter, because while it was definitely garlic, it was not sharp or biting. It is clear to me that recreating the garlic fries is going to become an important goal in my culinary life because they were just a mighty fine example of thinking outside the box and finding something quite wonderful. After a quick stop at Gibson’s Bakery for a blueberry whole wheat doughnut (sovereign cure for bad breakups and Medieval Lit exams) we were back on the road, headed towards Cleveland.
Although I was expecting some sort of hideous, modern box with beige carpet and fake art, the Downtown Cleveland Residence Inn was a revelation of historic preservation and urban cool. Housed in a beautiful 1898 building originally built as a hotel for the wealthy connoisseur of Cleveland at the turn of the last century, the Residence Inn has been lovingly restored with faithful references to its history from ornate oak trim to Victorian gas lamps and rugs. The staff was beyond friendly, our room was comfortable, breakfast was bountiful, imaginative and free, and the Hotel’s location put us within walking distance of Jacobs Fields and Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Fourth Street, home of Lola. The building is flanked by two glass-roofed arcades, which are in the process of being restored, and which are beginning to include a variety of restaurants, shops, art galleries and offices, including a real luncheonette with food cooked by old ladies in hair nets and lunch offerings that include salmon patties and peas. Around the corner is a bowling alley with “cosmic lanes” and retro sofas, and one is an easy cab ride from the Zoo and the museums. I can easily imagine spending a weekend or more based at the Residence Inn in Cleveland with something interesting to do every waking moment, and great dining experiences at the end of every day.
Which brings me to Lola, which was everything I hoped it would be. The restaurant is lovely in a simple, modern way; the furniture was dark and simple, there were two large, fresh pieces of art at our end of the room, and there were chandeliers which I particularly loved, which involved a combination of austere, industrial fixtures with crystals suspended from them. The kitchen was open and immaculate,but (alas) did not contain Chef Symon, who was in Las Vegas. There is counter seating around the kitchen, and the next time I’m there (and there will be a next time, if I have to sell my fillings) I’ll be sitting at the counter watching the cooking.
The food (she said, rolling her eyes towards heaven to thank God for his role in all of this epicurean ecstasy) was fabulous. We started with appetizers, doing the old order-two-and-switch-at-the-half. I chose the Beef Cheek Pierogie with Wild Mushrooms and Horseradish Creme Fraiche, and Rob ordered the Berkshire Crispy Bacon with Pickled Tomatoes, Haloumi Cheese, Mint and Almond. The Pierogies were crisp yet tender, with a filling of tender, flavorful beef cheek and mushroom, and they appeared atop a dark, sweet-ish sauce that contrasted nicely with the bite of the horseradish. The Berkshire Bacon was a a little fatty for me, but the unctuousness was actually nicely balanced by taking a “perfect bite” including the acidity of the pickled tomatoes and mint.
Along with some beer (Rob) and a glass of Pinot Grigio (me) we went on to our main courses: Black Bass for Rob and Brook Trout for me. After receiving my trout, a hearty, crisp-skinned fillet atop a smear of butternut squash puree and beneath a pile of haricots verts, I decided I was not willing to switch at the half. Rob’s Bass, in a deep bowl of saffron-infused broth full of shelled mussels and clams, potatoes and olives, looked good, but I was having my own private love affair with my plate. As my grandmother decreed, sometimes you should really just dance with the one that brought you.
Mellowed by good food, alcohol, and a room full of equally happy fellow diners, we decided to order two desserts and share. Rob selected the Carrot Cake with Greek Yoghurt and Dates, and I had to try “The 6 a.m. Special,” French Toast, Maple Bacon Ice Cream and Caramelized Apple. The cake was dense and rich with a light frosting which included Greek Yoghurt, and the French toast was delightful in combination with a bite of the ice cream and a touch of apple. The desserts were small, but really just the right “little something sweet” after a rich meal. My only criticisms, and they are relatively minor, are that my entree was a bit salty for my taste, and the room might have been a bit dark and a bit loud for some folks (although neither bothered me much). On the whole, the experience was superb from service to food, and I can’t wait to go back, sit at the counter looking into the kitchen, and taste whatever Chef Symon has dreamed up for another season. Oddly enough, I really can’t wait to go back to Ohio.