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January 06, 2008

Lola

Dominic Armato
Given the number of times we've visited my ladylove's family in Cleveland over the past five years, it's kind of criminal how little I've actually seen of the city. I'm sure I've been here ten times, spent 40 or 50 nights, and yet Thursday night was, I believe, only the second time we've had dinner out on the town. The comforts of relaxing at the family homestead are hard to resist, indeed, so with this rare opportunity we went for no less than Cleveland's hottest restaurant.

Michael Symon was already Cleveland's most nationally recognized restaurateur before he won a gig as the new Iron Chef, but I'll come right out and admit that I didn't really know a thing about him. I didn't know if the buzz surrounding the new incarnation of his flagship restaurant, Lola, was well-earned or simply a byproduct of cable celebrity. After all, it isn't as though Food Network is going out of their way to hire talented chefs these days. The space certainly is nice -- dimly lit, stylish and urban cool without getting too far out of hand. Yeah, the bar overlooking the kitchen glows yellow from within (how do you see the food against a backlight?), but the main dining area sets bright modern floral paintings against its dark chocolate walls and our waiter, at least, was casual and friendly. The menu is a mix of Mediterranean and upscale comfort food, fairly straightforward with a few twists here and there. There's meat and potatoes appeal in spades, but I gravitate toward creative combinations and I had a heck of a time settling on my selections.

Dominic Armato
Having picked a fairly traditional entree, I went with an unconventional starter, the Berkshire Crispy Bacon. By bacon, Symon means large cubes of pork belly, crispy on the top and bottom with tender, fatty meat in between. It was served with seared halloumi cheese, pickled green tomatoes, slivered almonds and a slightly spicy mint oil. If we'd hit Lola on the way to Chicago instead of the way back, this dish would've been right at the top of my favorites of 2007. I'm more than a little partial to pork belly, and this was one of the most unique and delicious preparations I've ever had. It was one of those dishes that comes at you from every direction and hits every single taste bud. It was sweet, sour, salty, bitter, crispy, juicy, spicy, silky, bright and grounded, and it still kept the bacon at center stage. I'm not sure where I'd even begin to deconstruct it, so I won't try. Just know that it absolutely rocks and act accordingly if you have the chance.

Dominic Armato
My entree was also quite charming, though its charms weren't so immediately evident. As much as I wanted to try another of Symon's more creative concoctions, there was no resisting braised short ribs on a very cold winter night. They were served, boneless, with mushrooms, onions and an assortment of baby root vegetables. On the top was no more than half a teaspoon of tart gremolata, heavy on mint, and on the bottom was a deep pool of rich braising liquid. My first reaction, in fact, was that it should have been served with a spoon. This reaction proved to be shortsighted. The meat flaked apart with gentle provocation and sucked up the liquid with every bite, leaving nothing in the bowl by the time I'd finished. Mint gremolata aside, it was a very conventional dish. In fact, the first bite struck me as delicious, but nothing memorable. I changed my tune about a third of the way through. The further I sank into the bowl, the more delicious it became, which I've always seen as one of the best indicators of a great comfort dish. It was warm and deep and so quietly confident in itself that it didn't need to show off. It knew I'd come around before too long.

Dominic Armato
Dessert was very nice, and I dug the philosophy behind it. I'm a savory breakfast guy who probably won't ever understand the drown everything in maple syrup and whipped cream crowd. Why not just call it dessert? Well, Symon did. The "6 A.M. Special" starts with French toast, then tops it with bacon ice cream, caramelized apples, maple syrup and a tuille that my ladylove thought was highly reminiscent of cereal. This is where sweet breakfast belongs -- at the end of a great dinner.

What I particularly like about Symon, after my first visit, is that he doesn't forget to satisfy. He works in his twists and personal touches, but between my ladylove and myself, there wasn't a single dish on the table that wasn't comforting and delicious on a very basic level. It's a terribly overused phrase these days, but this is very honest food, executed at an especially high level. Plus, the man was in the house, so it's nice to see he hasn't abandoned his post in the wake of his newfound celebrity. A week ago, we ate at Everest (no post... forgot the camera), one of Chicago's premiere fine dining establishments, and spent four times the amount we did at Lola. I'm not one for buyer's remorse when it comes to big bills at fine dining establishments and I thought we had an excellent meal at Everest, but I think it's instructive that, even if Everest's prices were quartered, Lola is the spot that would merit our return business. And it will. There's a lot of great looking stuff on the menu, and I hope to make it a regular stop whenever we're in town.

Lola
2058 E. 4th St.
Cleveland, OH 44115
216-621-5652
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:30 PM5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM

Comments

I visited Lola last July and it made a very positive, lasting impression on me. A couple of items I tasted during that meal were nothing short of sensational. A Beef Cheek pierogi with horseradish creme fraiche was fantastic and my reaction to it was similar to your reaction to the short rib. By the time I'd finished it, its conventionality had been completely obliterated by its near-perfection. Ditto for the roasted duck, which was delicious, immensely satisfying and cooked as deftly as any duck I've ever tasted. I'm sorry to echo you so closely but so many of the words you've used to describe your experience at Lola are the ones that still pop up in my mind when thinking about my experience there . . . honest, comforting, satisfying. I think you've nailed down exactly what makes the place so special.

I first read about Lola in Ruhlman's book "Reach of a Chef" and have always wanted to try it, but am nowhere near Cleveland! Your review and pix will have to do until I find myself in Ohio.

I visited Lola last month for the first time and I agree whole-heartedly with your description.

Since I usually prefer a light appetizer, especially during warmer weather (and am allergic to shellfish which often limits my options) I chose the beet salad. While I'm not so sure that it was "light," or what I would normally consider unusual, the dish was unusually delicious -- very similar to your entree experience. Each bite seemed to reinforce and add flavor. The beets (red & yellow) were the center of attention, with goat cheese, pecans, arugula & a vinaigrette playing a supporting role of remarkably equal proportions.

I echo the previous comment about the duck. It was deservedly recommended by our server. The duck breast was as tender as I've ever tasted and the flavors added were excellent. I would not have chosen this flavor combination, yet thoroughly enjoyed it; not sure I can give a greater compliment.

While I can't wait to return for that house specialty, the "6AM Special," there was a key lime concoction (not on the regular menu) that caught my fancy (mousse/ice cream?) & it was absolutely delicious.

And yes, Michael was in the house. While I was creatively parking the car (on the street in the midst of construction -- beware!), my dinner companion had a nice conversation with the chef congratulating him on his success -- she was well-acquainted with his pre-Lola background.

You may also want to check out Lolita in Tremont, Michael's restaurant at the original Lola location. It's more casual, featuring Mediterrean bistro cuisine. I haven't been there since the week it opened a few years ago -- I was trying to make reservations for Lola, but it was closed during the transition to its current location. No matter, our experience was excellent.

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