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March 10, 2009

Lolita

Gnocchi with Pork Ragú Dominic Armato

Cleveland's been getting a lot of play as an underappreciated food town lately, and based on my recent experience, I'm disinclined to doubt those who say so. We've had two great meals at Lola and a wonderful welcome to Cambodian at Phnom Penh. We did some old school market shopping at the West Side Market, Lola's Berkshire crispy bacon was probably my favorite dish of 2008, and most recently we enjoyed a fine meal at Lola's little sister, Lolita. The only disappointment, really, has been Dante, which I never posted about since they announced they were closing up shop and moving to Tremont shortly after we ate there. This isn't exactly the largest sample, of course, but some of our most enjoyable meals over the past couple of years have been in Cleveland and there's a buzz around their restaurant scene that's tough to ignore. Methinks good things are afoot.

Lolita's no exception. As mentioned above, we've had some great meals at Lola over the past year, so when seeking something a little more laid back over the holidays, we decided it was time to give Lolita a try. Lolita's kind of the quirky little sister of Symon's Cleveland duo. It took over Lola's old space in Tremont when he made the big move downtown, and it has more of a bohemian bistro vibe. It's cozy and warm -- due in no small part to the pizza oven -- with about sixty seats, a small display kitchen and an even smaller bar. The place is a little decrepit in a cute sort of way, with tin ceilings, gauzy curtains, old ironwork and funky paper chandeliers studded with tiny, illuminated blue and green birds and butterflies. Carefully designed as it is, it manages to avoid looking like it's trying too hard.

Roasted BeetsDominic Armato
The menu is full of Symon's big flavor Mediterranean-influenced fare, but it's more casual and devotes special sections to pastas and pizzas. Though their reserves were tapped out on this particular evening, I nonetheless need to take a moment here to plug Symon's in-house charcuterie, which is just awesome. Yes, curing your own pork products is all the rage these days, and you've seen these boards in seventeen different restaurants over the past year, but we sampled some of his wares over at Lola in November, and this is how it should be done. Far from overcured (all too common a fate), these salumi are moist and supple and taste of meat rather than curing salts. The seasonings contribute without being overbearing about it, and the result is some really mature flavors. If available, do the Big Board, as they term their charcuterie assortment. Have it as an additional course if necessary.

Lamb Heart Confit BruschettaDominic Armato
Getting back to what we actually did sample at Lolita on this actual night, my ladylove started out with beets, for which she's a sucker. And to be fair, my wandering fork was equally pleased with her choice. Symon lays out roasted and chilled slices, almost like a thick carpaccio, pairs them with a fistful of exceptionally creamy honeyed ricotta, and dresses them with almonds and an orange zest vinaigrette. It's not the edgiest beet preparation -- we've seen a lot of this lately -- but it's uncommonly good. This is Symon's take on what's ordinarily a very light and refreshing dish. The ricotta is rich and wet, the dressing is unabashedly sweet and the honey doesn't exactly tone it down. It's roasted beets, big flavor style, and that makes it noteworthy, if not something I'll be pining for.

Wild Mushroom PizzaDominic Armato
My starter was another matter entirely. There is nothing timid about listing "lamb heart confit" on your menu, and not only does my heart go pitter-pat when I see such a description, but I naturally feel compelled to reward such bravado by ordering it. Of course, the fact that I've been on a bit of a heart kick helps. The allure of heart is that it's meaty, like taking a steak and squishing it and its accompanying flavor down into a package half its original size. On this count, there was no glossing over the origins of this dish. Tender and intense, with a sheen of natural fat and olive oil, the diced chunks of heart were mixed with a sweet allium (the exact nature escapes my memory) and set atop thick, crusty bread. Totally decadent, totally carnivorous, and my favorite of the night.

Gnocchi with Pork RagúDominic Armato
In buzzing around the web and doing a little research on Lolita before our visit, much was made of their Neapolitan pizzas. To be fair, I never saw this description coming from Symon himself, but let's be clear: Lolita's pizzas are not Neapolitan. They're too thin, too crisp -- more crust than bread -- to bear that moniker. But that bit of food geekery aside, who cares? They're very good. My ladylove and I opted to split one as a middle course, and these things are always a delicate negotiation, my instincts being to try funky combinations like lamb sausage with tomato and feta or pork belly with pickled green tomatoes, chiles and taleggio, while she's most happy with a traditional margherita. Since we ended up with wild mushroom with taleggio and arugula, I'm inclined to declare her the victor on this particular evening. But I was entirely satisfied with my loss. Earthy, full-flavored mushrooms offset by the cheese's fruity tang and a bit of fresh greenery, this is a winner as long as the ingredients are on, and they were most assuredly on. The crust, while lovely, isn't going to inspire any haiku, but at the risk of being redundant, Big Flavor strikes again and leaves me happy. I'm dying to get back for the pork belly with pickled tomato and chiles.

Hanger Steak Chickpeas and SkordaliaDominic Armato
Our entrees, though solid, were actually the low point of the evening. My ladylove's gnocchi received full marks for a fluffy, light texture, but the accompanying pork ragú came across as rather plain when compared to the warmup acts. This is probably a matter of expectations. It's tough to suddenly dial back to subtle and comforting when big flavor has ruled the day. But a solid dish, nonetheless. My hanger steak may similarly have suffered from expectations. At Lola in November, my sister-in-law was kind enough not to stab me in the back of the hand when I ate about a third of her exceptionally flavorful and confusingly tender (Hanger steak? Tender?) version thereof with pickled chiles. Seeing pickled chiles listed as an accompaniment again, I think I expected that sweet, explosive flavor a second time, and instead got something considerably more restrained, though still plenty wonky by any objective standard. Here, Symon pairs his hanger steak (possessed of a more realistic toughness this time around) with fully al dente chickpeas, skordalia and the aforementioned chiles. Though I know skordalia as intensely garlicky, this was a gentler sauce and sparingly used. The whole package didn't quite come together for me, but I was still left pleased, if pining for the version I'd tasted at Lola a month earlier.

Even down to the low points, however, a very good meal that will most certainly bring me back. It further cemented my opinion that Symon is a fellow who's earned his acclaim. He seems uninterested in getting overly refined, and given the character of his cooking, that's probably a good thing. I don't see him translating his style to fine dining (not that I wouldn't be curious to see him try). But this isn't brainless big flavor. Some may be turned off by the brashness of his food, but the underlying technique is solid. What's more, the guy can do the simple things like a good pizza or a good ragú, and Lolita is where he moves a little closer to that end of the spectrum while maintaining the intensity of flavor that seems to be his hallmark. Symon doesn't always have to be the Iron Chef, and Lolita is what you do when you're seeking Symon's Big Flavor but don't feel like Lola's accompanying Big Production.

Lolita
www.lolabistro.com
900 Literary Road
Cleveland, OH 44113
216-771-5652
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 1:00 AM
Sun4:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Comments

I'm pretty sure Neapolitan pizze are supposed to be thin and somewhat crisp. Care to elaborate why you feel they weren't worthy of being called Neapolitan (aside from not having the D.O.C. certification...)

"I'm pretty sure Neapolitan pizze are supposed to be thin and somewhat crisp. Care to elaborate why you feel they weren't worthy of being called Neapolitan (aside from not having the D.O.C. certification...)"

For starters, "worthy" is your word, not mine :-)

I make absolutely no value judgment. Simply talking terminology, here.

And on that basis, I suspect this is a semantic argument, but no, I wouldn't use the word "crisp" to describe any Neapolitan pizza I've ever had, either in Naples or from a VPN (Vera Pizza Napolitana) establishment. Or certainly not like this, at least. Though very light, it was bordering on downright crunchy in places. And it was absolutely delicious, and I believe I said as much. But it wasn't like any Neapolitan pizza I've ever had.

And again, this has nothing to do with "worthiness". I'm just somebody who tends to dislike it when culinary terms are debased. Wagyu from Matsuzaka isn't Kobe beef. Doesn't mean one is "better". If your pasta has cream, it isn't carbonara. Doesn't mean it won't be delicious. And if your crust produces an audible crunching noise when you bite into it, as I understand it at least, it isn't Neapolitan. That's all. It's perfectly delicious as it is. No reason to mislabel it.

Next time you come to cleveland... e-mail me and I can give you a list of some great spots!! or check out http://clevelandfoodie.com/ most of what she says is pretty accurate. Now that we have an Iron Chef, I am hoping we can get a "Top Chef" too!!

On the subject of eating heart, some of the best beef I have ever eaten is cow's heart prepared in the traditional Peruvian method. Now, I was eating this in Peru, and my knowledge of Peruvian cuisine can be written on a postage stamp with a sharpie, but I would rate that cow heart over many steaks I have had over the years. It apparently requires the protean to be marinated for 24 hours plus. Make of that what you will. But if some intrepid reader of this blog could post a good, tested and proven recipe for Peruvian cow heart, I would really appreciate it. And eat it. So, you know, you could get a visceral thrill (geddit?) out of the whole thing.

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