Lucky’s Cafe in Tremont

IMAG0250When people ask me what my favorite brunch place in Cleveland is I don’t even have to think about it. My answer is always Lucky’s. The quirky little cafe is tucked away on the one-way portion of Starkweather just before it meets Professor (look for the brick building on the right with some weird metal sculpture on it because if you don’t I guarantee you will drive right past it). The restaurant prides itself on the quality of its ingredients, which are locally sourced or straight from the garden outside (you can actually see them go out and pick the IMAG0247fresh veggies and herbs). Everything here – from the bread to the condiments – is made from scratch.

Owner Heather Haviland is particularly proud of their Reuben, which is made entirely in-house, from the corned beef and sauerkraut to the bread to the Thousand Island Dressing. It was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Michael Symon is a fan of her biscuits and gravy.

The place is usually packed with a long line on the 600_10770444weekends, so I try to go here on off-hours. I showed up at 1 p.m. today and was told this was the slowest they had been since 9 a.m. During the summer you can eat in their garden right outside of the restaurant, which helps the lines somewhat but not entirely. This photo of the garden is older. Guests now sit under a wooden enclosure instead of a tent.

600_9760415Since the restaurant uses locally sourced ingredients, Lucky’s has a tendency to run out of certain dishes. When I decided to order a cup of their corn and bacon chowder today I was informed that they had just run out. Drat!

My favorite item on the menu is the Shipwreck. As one Yelp reviewer states, “The shipwreck is a gigantic pile of awesome on a plate.” It is a scramble of home fries, eggs, seasonal veggies, bacon and cheese together and serves it with four diagonal slices of buttered como toast and a little side of fresh fruit. I always feel healthy eating it, but if you want to be evenIMG_20110704_131723 healthier choose the Canoewreck, which features curried tofu, home fries, seasonal veggies and brewer’s yeast. I was craving the como toast today, so I made the trek. The server was able to get me some jam, but once I tasted the buttered como toast on its own I stopped using the jam.

One of my best friends, who is a mac n cheese addict, loves their baked mac-n-cheese. It is rich and creamy with several different kinds of cheeses, plus extra cream. Definitely worth a splurge! 600_9760413I also highly recommend the waffle (the gingerbread waffle with fresh whipped cream is divine)

I love Lucky’s because it offers 20 oz. mugs of coffee served in cafe au lait mugs (one of my friends refers to them as “bowls of coffee”). The Papa Mocha (chocolate, cream, milk and espresso) is one of my favorites. I splurged today and ordered a 16 oz. Caramel Créme Breve and Sunshine Cocktail (orange Pellegrino mixed with fresh squeezed oj over 600_9760414ice). The coffee was as smooth and delicious as always, and the sunshine cocktail was refreshing. I was full and happy for the rest of the day.

Ordering and paying is a little different here. Your server will give you a little table topper with a letter on it when you order. After the meal, you then go to the register with the table topper, and a person behind the counter will ring everything up based off of the waitress ticket. I calculated the cost in my head when I ordered, IMAG0251so there were no surprises and I already had an idea of the tip I was going to leave.

Just a word of warning: they don’t do substitutions or special orders here, and the food can be a bit pricey. If you want an omelette “your way”, go to IHOP or Bob Evans. Plus, you should be prepared to pay a little extra for the quality and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Expect to pay $12-15 per person for your entree and extra for drinks. My bill today was around $21.50. I couldn’t afford to eat here every day, but it is great for the occasional splurge or birthday brunch.

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Contact info:

Lucky’s Cafe
777 Starkweather Avenue
Tremont, OH 44113
(216) 622-7773

Cibrèo Italian Kitchen

IMAG0112I was honored to be invited to a soft opening chef’s tasting at Cibrèo last week. It officially opened yesterday. Cibrèo is the latest creation of the Driftwood Restaurant Group, which operates Washington Place Bistro, the Welshfield Inn, Hodges, Orchard House, and 87 West at Crocker Park.

IMAG0117After taking advantage of the free valet (especially welcome when the surrounding parking lots were charging $10 due to the Indians game) we were immediately blown away by the ambiance of the place upon walking in. Gone are the darker fixtures of Bricco and in their place are light-colored sandstone, brick archways and oak barrels, which are reminiscent of a Tuscan wine cellar. I adore Tuscany, so I immediately relaxed as soon as we walked in (and after braving the Indians game traffic I needed to relax!).

A fire was roaring in the corner, and there were flickering (flameless) candles in recesses inside a massive sandstone wall on the north side of the room. I particularly loved that feature. The new location seats 200 people, with private rooms that can seat up to 125. We were welcomed with a small feature cocktail, IMAG0114the Paloma Italia, which features Milagro Reposado tequila, fresh lime juice, and Grapefruit San Pellegrino. It was light and refreshing, and although I am not a huge fan of grapefruit I really enjoyed it. I can’t wait to try some of their other cocktails, such as the Jack Lemmon (Caravella Limoncello, Plymouth Gin, ginger, mint, and Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon Soda – I LOVE Bitter Lemon soda!), IMAG0113the Sophia Loren (OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, egg white, chocolate, Fragelico and cream) or the A&W (1792, vanilla and root beer). They hoped to have the liquor license by the time they opened.

The bread service featured sea salt, butter and pesto drizzled lightly with olive oil. The bread was easy to dunk, and they also served bread sticks.

IMAG0121The first course was sausage, porcini mushroom and bean soup. It was delicious. It was somewhat spicy and made me appreciate the sausage, mushroom, beans and kale of it all. I could see trying to recreate something like this at home – very simple and fresh ingredients.

IMAG0122The second course was an earthy Risotto Funghi. If you like mushrooms you will enjoy this. I’m still on the fence about it. It had a very creamy texture, as a good risotto should be. It was definitely flavorful, but the earthiness of the mushrooms were a bit overwhelming. If you love mushrooms you will definitely love this dish. The added shaved fresh parmesan brightened it up. It features porcini and shitake mushrooms, truffle, and pecorino toscano cheese. It came out served family style, but we only ate half to save room for the remaining courses.

IMAG0123The third course was a bolognese of veal, pork and beef served over fresh pappardelle that they import from Italy. I may or may not have wanted to lick the plate clean. As Chef Erik Martinez explained, a good bolognese should not be dripping in sauce. It should stick to the pasta, and there should not be anything left over when you are done. I am a huge fan of Bolognese, so I enjoyed this course a lot.

IMAG0130The fourth course – the Pork Osso Buco – blew everyone away. Paired with a glass of white Vernaccia wine (which honestly surprised me but it complemented it well), it had a light gremolata glaze that featured hints of citrus. Gremolata is a chopped herb condiment typically made of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley. This one was heavy on the lemon zest, but it provided a nice contrast to the richness of the meat, but didn’t detract from it. The meat immediately fell off the bone when I went to cut it in half to share with my tablemate. It was served with brown butter polenta and Swiss chard. IMAG0131OMG, the polenta was DIVINE. I am not a fan of polenta normally, and I would order a heaping plate of this as an entree if I could.

We were offered gelato for dessert. Judging from some of the other reviews they made a lot of different gelato flavors. Our table was offered passion fruit and Nutella. I was stuffed, but there’s always room for gelato – just not room for two different kinds. The Nutella gelato was as creamy as a good gelato should be and was sufficiently chocolatey and hazelnutty. As Nutella should be. It was the perfect end to a delicious meal.

I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other things off the menu. Can you say boar and porcini ragu over pappardelle? To quote George Takei, “Oh myyyy!” But I will be sure to order the polenta! It’s available as a side dish. As a Broadway series subscriber I’m at PlayhouseSquare a lot. I will be visiting frequently, and look forward to sitting in front of the fire this winter.

Contact info:

Cibrèo Italian Kitchen
1438 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115
(216) 862-9212

Disclosure: I was invited by Cibrèo to attend the Friends and Family preview with a guest. However, all opinions are my own.

Le Bistro du Beaujolais

Photo from Le Bistro du Beaujolais website
Photo from Le Bistro du Beaujolais website

IMG_20121109_210833I learned to appreciate French food living in Europe for six years. Le Bistro du Beaujolais is a charming little French restaurant located on the corner of Columbia Road and Mill Street on the edge of Grand Pacific Junction in the heart of my hometown, Olmsted Falls. I only wish this restaurant had existed then, but then again we didn’t go out to eat very often and when we did we went to Nam Wah in Berea. I apologize in advance for the darkness of some of the pictures. I did not want to disturb the other diners with a flash.

The owners Georges and Claudie D’Arras are welcoming, and the food is delicious. Georges is an absolutely charming and gregarious host, while his wife Claudie oversees the kitchen. The location burned down in 2009, and they worked to meticulously recreate the restaurant. The original 1830 house, designated a historic landmark, was restored in ten months and looks almost exactly as it did before. The restaurant features two cozy rooms as well as a lovely outdoor patio. I particularly love the light fixtures, which are whimsical music holders. IMG_20121109_202207

Their 3-course prix fixe menu offers a variety of choices at a reasonable price of $27. You have your choice between 3 starters, 3 entrees and a dessert. I have ordered this in the past and been very happy with my choice. I have also thoroughly enjoyed their vegetarian offerings, including the most delicious vegetarian roll-up dish featuring lentils I have ever eaten. I liked it so much I was back within a week to order it again – and I live on the East Side of Cleveland. It’s worth the drive.

I met a friend here recently to celebrate her birthday. I decided to splurge and ordered a la carte because I wanted their French onion soup. It was well-seasoned, the onions were nicely caramelized, and the cheese was sufficiently melty and gooey. Just as a good French onion soup should be. IMG_20121109_204735

One of my favorite entrees on the menu is probably something you have never heard of – the baked skate wing (Alle de Raie Sauce à la Compote d’Échalotes). Skate is type of Ray (its appearance is similar to a stingray). Despite being a cartilaginous fish it is not at all fishy. I would have never tried it if Georges hadn’t brought one out for us to try the first time I dined here with my dining out group. It is served topped with a delicate shallot and butter sauce over rice and simply melts in your mouth. I am a HUGE fan. You simply have to taste it to appreciate it. IMG_20121109_211820

I finished my meal with a dense and rich mousse au chocolat. As you can see from the photo the portion was generous (served in a clear tea cup) and topped with real whipped cream and chocolate powder.

As a true French bistro, they serve only French wines. The staff can help you choose the perfect wine with your meal. Since they only serve French wines they can serve by the glass while maintaining a wide range of inventory at a great value.

Word to the wise: if they have coq au vin on special, order it. You won’t regret it.

Contact info:

Le Bistro du Beaujolais
8134 Columbia Road
Olmsted Falls, OH 44017
(440) 235-8883

White Oaks in Westlake

White Oaks has been a Westlake institution since the 1920s. It is a very throwback restaurant with a country club vibe. During prohibition, it was a speakeasy catering to the crème de la crème, and it honors that rich history with its decor and food. The interior is split up into a honeycomb of many small rooms covered in dark wood and rich colors with fireplaces spread throughout the restaurant. I felt like I had stepped back in time. In fact, we had. I think we were the youngest table there, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying our meals. White Oaks features old-school fine dining, with entrees such as Beef Wellington, Veal Oscar (which was a special that night) and venison. I learned later that it was my parents’ special occasion restaurant in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up in Olmsted Falls.

I apologize in advance for the darkness of the photos. I didn’t want to use the flash on my phone and disturb the other diners. Plus, there is a sign discouraging the use of cell phones, and I didn’t want to be chastised.

Every table is served house-made cottage cheese and a relish tray featuring carrot and celery sticks, a couple radish slices, and green and black olives. I found this very quirky, but loved the cottage cheese, which is flavored with fresh chives. It was definitely unique. I love cottage cheese (especially Breakstone Cottage Cheese) and could have eaten the scoop of cottage cheese all by myself if given the opportunity.

I started with the Apple Onion Soup Gratinee, which features “slowly simmered Spanish onions and Red Delicious apples in a flavorful broth. Topped with freshly grated Mozzarella and Swiss cheeses golden-browned”. I love French onion soup, and the addition of apples was an inspired choice. This soup was absolutely delicious and piping hot with all kinds of melty cheese. I was in heaven. I wasn’t as enthralled with the bite of escargot, but having had excellent escargot in France I am spoiled. It was good, but not spectacular. My friend, however, enjoyed it very much. Next time I will try the highly recommended Pale Ale White Cheddar Cheese Fondue, but I may just have to order the soup again. It was *that* good!

The salads were good, but not anything that stands out. My friends ordered blue cheese dressing and ended up paying a$1.50 upcharge for it, which I don’t remember the waitress mentioning when they ordered it. They enjoyed the fresh salad dressing with crumbled blue cheese and didn’t mention it when we were settling the bill. Word of warning: they put our four meals all on one bill. Apparently they don’t do separate checks even when asked. We could pay with separate credit cards, but we had to tally the bills up ourselves.

I ordered the Venison au Poivre for my entree. It was not at all gamey and was marinated in a ruby red port with assorted seasonings and juniper berries and topped with a port cranberry game sauce. I requested the twice-baked potato instead of the rice. The venison was perfectly cooked and I loved the sauce. The twice-baked potato was a little drier than I would have liked, but was good. The entree came with haricot verts and julienned carrots.

For dessert I ordered tea and a simple order of fresh strawberries topped with a splash of Grand Marnier and fresh whipped cream. I chose a nice Orange Pekoe from their selection of tea bags. The strawberries were fresh despite not being in season any more. The dessert course was simple, yet perfect.

My friends loved their meals as well, ordering the Beef Wellington, the Veal Oscar and the Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola. The service was attentive but not overbearing, and our water glasses were constantly topped off. If you are looking for a restaurant with old-fashioned flair give White Oaks a try. I hear it is sumptuous in the winter with the fireplaces burning and reflecting off the polished wood.

Contact info:

White Oaks
777 Cahoon Rd
Westlake, OH 44145
(440) 835-3090

Clambake at Alfredo’s at the Inn in Mayfield

Alfredo’s at the Inn is an Italian restaurant located in the Holiday Inn in Mayfield. It’s not Amp 150 in the Marriott, but it is a very good hotel restaurant, which is always nice to see. My friend loved the carved 16th century antique desk just outside the entrance, and the pumpkins lining the hallways were whimsical. The metal shelves lining the wall when you walk to the hostess station filled with bags of chips and the coolers of soda and bottled juices were a little disconcerting though. I felt it kind of detracted from the ambiance of the restaurant.

The restaurant itself has very good ratings on Urbanspoon and Yelp, and I had initially heard about it on the local food program 3 Squares. I’ve been meaning to schedule a dinner with my dining out group here. When I read in the FR!DAY magazine that they were offering a clambake on Friday and Saturday nights in late September and October I knew I had to check it out. The clambake is $23.95 a person and offered a lot of food and value for the money.

The parking lot was fairly full – as was the restaurant when we arrived at 7:30 this past Friday night. Despite that, my friend and I were quickly shown to a table and given menus and water. Even though I knew what I wanted I read through the menu and was thrilled to see they serve Beef Braciole. Not many restaurants serve braciole, which I came to appreciate several years ago at a friend’s aunt’s house the night before my first 3-Day walk. When our waitress came to the table to greet us we ordered wine and the clambakes.

While we were waiting for our wine someone dropped off a basket of warm Italian bread and whipped butter. The bread was really good – crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, and we each had our own containers of butter. Our waitress quickly brought out our first course – a cup of New England clam chowder and creamy coleslaw. The coleslaw needed some pepper to season it, but it was quite good. The clam chowder was hot and delicious, with visible chunks of clam.

The bake itself came out on a HUGE platter and included a dozen steamed middle neck clams, a half of a chicken roasted with rosemary and garlic, grilled corn on the cob, and a baked sweet potato as well as a container of melted butter. Being middle neck clams, the clams were a little chewy but very flavorful. A couple of them were gritty, but I feel that just shows that the clams are fresh. If they were in ice water for a while (or too long) they wouldn’t be gritty. The roasted chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and moist. I love rosemary on chicken, so I was very happy. The corn on the cob was perfectly cooked – not mushy or hard, but just right. It had some nice char marks from the grill on it. The sweet potato was good, but that is never my favorite part of a clambake.

We had some trouble flagging down our waitress after our food was delivered for more water, and even more trouble getting her to bring us the bill and cash us out. If she had bothered to ask us if we wanted dessert I would have probably ordered a chocolate covered strawberry. Not because I was still hungry, but because they looked amazing in the refrigerated case when we walked in. I can’t wait to come back and try some of the Italian entrees and the amazing-looking desserts. If the food tastes half as good as it smells I won’t be disappointed.

If you love a good clambake and don’t have any friends hosting one at their home, Alfredo’s is a nice alternative. They’ll be featuring their clambake through October.

Contact info:

Alfredo’s at the Inn
780 Beta Dr
Mayfield Village, OH 44143
(440) 449-4833

Pier W in Lakewood

Pier W has always been the pinnacle of fine dining to a young girl from Olmsted Falls whose family rarely went out to eat and when we did it was the local Vietnamese place in Berea to celebrate our good grades. Everyone always talked about Pier W in lofty tones. Pier W has one of the best views in the city. As the Pier W website explains, “This landmark Cleveland restaurant has been serving a critically acclaimed seafood menu since 1965. The unique building architecture is designed to resemble the hull of a luxury liner cruising along Lake Erie. This full service, white table cloth, contemporary seafood restaurant and bar serves lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch, and privateIMAG5771 functions in a unique waterfront location in Lakewood, Ohio. Its minimalist dining room design frames the spectacular views of Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline.”

This is a great place to celebrate a special occasion, but you also can’t beat their amazing happy hour, featuring wine for $5.25 a glass, food at half the price, and martinis for $5.75 instead of $8 or $9 (Red Delicious pictured here). Happy hour takes place every night but Saturday from 4:00-7:00 pm. The menu features various sandwiches, IMAG5773their clam chowder and lobster bisque and several smaller plate entrees like calamari. If you want to check Pier W out but don’t have the cash for a full-out meal, happy hour in their bar is the way to go.

However, this particular post is going to highlight my birthday meal. I love seafood, so I knew I wanted some good seafood. Some girlfriends and I met at the bar for a couple drinks and then we moved to the dining room for a delicious meal. I enjoyed several Red Delicious martinis (Laird’s Apple Jack Brandy, apple cider, Chateau Pommari, creme de cassis in a glass with a cinnamon sugar rim) before dinner. I loved the cinnamon sugar rim. It added a really nice touch.

We started by sharing the Iced Seafood Tower. It costs $42 and feeds 3-4 people. It contained all kinds of delicious seafood favorites. It features jumbo Gulf shrimp, poached lobster, oysters on the half shell, chilled mussels and crab salad. The tower was accompanied by four different dipping sauces, which we thoroughly enjoyed. I loved everything about this, but the chilled mussels were my favorite. I left the oysters to my friend C., who loved them. I also thoroughly enjoyed the crab salad, which was a nice surprise. It goes without saying that the shrimp and lobster were outstanding.

The bread was fresh baked, and we had two kinds to choose from. The butter was soft and luscious (one of my biggest pet peeves is when the bread is served with rock hard butter). I ordered the Wood Roasted Heirloom Beet Salad featuring blue goat cheese, marinated watermelon, aged balsamic vinegar, dill oil and red shiso (whatever that is). Beets and watermelon together in one dish? Yes please! All the different flavors really melded well together. It was light and refreshing, and I loved every bite.

Being a huge lobster fan, I ordered the Fresh Lobster Pappardelle for my entree and (since I had thoroughly enjoyed the seafood tower and salad) took most of it home to enjoy the next day. It featured fresh Maine lobster, fresh pappardelle noodles, roasted red peppers, and haricot verts in a light cognac cream sauce. Wow, it was amazing. I would definitely order this again.

Everyone was really pleased with their meals, and the service was just as attentive as you would expect at this five-star restaurant. The staff at Pier W surprised me with this delicious birthday sundae with extra spoons for my friends. It was a great touch to cap a perfect meal.

Contact info:

Pier W
12700 Lake Avenue (Winton Place)
Lakewood, Ohio
Phone (216) 228-2250

The Bake Near The Lake at Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

I just got home from the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center‘s annual benefit. This year’s annual benefit featured “a modern twist on a clambake.” Since I love a good clambake I couldn’t wait and bought ticket number 170. Tickets were $75, with $45 tax-deductible. They also had a silent auction and several raffles. The featured raffle was for $1,000 in airfare. I bought raffle tickets for the electric wine cooler stocked with 22 bottles of wine and the $535 in gift certificates and raffle tickets. Unfortunately I didn’t win, but the money all went to a very good cause – the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Bay Village.

The menu was inspired by traditional clambake favorites, including clam chowder shooters, clams, and corn lollipops along with chicken skewers, carved beef sliders, sweet potato fries, and cupcakes and popcorn for dessert along with a Lake Erie Signature Drink called the Nor’Easter (light rum and ginger beer).

We walked in to be greeted by a table overflowing with cheese, crackers, crudités and dip (the first photo was taken at the end of the night, because everyone was crowded around it when we got there). There were also several open bar stations scattered around the Center with beer, wine, soft drinks, and water – and the Nor’Easter was available at the bar station outside near the band. I loved that they had plenty of seating and tables scattered throughout the Center. My friend and I walked around a bit to get the lay of the land and ate our appetizers outside near the bonfire.

The first food station we hit featured honey cinnamon butter, cornbread (both sweet and with chorizo), chicken skewers with Thai peanut sauce, corn on the cob lollipops and steamed clams with either a sun dried tomato pesto, a spicy red sauce or drawn butter. Since I am a purist I stuck with the drawn butter and used it on both the clams and the corn. Everything was simply outstanding. The clams were tender and perfectly steamed. I only had one unopened clam. I chose the sweet cornbread and slathered it with the honey cinnamon butter as well as dipped it in some leftover drawn butter. The chicken skewers were tender, and the peanut sauce was nicely seasoned and had just enough heat to be absolutely delicious. The corn on the cob was a little soggy, but I’ve had much, much worse at restaurants. Plus, corn on the cob is hard to serve to a crowd and keep warm. I went back for seconds of the clams and corn.

The lines started getting a little longer as the night progressed. The line at the roast beef carving station moved pretty slowly, but the carver was trimming the meat as he was cutting. As he got to me they brought out a fresh roast beef. I asked what the crust was, and the servers couldn’t tell me. It looked like a dry rub crust, but who knows what was in it. In any event, it was delicious. It was served on soft dinner rolls along with horseradish cream and stone ground mustard. They served the most delicious sweet potato fries with them. They must have been dipped in brown sugar and cinnamon before baking, because they had a nice cinnamony sweetness to them.

The dessert was served at around 8:30 and they brought out tea, coffee and lots of assorted cupcakes and mini-cupcakes. I chose a mini coconut cupcake and a chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream frosting. Both were moist and delicious.

At some point we took a break and checked out the silent auction items, which included a clambake, a Vitamix blender and whole foods cookbook, tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra and Journey, an American Girl doll, various events and classes (I was very tempted to bid on tickets to the Metroparks golf courses for my brother-in-law but he lives in Medina…), 4 hours of personal assistant/organization help, and diamond jewelry. I didn’t bid on anything, but my friend did – and won a night at the planetarium for 60 people by rebidding at 9:30 just as the auction was closing.

We also got to talk with the Science Center employees and volunteers and pet the skunk, ferret, chinchilla, etc. The carving station was located in the critter corner, so I got to admire the snakes, fish, turtles and other “critters” while waiting in line and walking back to my table.

They also had a popcorn station that people could enjoy or bag up to take home. The varieties of popcorn included both savory (dill, ranch and mild cheddar cheese) and sweet (caramel apple, cotton candy, chocolate cherry and banana split). I bagged up some sweet to take home and munched on a handful of ranch popcorn out at the bonfire. I enjoyed singing along with the band (The Feedback) as they played music from the 70s, 80s and 90s. They had a very nice range of songs and voices. Servers walked around with trays of clam chowder shooters (it isn’t a clambake without clam chowder!) and bacon wrapped around blue cheese (the one clunker of the night, but I didn’t realize it was blue cheese until I bit into it and I’m allergic to it).

It was perfect clambake weather – in the 60s and slightly cloudy. I enjoyed wearing long pants and a long-sleeved blouse and not sweating to death. We could see the stars just at the edges of the clouds. It started lightly raining just as the event came to an end at 10:30.  I drove home relaxed and very happy – and smelling like a bonfire. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to the summer here in Cleveland.

Contact info:

Lake Erie Nature and Science Center
28728 Wolf Road
Bay Village, OH 44140
(440) 871-2900

NEO Food Tour of the Cedar-Lee District

The city of Cleveland Heights was created in 1901 and became my home a little over two years ago. When I heard NEO Food Tours was going to tour the Cedar-Lee District I bought one of the first tickets. I looked forward to possibly trying some new restaurants and getting to know my ‘hood a little better. Unfortunately they had to cancel the tour last year, so I was out of luck. I was happy to see they were going to offer the tour again on August 28th. This year’s tour didn’t really feature any restaurants that I haven’t been to yet, but then again I have lived in the Heights for a while now. It was nice to enjoy some favorites I hadn’t been to in a while and visit a couple places I wasn’t quite as familiar with. So after enjoying a nice day off I made my way to Cedar and Lee on Tuesday night, parking for free on Meadowbrook.

The tour started at Lopez on Lee. We checked in at the bar and were greeted by Todd Gauman, head of NEO Food Tours, and Cleveland Heights mayor Ed Kelley. My car had been broken into the week before (I leave it unlocked to avoid replacing a window and leave absolutely nothing of value in it), and we talked about that and other topics for a bit. I enjoyed chatting with him and was thrilled when he chose to sit next to me. He is a really nice guy. He told us about some of the upcoming plans for the Cedar-Lee district, including a multi-million dollar housing and retail project at the corner of Meadowbrook and Lee Roads.

Lopez is known for its Mexican cuisine, and we were all served margaritas and bags of chips and homemade salsa as we sat. The executive chef, Michael J. Herschman, greeted us and told us a little bit about Lopez. Turns out Rick Bayless was the first chef at Lopez. Rick hosts a series on PBS and is a regular on the Food Network, so that was a very cool piece of trivia. As we listened to the history of Lopez and their dedication to using local produce, we noshed on their shrimp and grits featuring corn and chile grits with smoked cheese, roasted peppers and scallion. It had a nice heat to it thanks the jalapenos and chiles in the grits and sauce.

We then walked down to Abrash Gallery that featured a pop-up by Rockefeller’s Restaurant and Lounge chef Jill Vedaa. Chef Vedaa and the owner of Abrash Gallery briefly talked about their respective establishments. Abrash Gallery features handmade rugs and other fair trade goods for sale. Rockefeller’s is located on the second floor of the Heights Rockefeller Building at the corner of Lee and Mayfield, which was built by John D. Rockefeller Junior in 1930. I’ve always loved the building and secretly hoped to live near the building and Fairmount, which I now do. Rockefeller’s is located in the former site of a bank. Chef Vedaa prepared short ribs over a bed of shredded carrots (sorry but I don’t remember how the carrots were prepared, but they were good!). Since we were in a gallery that didn’t offer the ability to sit or use a knife, the short ribs were a good choice. They just fell apart with the touch of the fork. She served a pinot noir to accompany the short ribs. It was a very successful pairing. I was happy to find a seat in front of a fan, because it was quite warm in the gallery.

We then crossed the street and headed on down to The Wine Spot, where we were greeted by owners and a representative from FarmShare Ohio. The long table covered in plates featuring local cheeses and wine glasses was quite pleasing to the eye. The cheese plate was accompanied by a handy guide. The 12 o’clock position featured fresh chèvre (goat’s milk) from Lake Erie Creamery, 3 o’clock was a basket cheese (a Guernsey cow milk cheese) with heirloom cherry tomatoes from Lake Erie Creamers, 6 o’clock was a summer blomma with blueberry aigre-doux (my favorite cheese because I’m a huge fan of camembert and brie), and 9 o’clock featured a Own Creek Tomme (a sheep’s milk cheese) from Kokoborrego Cheese Company drizzled with raw honey from Auburn Apiary. We were served 3 different wines from Ohio. I enjoyed the first two (white wines), but not the third (a pinot). I would have loved the third with a meal, but it didn’t quite pair well with the cheeses, especially following two white wines.

After The Wine Spot we headed to Phoenix Coffee to sober up with a coffee tasting. The wired-up coffee expert was extremely entertaining and shared two different coffees with us prepared two different ways – in a French press and cold-brewed. The coffee was accompanied by a bran muffin that tasted to me like a good carrot cake. Yum! He also told us about the coffees he was serving, but I’ll be darned if I can remember them. I think the first one was a direct trade coffee from Mexico and the second one was an Ethiopian coffee, but don’t quote me on that. They try to buy their coffee directly from the growers and cut out the “coyote’ middlemen who underpay the farmers for their harvest. He talked about the different locations and the roastery in the heart of downtown Cleveland. He is particularly excited about an upcoming shipment of coffee in mid-September that sounded interesting (although again I can’t remember the details – just that it sounded great), so I definitely plan to stop by for a cup at my local Phoenix Coffee on Coventry.

Our final stop of the night was at Taste. We walked through the dining room, past the open kitchen where we said hi to the chefs and into the private room in the back. The first thing we noticed was the gorgeous chandelier. We were told later that it was made from wine bottles and glassware from Spy Bar in the Warehouse District. And the sconces on the side walls were made from white bottles. The servers came around offering us our choice of red or white wine. I went with the pinot noir, which was delicious. Todd got a little choked up as he explained he was dedicating the tour that night to Sergio Abramof, the owner of Sergio’s and Sarava who passed away unexpectedly earlier that week, and we raised our glasses in his honor. Sergio was a force behind the independent restaurant movement here in Cleveland and a true mentor to many. He will be missed.

We were served a crab cake served over a bed of fresh salsa and drizzled with basil oil. The crab cake was moist and not too “fishy.” The salsa was fresh and bright, and I loved the fact that it had lots of cilantro in it. If I had known we were being served a crab cake I would have probably opted for the white wine, but my pinot did not conflict too terribly with the crab cake.

We were given take-away bags with some fliers, coupons and bite-sized pastries from Coquette Patisserie. The Queen of Sheba (left) is an almond paste chocolate cake with a layer of spicy Mexican chocolate ganache (spicy chocolate? yes please…). The center pastry is a Pixie Bar, which is a pistachio florentina atop almond paste cake, a layer of lingonberry compote, and a pâte sucrée crust (my clear favorite – almond, lingonberry and pistachio – what’s not to love?). The Blueberry Macaron (right) is an almond flour meringue shell filled with blueberry buttercream and was gluten-free. The meringue shattered to reveal the buttercream, and it was very flavorful.

It was with a heavy heart and stomach that we headed home at close to ten o’clock. I’m proud to report that I went right to sleep shortly after getting home from the tour and the coffee did not keep me up as I had feared it would.

Chez Francois in Vermilion

Chez Francois is expensive, but worth every penny. It is the perfect location for a romantic date or birthday or anniversary celebration. It’s expensive, it’s upscale, and you’ll need to dress up if you want dine at this place. Men must wear jackets and will be given one if you forget. As one Yelp reviewer said, “It offers top-level, chef-driven food made from scratch with very fresh ingredients by the hand of a masterful chef classically trained in French cuisine.” Everything here is cooked to perfection. The service is impeccable without being burdensome. This is fine dining the way it is supposed to be.

The restaurant is located about a block from Lake Erie overlooking the Vermilion river. If you have trouble with steps, be forewarned because you have to climb down quite a few shallow steps to reach the restaurant. The dining room is impeccably decorated and the view of the river with the boats going by is simply lovely.

The food is the star here. The menu changes with the season. Several of its signature items, such as the lobster bisque (Homard Bisque, en Croûte) and the French onion soup (Soupe a L’Oignon Gratinée) as well as the Beef Wellington (Filet de Boeuf Wellington à la Périgourdine), are always on the menu. We started off our meal with an amuse bouche served in a small shot glass of what tasted like a summer gazpacho with an avocado foam. It was light and delicious. Bread was served soon after that – the loaf was warm and wrapped in a white napkin.

The lobster bisque features a puff pastry top and is loaded with creamy soup and chunks of lobster. I was able to try my friend A.’s bisque. It was perfectly seasoned. You will feel as if you’ve died and gone to heaven. I definitely plan on ordering it next time.

I myself ordered the Escargot Basilic, which were delicious. You can see an order of them in the photo just behind the lobster bisque. The escargot features five large snails served in the shell swimming in the most decadent blend of sweet basil, garlic, shallots and sweet butter. It was topped with a little puffed pastry crescent moon that I used to sop up the leftover butter. When in a French restaurant, do as the French and try the escargot. I think you’ll be surprised at how good they are.

The entrees then came with an artful summer salad with a cucumber slice wrapped around it. The salad was perfectly seasoned, used the freshest ingredients, and not too large. For my entree I ordered the Escalope de Veau aux Fruits de Mer, which featured sautéed breaded medallions of Provimi veal tenderloin with Maine lobster, a cold water shrimp, a Maine sea scallop and asparagus spears, topped with a Normandy wine sauce with fresh dill. Words simply can’t describe how wonderful this was. It was absolutely divine. Perfectly seasoned and not overcooked.

The desserts were so delicious we simply couldn’t choose and ordered several to share. My favorites were the fresh Ohio peaches over homemade ice cream and the chocolate mousse, which was topped with fresh blackberries.

Every single member of my dining out group loved their meals, so you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. Chez Francois also has special dinners and wine tastings, which are posted on the website. I attended the Bordeaux Wine Dinner this spring and was simply wowed from start to finish. Two of my tablemates didn’t drink, so if you don’t drink don’t let that dissuade you from attending a wine dinner or other celebration there.

Contact info:

Chez Francois
555 Main Street
Vermilion, OH 44089
(440) 967-0630

The quintessential spring day – CWRU book sale and hanging in the Heights

I wanted to let you all know about an upcoming event that I am unfortunately not able to attend this year. I look forward to the Case Western Reserve University book sale every year and try to make a festive day out of it. My friend C. joined me last year, and we spent a delightful afternoon/early evening hanging in Cleveland Heights. I’ve also been known to treat myself to a lunch on the garden patio at Guarino’s in Little Italy, just me, a plate of pasta, and my new purchases.

The CWRU book sale is gigantic. It literally fills up the entire gymnasium and is extremely well-organized. The books are divided into genres, and each genre gets its own section and own check-out help who mark down your purchases for that section on the form you get when you walk in. Once you have your fill of books you head to the front to pay for your books at the main check-out.

I particularly enjoy the music section and the paperbacks in the back, but I also browse the cookbooks, history books, and German books. The rare editions and coffee table books are always interesting. In the past I’ve found a rare German dictionary set for a song, an ECG self-assessment program, and started my Les Roberts collection. Last year I scored 12 Vienna Masters Series CDs for $1 each that rounded off my collection of classical music that I started in 1989 (with only one duplicate, which I gave my father) in addition to a ton of paperbacks and some books on World War II and the art of spycraft. I guarantee that there are sections for every single taste.

The Book Sale is being held this year from June 2-5. It is open Saturday from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. for the preview price of $20 (this attracts mostly collectors and the truly zealous) and admission is free from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. It is open Sunday and Monday from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. and Tuesday from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Prices are reduced on Monday, and Tuesday is “Box Day” – $5/box.

C. and I met at the Mad Greek parking lot, so we decided to enjoy a nice meal there as well. The patio had just opened for the season and it was a gorgeous day, so we sat outside. The servers brought our delicious drinks first, which we enjoyed in the sun. I ordered a Mango Madness and Caroline ordered the blueberry mojito. Both were very refreshing and potent. The server soon brought us our samosas, which we split, and our entrees (vegetarian Indian food for her and the Island of Minos Stir Fry for me). We enjoyed the delicious food and chatted about the book sale and our purchases. It was a delightful afternoon.

So mark the dates in your calendar. If you love books this is one sale that you simply can’t miss! Add a trip to one of the local restaurants afterwards and you’ve got a quintessential Cleveland day that rocks!

Contact info:

Case Western Reserve University’s Adalbert Gymnasium
2128 Adelbert Rd.
Cleveland, OH 44106