When I found out that my very good college friend Chris would be coming into town for the weekend of the Cleveland Indian's home opener, I began to think about places to eat that might be of interest to him. I asked him if he had any requests and the only one he made was that we should eat at least a meal at one of Michael Symon's restaurants. Clearly the lure of the Iron Chef America's celebrity had reached all over the country, including Scranton, Pennsylvania where Chris currently resides. On a previous visit to town, Chris had the opportunity to eat with us at Lolita, but sadly, he wasn't feeling well that evening and decided to hang out at his hotel.
This time around, however, there were more Michael Symon choices than the last time he visited. Wanting to give him a sort of well-rounded viewpoint of the Iron Chef's cooking, I decided to set up a dinner at his flagship restaurant Lola Bistro and a casual lunch at his newest venture, B Spot. Since I knew that I wouldn't be covering any new culinary ground on the B Spot side of things (having written about them three times already), I determined that Lola would be the focus of this review.
Lola was located on the East 4th area of downtown Cleveland between Prospect and Euclid Avenue. Most of the road was inaccessible to car traffic, but luckily there was a valet service just as one turns onto East 4th from Prospect. Sadly, as there was a major sporting event today, parking was a pretty stiff $15. Less sadly, $15 wasn't the most expensive rate I had seen and given the amount of traffic downtown, I simply sucked it up and paid the fee. Lola was located at 2058 East 4th Street, Cleveland, OH 44115 and can be reached at 216-621-5652.
The sign for Lola was visible as soon as I rounded the corner from the valet parking service:
Once inside, I remembered how dimly lit the interior of the restaurant made picture taking an almost improbability without the use of some type of flash. Fortunately one of the other party members tonight, Edsel, had brought along his digital camera and even though it had a flash, he and I used a combination method of using the light emitted from the "Flashlight" application on my Android phone to light the food and his camera to actually take the pictures. Edsel posted his pictures on his Flickr page and has graciously allowed me to use his photographs in this post. Check out all of the originals (and more) that he posted about tonight's dinner and post-dinner drinks at the Velvet Tango Room.
Once seated, we began with a round of pre-dinner drinks. I had a Stolichnaya martini up with blue cheese stuffed olives:
As has become the trend nowadays to bring everyone's drink pre-mixed in individual cocktail shakers, our server returned to the table and proceeded to pour all three of our drinks on the spot. My first sip was exactly as expected: smooth, cold, and just a bit of a bite from the vodka. The blue cheese olives added a lovely briny and sharp bite that contrasted well to the nearly flavorless vodka. It was both refreshing and a wonderful way to stimulate my appetite for what was to come.
Unfortunately, because of the very dim light, I didn't even bother to try taking any pictures of the menu; they simply wouldn't have come out well. That being said, most of the menu that we enjoyed tonight at Lola is also available on-line. I started out with an appetizer of crispy veal sweetbreads served with bacon, scallions and a wonderful veal demi-glace reduction:
For those that don't know, sweetbreads are not a sweet dessert bread, but are instead the thymus gland of a young animal, in this case a calf. If not prepared correctly, they can have a very spongy texture to them that is most unappealing. In tonight's preparation, however, they were perfectly cooked. The meat itself was firm and a last minute sear has given the exterior a wonderful taste and texture. Of course, Symon doesn't stop there and pairs one of his favorite ingredients, bacon, to great effect with the sweetbreads. The scallions added a nice bit of sharpness and the underlying sauce was heady and rich. The portion size was perfect for one person for an appetizer.
My dining companion Edsel got a more recent addition to the menu, the fried bone marrow with toasted bread and various accoutrement:
I've included his dish as well because we traded bites of our appetizers for the other's. The accoutrement were pickled shallots, parsley, lemon wedges, sea salt, salsa verde and still warmed caramelized onions. The bone marrow had been lightly dusted in flour before being quickly fried. To eat, you placed on of the marrow strips (on the right side of the board above) on a toast point and topped with whichever condiment struck your fancy. I choose some of the pickled shallot and course sea salt and was rewarded with a mouthful of crispy, fatty, smoky, salt, and just a touch of brightness from the pickled shallots. While clearly this isn't something your cardiologist would recommend you eating on even a sparse basis, I can see why people are drawn towards the fatty unctuousness of bone marrow; it's quite addictive.
Having finished our appetizers, the entrées appeared next. I had chosen the lamb chops for my next course:
Topped with a Meyer lemon and chopped garlic "gremolata," these beautifully seared lamb chops rested above a combination of cannelini beans, rapini and florina peppers. My server suggested that I order the lamb medium rare, and while I normally order my beef cuts this way, medium rare lamb to me has too much of a "chewy" quality to it, so I ordered it medium instead. As I cut into my first chop, I was happy to see that the meat was cooked exactly to my specification. The one aspect of Michael Symon's cooking that never fails to surprise me was how he could combine such bold flavors on one plate and yet still retain softer, more subtle flavors that complement and enhance the more primal ones. Clearly this was a lamb dish; however, the aromatic lemon and garlic on top really brought the "lamb-i-ness" to the forefront of my mouth. The cannelini beans were completely cooked, yet still retained just a bit of toothiness so as to provide a nice textural contrast. The rapini and florina peppers added a bit of sharpness that contrasted well with the umami flavor from the lamb. If there was one item to criticize, it was that this dish was on the edge of being oversalted. To my taste it wasn't oversalted, but fairly aggressively seasoned.
By the time the dessert menus arrived at the table, I was feeling fairly full, but decided that if I was in for a penny, I might as well be in for a pound. While the current dessert menu listed on-line was reflected on our menus tonight, Edsel decided to take a photograph of the striking front of the dessert menu:
Inside the front cover lay six different desserts and a multi-cheese tasting plate that appealed to my friend Chris. Having never had pastry chef Cory Barrett's mind-blowing "6 A.M. Special," I decided that this was the dessert for me tonight. According to our server, the current version being offered was slightly revised from the original. Originally using brioche as the basis for the French toast portion of the dessert, Cory had decided to use pound cake that had been coated in panko bread crumbs before being fried.
After a few minutes, our desserts arrived:
My dessert was comprised of two triangular pieces of pound cake that had been coated in panko before being fried, topped with maple-bacon ice cream, served over caramelized apples and a maple syrup sauce drizzled around the plate. First, let me start off by just saying, "Wow!" This was an amazingly complex and delicious dessert. While I think $9 might be a bit steep for what you receive, the complex combination of salty and sweet were definitely worth the price tag. The pound cake definitely benefited from the panko coating and gave each cake a nice crispy exterior. Honestly, the flavor was almost like a fried piece of cornmeal mush. The maple-bacon ice cream was actually subtle and when I finally managed to get a bit of each of the elements on one fork, the layers of flavors and textures was quite nice.
Edsel decided to order the sour cream and apple panna cotta with green apple sorbet, caramelized pie dough, raisin, fennel, and celery:
He encouraged me to try a bite of his dessert and I have to admit, I think I may have liked it even more than my "6 A.M. Special." This dessert was all about subtlety. The sour cream in the panna cotta was perfectly balanced with the tartness from the apple. Combined with the crunchy pie dough and slices of apple and fennel, this was a delicious and refreshing dessert. While my dessert was good, had I already sampled it in a prior visit, I certainly would've gotten the panna cotta instead.
Our desserts (and cheese plate) out of the way, we requested our check and our server not only brought the item requested, but also a plate of mignardises, in this case, small cookies that to me tasted like snickerdoodles that had raisins and nuts in them:
These were a wonderful way to end the meal and at least one of us came up with the pithy Monty Python line, "Just a wafer thin mint, sir."
Lola was definitely not cheap. My portion of the check for one martini, an appetizer, entrée, and dessert with tip and tax came close to $77. Clearly Lola is not the kind of place where I know that I can go on even a fairly regular basis. However, for a once in a while treat (and in this case I was celebrating my friend Chris being in town and me getting a new job), I definitely think it is worth a trip.