Cleveland Continues to Rock Culinarily

I’ve got confidence in Cleveland. Two recent trips taught me that it’s a city with a quality culinary scene that’s sadly off the radar for most people. In fact, in both 2013 and 2014, Jonathon Sawyer and his crew (first at The Greenhouse Tavern, then at Trentina) fed me one of the memorable meals of each year, such that I proclaimed Sawyer a reason to fly to Cleveland.

My assertion has been validated. Earlier this year, Sawyer bested the Chicago-based rivals in his region to win Best Chef: Great Lakes from the James Beard Foundation.

With a quick (basically overnight) trip to Kent in my travel schedule, I savored the chance to sneak into Cleveland yet again for a sampling of food. This time, I treated myself to something I rarely do: a revisit to a favorite restaurant. Oh, yes, there’s much more to explore in Cleveland (and I had a long list of restaurants on my to-do list), but given my past experiences, how could I resist a return to The Greenhouse Tavern?

I rushed from the airport (thankfully landing on schedule) to get my car rental and then raced to the restaurant, which was kind enough to host me again down at the “kitchen counter.” I’d forgotten how warm it gets there, in the heat of the action, but it’s the place to be to see the prep, the cooking, and the plating—and to chat with the chefs and other workers about the food I was eating, and the local food scene.

A parade of plates would come my way, and having skipped lunch, I started to devour everything. The quality was as high as I remembered. Ingredients were intriguing (for example, these guys actually get TABASCO mash from Louisiana), flavors popped, and the food was both fun and at times whimsical. But always well-executed, with an acute sense of balance such that all elements worked together well. Here’s a sampling of what I ate:

Amuse bouche of jalapeno-coconut ice cream with candied mint leaf.

Amuse bouche of jalapeno-coconut ice cream with candied mint leaf.

Fried Brussels sprouts with maple aioli, lemon, mint, and raw onion.

Fried Brussels sprouts with maple aioli, lemon, mint, and raw onion.

This was fun: a plate of artisanal jerky, with flavors of curry, ghost pepper, soy sauce, and more.

This was fun: a plate of artisanal jerky, with flavors of curry, ghost pepper, soy sauce, and more.

Some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. This is a sampling of the “Bucket of Barrel-Aged TABASCO Fried Chicken” that comes with cultured butter and lacto-fermented pickles.

Some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. This is a sampling of the “Bucket of Barrel-Aged TABASCO Fried Chicken” that comes with cultured butter and lacto-fermented pickles.

Cauliflower vindaloo with red onion, lemon, and cilantro.

Cauliflower vindaloo with red onion, lemon, and cilantro.

Gnocchi sardi: a menage a squash (delicata, acorn, and buttercup), caramelized butter, sage, sheep's milk cheese, and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Gnocchi sardi: a menage a squash (delicata, acorn, and buttercup), caramelized butter, sage, sheep’s milk cheese, and toasted pumpkin seeds.

I adored this house-made bucatini with goat cheese, bitter greens, black walnuts, and soft egg. Rich…with the bitter greens cutting the richness.

I adored this house-made bucatini with goat cheese, bitter greens, black walnuts, and soft egg. Rich…with the bitter greens cutting the richness.

A “small” portion of pan-seared walleye with butternut squash, oyster mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, and fried sage in brown butter sauce. I suggested that fish might be a light dish, but the chefs laughed and said everything they make is fairly heavy (but delicious).

A “small” portion of pan-seared walleye with butternut squash, oyster mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, and fried sage in brown butter sauce. I suggested that fish might be a light dish, but the chefs laughed and said everything they make is fairly heavy (but delicious).

Pumpkin cake with brown butter-cream cheese frosting and house-made cranberry jam. And then they gave me one of their famous pot de crème to take back to the hotel in case I got hungry!

Pumpkin cake with brown butter-cream cheese frosting and house-made cranberry jam. And then they gave me one of their famous pot de crème to take back to the hotel in case I got hungry!

After a morning snack at my hotel, my next meal in Cleveland would be lunch. The options at the West Side Market proved tempting (I highly recommend a visit if you can catch it on a day when it’s open), but a short walk away was a place I wanted to check out: The Flying Fig. The scene felt a little lonely at lunchtime (they call it “brunch,” even on weekdays, which initially confused me when checking lunch availability at the website), though I enjoyed the peace and quiet. I also enjoyed my shakshuka. (They call it shaksuka.) It’s not as rich and intense as the amazing version at Tasty & Sons in Portland (I have to stop comparing!), but there’s was plenty of tomato goodness to sop up with bread, and the spicy lamb sausage I added was superb. An elegant little salad, perfectly dressed, rounded out the meal nicely.

Flying Fig’s shakshuka: North African tomato sauce baked with eggs, sweet & hot peppers, onions, and kale — topped with yogurt and feta. Plus that spicy lamb sausage and side salad.

Flying Fig’s shakshuka: North African tomato sauce baked with eggs, sweet & hot peppers, onions, and kale — topped with yogurt and feta. Plus that spicy lamb sausage and side salad.

Outside Flying Fig, with the West Side Market in the background.

Outside Flying Fig, with the West Side Market in the background.

From there, I was anxious to follow recommendations to try Mason’s Creamery. Jesse Mason himself was on-site and let me sample away. It’s clear from the quality of the ice cream that he’s making his own base. Flavors, always subject to change, are interesting, though often a bit on the understated side. My samplings including halva, taro, and starfruit. Upon trying some green tea ice cream, our talk turned to Asian food, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he has plans to start a ramen pop-up to satisfy unmet need in the area. Based on our conversation, I have a sense he’ll be striving to hit highs on all the important elements: broth, noodles, pork, and a perfectly cooked egg.

Jesse Mason of Mason’s Creamery, serving me a concord grape sorbet after sampling many ice creams.

Jesse Mason of Mason’s Creamery, serving me a concord grape sorbet after sampling many ice creams.

Lastly, my limited time allowed me a quick stop at Rising Star Coffee. Last year I went to their Hingetown location and met some of the staff, so this time they were pleased to show off their new roastery in the Hildebrant Building. Rising Star has a wonderful mission of educating and training their workers—and that education will soon extend to the general public with tours and cupping at the roastery. I left inspired, and perked up from a Chemex-brewed cup of coffee made from freshly roasted beans.

Site of Rising Star Coffee’s roastery (from their Facebook page).

Site of Rising Star Coffee’s roastery (from their Facebook page).

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