Saturday, July 12, 2008

Even More Fun Playing With Birthday Treats!

Ok, I promise to stop belaboring this birthday thing. But for me, it is the one day of the year where I refuse to allow myself any guilt or denial about food. It is a day to play with my food with abandon (sometimes, more than one day, as happened this year).

Several weeks ago, I had decided to try to score the Chef's Table at Lola for my birthday dinner. I was so happy to succeed - it can be a tough ticket to get on a Friday night. The down side of this is that there are only six seats. The up side of this, however, is a steak-eyed view of the kitchen (complete with sound and heat), which, if you are as much of a food junkie as I am, is almost as much fun as eating the food. I decided the solution to the limited seating would be to adjourn to the Velvet Tango Room for cocktails after dinner, and to invite others to join us there.

We arrived on East Fourth Street around 5:40pm (the Chef's Table books at 6pm and 9pm) and stepped out into the beautiful sunshine. We met our friend Edsel on the street, and together marveled at how alive East Fourth has become. Most of the restaurants were either open to the outdoors, or had a patio (including, by the way, Lola), and people were walking, sitting, eating, drinking and just generally having a great time. This is just the kind of "shot in the arm" downtown Cleveland really needed, and it was great to experience it!

We took our seats at the Lola Chef Table and awaited our remaining dining companions. Edsel and I decided to try the Pomegranite-Fig "Martini" and Bob opted for an Erdinger Weissbock.

While the drink was very tasty, it was a little sweet. Remembering how warm it can get at this table, I decided to have one of these beers as well - it is a big, malty, refreshing brew.

By now, you have no doubt noticed the only remaining downside of dining at the Lola Chef's Table - the profusion of red colors and the intense yellow of the table surface play heck with point-and-shoot photography. So - work with me.

The Line Keeps the Food Moving

Even when Michael Symon is not in the house (as was the case last night), his crew flawlessly executes his vision and turns out consistent, amazing food. We wondered where Executive Chef Derek Clayton might be - and we were told he was "busting suds" because a dishwasher had called off. That's the way this business goes - one minute you're on "Iron Chef" - the next minute, you're in the dishroom because it needs done.

Derek did emerge and take his place at the pass before we got too far along. We decided to start our eating by sharing two plates of the daily Charcuterie (each plate is enough for 2-3 people). We put that order in and pondered appetizers.

Before the Charcuterie, however, we were asked to be test subjects for a "dish in progress." Experiment on me, Professor Clayton, please!

Apricot-Glazed Fried Pork Belly Over Sliced Mango with Salad of Greens, Radish, Jicama and Lime

Slow cooked Berkshire pork belly was deep-fried in pork fat, then plated with the goodies listed. We told Derek that they need to get this onto the menu!

Oh, yes - we'd ordered Charcuterie, hadn't we?

Venison salami, duck prosciutto, bresaola, duck rillette, and a very rich sausage (we're all blanking on the name of that one), Pickled Ramps, Mini-Pickles, Brioche Toast and Stone Ground Mustard

Ramps and Brioche


Venison Salami

Duck Rillette

I think this was the "mystery meat" - it melted in the mouth!

Duck Prosciutto

This was my favorite. I think. It was so hard to choose!

My Plate

Chef Derek suggested spreading a bit of Rillette on the toast, then adding a little mustard. It was heavenly. And, let the record reflect that not only did I taste the mini-pickle - I - for the first time in my life - liked it! I liked it so much that I ate another! A miracle at the Chef's table of Lola!

We now turned to ordering our appetizers and mains. But Chef Derek was not through experimenting with us yet. Oh no - not by a long shot. You know that birthday phrase about "a pinch to grow an inch?" Well, Chef Derek fed us a taste of something guaranteed to add an inch - but it tasted so good that none of us cared!

Crispy Beef Marrow

Let me say that again - crispy beef marrow. As in melt-in-your-mouth, rich, fried, plate-licking-good! Chef said they serve this delicacy with the Ribeye Steak - so it is on the menu if you want to try it. We told him - this deserves to be its own dish!

Accompanying the marrow nuggets was a selection of flat-leaf parsley, pickled onions, lemon wedges, pesto and coarse sea salt, for each diner to finish each bite to taste.



Um, well, yes, we did actually order appetizers. Thankfully, Bob and I decided to share one instead of ordering one for each of us.

Fresh Berkshire Bacon, Cornbread, Coleslaw, BBQ

While this was the same cut of meat Chef Derek had served to us earlier - this was a completely different treatment of it. Bob was amazed at the fluffy texture of the cornbread, and the zippy sauce and cool slaw complimented the meat perfectly.

Crispy Sweetbreads, Leeks, Blue Cheese, Mushrooms

Truth be told - I can take sweetbreads or leave them. Most of the time. My taste of this treatment was nothing short of dazzling. The combination of the pristine quality of the meat and the skilled preparation left me wanting more!

One person at the table got Oysters Mignonette, which I did not get a photo of. She was very happy with them.

Appetizers over - time for mains!

Beef Hanger Steak, Pickle Sauce, Chilies

Bob's plate of beef was served with Lola Fries (which I didn't get a photo of this time). It was perfectly medium-rare and delicious. Bob's leftovers from this dish made a breakfast of Steak and Eggs and Potatoes for BOTH of us this morning.

Beef Shortrib, Root Vegetables, Mushrooms, Gremolata

My taste of this dish paid off the highest for texture/flavor - probably because of the sous vide preparation. The veggies included fingerling potatoes and baby turnips.

Alaskan King Salmon Filet, Tomato, Avocado, Cucumber, Radish

Bet you thought this was mine! Well, you'd be wrong! As much as I love fresh fish, and as much as I trust Lola with it (and Lola is one of the few Cleveland places I do trust with it) - I didn't come out to Michael Symon's restaurant on my birthday to eat fish! However, my taste of this confirmed what I just said about trusting Lola - it was fabulous. But what I had was better!

Lamb Loin Chops, Merguez, Cous Cous, Fava Beans

This entree was perfection on a plate. Two simply prepared loins of Colorado lamb, accompanied by a tender, house made lamb (with a bit of pork fat) sausage patty (merguez), toothsome Israeli Cous Cous, fresh fava beans and a gentle jus that did nothing to upstage the marvelous flavors.

Lola did indeed make my special day, well, special. But, they were not finished yet!

Pastry Chef Cory Barrett dropped over to say hello. He suggested that he send up a selection of desserts, since we were missing his new dessert menu debut by one day, and of course we said "yes!" Chef Cory had some wonderful news for us. Not only is he engaged to the engaging Kerry, but he and his soon-to-be have a new business venture in the pipeline. Now, don't panic - Cory is NOT leaving the Symon empire. What the Barretts will be adding, however, is a new pastry shop to be located at Eton. Hmmm - Sushi for lunch then pastry for dessert - this could be something really special! The new place will, among other things, furnish desserts to Lola and Lolita, and they hope to have it open before the end of the year. We wish them much success!

After our chat, and a little time to digest, the following desserts appeared:

Starting from the left: Zucchini cake topped with vanilla ice cream and a cherry, "Tropical Drink" - a summery, piƱa colada-like concoction with sorbet and the flavors of coconut and pineapple. Last, and most unusual, bleu cheese and mango with caramel sauce and plump berries. Jeff, our server, suggested that we start with the Bleu Cheese.

This is the second time in two weeks I genuinely liked, make that loved, a serving of Bleu Cheese. This experience (and the pickles I enjoyed earlier) demonstrate the potential benefits to be gleaned when one is willing to try everything - even if you didn't like it last time you tried it. You never know. And who'd have thunk of combining caramel with Bleu Cheese? And mango. Cory. And it works.

The other two items were creamy and satisfying.

The zucchini cake was perfectly tender and moist (and a great play on the "local and sustainable" theme, as there is already an abundance of local zucchini around here), and cherries are peaking about now. And how can you not love house-made ice cream?

I ate this one last - it made the least impression, but we'd been drinking sauternes with this course, and it was getting late . . . I know I really liked it and that there were NO dessert leftovers at our table.

How can you not love a dessert with a cheesy cocktail umbrella sticking out of it?

And so, after saying good night to our gracious hosts and prying ourselves away from the Chef's Table, we finished the evening at the Velvet Tango Room, with more company and amazing cocktails. I watched some of the Progressive Field fireworks from the back room while sipping a Dark and Stormy. Life just doesn't get any better than that.

The calendar having advanced to 12 July, it is time for me to stop playing with birthday food for 2008. Well, I've still got leftover Birthday Cake in the fridge . . . that could be fun . . . . .

1 comment:

  1. Wow - what an awesome birthday bonanza, to say the least! And good lord,FRIED marrow - I'm sure it was a bite of heaven. Happy birthday, fellow cancerian.