Besides "Yippee!" what's a Clevelander to say when a hometown hero finally earns a nod from the James Beard Foundation, that prestigious group of Big Apple foodies dedicated to promoting the culinary realm's brightest and best?
No point in churlishly muttering, "It's about time." Why cry over spilled merlot, now that Michael Symon has finally garnered a Beard nomination as Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region?
Furthermore, it would be sheer madness to suggest that his downtown restaurant, Lola, is anything less than everything: that the service isn't gracious, the setting isn't striking, and that the chef's imaginative creations don't jeté across the taste buds like Margot Fonteyn on meth.
Not that the 38-year-old native Clevelander -- who also owns Lolita in Tremont and Parea in New York City -- comes newly to national acclaim. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he's been burning up the regional restaurant scene for more than 13 years, when his work at the former Caxton Café first earned him the title of "rock and roll chef." Since then, Symon has reaped a crop of national awards, along with an appearance on Iron Chef and a schedule that has found him hobnobbing with other culinary celebs in venues around the world. At the same time -- 10 years after its Tremont birth and seven months since its reopening on East Fourth -- Lola has become the region's darling.
Still, Symon's nomination marks the first time that a Clevelander has reached this rung in the Beard Foundation's annual roundup. (Winners, incidentally, will be announced May 7.) It not only offers huge recognition for Symon, his wife and partner Liz, and their staff, but serves as a sort of confirmation of what might be called the Cleveland ethos: the hardworking, no-bullshit attitude that distinguishes us from frou-frou locales like Yountville and Seattle.
Symon, a burly former wrestler, fits the profile -- but so does Lola. With its artful yet unpretentious modern-midwestern cuisine, executed by chef Frank Rogers, its dark, slightly edgy interior design, its determinedly urban setting, and its relaxed, down-to-earth vibe, Lola stands in refreshing contrast to some of the nation's other highly rated salons -- which, truth be told, sometimes can feel just a little too precious for a cornfed crowd.
That lack of pretense is particularly apparent during Lola's recently launched lunch hours, when the kitchen is less about razzle-dazzle than ensuring that downtown workers get back to their desks on time. The downside to this thoughtfulness is that if you want to experience true Lola magic, the midday menu offerings -- primarily a collection of soups, salads, and sandwiches -- may not be the best place to start. Not that anything wasn't tasty and perfectly prepared on our midday visit; it's just that items like the well-balanced tomato bisque or the plump grilled-veggie baguette seemed more functional than fascinating.
Then again, there was that fried bologna sandwich -- the kind of lighthearted, Cleveland-centric offering for which the chef is well known. Who else but this pierced, tattooed, Harley-riding hooligan would dare serve such a thing at a top-ranked restaurant? Yet the sandwich is a showstopper: six thick ounces of mild housemade pork-and-beef bologna, grilled until sizzling, settled on an oversized English muffin, slathered with freshly made aioli and whole-grain mustard, garnished with housemade pickle slices, and finished off with smoked Wisconsin cheddar and a sunny fried egg. Yeah, it's a bologna sandwich -- the bologna sandwich of your dreams.
In contrast, consider the scallop ceviche, one of five midday offerings from the raw bar. Priced by weight, a four-ounce portion was more than enough for two to share as a starter, yet so determinedly sumptuous that a companion could scarcely pry it from my steely grip. A sexy little samba of tropical essences -- coconut, lime, and a well-moderated nudge of red jalapeños -- the dish exemplifies what we've come to think of as another Symon signature: delicacy tempered with robustness . . . or perhaps subtlety offset by a pair of big balls.
That goes double for the dinner offerings -- particularly items like pan-roasted sturgeon, a transcendental juxtaposition of complexities that nearly took our breath away. Lush, deep, and earthy, the rustic interplay of firm-fleshed fish, buttery lima beans, bits of spicy lamb sausage, and an unctuous escarole pistou yielded a tremendous wallop of flavors, ultimately fading off into a dark, peppery, and totally unexpected bite. The "Lola magic"? Now that's what we're talking about!
Other dishes wielded similarly mystical powers. Interwoven whispers of jicama, ginger, cilantro, and papaya worked multilayered miracles in a smoked lobster salad; intensely orchestrated pomegranate, candy-like parsnips, and bits of Granny Smith apple transformed sonorous, organic venison loin into an enchanted choir. And don't even start with the roasted beet salad, bewitched by grassy Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese, toasted walnuts, honey, and brisk arugula.
Pastry chef Cory Barrett has the mojo too -- particularly in his roguish "6 a.m. Special," where he transforms the homey breakfast flavors of French toast, maple syrup, butter, and bacon into an almost agonizingly delicious dessert. "It makes me want to cry," I sighed to a companion.
"Because it's so good?" he responded.
"Because it's almost gone."
We hear Barrett is angling for his own Beard nomination. Clearly, he's hangin' with the right crowd.
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