VINE & BEAN CAFÉ
12706 Larchmere Blvd.
Swapping scones for biscuits might be considered treasonous down South, but Heather Haviland does it to no ill effect in her deliciously homespun biscuits and gravy ($11.25). A split cheddar-scallion scone is topped with gently scrambled eggs, ladlefuls of creamy sausage gravy and a sprinkling of scallions. Hash browns here are chunky, well-browned and substantial. Those great potatoes are at the heart of the now-famous Shipwreck ($11.25), a dish for diners who can't decide. Like a breakfast buffet in a bowl, this chestnut includes fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, bacon, white cheddar and a fistful of seasonal veggies. Two slices of the best buttered toast in town obviate the need for a fork. If you ask for Red Hot, like we did, you'll be rewarded with a cruet of smoky-sweet homemade hot sauce.
13002 Larchmere Blvd.
Diners often bemoan the scarcity of moderately priced eateries that don't specialize in burgers and wings. Flying Cranes, which opened a year and a half ago, attempts to plug that hole by offering cheap, wholesome food. Nothing on the menu climbs above $10, while most settles in the $8 range. Better still, many items include salad and chips. The eclectic menu reflects the café's multi-cultural owners, Kayoko Irie-Frye and Bill Frye. Miso soup is offered as a starter to a grilled panini. Salads are topped with tofu and crab stick. Sandwiches are stuffed not only with tuna fish and egg salad, but also panko-breaded tilapia and Japanese pork cutlet. It's an odd assemblage of foodstuffs, to be sure, but rare is the occasion when something doesn't hit the spot. Katsu-don ($10) is a near-perfect one-dish meal (and the item that beckons me back). The popular Japanese lunch arrives in a covered pottery bowl and features breaded pork cutlet and veggies atop steamed rice. When popped, a soft-cooked egg mixes with the slightly sweet sauce to envelop the ingredients in a delicious hug.
1332 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland
Verve's modern take on beef stroganoff ($17) looks as elegant as it tastes. Tender shreds of braised lamb replace the dowdy beef chunks, and fluffy basmati rice kicks grandma's egg noodles to the curb. In the cleverly named Sloppy Doe ($8), the kitchen improves upon the weeknight staple by filling the bun not with barbecued beef but with woodsy venison stew.
32858 Walker Rd., Avon Lake
Michael Symon is adept at rewarding both the conservative and adventurous diner. The former secures updated and tightly executed American comfort foods, while the latter scores hardcore foodie fare with big returns. We could not have been happier with an appetizer of roasted bone marrow ($8), a dish that admittedly sounds less than appealing. Split lengthwise for easy scooping, the long bones cradle a lush and beefy pudding that is spread on toasts and topped with herbs and pickled onion. Everybody, it seems, is doing sliders — but nobody is doing them like this. Luscious shreds of duck confit ($6) are tucked into a wee soft bun with cilantro, carrot and spicy mayo. These gems should be sold by the bucket.
VIENG'S ASIAN BISTRO
139 Crocker Park Blvd., Westlake
Vieng's Korean sizzling steak ($17) is a delightfully effortless adaptation of the interactive Korean meal bulgogi. A blistering-hot platter takes the place of the traditional table-top hotplate, searing all the meat in one smoky blast. What's left (apart from the splatter) is lightly charred and surprisingly tender beef in a faintly sweet, garlicky sauce.
DARNA MOROCCAN CUISINE
13114 Shaker Square, Cleveland
A whisper of mysterious spice — cinnamon and cumin, perhaps? — infuses a trio of crisp Moroccan "cigars" ($9) with an earthy, homey essence. Resembling Asian spring rolls, these slender and addictive treats are stuffed with seasoned ground beef and served with greens and tahini dipping sauce. Bastilla is an elaborate and celebratory meat pie that customarily blends the sweet and savory. Darna shrinks the dish down to appetizer size ($9) while retaining the classic elements. Tender duck confit is bundled inside a crisp phyllo satchel that is dusted with cinnamon, powdered sugar and almonds.
THE GREENHOUSE TAVERN
2038 E. 4th St., Cleveland
Time and again, what appears on the menu to be a pedestrian place-filler turns out to be a revelation. Radishes ($3) are transformed from ubiquitous salad stuffers to addictive bar snacks, thanks to a smidgen of butter, salt and grated horseradish. Good prosciutto ($5) can be found on half the menus in town, but only this one wraps it around warm logs of fried gnocchi. I've eaten more chicken wings ($11) than I care to admit, but damned if I've ever tasted them like this. Crisp, salty, juicy, and tossed with garlic and peppers, the duck-fat-fried wings are anything but pedestrian.
8074 Columbia Rd., Olmsted Falls
Looking for a relatively light lunch one afternoon, I ordered the pork schnitzel ($9) from the menu's "Between Bread" section, expecting a sandwich. What arrived was a tower of food that could have served as a last meal. I am not exaggerating when I say that the stack was a half-foot tall, comprising alternating strata of potato pancakes, pork schnitzel, artichoke hearts and roasted garlic. The whole shebang was drizzled with a buttery lemon-caper sauce. Garnishes included airy gaufrettes, grainy mustard, pesto and fried basil leaves.
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