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Edwins (Shaker Square)
It's one thing to train ex-cons to work in a fast food restaurant, but it's another to place them in all stations of a fine French bistro. That's precisely what Brandon Chrostowski is doing at this genre-busting, feel-good hit of the restaurant circuit. Far from a stuffy French bistro, Edwins keeps spirits as high as the ceilings thanks to a breezy interior, refreshingly unceremonious service and a magnanimously priced wine list. But the food, overseen by French-born chef Gilbert Brenot, is what lures diners back time and again, for garlicky frogs' legs, escargot, steak au poivre and ripe, funky cheese.
What we recommend: Rabbit pie, horseradish-crusted salmon and cheese
Bar Cento (Ohio City)
A revolving-door kitchen is murder on a restaurant, unless that restaurant is Bar Cento, which has developed into a finishing school of sorts for chefs. In just about six years' time, this Ohio City hotspot has "graduated" three high-profile chefs who have — or are about to — open their own food ops. Bar Cento pulls off the improbable by maintaining a core set of beliefs and standards, while giving their top toques the room to play within them. While one can always expect to find fly pies and locally sourced mains, the toppings and treatments are ever evolving. After all, why go back to a place that offers no surprises?
What we recommend: Beer-steamed mussels and lardo pizza
Because we're nostalgic, that's why. Because some of us remember when we had Michael Symon all to ourselves, when his personality still fit within the walls of this epic Tremont bistro. Plenty has changed since the chef opened the original Lola here, but not so much within the space. Fans of "the good old days" appreciate Lolita, which replaced Lola when it moved downtown, for its neighborhood sensibilities. Intimate, personal, comfortable and convivial, Lolita reminds us through food and mood what it was like when the Cleveland food revolution started in earnest.
What we recommend: Crispy pig tails and ears and roasted chicken
SoHo Kitchen and Bar (Ohio City)
Just when you think Ohio City had published some sort of secret manual that restaurant operators had to adhere to just to open their doors, along come Nolan and Molly with designs of their own. SoHo doesn't really fit the mold established by its brethren, and for that we couldn't be more pleased. No farm-to-table American bistro this, SoHo instead heads south to Low Country land and returns with lip-smacking, finger-licking, toe-tapping feasts of creamy shrimp and grits, mahogany fried chicken and aromatic, seafood-rich boils. Not much larger than the parlor of a quaint Victorian, this restaurant is agreeably intimate and hospitable — just like the folks who run it. A top-notch American whiskey selection is the gravy on the country-fried steak.
What we recommend: Pimento cheese dip and shrimp and grits
Moxie The Restaurant (Beachwood)
More of Cleveland's top chefs have made their way through this Beachwood kitchen than almost any other. Moxie debuted way back in 1997, just a few months after Lola opened in Tremont. Opening chef Doug Katz and his sous chef, Tim Bando, worked from a theatrical open kitchen in a high-ceilinged dining room that seemed plucked from a much hipper 'burg than Beachwood. Together, they showed how cool and current American food could be when crafted from high-quality ingredients and prepared with classic French technique. That Moxie is every bit as relevant today as it was 17 years ago is proof that talent trumps trends any day of the week.
What we recommend: Raw oysters and citrus-crusted cod
Red, the Steakhouse (Beachwood, Downtown)
Steaks are like burgers; everybody thinks they can cook them at home. Red shows us that while you might indeed be able to cook a steak at home, it will have about as much in common with what's served here as a Chihuahua does with a Great Dane. There's a bit of alchemy that goes on behind those swinging doors that transforms a fine ol' flank o' beef into one of life's greatest joys. The char, the fat, the salt, the blood: A great steak served on white china is what separates man from beast. Be a man.
What we recommend: Brad's stuffed hot peppers and USDA Prime ribeye
L'Albatros (University Circle)
We could very easily have included most of Zack Bruell's restaurants on this list because the guy seems to hit a homerun every time he picks up a bat. But more than any other Bruell spot, L'Albatros manages to make diners feel special in ways that other restaurants do not. In short, it's a special-occasion restaurant that needn't be reserved for special occasions. We love the out-of-the-way locale, the history-dripping old carriage house, and that romance-inducing magic-garden patio. But without stellar food and service, all of the former would be mere window dressing. Grab the lengthy one-page menu, point your finger at some French words and phrases, and know that whatever the kitchen sends out will knock your socks off.
What we recommend: Pork rillettes, duck confit and various cheeses
Flour Restaurant (Moreland Hills)
Flour is one of the few restaurants that always manages to have a few surprises up its sleeves regardless how often one visits. On its surface, it's a contemporary Italian bistro, with familiar-sounding dishes like stuffed peppers, calamari, Neapolitan pizzas, and pasta galore. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that regardless how familiar a dish might sound, there's always more to the story. In place of linguini with clam sauce you get cockles with spaghetti and caviar. Short ribs are char-grilled before a slow braise in red wine and chocolate milk. Eggs Benny features fried mortadella in place of dry-ass Canadian bacon. When you have talent the likes of Paul Minnillo and Matt Mytro — "Old School" and "New School" — in the kitchen, it's best to keep gaps between visits as brief as possible.
What we recommend: Chorizo-stuffed dates and porchetta alla Romana
Cork and Cleaver Social Kitchen (Broadview Heights)
We'll spare you the tired "big city bistro in a sleepy suburban strip mall" anecdote and simply focus on the meaty bits. Cork and Cleaver is run by two of the most dedicated and passionate practitioners of the craft that we have in a city chock full of dedicated and passionate practitioners. Chef-partners Brian Okin and Adam Bostwick routinely push boundaries, but never at the expense of diner satisfaction. This is serious food — and this is fun food. C&C's wheelhouse is American comfort with a twist, like chicken and waffles featuring meat that has been brined, confitted, stripped from the bones, molded into nuggets, breaded and deep fried. The roundly and rightly popular Rueben ribs are a delicious revelation.
What we recommend: The Board and Rueben ribs
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