The weather is wicked, the economy sucks, and if gas goes any higher, we might soon have to learn to cook at home. But believe it or not, for Cleveland foodies, 2007 was a banner year. Scores of new restaurants opened. The national media came sniffing around like hungry hounds (and left happy and full). And, of course, native son Michael Symon rocked the entire country with his closely watched ascension to Iron Chefdom.
Yes, it's been a great year for gourmands and gourmets alike. Don't believe it? Let's go to the highlight reel:
The Eyes of the Nation Were Upon Us
From Tony Bourdain's controversial No Reservations segment on the Travel Channel to Michael Symon's victory on the Food Network's Next Iron Chef, Cleveland's food scene has been sliced, diced, and served up in style by national media pundits.
Take this summer's stopover by Food & Wine operative Kristin Donnelly. Naturally, her three-day feeding frenzy included Symon's Lola and Lolita. But she also introduced the nation to Lucky's Café in Tremont; Light Bistro, Momocho, and Flying Fig in Ohio City; Fire on Shaker Square; and Northfield Center's Babushka's Kitchen.
The national radar zeroed in on Flying Fig in October's Gourmet magazine, where Karen Small's nine-year-old boîte was tapped as one of America's Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants, alongside such sustainability heroes as Berkeley's Chez Panisse and Chicago's Frontera Grill.
In April, Beachwood's Red the Steakhouse made Playboy.com's Top 10 Steakhouses list, sharing space with Craftsteak in Vegas, Keefer's in Chicago, and Cut in L.A. And Table 45, executive chef Zack Bruell's long, cool pour of contemporary hipness at the InterContinental Hotel, was named one of the 20 Best New Restaurants of 2007 by Esquire's longtime critic, John Mariani.
Then there was Bourdain's wintry visit, instigated by Cleveland's top foodie, author Michael Ruhlman. Airing in August, the No Reservations episode not only put a gritty face on our fair city, but the choice of restaurants — which included Lola, Hot Sauce Williams, Sokolowski's University Inn, and, in particular, Cincinnati-based Skyline Chili — left some regional restaurant boosters gnashing their teeth. Still, any press is good press if it brings foodies and their wallets to town, which this just might. (Gritty is the new trendy!)
Much less controversial — and a lot more fun — was the Food Network's six-part search for the Next Iron Chef. Lola's Michael Symon mowed down the competition, earning the right to join Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Cat Cora, and Masahuru Morimoto in Kitchen Stadium. In the process, he also heated up some national lovin' for his hometown, and probably did more to boost the potential for food tourism here than any restaurateur in Cleveland history.
The Brain Gain
If you're still hungry for more optimism — and these days, no one would fault you for that — consider the arrival of some top-notch culinarians, guys who had made a name for themselves in some of the country's biggest markets, but came (or came back) to Cleveland to carve out new territory.
Making the biggest splash was 36-year-old Dante Boccuzzi, a world-traveling Parma native with an impeccable résumé: Culinary Institute of America grad, two-time James Beard Foundation Rising Star nominee, and former executive chef at New York's award-winning Aureole, to mention a few highlights. Boccuzzi opened Dante in Valley View this fall, with a tightly crafted menu that ranges from thin-crusted gourmet pizzas and delectable homemade pastas to foie gras, steak, and caviar — all of it delicious and worthy of some national press of its own.
Then there's Steve Schimoler, the entrepreneur, food scientist, and occasional drummer who opened Crop Bistro in the Warehouse District this summer. Included among the Long Island native's dozens of ventures are running restaurants up and down the East Coast, holding the post of VP of product development for Vermont's Cabot Creamery, and consulting for Ben & Jerry's (if he had anything to do with the Mint Chocolate Cookie, the dude's a certified genius). Schimoler landed in Cleveland in 2005 as director of innovation and development for Nestlé North America. At Crop, he's put together a menu of inventive, labor-intensive, and explosively flavorful dishes, treating impeccable ingredients to a dose of modern culinary technology for a dining experience unlike anything else in the city.
And don't forget Jonathon Sawyer, another Cleveland native who's returned home after solid performances in the Big Apple. Sawyer's spent time at Kitchen 22, Aureole, and Parea, Michael Symon's well-received but short-lived outpost, where Sawyer served as chef du cuisine. He launched the casually classy Bar Cento in Ohio City this fall with a menu of simple but carefully executed pizzas, pastas, and enoteca-style nibbles. Still in the works: a New York-style gastropub that he hopes to launch sometime in 2008.
With these guys' help, the tables of Greater Cleveland are loaded with good things to eat. Raise a fork and dig in.