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Lola: They don't do pizzaburgers.
"Your cooking makes up for all the other crappy food I have to eat in this job," was my backhanded compliment to Cleveland's celebrity chef-restaurateur Michael Symon, not long after I first started this gig. And with last week's reopening of Lola, it's as true now as it was eight years ago. As is the practice among savvy restaurateurs, Michael and his wife/partner Liz launched the new Lola with a series of "family and friends" nights -- private events that gave staffers a chance to work out the kinks before a sympathetic (and nonpaying) audience. The September 19 dinner hosted a mere 60 guests -- a drop in the bucket for a spot that will eventually seat as many as 145 at a time. But if there were major kinks to work out, we didn't notice them. The always lovely Liz -- in sky-high wedges and a floaty, sleeveless baby-doll smock that showed off her red-rose tats to fine advantage -- ended up putting on an impromptu light show as she tried to determine just the right setting for the dining room. And while servers hit the perfect balance of funk and informality in their jeans, brown shirts, and purple paisley ties, we overheard more than one of them bitching about their requisite footwear -- famously nonsupportive black Chuck Taylors. ("I told the servers that I didn't want to see any straightened neckties," Liz laughed. "'Open that collar! Untuck that shirt!'") The high point of the evening was the intro to Michael's stylish new menu, with 11 starters ranging from lobster corn dogs ($14) to beef-cheek pierogies ($12), and a dozen entrees including squab ($29) and a killer rendition of hanger steak ($26). By the time we got to dessert (in our case, a refined yet sinfully satisfying rendition of the good, ol' fashioned Turtle Sundae), a couple things seemed clear. While the new Lola is an elegant step up from the original -- in size, ambition, and, yes, price -- Michael Symon's smart, contemporary cuisine is as arresting as ever. And maybe more important, despite her lengthy absence, Lola's artful, party-lovin', funkalicious heart hasn't missed a beat. -- Elaine Cicora

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