Sometimes, eating is the best way to travel. That's certainly the case at the Empress Taytu, a welcoming Ethiopian restaurant that serves what is undoubtedly the most exotic food in town. Sit at a traditional mesob -- a low basket table surrounded by carved wooden stools -- and breathe in the incense of the East African kitchen, redolent with rue, bishop's weed, and "holy" basil. When your meal arrives, there's no need to worry about which fork to use: Utensils are a no-no. Instead, scoop up the spicy, saucy grain-and-meat dishes -- raw beef kitfo, hot and savory dorowat, rosemary-scented t'ibs -- with pieces of spongy injera, a moist flatbread sort of like a chewy crêpe. Afterward, cleanse your hands with a hot towel and sip cup after tiny cup of thick, cordial-like coffee, poured from a curvaceous jabena and savored inside a haze of frankincense. If you don't find all this to be a culinary adventure of the first order, you really do need a vacation.
6125 St. Clair Ave., Cleveland
East Side/University Circle/Little Italy
The men and women in the gray flannel suits flock to this sophisticated downtown dining room, with its tufted walls, sleek deco bar, and precise service, to fling back martinis ("Shh . . . don't tell the boss. Hey! I am the boss!) and feast on Marlin Kaplan's sometimes-quirky, always-celebrated, great American cuisine. Whether they're wheeling, dealing, or just feeling like recharging those $200,000-a-year batteries of theirs, they know One Walnut is the spot where business gets done over delights like Lobster Nachos and Pastrami Salmon with goat cheese and caper mayo on rye. That sack lunch isn't looking so good anymore, now is it?
Your soulmate just called you by your best friend's name. That page was the school, telling you your kid has been suspended -- again. And you would swear that right here is where you parked the Lexus, but obviously it isn't here now. Does that about sum up your life in the fast lane, Bunky? Obviously, you need a break, a peaceful interlude to smooth your frazzled nerves and get you back on your feet -- at least until the cops find that damned car. And what could be more soothing than an alfresco meal on the beautiful, secluded patio of the Baricelli Inn, where the honeybees buzz, the flowers bloom, and pleasant servers shower you with rustic but exquisitely prepared foods from chef-owner Paul Minnillo's inspired kitchen. From fine wines to platters of artisanal cheeses, to Armagnac ice cream and berries, an alfresco dinner here is bound to remind you -- just when you need it most -- of what the good life is all about.
If you were going to write an instruction book on how to create a top-notch restaurant, Mise could be your case in point. A nearly mystical confluence of the classic and the contemporary, the precise and the reckless, the stylish and the timeless, Mise is that rare spot where the food is thrilling, the service is near-flawless, and the atmosphere is friendly and fun. Chef-owner Jeff Uniatowski has crafted what he calls his "last restaurant" into a real contender on the Cleveland dining scene in less than six months. We can't wait to see what develops after a full year.
A fine cut of meat (like the Steak Kosar, a nine-ounce filet) coupled with smooth, professional service in a sophisticated and tranquil atmosphere: That's Hyde Park, where even non-red meat eaters have plenty of delicious choices. So relax, order a drink, listen to vintage Sinatra wafting through the sound system, and feel like a million bucks.
The Cleveland area is home to a handful of noble eateries forwarding the vegetarian cause. But it's impossible to ignore the city's glut of fabulous ethnic eats, and the unassuming, inexpensive Pyramid gets the nod for its fine Middle Eastern fare. Order the creamy hummus -- and grin and bear it when they ask, "Would you like lamb on that?" -- or the soothing, pine-nut-studded fattah, and you'll understand what we're talking about. Lorain Avenue is laden with worthy authentic Middle Eastern and Asian dining options, but none surpass the Pyramid for meatless eats.
They're big, they're buff, they're spicy. They are the two-fisted superburritos at Chipotle's, a Denver-based "quick serve" restaurant with a gourmet twist. Despite the chain's phenomenal national growth over the past few years, ingredients and preparation techniques remain closely regulated by founder and professional chef Steve Ells, who ensures the fresh quality and robust flavor of each taco, fajita, and burrito that comes rolling down the line. As a result, this is grown-up food with spirit and energy, not soggy goods filled with artificial ingredients and stuffed into cardboard boxes. And, oh yeah, the grills hold liquor licenses, too, which means margaritas and Mexican beers -- rather than McShakes and McSodas -- are the beverages of choice.
Nothing radical here; no fancy, new-age ingredients or anything like that. But there's something to be said for knowing when you've got something right, and Mi Pueblo Taqueria has definitely got the burrito down: the basic burrito infrastructure of beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes thrown in with your choice of steak, shredded beef, chicken, veggies, and (God bless them) chorizo. And if you're used to the paltry morsels dished out by fast-food Mexican places, consider yourself forewarned: There'll be no dining in the car, no one-handed foodstuff frivolity. This will require some work. It's well worth it.
Next to the issue of prayer in public school, nothing is so likely to spark debate as the matter of what goes into "real" chili. In Texas, it's a simple, fiery blend of coarsely diced beef and chili peppers. In certain enclaves on the Ohio River, it's a mellow assemblage of ground beef, chocolate, tomatoes, and cinnamon, served over spaghetti. But here on the shores of Lake Erie, chili generally means a sort-of-spicy, sort-of-soupy bowl of ground beef, kidney beans, assorted vegetables, and seasonings, served perhaps with a bit of grated cheddar and a pack of Saltines. Our favorite comes from the kitchen at homey little Guv'nor Pub. Thick and subtly flavored, the restaurant's well-rounded chili -- not too spicy, not too bland -- is as comforting as a soft fleece blanket on a wintry Cleveland day.
Under the close supervision of their instructors, high-school juniors and seniors in Polaris Career Center's chef and foodservice programs prepare and serve gourmet lunches Wednesday through Friday afternoons during the school year. A typical $4 lunch is Beef Wellington, steamed vegetables, and a thick slab of cheesecake. Everything is prepared on the premises, and it's all delicious.
In this quickie mart's hodgepodge of stop-and-go goods, peanut-butter-and-chocolate lovers will find a frozen treat that's potentially habit-forming. Try it in any of three sizes -- 16-, 24-, or 32-ounce -- and settle on whether you want chocolate or regular milk. Then enjoy. It's like lapping up a Reese's Cup.