Best Of 2005

The hearty, savory flavors of Nuevo Acapulco's traditional dishes provide just enough kick to complement their earthy essence. The oh-so-scrumptious tacos balance crispy and chewy. The burritos are stuffed with beef, chicken, or beans (which aren't relegated to a supporting role, as they are in some burritos). And the fajitas' sizzle doesn't stop at the table. These are spicy, vigorous dishes that fill you up. And vegetarians, rejoice! Nuevo Acapulco's reasonably priced menu includes more than just cheese quesadillas (try the vegetable chimichanga, filled with crunchy cauliflower, celery, and carrots). Plus, the sweet and spicy salsa - peppery, with a bite of cilantro - ranks as the city's best. Be aware, however, that waits can be long on weekends, when lines of suburban diners typically stretch outdoors. Good thing we can hang out in the bar (which, like the rest of the restaurant, is sparsely decorated with colorful Mexican memorabilia) and drink a ginormous margarita, available in a rainbow of flavors, including mango scarlet, orange, melon, and banana.
Take a heaping helping of smart Deco decor, a pantryful of white linens and crystal, and a bunch of sharp, professional staffers, and blend well. Stir in one extra-talented chef, a cup of new ideas, a tablespoon of trendiness, and a teaspoon of daring; mix until no lumps remain. Add humor and good cheer to taste. Slip into a hot downtown space, and bake until all the country's smartest diners beat a path to your door. Credit chef-restaurateur Marlin Kaplan for that sassy recipe, and take a taste of his yummy downtown restaurant, One Walnut, as proof that it's a winner. With Kaplan's captivating three-, four-, and five-course degustation menus, filled with such twisted Americana as lobster nachos, baloney and quail eggs on toast points, and salmon in a blanket, it's no wonder he's drawn the attention of Gourmet, Esquire, and the highly ranked food wonks at the Big Apple's James Beard House. But who needs an out-of-towner to tell us what we already know? For up-to-the-minute cuisine, gracious ambiance, and a heady sampling of the good life, there's no better spot than One Walnut.
You could drive past the Cleveland Grill a hundred times and never notice it. The restaurant sits in a small brick building on a fast-moving, four-lane stretch of West 117th Street, in a neighborhood better known for used car lots than fine dining. Its white plastic sign is hung above the door with string, and it looks like just another hole-in-the-wall bar. But inside, the lighting is subdued, the walls are exposed brick, and the music is Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. There are great Greek standbys, like gyros and souvlaki sandwiches for $5. The pasta dishes are enormous, but done with a light touch - the marinara sauce is such a delicate mix of salt and sweet that you'll barely realize you're getting stuffed. And the kitchen takes bold risks. Cold corn soup doesn't sound like a culinary delight, but the Cleveland Grill makes it sing. The sea bass is so subtle, you could chew right through it and think it's bland, but slow down and notice how the grilled, glazed apricots and the salty fish play a little duet in your mouth. Throw in the bread, soup du jour, and large side salad, and you've got a romantic meal for $10.
Cleveland foodies owe major props to people like Zach Bruell and David Schneider, who have the talent, audacity, and acumen to launch world-class dining rooms like Parallax. Since opening the spot with restaurateur Schneider this past November, Executive Chef Bruell has been wowing his fans with his delicate blend of classical French technique and Asian-influenced flavors, collected in a seafood-focused menu that sizzles with intelligence and wit. A fine selection of outstanding sushi, a sexy wine list, and an urbane, sophisticated vibe provide the perfect complements and help make Parallax a wonderful gift to the region's serious diners.
Three cheers for Mike and Liz Symon, Cleveland's First Couple of Culinary Cool, and their success in transforming their trend-setting, award-winning Lola into the equally ebullient Lolita. Though the menu has gone from contemporary American to rustic Mediterranean, and the current ambiance is less alt-chic and more taverna, the changes are merely skin-deep. Beneath them, Lola's "good bones" remain firmly in place. Smartly conceived dishes now range from house-cured salumi to Greek yogurt panna cotta. Breathtaking flavors abound in such bite-sized mezes as fried smelt and roasted beets. And most important, the fun-loving spirit that invites each diner to feel like a VIP is as irresistible as ever. How did Nabokov put it? "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." Yeah, it's kinda like that.
Mentor native Rocco Whalen left Northeast Ohio to study at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, then pestered his way into prestigious gigs at Ÿber-chef Wolfgang Puck's ObaChine in Phoenix, Granita in Malibu, and Spago in Las Vegas. He returned to launch one of our city's finest restaurants: Fahrenheit. It's no exaggeration to say that the entire country has since taken notice of 28-year-old Whalen's sassy, sexy, yet beautifully disciplined style. Both Gourmet and Esquire featured the chef and his restaurant in 2002; and in 2004, Whalen was picked as a "rising star" by national trade mag Restaurant Hospitality. Today, he continues to turn up the heat at Fahrenheit, with seasonal menus filled with such dishes as rare beef "summer rolls," gourmet portobello pizza, and slow-braised Kobe beef short ribs. He also presides over some of the region's most elegant wine dinners and contributes his time and amazing talents to fund-raising for anti-hunger programs like Share Our Strength. A talented chef, a successful restaurateur, and a fine human being, Whalen has certainly earned his spot among the best this city has to offer.
Waking up sucks, but breakfast at downtown's Juniper Grille goes a long way toward easing the pain. Whether you're on your way to the cube farm, classes, or a day of seeing the sights, this casually sophisticated dining room makes the perfect prelude, with its urbane decor, speedy service, and broad selection of breakfast fare. Eye-opening options range from turkey bacon and oatmeal to eggs Benedict and a lean, luscious version of corned-beef hash, as well as freshly squeezed OJ and oversized mugs of smooth, rich java. Personally, we're partial to the pancakes, so light and delicate they practically hover above the plate, despite their ballast of toasted pecans or juicy mixed berries. They may not be enough to make us actually want to seize the day, but at least we'll be able to look it in the eye.
You're good enough, you're smart enough, and doggonit, people like you. So get out there and seal the deal by taking the boss or a few important colleagues to lunch at Johnny's Bar. After all, simply being privy to the fact that this divey-looking corner bar conceals a swank, upscale restaurant marks you as a major player. And when the VIPs get a load of the dim, wood-paneled jewel box of a room, with its sleek, well-stocked bar and linen-draped tables topped with red roses, your continued climb up the corporate ladder should be ensured. And don't waste a second worrying about the food. Johnny's midday menu offerings include such upscale delights as sautéed veal and petite filets, as well as one of the city's finest char-grilled burgers. So order up that round of classic dry martinis garnished with gorgonzola-stuffed olives, and raise a toast to the good life. With a map to Johnny's Bar in your back pocket, you are always dressed for success.
Long a popular stop with the grown-ups for its healthful, tasty fare, Aladdin's does right by the little people too, with a selection of kid-sized meals that sidesteps the usual greasy, fried, and overprocessed foods peddled to the young. Yes, there are the inevitable chicken tenders - but they come with either fresh fruit or rice, not French fries. And yes, there is pizza, but it's made with cheddar and feta on rounds of fresh pita bread. Instead of soda, order the wee ones a milk-and-banana smoothie, blended with chocolate, honey, or strawberry; or take an excursion onto the grown-up menu to find a variety of fresh fruit and veggie juices. It may not help the young'ns ace the SAT or improve their pitching arms, but parents could do worse than teaching kids that dinner doesn't have to be fried, oversalted, and packaged in a cardboard box with a toy.
We've all been there: too tired to cook, too apathetic to get dressed up. But before you head to one of those faux "neighborhood" chain restaurants, consider Das Schnitzel Haus. Laid-back, inexpensive, and kid-friendly, this little eatery is a celebration of value, where a family of four can dine for around $35, provided at least two of them order off the children's menu. For the grown-ups, big portions of homey Eastern European fare like bratwurst, goulash, and the namesake wienerschnitzel not only taste good, but are ample enough to ensure some next-day leftovers. And the full bar offers Warsteiner and Beck's on tap, as well as a small collection of imported and domestic bottled beers. No, it ain't the Ritz, but it is authentic, inexpensive, and a heck of a good deal.
Part dining room, part art gallery, this new Hudson restaurant is home to the region's most sizzling decor. From its soaring ceilings to its inlaid floors, no aspect is small or ordinary. Tall bronze sculptures flanking the entryway bring to mind ancient Asian temple gongs. The curvaceous bar is a marvel of black granite, cherrywood, and iridescent glass tiles. A 20-foot-tall wall of textured glass separates the bar from the main dining area. And above the Chef's Table, where diners can watch the bustle of the open kitchen, a sinuous chandelier seems to have been crafted from giant sea anemones. On the tabletops, the show is no less artful. Squares of cobalt-blue glass serve as bread plates. Votive candles twinkle from inside wreaths of amber-beaded "twigs." And the undulating forms of white porcelain cups and saucers could have come straight out of Frank Gehry's design book. The stylish decor and place settings form an inspired backdrop for chef-partner Gregg Korney's menu of contemporary Asian-fusion cuisine and remind you that culinary artistry speaks not just to the body, but to the soul.