For true culinary adventurers, few restaurants can top this exotic Empress. Dining here is a utensil-free experience, where diners scoop up spicy stews and grains with injera, Ethiopian flatbread, while sipping Tej, native honey wine. Traditional huts and messobs, low-slung tables, set the ambiance for an authentic taste of a faraway land.
6125 St. Clair Ave., 216-391-9400, empresstayturestaurantcleveland.com.
As the house forager and larder master for Trentina in University Circle, Jeremy Umansky is tasked with gathering and concocting a large portion of the restaurant's ingredients. In the short time he's been involved with Jonathon Sawyer's flagship restaurant, Umansky has unearthed for consumption more than 150 species of wild plants and 70 species of wild mushroom all harvested from Cleveland woods and fields. Those include wild apples, stinging nettle, staghorn sumac, lamb's quarters, purslane, black velvet boletes, lion's mane and chanterelles, to name a few. In the larder, the encyclopedic tinkerer fabricates vinegar, cultures butter and preserves all matter of dairy, meat and vegetables by various means. It is in this gastronomic laboratory that lobster eggs are dried and cured into bottarga, koij-fermented garbanzo beans are transformed into miso, and fish sauce is coaxed out of mussels. It might be months before an item moves from prototype to menu item, but if and when that koji-cultured scallop does make it, we have Umansky to thank.
The local founders of Choolaah had an audacious goal: to transform the Indian food experience. While every other ethnic food startup hopes to develop another successful Chipotle knock-off, these folks stuck to traditional recipes and cooking techniques, like the beefy tandoor ovens in plain view. The resulting Indian food isn't dumbed down, but simply sped up. Puffy, fresh-baked naan, paneer in creamy tikka masala, moist and fluffy biryani ... all of it fragrant, delicious and, shockingly, fast.
27100 Chagrin Blvd., Orange Village, 800-459-8860, choolaah.com.
Used to be that if somebody offered to take you out to a nice French meal, you'd feign the Plague just to avoid the whole dreary affair. Midas-touched mega-operator Zack Bruell single-handedly cured the Faux Plague when he unveiled L'Albatros, the antithesis to staid, hackneyed French eateries. His lively bistro doesn't skimp on authenticity; it just repackages it for a modern, adoring audience. The service is swift, the food on-point, and the attitude blissfully free of condescension.
11401 Bellflower Rd., 216-791-7880, albatrosbrasserie.com.
Going out for a great steak is one of life's greatest joys. Or at least it should be. When the price of a meal matches your car payment, you want the entire experience from the seat to the meat to be faultless. Anything short of perfection feels like a Times Square pocket picking. At Red, diners should expect to hand over their wallets. But they also can look forward to being treated like royalty while slicing into the finest prime steer around, all of which is cooked to cowboy-approved precision.
Multiple locations, redthesteakhouse.com.
You'd forgive a frat boy-approved beer hall like Hofbräuhaus for putting the suds way (way) ahead of the grub when it comes to bottom-line priorities. But that's surprisingly not the case here, where the potato pancakes and wienerschnitzel are pan-fried to order, the weisswurst is poached not grilled, and the schweinshaxe bears its signature crackling pigskin exterior. When it does come to the suds as it damn well should at a German beer hall we say ignore the lame-ass shotskis and stick to the house-brewed lagers, served properly in hefty liter-size steins.
1550 Chester Ave., 216-621-BEER, hofbrauhauscleveland.com.
In Italy, the Aperitivo Hour is that dreamy time between work and dinner when well-dressed swells sip and snack until it's time to go out to eat for reals. It's nothing like our happy hour, where stiff drinks are heavily discounted and decent food is nowhere to be found. Will Hollingsworth loved the idea, so he imported the concept to his Tremont cocktail bar, Spotted Owl, where it runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Traditional Italian aperitifs are low- (or no-) alcohol, making them ideal as pre-meal beverages. There are always complimentary snacks, and aperitivos like the 3-2-1, an Aperol spritz-like drink, and the Mezzo e Mezzo, which is half Fernet and half house vermouth.
710 Jefferson Ave., 216-795-5595, spottedowlbar.com.
Just $2 buys a guy a taco so good that he's reaching deep into his pocket for another $2. This makeshift taqueria in the back of a Mexican grocery is further proof that some of the best foods around can't be found in a restaurant. We're partial to the slow-simmered beef tongue (lengua), but we wouldn't turn up our noses at the carnitas, chorizo, al pastor or barbacoa versions either. All are tucked into a pair of small corn tortillas so fresh, warm and corny that you'll swear somebody is baking cornbread. Dress up your tacos from a wee condiments station stocked with chopped onion, fresh cilantro, lime wedges and the spiciest salsa verde around.
13609 Lakewood Hts. Blvd., 216-476-8000.
With the splashy opening of this East Fourth Street newcomer, Cleveland finally landed a "Great American Beer Hall." While loud as a freight train some nights, the energy is through the roof, with communal tables packed to the gills and diners loading up on meat-filled platters of rib-sticking, butcher-crafted bistro fare. At the far end of the cavernous old downtown space is the brewhouse, from which flows a steady stream of first-rate brews in flavors and styles beer snobs can support. Carnivorous home cooks are counting down the days until the retail butcher shop opens next door.
2043 East Fourth St., 216-331-0805, butcherandthebrewer.com.
Given the impressive setting, a neoclassical masterpiece designed by George Post, who later planned the New York Stock Exchange, Heinen's had very special plans for its wine program. The second-level wine and beer section boasts a self-serve wine station outfitted with 48 labels, each available in 1-, 3- or 5-ounce pours. There, guests can insert a prepaid card, pour a glass of perfectly chilled white Bordeaux, and gaze out at space that has been closed to the public for more than a quarter century. That magical view includes a grand central lobby, striking marble columns, and a breathtaking stained-glass dome that may or may not have been designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
900 Euclid Ave., 215-302-3020, heinens.com.