Photo by Doug Trattner
Tongue on toast
If you’re going to lose a restaurant as celebrated as Lola, pray that it gets replaced by one as fun and original as Cordelia. This distinctive new restaurant already has propelled East 4th Street back into culinary relevance while simultaneously giving the entire Cleveland dining scene the jumpstart it so desperately needed. In the kitchen, chef Vinnie Cimino reminds diners that eating out can still be exciting, daring and delicious. In the dining room, owner Andrew Watts exhibits a rare and extraordinary knack for making guests feel seen, heard and appreciated.
Despite the tender age of two months, Cordelia displays the maturity of a much more seasoned restaurant. From the city’s most dramatic open kitchen, Cimino calls out orders to his team at a volume commensurate with the din of the restaurant around him. The scene will look and sound familiar to regulars of the boisterous basement kitchen at Greenhouse Tavern during its heyday. From his side of the pass, the chef inspects and then dispatches plate after plate of technically complicated but supremely approachable food.
When was the last time you picked up a menu and encountered dishes like tongue on toast, fried watermelon, smoked beef carpaccio, fish toast and corn ribs. Cimino’s contemporary takes on seasonal Midwest cookery are propelled by whimsy but grounded by execution and flavor. Start with a selection of “pantry snacks and relish trays” for the table. Served with heaps of grilled bread and deep-fried saltines, spreadable items like chive-topped pimento cheese with smoked chili powder, roasted garlic with local honey, and roasted carrot puree with hazelnuts offer a communal way to kick off a meal. Assemble a platter of three ($25) or five ($38) snacks so you don’t skip over bites like jammy soft-cooked eggs with Japanese seasoning and pinwheels of thin-sliced country ham wrapped around crisp pickles.
At Cordelia, every dish comes with a story but never at the expense of the food. The “overdressed” greens ($12), a salad liberally topped with cheese and tossed in a silky white French dressing, are an homage to Luigi’s in Akron. The fat noodles ($18) star the same sort of “handkerchief” pasta that the chef grew up enjoying; here the free-form noodles are topped with charred sweet corn, pistachio crumbs and a kick of chili-fueled heat. Evoking the flavors of a pastrami on rye from the Jewish deli, the tongue on toast ($15) is an open-face stack of thin-sliced, butter-soft tongue on plush bread with pickles and mustard seeds.
If you make it past the crunchy armor-like shell of Cordelia’s brined and buttermilk-fried chicken, which is sold as a leg-and-thigh combo ($14) or entire spatchcocked bird ($42), you’ll find some of the sweetest, juiciest poultry in town. That meat tastes even better after being dunked in the indulgent pimento cheese butter. As much fun as they sound, corn ribs ($15) are curled sections of corn on the cob that are grilled to order, glazed with miso-honey butter and sprinkled with dukkah spice.
When it comes to the smash-burger wars, Cordelia might have fired the parting shot. Dubbed the Burger Box ($21), this four-slider, pull-apart affair on airy everything bread features the customary beef, pickles and special sauce. But it’s the epic cheese skirt, a tortilla-size disc of griddle-toasted cheese, that leaves a lasting impression.
It’s nice to see a resident pastry chef back in this space. During our visit, Ryan Boone was dishing up tahi-nut-butter and jelly ($8), a nutty tahini custard topped with plum jam, and a pitch-perfect choco taco ($9), a waffle cone filled with pistachio ice cream and dipped in chocolate.
To drink, there is a great selection of unique, boutique, and often low-intervention wines, with a reasonable number of by-the-glass options. The craft draft, can and bottle list leaves room for a few fun goses, sours, lambics and ciders. Rounding out the beverage program is a roster of classic and creative cocktails, often with Latin flair.
A year’s worth of interior work has left the former Lola space lighter, brighter and more lively thanks to a greatly expanded bar and lounge area. Best described as granny chic, the colorful restaurant artfully melds mix-and-match cane-backed furniture, vintage silver and tableware and grand floral-print wallpaper. Other notable improvements to the property include an enlarged kitchen counter, broader front patio and retractable front windows.
Not only has East 4th Street gained an exceptional new independent eatery, it also has added some legendary exterior signage to its already impressive collection. The stunning 1940s-inspired signs with animated lights help bookend the robust and, at long last, fully occupied street in the heart of downtown.
2058 East 4th St., Cleveland