Whenever I go back to my hometown in the burbs of Cleveland, Ohio, I have to go straight from the airport to Simon's Restaurant & Deli in Brecksville and order a pound of sauerkraut balls. Bursting with sauerkraut and corned beef, these hot, crunchy, tender, delectable bites are utterly addictive. Sometimes they work their way into my dreams, taunting me.
Yes, they're that good.
I came to Cleveland in the middle of my annual summer vacation to help my very fit, very not food-obsessed friend Venetia restock and reload on kitchenware.
Cleveland skyline at night (click on photo for photo source at tek1systems.com/bbs/cleveland-skyline.jpg)
I know. You're thinking, boy, shopping for new, shiny kitchenware ... what a sacrifice for a food blogger. I know, I agree I should go straight to the pearly gates for being a selfless friend.
I was like a pig in mud. Kid in a candy store. Ant at a picnic. I don't know who the shopping was for, me living vicariously, or for Venetia who was in dire need of a non-stick skillet. More on our kitchen expedition later as it deserves a whole other entry.
I also came to Cleveland to see my parents and play the undesirable role of bureaucratic assistant to the Grim Reaper. My mom recently had a medical emergency, and we siblings got scared straight enough to get our act together so we could help our parents when the time came.
If this were a movie, I would show up in a black suit, black shirt, and black tie, in direct contrast to the colorful riot of flowers in my father's overflowing garden beds. My pallid, sallow hands would be holding a clipboard, and my monotonous voice would drone, "Now, where are the vital family records located? May I have a copy of the will? Do you have a living will? What is the contact information for your lawyer, accountant, doctors, and insurance agent?"
But this is not a movie, so my round and tan self showed up in my leopard print, kitten heel sandals, and my childlishly high voice droned, "Now, where are the vital family records located? May I have a copy of the will? Do you have a living will? What is the contact information for your lawyer, accountant, doctors, and insurance agent?"
Luckily, my parents didn't kick me out of the house. My dad offered me a Dos Equis (my favorite), and my mom helped fill out the form.
Facing the inevitability of death always requires a beer (click on photo for photo source).
For an emergency list -- believe me, you should not leave Earth without completing one -- click here, and you'll be on your way to giving yourself and your family the gift of peace of mind.
I also came here to visit my friend Gary who recently moved into new digs. Trust me, you guys wish Gary were your friend. He is hands down one of the best cooks I know. We can go on and on about food. We easily could have also gone on a shopping expedition to outfit his new kitchen, but we had more important things to do: Get Sausage.
If you are from the Midwest or you watch Anthony Bourdain on a regular basis, you know that the Midwest is sausage country, a proud culinary distinction inherited from the legions of German and Polish immigrants who settled here. If you're on the lookout for good sausage, come to the heartland.
Gary found out about this place, Gibbs Butcher Block, in Columbia Station, and we boarded our SUV wagon and headed for the gently rolling and rural hills on the western edges of Cleveland. Make that barely gently rolling as Ohio is pretty flat, but you get the idea.
Once we entered the rustic butchery and small market, the aromas of garlic, pork, and other sausagey smells hit our noses. Was this heaven? We floated on the aroma waves straight to the butcher counter.
After joking around with the sausage queen behind the counter, we chose five sausages to sample for dinner: spinach, feta, and chicken sausage, andouille sausage, extra garlic kielbasa, baked potato cheddar cheese, and New Orleans seafood sausages.
With some freshly picked eggplant from my dad's garden, which I pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, famous Ohio yellow corn (can't be beat!) which we parboiled, cut into medallions, and roasted in the oven to concentrate its flavors, an insalata caprese (fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad), and good company, we had a lovely party to christen Gary's new home. The spinach, feta, and chicken sausage took first prize for favorite sausage, although all of them were delicious.
Finally, since I was in town, going to American Iron Chef Michael Symon's restaurant, Lola, was a must. Cleveland has taken its knocks over the years, and it's nice to see that Michael Symon, along with Michael Ruhlman, are getting Cleveland some good press.
My dad and BFF Venetia in front of Lola's
Lola's is on E. 4th Street, off Prospect. When we arrived, my dad said "Are we still in Cleveland?" Filled with people and hanging baskets of colorful flowers, the street is dynamic and energetic, and lined with hip restaurants.
I didn't know anything much about Lola's before I got there, but one look at the menu told me that this was ramped up comfort food -- perfect for Cleveland or any city for this matter. I asked the waiter what was popular, and he said that the beef cheek pierogi (appetizer), bologna sandwich (sandwich), duck confit with frisee, goat cheese, and strawberry salad (salad), and mac and cheese (main entree) were the crowd pleasers.
For starters, we ordered the beef cheek pierogi and Berkshire bacon braised in coffee, almond, apricots, and nectarines. My dad ordered a Lola burger, Venetia the fennel-white bean soup and chickpea salad, and I the duck confit salad. The bacon was simply AMAZING. Succulent and flavorful, the bacon played a symphony on the tongue, its notes starting with the coffee and finishing up with citrus. The pierogi dough was as soft as a pillow and encased the beefiest of beef fillings. And the duck confit, which I've never had before, was crisp on the outside and so tender it shredded at the touch of a fork.
To accompany the rich food, I got a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, a local beer. It was light and smooth -- an altogether delightful beer for a bright summer's day.
If you've never been to Lola's and find yourself there one day, definitely get the bacon. The bacon is definitely dream-worthy.