I read a book twelve years ago that changed my views on restaurants, The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. I loved the book so much that Chaz read it when I was done. Auntie Jude borrowed it while visiting that Summer and took it home with her. She passed it around to her friends. The next time we were home visiting, she gave it back to me. It is well-worn and well-traveled now.
Those of you who know me or have followed me for a while, know my love for Chef Symon. I first saw him on Melting Pot on The Food Network eons ago. Okay, it just feels like eons. I knew nothing about him other than I found him funny, I loved the way he cooked, and I loved his approach to food in general. The show went off the air and that was that. Until I picked up the book. It gave me a picture of the real Chef Symon, which isn’t far off from who you see on TV. I learned about him living in Cleveland, Lola Bistro, and his use of seasonal ingredients. This was my first introduction to cooking seasonally. Seems like it should be a no-brainer, but there you have it. By the time I was done with the section on Chef Symon I told Chaz we had to go.
Fast forward to a month and a half ago when Chaz approached me while I was writing one night. He got the how-dare-you-interrupt-my-train-of-though-while-writing look and followed it up with saying, “So, for our anniversary I was thinking about not getting you a present.” That earned him a WTF look. You see, last year I didn’t get anything but it wasn’t with a warning that I wasn’t getting a present.
He knew he was already in trouble for interrupting me and had to quickly tell me he wanted to give me the “gift of food.” Then elaborated after my I’m-listening look that he wanted to finally take me to one of Michael Symon’s restaurants, my choice.
My friends, he knows how to get himself out of hot water. Sometimes.
I called Lola and talked to a manager about their ability to accommodate my food allergies/intolerances because I have so many now. I was put at ease by the manager that they would be able to do what was necessary to serve me a safe meal. This is my experience with most high-end restaurants I’ve been to. I talked to Chaz about the time for a reservation but he had no preference. I called back and talked to the general manager (who happened to be the one to take my call) to make my reservation so they could note my food allergies/intolerances. What I really loved is that the server and the chef both get a list when we are seated so they are aware ahead of time.
After nearly four hours of driving and a nice walk around downtown last week Wednesday it was time to go to Lola. It was difficult containing my excitement. I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed as we walked down E. 4th Street, which happened to be on the backside of our hotel (I picked well!). The street is lined with outdoor seating for restaurant after restaurant on both sides and by the time we headed for dinner, it was packed with people, too.
We were seated in the back which was fairly dark so please don’t mind the pictures. I had to take them all with my phone then do fixes as best I could when I watermarked them. I don’t have a good grasp on taking pics with my DSLR in such low light yet so my phone tends to have better quality even if it doesn’t always focus completely. Chaz had a good view of the kitchen which he couldn’t believe I let him have. He got to watch the kitchen, I got to watch a lady trip and fall behind him.
When our server arrived at the table she immediately said she knew one of us had food allergies. THIS is the advantage to restaurants taking down food allergies/intolerances ahead of time. She already talked with the chef to determine what he could make/alter for me and still be safe. I didn’t have to go through the menu and guess, ask questions, have her run back to get answers then return to the table with the possibility of having to run back again. No, this is efficiency people. Not only was the fish going to be safe for me, but the steak as well. I’ve gotten used to not ordering steak while out because so many restaurants cook them in butter and get upset if I ask for it to be cooked in olive oil or something else. Here, steak was an option for me. I think we need to make another trip to Cleveland soon.
We started with oysters on the half shell. This has always been a safe appetizer with me. Some places tell me the sauces aren’t safe, which I never used before all these food issues. Nope. Just gimme the oyster plain. Maybe a squeeze of lemon. Good oysters don’t need a lot of adornment. Pacific oysters are my favorite because they taste like home. I’ve swallowed enough of the Pacific Ocean to know. They had Rhode Island oysters which were just as good given that they are not in season. I had a little chuckle to myself and told Chaz that it would be awesome if we went to see Dr. Cuz, who is doing a fellowship at Brown right now, for my birthday. It’s only funny to me because I was born in Rhode Island.
I had a kale salad without the cheese or croutons and it was delicious all on its own. Just kale, napa cabbage, and radishes. The kale and cabbage were cut into a chiffonade which made it easier to handle while eating. Since I can’t have dressing that most places make (because of the vinegar) I asked for just some olive oil and a lemon wedge. They did one better and tossed it for me in lemon juice and olive oil.
I didn’t get the steak. I wish I had, but not because I didn’t like what I ordered. I loved what I ordered. I had the Pacific Halibut with some changes made to it to make sure it was allergy-free. Halibut, mussels, asparagus, and fennel. Our server brought out a saucepan with homemade broth and poured it over once my dish was in front of me. In the immortal words of Barney Stinson, Legen-wait for it-dary! I shoveled it in my mouth, bite after luscious bite. Halfway through I realized I was snarfing it down and put my fork down. Chaz was concerned when he realized I was nearly done that I didn’t have enough to eat. I had to explain that I inhaled it. He wasn’t even halfway done with his pork chops when I finished. That never happens. He was still concerned and I told him if I felt hungry, which I didn’t, that I’d just order something else. Wishing I had ordered the steak was simply because it would have forced me to eat slower. Not a lot of chewing is required for a perfectly cooked piece of fish.
The best part of the meal. Dessert. Yes, dessert. You would think with all my allergies that dessert would be off the table for me. It usually is no matter where we go. Just imagine my glee when I was told I had an option. Just one, but it was an option. I took that option and ran. Wouldn’t you? A scoop of apricot sorbet and a scoop of cherry vanilla sorbet. Both light and refreshing. And dessert. Did I mention I had dessert?
Other than the food and the company, what I really loved was the classic rock playing. It wasn’t loud like the music is in some restaurants you go to. It was subtle. There were times I didn’t even hear it then it would just pop and catch my attention. Fine dining doesn’t always have to be quiet or soundtracked by classical music. Softly played classic rock works and is completely Chef Symon.
There you go. An anniversary celebrated at the restaurant by my favorite chef and was completely gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free, yeast-free, peanut-free, crab-free, sesame-free, sunflower-free, banana-free, cranberry-free, and pineapple-free.
Cleveland my not be where people aspire to go to celebrate their fifteenth wedding anniversary. It certainly wasn’t Paris, but it was just as stunning. I really don’t know why Cleveland gets such a bad rap. I get why Chef Symon defends Cleveland all the time. It’s a little gem in the middle of the MidWest. And Lola is the ruby of Cleveland.