If your summer vacation planning points to Cleveland, you probably already know the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” outfit on display as part of its Class of 2019 inductees section. And that the Cleveland Museum of Art’s heavy hitter exhibit is “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art.”
When it comes to edible art, the new class of Cleveland has its own surprises to unveil. The Buckeye State’s coolest city still has first-class fine dining that speaks fluent Italian and French, and paragons of the farm-to-table movement, and old-school Polish cafeteria satisfactions.
But the recent Cleveland crop of dining opportunities has lots of rewarding opportunities, too. In a brief visit, I was determined to find remarkable experiences on a budget, focusing on the $8-to-$15 range.
Here are the results of my investigations, including exquisitely calibrated small plates, lush brisket with a Japanese pedigree, and the closest Shainghaiese soup dumplings you can enjoy without a passport.
17625 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
Jill Vedaa knew she was taking a risk by opening a restaurant in Cleveland devoted to small plates of food. In Buffalo, its Great Lakes sister city, diners celebrate fried fish that “hangs off the plate.”
In Cleveland, “we have the same kind of mentality,” she said. “If the food isn’t bigger than your actual head, what’s the point of getting it?”
With years of experience with top Cleveland chefs like Karen Small at farm-to-table pioneer Flying Fig and Iron Chef Michael Symon, Vedaa’s last mission was making Rockefeller’s a must-visit.
Two years ago, Vedaa launched Salt+ with business partner, front-of-house manager and drinks auteur Jessica Parkison. It was time to try feeding people the way she wanted to eat. “Entrees always overwhelm me,” she said. “I’m doubting myself that I can eat it, and then I end up taking it home.”
As a Midwest town, “everybody’s used to meat and potatoes, and big plates of food, value over anything else. I just wanted to take a step back from that, and look at quality of food, as opposed to quantity, to highlight the beautiful produce we get in Cleveland in an approachable, fun way.”
The result is a one-page menu – eight vegetable dishes, five seafood, five meat – that tops out at $16. The focused, lively combinations draw from Ohio’s famed Chef’s Garden and foraged ingredients.
Beets are par-roasted and shredded for a beet tartare ($11), whose shaved cured egg yolk and pickled mustard seed is a visual allusion to the meaty original, a dish that “mimics something people are used to, in a healthier way,” she said. Scooped up on toasted slices of housemade challah, it’s a light, playful dish.
Plump wild mushroom dumplings ($12) on mint-fava bean puree were earthy crispy-edged purses stuffed with maitake and morel mushrooms brought in by her forager. Calamari ($11) in whisper-thin crust rested on a coconut-coriander gravy alive with sambal, orange zest and lime juice.
Lamb belly ($13) gets pickled rhubarb and pea tendril salad as allies to punch through gamy fattiness. Pork chorizo “Bolognese” ($12) over hominy grits with poblano relish sang a soulful Mexican tune.
A special of osso buco style bone-in short rib ($15) with Hasselback potato was as big as plates got. Five ounces of beef and an Idaho potato should lay meat-and-potato fears to rest.
The Plantana dessert ($9) was a dense plantain-banana cake that got nuttiness from tahini ice cream and sesame brittle, and hot blackberry caramel glaze poured at table.
“Every dish needs to make an impression,” said Vedaa. “I want everything to have its own identity. As structured as any menu can be, each thing deserves its own space.”
Especially since Vedaa has earned James Beard semifinalist nominations for best chef Great Lakes in 2017 and 2018, reservations are recommended.
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Larder Delicatessen and Bakery
1433 W. 29th St., Cleveland
Another James Beard nod went to this year-old casual counter-service restaurant, which opened a year ago. With intertwining DNA strands of old-school Jewish delicatessen, scratch bakery, and fermented foods emporium, Larder was nominated as one of the 30 best new restaurants in the country.
Inhabiting half of a historic 1854 firehouse, Larder delivers old-fashioned values made with newfangled ideas.
Jeremy Umansky channels his obsession with koji, the Japanese mold used to make soy sauce and sake, into products from pastrami to vegan “charcuterie.”
Harnessing the enzymatic power of koji, Black Angus briskets are cured in two days instead of the traditional weeks, Umansky said. “It works to unlock all these deep umami flavors and subtle sweetness, creating aromas that come through as great roasted meat flavors, with hints of sweetness, and floral undertones.”
It sounds daft until you bite into the pastrami sandwich ($12), lush, tender and smoky on house-baked rye bread, leavened with the crunchy zing of red sauerkraut and housemade mustard. Smoked whitefish salad ($12), slabs of gefilte fish, and lox hold down the seafood side.
Root vegetables are treated like whole muscles being turned into charcuterie: smoked, cured, inoculated and dried. “What we end up with is something that has the texture, on the beets, that a lot of people say reminds them of the texture of lox, cured fish, or like a beef carpaccio, like a rare steak in terms of its bite.”
The results can be sampled as part of a Larder vegetarian board ($15), with assorted pickles, cheese, and bread.
Balancing out the mold madness are Jewish-centric baked goods, from Umansky’s wife, Allie La Valle-Umansky, an accomplished baker. Besides rye and other breads, the display case is piled with loaves of babka ($9), chicken paprikash turnovers ($3.50), black-and-white cookies ($2), and challah cinnamon rolls ($3.50). Rugelach ($1), classic New York style baked cheesecake ($5), and bread pudding ($4) are standards.
The third owner and chef-de-cuisine Kenneth Scott comes to the deli business from fine dining, most recently Jonathon Sawyer’s Trentina. At Larder, he’s making dishes like matzo ball soup ($5), a borschtlike vinegary version with the firm dumpling crowned with a riot of greenery heavy on fresh dill, and a fried chicken sandwich ($9) topped with a dill-inflected herb salad and dill pickles on a pillowy sesame bun.
Ohio City Galley
1400 W. 25th St., Cleveland
The new West Side food hall offers diners a chance to experience four start-up restaurants in one space. Options include Poca (Oaxacan Mexican), Sauce the City (fried chicken and sandwiches), The Rice Shop (rice bowls), and Tinman (American comfort food).
The combination means you can enjoy a bowl of Poca’s posole rojo ($10), pork and hominy soup deeply resonant with chile and tender corn kernels, in the same place as a surprisingly vibrant Rice Shop tuna poke bowl ($16), with plentiful ahi tuna enlivened with yuzu avocado dressing and togarishi tempura flakes on a bed of seasoned kale.
The Oaxacan braised pork shoulder ($15) with green mole, white beans, and salsa verde, Tinman’s griddled Monty Cristo (ham, gouda, maple cherry mostarda) with cherries ($14) and Sauce the City’s Cleveland Hot Chicken sandwich ($14.95) are worth a try.
There’s also a bar in the next room, a columned and high-ceilinged former bank lobby, offering craft cocktails, plus 30 taps of craft beer and cider. Conversation was harder here.
Unlike Buffalo’s Expo, this operation will bring the food to customers marked by numbers on stands that serve as signals to food runners. Service was swift, with food arriving in 10 to 15 minutes.
3142 Superior Ave., Cleveland
Shanghai-style soup dumplings, meatballs and broth inside wrappers so thin that getting them to your mouth is a suspenseful experience, aren’t offered in Buffalo. This place opened about 18 months ago, offering the dumplings (six for $5), called xiao long bao, as part of a brief lineup of Shanghaiese classics. A picture window into the kitchen lets curious diners watch the nimble fingers of the dumpling master at work.
Spicy duck head ($6) and pig ear with chili sauce ($7) are on the menu, but I can only vouch for the soup dumplings, scallion noodles ($6), and the brightest, most addictive seaweed salad ($6) I’ve ever encountered. Service is swift and sure, and the small room fills fast at peak hours.
Dinerbar on Clifton
11801 Clifton Blvd., Lakewood
What could make a Greek-hearted diner serving breakfast all day, hot and fast, even better? Booze. And so Dinerbar was born. Get the housemade corned beef hash, and the cinnamon toast pancakes shot through with swirls of caramelized sugar – and get a horseradish-jacked Bloody Mary to go with.
Even if you’re stuffed to the gills, the glass-sided dessert case, loaded with temptations like the salted caramel cheesecake crowned with a dome of mascarpone and Giant Ho-Ho (both $8.95) are worth a sightseeing stroll, for eye candy.
Lox, Stock & Brisket
13892 Cedar Road, University Heights
Anthony Zappola, alumnus of Tom Colicchio restaurant family, came home to open a restaurant serving handcrafted versions of deli favorites. The former executive chef of Colicchio’s Heritage Steak at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas turned his eye for detail on deli sandwiches.
In a homey enclave amid big-box stores, house-smoked lox on a bagel with cucumber, red onion, cream cheese and dill ($9) is perfectly balanced. House-smoked brisket on rye ($12) is topped with cucumbers, dill and mustard. But the show-stopper is the Lincoln Park ($11), a chicken sandwich of buttermilk-brined breast that juts out of the bun like it’s trying to fly. Juicy, crunchy, tangy with cool bread-and-butter pickle slaw, it’s practically perfect.