Unexpected Cleveland: Cultural, Culinary, Viticultural

Cleveland downtown at night as seen from Lake Erie North Shore

My early Cleveland awareness came from the movie Howard the Duck, and I quote, “Hey, if I had some place to go I certainly wouldn’t be in Cleve-Land.” (Thank you, George Lucas!) From the more recent TV series 30 Rock, I learned that NYC women all look like models in “The Cleve” (Thank you, Tina Fey!) Now, what’s with all these distortions to a perfectly normal name? Legend has it that a local newspaper lost an “a” from General Moses Cleaveland’s last name to fit it into a masthead back in the day. Today, there’s the visitors bureau’s new slogan, “Discover the Unexpected Side of Cle+.” So, on a recent trip to C-Town I was ready to make some discoveries, and the unexpected side of Cleveland turned out to be rather spectacular.

The Cleveland Museum of Art presents its enormous even on an international scale permanent collection admission-free. Both buildings of the Museum—Beaux-Arts 1916 and Marcel Breuer’s 1971—are included in an ongoing renovation and expansion project to better accommodate its riches. While a full exploration would take more than one day, I enjoyed the Rodin sculpture gallery in a glass-walled modern section, a good number of Post-Impressionist paintings, and Picasso’s masterpieces from his Blue and Rose Periods.

The Cleveland Botanical Garden is located nearby in the same University Circle neighborhood. Among its many wonders is the Glasshouse with Madagascar and Costa Rica exhibits, hosting not only plants from these bio-diverse regions, but also butterflies, birds, and other fauna. There are several theaters, filled every night, in the beautifully restored historic buildings of Playhouse Square.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland provides a full-immersion experience into the iconic world of popular music with a massive collection of records, sheet music, instruments, costumes, press and photo archives, interactive programs, film, video, and a concert series.

Firmly putting Cleveland on the culinary map is a surprising number of excellent restaurants. From a classic no-frills breakfast at The Ritz-Carlton’s Muse (eggs, cereal, muffins, OJ, fresh berries, coffee) to Lucky’s Café’s fanciful Rueben sandwich with house-cooked beef, house-pickled sauerkraut and house-made Thousand Island dressing on house-baked bread, and vanilla bean buttermilk waffles with rhubarb compote, honeyed whipped cream and caramel sauce—there are too many choices to consider them all. Don’t miss Lucky’s in artsy Tremont though: luckyscafe.com.

Chef Doug Katz at Fire Food and Drink in Cleveland

The ultimate brunch destination is Fire Food and Drink in historic Shaker Heights. Chef-owner Doug Katz operates his wood-fire ovens, pours Hollandaise sauce over mushroom eggs Benedict, and greets his regulars, all at the same time and with great ease. While devouring Doug’s crispy fried chicken livers (just like my grandma’s long ago), I learned that he presides over Cleveland’s Independents—restaurateurs who unite to support local farmers and each other in a concerted effort to promote their trade.

At Light Bistro in Ohio City you can choose from 160 great wines from all over the world and pair them with house-baked parmesan baguette, Valdeon cheese and almond-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates or chicken paillard. Dinner at Chinato on East Fourth Street in the Entertainment District will surprise and delight you with beef tongue topped with beets and greens, delicately fried skate wing alla Milanese, and real Italian desserts like airy and creamy tiramisu or miniature cannoli.

Food Network acclaimed chef Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland

The Greenhouse Tavern is a rather large and well-oiled operation, and the first certified green restaurant in Ohio. Acclaimed chef-owner Jonathan Sawyer brings a whole beast from the city market and diligently uses every part of it in his cuisine. He ferments his own vinegars and relentlessly follows his commitment to recycling and green living. The Tavern’s specialties and favorites are many: veal gravy fries with mozzarella curd; crispy chicken wings with jalapeno, garlic, and lemon juice; pork skins with parsley; an absolutely amazing Erie walleye in light tomato broth. Rigatoni with woodear mushrooms comes in a festival of tastes with pancetta, corn, and roasted red peppers, and my favorite beef tartar is served with 2-minute egg, red jalapeno, Dijon, and cornichons. No matter how full you might be, never leave Greenhouse Tavern without Jeni’s ice cream. From cherry with Belgian beer to saltwater caramel, the flavors are varied and nothing short of divine.

I couldn’t leave The Cleve without a visit to the mother of all culinary advancements here—West Side Market in the Ohio City neighborhood. The largest market in the country, it was built in 1912 with indoor and outdoor areas overflowing with farm-fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy, freshly baked breads, and ethnic foods. Its 180 booths contain everything from Lake Erie fish to Hungarian sausage and French pastries.

On the eve of my departure, my friend and colleague Sarah Jaquay, who writes for The Wine Buzz, took me on a delightful side trip to Lake County wineries. I admit, as a California Wine Country regular, I was rather ironic at first. However, the beauty of the natural settings and the unadulterated quality of Ohio wines made me ashamed of my own arrogance.

Doreen Pietrzyk of St. Joseph Vineayards with her wines in Lake County

Pinot Noir grown from Dijon clones is a specialty of St. Joseph Vineyards, owned and operated by Art and Doreen Pietrzyk. Tightly clustered and delicate grapes that grow on hills are handpicked and sorted once in the field and then again when they come in boxes. The Pietrzyks limit their tonnage per acre to secure richer nutrient content in a smaller crop. They also grow sauv blanc, char, pinot gris, shiraz and merlot, and produce the most delicious German-style semi-dry Vidal blanc, plus ice wine made from frozen-on-the-vine grapes, icy and sugary with concentrated juice.

Gene Sigel in his South River Vineyard winery located in a church building in Lake County

South River Vineyard is located in a salvaged 1892 building that was formerly a Methodist-Episcopal church—cathedral ceiling, colored glass windows, pews, and all. It’s the successful enterprise of first generation winemakers Gene and Heather Sigel whose best wines come from the vineyards on premises overlooking the Grand River Canyon. The spouses implement their vision of a destination winery not only with their wines, but also with recent additions of an outdoor fireplace, a wine cave, and a Greek-style pavilion with stunning sunset views. South River’s bestseller is a sweet reserve Riesling, but after a thorough tasting I couldn’t identify any of their wines that would not be superb. Rich dry reds have site-relevant names like Exodus (excellent 100% merlot), Trinity (a blend of cab franc, pinot noir, and a versatile hybrid chambourcin), and Karma (cab sauv, cab franc, and merlot). Their sweet wines are called Creation and Temptation.

Dear Sarah organized our good-bye dinner at the historic Brennan’s Fish House in Grand River, the best place to try Lake Erie’s famous walleye and yellow perch. The shallowest and warmest of all the Great Lakes, Erie supplies both tasty fish in abundance.

As I was checking out the next morning from the hospitable Doubletree Hotel Cleveland Downtown/Lakeside to catch my early flight back to SFO, a smiley clerk at the registration desk asked me, “What, no time for breakfast?” and put a couple of warm from the oven oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies into my hand.

For more information to plan your own Cleveland visit go to Positively Cleveland.