2058 E. 4th St.
2000 4th Ave
I'm going to cheat a little here because I've been meaning to write about both of these restaurants for quite a while. The only thing they have in common is their name: Lola. Well, that and a commitment to using the best local ingredients to re-create classic food traditions.
Lola Bistro, in Cleveland, is headed by Michael Symon, the newest Iron Chef on the Food Network. Symon describes his cooking style as "farm-driven American." Every dish we tried had an interesting quirk, something that I expect you wouldn't find anywhere else.
B and I shared one of Lola's signature dishes, beef cheek pierogie with wild mushrooms and horseradish creme fraiche. Pierogies are Slavic comfort food, dumplings commonly stuffed with cheese, potato or meat. It was funny to see one served in a white-tablecloth restaurant with all the trappings of an haute hors d'oeuvre. But this pierogi -- larger than most; they're not usually served in the singular -- was luscious and rich, not at all out of place.
I 'd never tasted roasted fennel soup, and it wasn't especially appealing when it arrived at the table, rather muddy brown. But the flavor was earthy and comforting, and before I knew it the bowl was empty.
I love hanger steak -- at least in part because it's usually served with fries -- so it was no stretch to try Lola's. But "hanger steak with pickle sauce"? Again, my expectations were confounded. There was no green on the plate at all, but with every bite of meat came a trace of dill and sweet relish. Maybe "pickle juice" would be more appropriate, but no one reading the menu wants to think of a steak suspended in pickle brine.
The "Lola fries" were flagrantly addictive. B seemed alarmed at the way I was devouring them and kept moving the metal cup full of frites out of my reach -- as if he could stop me, ha ha!
B also enjoyed his duck entree, which included roasted breast, confit and pickled cherries. But I kept going back to that hanger steak.
Our dessert was obviously created by someone with a good sense of humor - not surprising, if you've ever heard chef Symon's manic laugh.
This is the "6 AM Special:" French toast served with maple-bacon ice cream and caramelized apples. Yes, bacon ice cream. Believe it or not, it was delicious. Don't you pour syrup on your bacon when you're having it with pancakes? Sure you do.
Chef Tom Douglas' Lola, in Seattle, is a re-imagining of Mediterranean cuisine, highlighting the foods of the Northwest US. So there are kebabs served with rice and pita, but the skewers hold grilled squid or sockeye salmon or Pacific prawns, in addition to lamb or beef.
When the server told me that the day's soup was puree of roasted fennel with fig, I had to try it. I had a hard time imagining those flavors together, but it was a revelation.
The puree looked like a latte in the cup, with a wonderful spicy licorice aroma and a swirl of pureed figs thoughout. A few roasted chopped hazelnuts on top added crunch, and the surprise at the bottom was a whole fig, soft and chewy. With most dishes, you stop really tasting them about halfway through, but this soup had me pondering the mix of flavors through the last spoonful.
The generous portion of squid kebab was tender and very spicy, seasoned with crushed chilis and chermoula. I needed the cooling yogurt sauce that was served on the side. Cucumber-tomato salad often seems like an afterthought on the plate, but this one was nicely minty, with just enough mild dry feta cheese in the mix.
I thought I wasn't hungry enough for another course, but I couldn't resist an apricot crostada with ginger- marigold ice cream. The crostada tasted like the world's best PopTart -- perhaps the pastry chef would be insulted by the comparison, but I mean it as praise! -- tender pastry, crisp on top, lightly sugared, and filled with perfectly tart fruit.
The ice cream stumped me. It wasn't gingery at all. It tasted like... some kind of seed? I questioned my server, and she confirmed that I had been given the wrong flavor. It was sunflower-seed ice cream; tasty, but it didn't do a thing for the dessert. She promptly brought another scoop of ice cream, and that was amazing with the crostada. The sharpness of fresh ginger was mellowed by the herbal notes from the marigold.
It's probably good that I was dining alone for this meal. I was so fascinated by the food that I doubt I could have made much conversation.