Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sam's Town pt. 2

So where was I?

In 2011 Sam McNulty opened his most ambitious project to date, Market Garden Brewery. Given his track record this was bound to be something special. It has all the ingredients to make up one of the best places to go in the ENTIRE city of Cleveland. A brewery, that is managed by one of the former Brewmasters of Dogfish Head and Great Lakes Brewery that promises to bring amazing craft brews with a unique blend. A distillery, that promises to be a first for the city and most of northeast Ohio. And a food menu, that is quite unique in its own right. Any one of these things makes it a must see. However, the combination of all three makes for a remarkable combination that is sure to leave an impact on the entire city. But do we need it?

First the beer. A rotating beer menu that is all brewed in house! Seriously you can go and see the tanks by the back bar. And what a beer menu! IPA's? Check. Wheat? Check. Pilsner? Check. They even had a wonderful ESB for a while before it sold out. But they also have a very nice Scotch Ale (if you're into that sort of thing), a lovely stout, A DARK WHEAT (that has the faintest hint of cherry), and a black IPA that is just marvelous. So what's the problem? Nothing really. They are all inspired beers that meet my highest standard.

However, I get the impression that they can't meet the demand of the public because by the time you read this a third of that list will be no more. I am not kidding when I say that I went there opening weekend and by the following week they were out of a good portion of the beer menu that I saw the previous week. Now they are quite good at subbing in new alternatives but you can tell that they are getting... "creative". A perfect example is a "Shandy" option which is just the Old School Lager with lemon juice poured in it. It's lovely, I am sure, and I had a friend of mine tell me as much the other day, but it seems just a touch on the lazy side.

So how about the food. I have not had a bad meal there yet. They have a starter of BBQ popcorn that is possibly one of the best snack foods in the history of snack foods. Seriously if Sam decides to sell it in stores, I will be there for the midnight release party. Just the right amount of spice and smokiness that delights your senses. The wings are good, not great but not anything to kick to the curb. (A word of warning: The hot is sneaky. It will get you in the end).

Then you get to the main courses. I have enjoyed the hell out of the sandwiches that are offered. The Cuban is quite nice and the Chorizo Joe is a great take on the classic sloppy joe. However, that's it. I would love to advise you on some of the other menu items but this being such a new restaurant, I just haven't had time to try everything.

So that brings us to the distillery. Well, it's not up and running yet due to permit issues. So that saves me from having to write a long paragraph about it. I will say this, I love the idea.
All of that being said I still haven't addressed the main question. Do we need it? The answer is quite frankly a bit vague. To be honest I have had some reservations about this particular post. On the one hand, Sam McNulty has created one of the most visually pleasing spaces in downtown Cleveland that we could ever ask for. In the outdoor courtyard you have steel beams as decoration with a view of the West Side Market as the background. It represents everything that is my city so well. The interior is also well presented and just as creative in every way. Soon there will be a rooftop patio and a basement added on to the property that has probably cost millions to create. And here is where the other shoe drops. When all is said and done Market Garden Brewery will hold 1,000 people.

The thing is that I love hanging with my friends and meeting new ones but 1,000 is just too much. We are talking wall-to-wall with people fighting for an inch of space trying to get the bartender's attention. Hour to two hour long waits for tables. Delays on food service. I don't care how well a place is run when you start pushing four digit occupancy, things are gonna suffer.

The final verdict... well that's hard to say. I love this place. I love its concept and everything it hopes to be and by all means you should go there... NOW! It has the potential to be exactly what Sam want's it to be, a beacon of hope for the city. But to be honest it is too early to call exactly what it will turn into. Will it be a great place that cannot be missed when you come to the city? Or will it be the "mega bar" that turns W. 25th into W. 6th? I guess time will tell on that one. For now I recommend it highly but mostly on the weekdays.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sam's Town pt. 1

In 2005 I was pretty much convinced that The Winking Lizard was the best place in town. An absurd amount of beers available with a decent quality bar food menu. This is what appeals to a 20-something guy living in Coventry, just a stone's throw away from the Cleveland Heights location. It was simple and a basic introduction into the world of craft beer at a price that was pretty reasonable, and the food was good enough to sop up the alcohol and prevent the world from spinning out of control. When I was leaving town in 2007, my roommate at the time had mentioned this place that popped up on W. 25th called Bier Markt. But it was too little to late for me because I moved to Las Vegas shortly thereafter and never got to experience it.

While I was in Las Vegas I somehow managed to raise The Winking Lizard to a biblical status. Nothing could compare. When I spoke of it, I talked about a epic food menu and a beer list that no one in culture-starved Las Vegas could begin to understand.

Flash forward to 2009 and I make my return trip home. Within days of my arrival I find myself bellied up to the bar ready to enjoy this "mythical" meal of great beer and food. When I go to order I realize how badly out of proportion I may have made this place out to be. Sure, the beer list is good but it hasn't really changed in the few years I've been gone. Plus the more standard fare of Budweiser, LaBatt, Miller, Guinness (Don't get me wrong. I love it; it's just standard.) and Heineken are now littering this once outstanding beer menu.

But never mind. Surely the food will be as good as I remember. It wasn't. The wings that I had so fondly immortalized were now, again, standard. Inconsistent quality of meat, uneven sauce distribution, and a increased price point soured me on what I once thought to be the "best wings IN THE WORLD."

Now this is not intended to be a knock on the Winking Lizard, as much as it is a knock on my own head. I still go there and still very much enjoy the place, I just see it in a different light now.

Meanwhile: In 2005 Sam McNulty opens Bier Markt, a Belgian style bar that has a wide variety of unique brews that are not always the easiest to find. Of course "2005 Moving to Vegas Me" could not be bothered with this, so I missed the boat completely. Then sometime in 2007 Sam opens Barcento a wonderful new restaurant with the help of newcomer chef Jonathon Sawyer (you may remember him from such blogs as ... this one) who takes the concept of bar food and throws it out the window. On top of that it is located RIGHT NEXT DOOR to Bier Markt, turning the two of them into "Super Restaurant." Again 2007 me was too busy preparing my self for two years in the desert that, again, I could not be bothered.

When I returned in 2009 I kept hearing things from friends about this place called "barchendo". They would say things like "have you been to barchendo?" or "when should we go to barchendo?" So finally I met a friend of mine there and I was quickly surprised by what I had been missing. First, that I was incorrect on how it was pronounced and spelled. (This is also coming from a guy who thought a Rum and Coke was really called a "Roman Coke." [Seriously. Say "Roman Coke" in a bar and no one will correct you].) Second was the fact that I had stumbled into one of the finer drinking and dining establishments in the city.

The "bier" menu is a trip across the globe to the country of Belgium, where the monks must be drunk off their collective asses 24/7 because they make some damn fine beer. Chimay Blue, Delirium Tremens, and La Fin Du Monde are pretty much old hat, compared to what Bier Market has on their list.

Ales, varying from dubbel to tripel are pretty common on the menu, but the fact that they sometime delve into quadruple makes the drinking experience unique. On top of all that, they pour the most perfect Stella Artois that you can imagine. (Water spritz the Stella glass, pour the beer with a nice amount of head, remove excess head with knife, and repeat when empty.)

All that beer can make you work up an appetite and luckily Barcento is right there to the rescue. Gone are the days of wings and potato skins, now there is a wonderful assortment of originals that feel like they should have been in my life much sooner. Perhaps a nice assortment of meats and cheeses presented with house-pickled vegetables for starters? Then a stunning array of pizzas that range from the traditional to the wild. (Pancetta, provolone, eggs, black pepper anyone?). There are, of course, mussels in a Belgian beer sauce with butter. That is never a bad thing. But the thing that most people talk about are the frites.

Now you will hear me talk about "best thing in Cleveland" a lot in this blog, and this is one of those moments. Pommes Frites, for those not experienced, are french fries. But not your ordinary fries. These giant "steak fries" are cooked to perfection and served wrapped in a cone made from the menu. I am not sure what they are cooked in but I am willing to go out on a limb and say it is some kind of fat (duck, goose, etc). What I do know is that they are seasoned with lots of garlic and rosemary. On top of that? Three dipping sauces of aioli and ketchup that add flavor but do not take away from the fries themselves. I am not kidding when I say that I have had entire meals and am full to the point of uncomfortableness, but I will still go back and grab just a few more fries because they are just that good.

So the combination of great food and a unbelievable beer menu (plus there is a wine menu of about 100 wines if you're so inclined) makes this a place not to be missed. However, there remains a downside to this greatness. The weekends are NEVER the time to go. Barcento might be ok, but getting a table can take a while and Bier Markt can get crowded to the point that it is uncomfortable. This place is good enough to warrant those kinds of crowds but you will find yourself happier going during the week or off hours. (The kitchen is open until 2AM 365). Also keep in mind, their happy hour specials apply to some of the more popular food items, fries being one of them. So take that into consideration when you are planning your trip but by all means PLAN A TRIP.

Then in 2011 Sam did something else... (To be continued)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mistake about the lake.

While growing up in Cleveland I would hear people refer to the city as "the mistake by the lake" and I never really understood it. I originally thought that it was more referring to our various sports franchises and their history of (bitter) failure through the years. However, a I grew older still and went to school in West Virginia I realized that some people took that a little more literally than others (I am looking at you Pittsburgh). They really thought "that town is a piece of crap and should be wiped from the planet." And during football season I can assure you I have the same feelings about our fair rival. That being said, I happen to like Pittsburgh. It's a cool town to visit with a great food and (although somewhat archaic) beer culture and everyone there is so very similar to us. So I was always surprised when people from "the burgh" would continue to refer to us as "the mistake by the lake" (again more so during football season but whatever). But this caused me to think about this statement a bit more. It's not really a "mistake by the lake" as much as it is a "mistake about the lake".

We have made a mistake with our lake. We don't appreciate it. It sits at our doorstep every day and we forget that it is there. We hardly ever visit it and, with the exception of boaters, we don't spend nearly as much time as we should in it. When growing up I could probably count on one hand the times that we went to the lake for recreation. So back in 2005 my parents went to a party right by the lake and my mom said "it's a shame that more people don't come here" about three months later they moved to a house right on Lake Erie and have not looked back since. I am fortunate to spend as much time as I do sitting right by the lake.

Unfortunately for most this is a problem that will continue for years to come simply because there are not a ton of public areas to hang out at. And unless Burke Lakefront Airport disappears it is unlikely that we will be getting any new waterfront space in the foreseeable future. But before you give up entirely I am here to provide you with hope. It's a small glimmer that can barely be seen but it does exist. It's called Cropicana, and it is just what the doctor ordered.

Down in Whisky Island there is a small marina located by Windy Park and just outside of that there is a small building no bigger than a medium sized house. It used to be called Sunset Grill but it was so overpriced and poorly run that it was pointless to go except for the view. This past winter however, Steve Schimoler (of Crop Bistro fame) took a hammer to everything. The interior went through a nice facelift with a more polished look. Outside is a nice sized outdoor kitchen and a good sized bar were built. This makes for a very pleasant area to hang out in most weather conditions.

When I originally went to this location when it was the Sunset Grill I though the food was overpriced and not very appetizing. I was skeptical when I saw the new menu that the result might be the same. 6 wings for $7??? Seemed a bit steep but I opened my mind (and wallet) and tried them. I do not hesitate in saying that they are probably one of my favorite wings in this town. They are smokey, spicy, and fall right off the bone. Also they are quite large so even with the $7 price tag you are getting good value for your money. The rest of the menu reads like "bar food fare" on steroids. Smoked salmon sliders, smoked cherry chipotle ribs, fish tacos, chorizo tacos, smoked chicken enchiladas, and in case you feel like dying a bit sooner they have a basket of fries with bacon gravy with cheese. I have had a good number of things there but I find myself going back to the wings whenever I get a chance.

Now there are a few downsides to this place. Parking sucks (I wish I could put that another way but it's the truth.) Although I find most of their items a good value it is a bit steep on the price for a lot of people. The beer selection is a bit standard and perhaps a buck or so overpriced. And if you are one of those people that attracts misquotes like nobody's business then stay way.

All that said when the Summer comes to our fair city there are very few places in town that feature our great lake as well as Cropicana. Now if we could convince about 6 or 7 more fine chef's to follow in Steve's footsteps perhaps instead of "mistake by the lake" we can go to "take me to the lake."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tapped out.

There are a few places in town that I find myself at more than others and the Tremont Tap House happens to be one of those places for many reasons. Reason the first: I LOVE BEER! Not in a d-bag drinking game way (although there have been those moments) but more in the way a sommelier loves wine. The various parings of flavor and aromas can make me all warm and happy inside (alcohol might help). Because of this the Tap House is a little spot of heaven right here in Cleveland. A rotating beer menu that has at least 40 beers on tap at all time is a thing of beauty. Add on top of that a very solid bottle list that remains consistent but has quite a number of unique finds (Rogue's Morimoto Imperial Pilsner would be a great example.) What's more they often find themselves right in the thick of things when Cleveland Beer Week rolls around.

As sacrilegious as it may sound coming from me the beer alone would not be enough to make me frequent this establishment as much as I do. For one thing I go there at least once a week starting in late September until mid May because my girlfriend's volleyball team is sponsored by the bar. Now don't get me wrong I would go there even if it wasn't, but the fact that I get to go so often is really just a bonus. The real reason to go is the food. Now the menu does not change nearly as much as the beer list but that does not change my love for the place. The theme of the place is Gastropub and as that style goes this probably should rate one of, if not, the best in the city.

For starters they have a pretzel that is for lack of a better word AWESOME. Now most of you are probably scratching your head at that statement so I will clarify. The pretzel itself is one of the better you will ever taste in your life, not too heavy but not too light either, that is just lightly salted and served warm. Alone it would be very good but the fact that it is served with a perfect beer cheese that, were it not for the fact that too much of it would kill you, could be a soup. What's more (and this may be the most amazing fact of all) I have yet to run out of this great dipping sauce whilst enjoying my pretzel. No matter how hard I try there is always just a touch bit of sauce left and I am not ashamed to say that I have spooned it up with my finger for that last bite. So again AWESOME is the word that will associate with this dish.

However, one could not live on pretzels alone. The burgers are quite good, not the best in the city, but very highly recommended. The chorizo tacos are really good and are often considered by my friends to be the highlight of the menu. (As you can tell from the above paragraph I may have other ideas.) Artisan cheeses? Yep, they got 'em. The pizza is decent but one of the things I wish they would update. The Mac & Cheese is always changing with whatever veggie happens to be in season at the time and is wonderful stand alone or with the chicken or chorizo option.

I could go on and on about the menu but I will say that the I (heart) Moule Frites is the other thing on the menu that must not be skipped. PEI Mussels in a Belgian beer sauce with blue cheese, bacon, and fries that for any mussel fan should be a absolute no-brainer. This dish has made me a happy man on a number of occasions and I do not hesitate in saying it may be the best thing to accompany beer since the invention of the glass.

On top of all that you have a great outdoor patio (fire pit for colder nights and movie screen for summer movie features) and a charming interior that will make you feel quite toasty come the colder months. The folks that work there are always friendly and usually quite well informed about the beers they sell so if you have trouble deciding, all you have to do is ask and you shall receive.

One last thing. I had brunch there the other week and it was very good. Now I have been told by many people that it is possibly the best brunch in town and I would not doubt that. However, I normally find myself occupied on Sunday mornings, either with sleep or work, so I do not have much to reference this with. I am working on that though and hopefully I can provide more insight in the future.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Avenging Noodlecat

Earlier today I was watching Anthony Bourdain in one of his MANY visits to Japan and he was really digging on some soba and ramen noodles. Now I am not the worlds biggest fan of Asian foods (your standard fare of kung-pow chicken and wonton soup are the way I lean most of the time) but if I have learned anything from watching food programs, it is that you can, and will, get hungry for what they are eating. So I contemplated the various Chinese food options in my neighborhood and found my choices lacking. Then I remembered that Chef Jonathon Sawyer just opened a brand new restaurant called Noodlecat and today seemed as good as any to check it out.

However, standing in my way of noodle goodness were explosions, mass destruction, actors, and directors. It was day whatever of filming the new "Avengers" movie downtown. And as happy as I am that this is filming in my home town it was located about 3-4 blocks away from my goal of great noodles. Undeterred I hopped in my car and off I went. Traffic was not terrible and seeing all the crap that was in the street was super cool. I even passed the "trailer park" where the likes of Samuel L. were probably hanging out. There were also tons of crowds hanging around just trying to get a glimpse of Hollywood in Cleveland (Hollyland or Clevewood, your call).

I parked just off E. 4th st. and made my way over to Noodlecat. It was clear that the lunch rush was just ending so I had no problem getting a table. The service was excellent and although I do not remember my waiter's name he was quite helpful throughout the entire meal. I was originally going to order the Tsukemen Ramen but they were out. That's when the waiter suggested a Hokkaido style ramen with fresh corn and some Ohio roasted pork. I took him up on his offer and also ordered the Chicken wings (I am a sucker for this) that were just the right amount of spicy and savory.

When it was all said and done I had a VERY good meal. The broth with the noodles was just the right amount of spiciness (although I did add a bit of hot sauce near the end) and the noodles themselves were the perfect consistency. Combine that with great pork (although I wish there was a touch more) and fresh corn shucked off the cob and it made for a very enjoyable lunch. Honestly I can't wait to go back for more. If there is a downside to this it would be the size of the napkins, which are not big enough to handle the amount of slurping you will be doing.

I left happy and thought the world needs to know of this place. Also, if your getting your information from Yelp you are asking the wrong people. I have decided that most of the time they will shit on a restaurant before it even has a chance to get off the ground. Trust me on this it is a cool place to go and you will not be disappointed.

Hello Cleveland!

A few months ago I was talking about a great dining experience I had with one of my co-workers. She said "you should write a column for the paper about food/entertainment" which was flattering but a somewhat dated idea. Fast forward to today and I bring you "The New Clevelander" a blog dedicated to all things Cleveland, OH. I grew up in this town and I have witnessed (eh perhaps not the best choice of words there) great triumphs and tragedies in everything from sports to just a basic quality of life. Unfortunately there may have been too many "tragedies" and eventually it culminated in my leaving home in 2007 for Las Vegas, NV. Two phrases best represent this move "A great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there." and "You don't know what you've got until its gone." So in the spring of 2009 I returned.

However, the city I left had changed in small little ways that surprised me. This town of chain restaurants and fast food was moving in a new direction. Locally owned establishments with a flair for something different, craft breweries that are quickly changing the landscape of Cleveland's nightlife. All of these things plus growth in such neighborhoods as Ohio City, Gordon Square, Tremont, and to some degree Collinwood have led to a small renaissance in my fair city. So I went exploring. Trying new places and different things as much as I can. Some of these places are truly amazing and deserve as much of our attention as possible. Some will have a bit of a learning curve but there are great improvements in the future. Some... well some can be skipped.

This brings me to what I hope to accomplish here. I want people to explore my city and realize that it is not a "mistake on the lake" or the butt of so many other jokes. So when someone comes to visit my city (or is rediscovering) I might be able to provide answers to the question "what do you do for fun around here?" So welcome to my home! I hope you stay awhile.