Dining with Iron Chef Michael Symon at Lolita in Cleveland

Until last Sunday, I wasn’t sure who Iron Chef Michael Symon is. Now, I do. My first introduction came with tickets to the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland–my friend’s pick.

Symon, who is from Cleveland, was one of the featured chefs who put on a show to an audience filled with foodies. While we stood in line like some sort of sheep waiting to claim our reserved seats, I still wasn’t clear about why I should care about him.

That’s changed. Symon is a Clevelander through and through. Celebrity chef or not, he knows how to talk to his people. Plus, the guy can cook, talk at the same time, and give tips about how to crush garlic and which part should be taken out to keep from being bitter. (You take out the green sliver in each clove. He called it the germ.)

Although we didn’t get one of those scrumptious looking date appetizers at the show, afterward we ate at Lolita, one of Symon’s restaurants. The dates were on the menu.

Lordy! Manna from heaven, pure and simple. Lolita is the companion restaurant to Lola–the high end eatery that Anthony Bourdain visited in the Cleveland episode of ” No Reservations.

Lolita, in the Tremont district of Cleveland–a historic, once gritty neighborhood that is on the rise–is a bistro type place that may have been a neighborhood bar years and years ago.

The exterior reflects its time period, but the inside has been transformed into an upscale edgy, artsy environment. The lighting is intimate and low, and the tables are far enough apart to add to the ambiance. Both my friend and I loved the decor, although I could barely read the menu since I was the one tucked next to the wall. The candle helped.

We had already ordered three appetizers and an entree to share, plus a glass of wine each, when Michael Symon appeared to eat dinner with his wife and friends. Like any good restaurateur, he stopped to chat with customers and laughed heartily at their conversations.

He didn’t notice me tucked in the dimly lit corner, however–or my friend who was about an inch from him when he visited with the folks at the table closest to us. She’s one of his ardent fans.

Being that he was in the middle of hobnobbing in between ordering and eating, we didn’t interrupt him–not even when we left after splitting our bill–about $26 or so a piece. I would have told him how much I loved those dates.

From what I remember from his show, they were baked for 10 or 15 minutes and covered with almonds that had been sauted along with chopped up panchetta. He promised to put the recipe on his blog, but it’s not there yet.

The dates weren’t the most creative item we ordered. That distinction goes to the Crispy Chicken Livers with “soft polenta, wild mushrooms and panchetta.” My friend wasn’t too fond of them. She’s not a liver gal after all, but I thought they were brilliant and felt sort of Andrew Zimmern-like eating them.

We also had the Fried Brussel Sprouts. They were chopped and fried up with anchovies, capers, walnuts and chilies. Quite wonderful. My friend adores brussel sprouts. Generally, I’ll eat them, but they’re not my fave. Symon’s version were a different story. Yum!

For an entree, I was saved from the pizza with pork belly by the waiter who said that he liked another sausage version of the pizza choices better. My friend, who was angling for the pork belly since she said everyone is cooking up dishes with pork belly these days, settled for the waiter’s recommendation.

My response to eating pork belly is this. “If everyone is jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?”

By the way, we had two slices of pizza each and took the rest away with us. The starters were filling enough, and I made my $6.50 glass of wine last the whole meal. An interesting touch to the wine service was that the waiter poured each serving from small cruet like pitchers into our glasses at the table. My friend had white and I had red. Mine was the cheapest and was quite good. Cheapest or not, it felt classy.

[The food photos by edseloh are from Flickr under Michael Symon. The food is not exactly what we ordered but has a certain similarity. There are other gorgeous shots that will make you hungry.]