Cleveland in 36 hours and some

This past Sunday’s New York Times’ article “36 Hours in Cleveland” did the city proud. Writer Brett Sokol captured most of the must-sees of Cleveland’s many faces that range from the down home blue collar to the artsy and highbrow. I was particularly pleased to see a nod to Lilly Handmade Chocolates in the Tremont district. The pink-haired owner is a delight and the chocolates exquisite. Think manna from heaven. Please go there because I so want this upbeat business to succeed.

For anyone planning a few days trip to Cleveland, print off Sokol’s article as a basic guide but add to the itinerary. The places I’d add to round out the mix are top notch and next to the ones that Sokol highlights. You’ll have to add a few hours to fit everything in though, otherwise you’ll be racing through Cleveland without enough time to enjoy the view–or savor the food.

Even if you don’t want to pay admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, take time to enjoy the building. The atrium and gift shop are free. The building, an I.M. Pei creation, is one of my Cleveland favorites. Some hotels like the Embassy Suites may have a package deal where tickets to the museum are part of the deal. The view of Lake Erie from inside the museum is wonderful.

Next to Rock and Roll is the walkway that heads down to the lake. This is where artist Spencer Tunick set up his shots of naked people. At the end of the walkway you can catch a trip on the Good Time III, the sightseeing boat that travels up the Cuyahoga River. The tour passes under a series of Cleveland’s movable steel bridges that turn and raise to let tall boats through.

This part of Cleveland that edges Lake Erie is also where the Great Lakes Science Center and the Cleveland Browns Stadium are located. The science center boasts a wide range of hands-on exhibits that suit people of all ages. Along the outside wall of the Browns stadium are bronze relief plaques that pay tribute to Football Hall of Famers who played with the Browns.

Before you head to Lilly’s for a chocolate fix, if it’s a Sunday, go to Lucky’s Cafe for brunch. Lucky’s is also on Starkweather Avenue. Be prepared to hold your ground when it comes to getting a table. It’s first come, first serve. Don’t lose your place in line. If you’re with another person, one of you should stake out a table while the other person orders at the counter. The fruit salad with yogurt is absolutely gorgeous and sublime. Personally, I’d have them go sparingly on the honey.

At Lolita, Iron Chef Michael Symon’s restaurant, one of Sokol’s recommendations I second, order appetizers and a pizza for dinner. It’s one way to cut down on the price of a meal and still be able to savor Symon’s brand of creative cooking paired with a glass of wine.

Sokol’s choice of Sokolowiski’s University Inn as another meal location was a brilliant call as a way to contrast Cleveland’s upscale cutting edge creations with its comfort food and ethnic roots. Here I dug into the pirogies and cabbage rolls . Plus, as Sokol notes, the view of Cleveland from this restaurant encapsulates what makes the city unique.

Another area of the city that Sokol captured in his 36 hour spree is University Circle. Although it was “built on the backs of the working people,” as my husband, the son of an auto worker, is fond of saying, wealthy industrialists did put their money to excellent use. For example, The Cleveland Museum of Art, I think, is the grandest museum in Ohio–and it’s free. Recently renovated, the 1916 building is an architectural gem. October 4- January 18, 2010, Paul Gauguin: Paris features 75 of Gauguin’s paintings. Although the main museum is free, this special exhibit has an admission.

Nearby are the Cleveland Botanical Gardens and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Each are also worth a visit. The glass house at the botanical garden features a wonderful canopy walk that is a chance to pretend that you’ve gone to Costa Rica–the version without the rain as Katie recently experienced.

Another of my Cleveland favorites that garnered a Sokol nod is the Westside Market. Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous place. If you want to see the bounty of Cleveland’s ethnic heritage, it’s clearly evident in the mix of food stalls. Asian food newcomers have found their way here as well. Here you can pick something up to take on the road or chow down on there.

Ohio City, where the Westside Market is located, is a restaurant mecca. Within view from each other–most on West 25th Street are Phnom Penh, Bar Cento, and Nate’s Deli and Restaurant . Around the corner on Market Avenue are Great Lakes Brewing Company and Flying Fig. Each of these are excellent. Take your pick depending upon your mood, time of day, financial situation and appetite. There are more eateries than these, but these are the ones I’ve been to and can give a rousing thumbs up.

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.]