We are lucky to have Elaine Cicora’s palate in Cleveland. She has been educating and enticing us about the Cleveland food scene through the years. And no surprise here, she is the recipient of a James Beard award for her work in journalism; specifically for the piece she did on Michael Ruhlman.
1. What is the first thing you notice when you walk into a restaurant? Actually, there are several things that hit me pretty much at once: The aromas, which ought to be mouthwatering; cleanliness, which ought to be impeccable; and the host’s or hostess’s greeting, which ought to be prompt, warm, welcoming and sincere.
2. What restaurant do you recommend to people visiting Cleveland? There are a handful of spots that I think give a real sense of Cleveland: Lola for the food, the location, and for Michael and Liz Symon’s celebrity cred; Flying Fig for the food, location, and the sassy spin on local ingredients; Pier W for the view; Sokolowski’s for an old-style, Eastern-European carbohydrate overload (or, for those with access to a car, Babushka’s Kitchen in Northfield Center, for the same reason); and for a cheap downtown lunch with lots of quirky charm, Teahouse Noodles on E. 6th or Otto Moser’s, on Playhouse Square.
3. What restaurant do you miss? Boukairs, my childhood favorite in the Hanna Building, downtown. A grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and tomato, a tossed salad with that wonderful, homemade, Lebanese-style lemon dressing, and one of those towering ice-cream sundaes — the Chic of Araby probably, with raspberry sorbet, coffee ice cream, marshmallow cream, toasted pistachios, and gobs of that ultra -dense whipped cream…oh, mama!
4. What do you love and hate about your job? Getting paid to do my two favorite things — eating and writing! What’s not to love? Seriously, though, I love the complete editorial freedom I have to write an honest review; and the chance this job has given me to know the local scene and the very talented, dedicated men and women who make it work. Not so keen about the fact that I have to walk a couple miles every day — sun, snow, heat, or cold! — to burn off all the calories, though; or the fact that for every really great meal I get to enjoy, there are two or three that scare the hell out of me!
5. What’s your last meal on Earth? Well, this isn’t entirely local, but here goes: From Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, some fresh Pacific oysters on the half shell, followed by Zuni’s impeccable Caesar Salad (so amazingly pure and wholesome, with the most delicate, sweet, freshly picked romaine I’ve ever tasted– and lots of anchovies!); a French baguette from Great Lakes Baking Company, in Hudson, with some Plugra butter; homemade pappardelle with wild-boar bolognese, from Michaelangelo’s in Little Italy (I’m an Italian girl to the core!); rosemary frites from Lola (and maybe one of Michael’s grilled ribeye steaks, too — you did say this was my last meal on earth, right?); sliced tomatoes (from my garden), along with Parmesan-coated Ohio sweet corn on the cob, from Crop (this only applies if I die in July or August, though!); a bottle (or two) of Opus One; and a chocolate malt from Rosati’s Custard. Ideally, this would all be eaten in a sunny courtyard, and shared with my family and friends. Then, let me die right away, before the calories catch up with me!
6. What hidden restaurant or gem have Clevelanders yet to discover? I’m always amazed by how quickly local foodies suss out the newest spots; it’s hard to hide anything from them! Still, I think Crop, in the Warehouse District, should be better known — and probably will be, soon. And Superior Pho, in Asia Town, is still overshadowed by some of the other, bigger Vietnamese spots — and it’s a gem.
7. Where will Cleveland be culinary wise 10 years from now? That’s a tough call. On the whole, I think the trend toward small, contemporary, chef-driven restaurants — featuring modest portions of modern-American cuisine, moderate prices, and a hip, but casual vibe — will continue. Formal “special occasion” dining will remain dead. A kitchen filled with local, sustainably grown ingredients will be essential; and vegetarian cooking may finally come into its own. I’m guessing the scene will still be relatively small, but increasingly au courant, adopting national trends more quickly than what we see at this point. But on the other hand, if our economy continues its downward spiral, lunch at Olive Garden may be the pinnacle of indulgence for most Cleveland foodies a decade from now.
8. What’s your favorite comfort food? My homemade Cincinnati-style chili, based loosely on a recipe from the cookbook Square Meals, by Jane and Michael Stern.
9. Why do so many indie restaurants close their doors each year in our city? Lots of reasons, including poor planning, bad location, under-capitalization, and frank mismanagement. Also, the scenario in which a talented chef enters into a financial partnership with a group of non-savvy backers looking for a fast ROI has been the death of several good spots over the years. But mostly, the competition out there is brutal. Our crummy economy and shrinking population means that we don’t have the kind of large, affluent pool of diners who can support a big-city restaurant scene; and without the name recognition and economies of scale — in purchasing and advertising — that the chains enjoy, many independents find themselves hemorrhaging money.
10. If you could have one chef leave their post and become your personal home chef, who would it be? Hmmm…this week, I’m feeling partial to Dante Boccuzzi, who recently opened Dante, in Valley View. His food is vibrant, engaging, smart, and robust; his spirit is generous, yet intense; he has a sly sense of humor –always a great quality in a chef; he could sing and play his Les Paul for me while the pasta cooked and the salumi cured; and no, it doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes, in a dark, moody, Italian sort of way!
11. If you could review one restaurant, anywhere in the world, which one would it be? I would love to go back in time and dine — and review — Le Pavillion, the legendary French restaurant in NYC that began as part of the 1939 World’s Fair. The restaurant’s classic mid-century French cuisine, the huge buzz it had in the country, the lure it presented for the rich and famous of the time…it just stands out in my mind as a spot of mythic proportions, and I would have loved to have experienced it for myself.