The witty Doug Trattner, the former lawyer turned food critic, has been telling us where to eat and what to avoid for the past six years via the Free Times (plus regular stints with the Plain Dealer and on WMJI). And last year, the Ohio SPJ (society of professional journalists) named him the best critic in Ohio.
1. What is the first thing you notice when you walk into a restaurant? There is plenty to notice before you even step into a restaurant, like the looks on the faces of those just leaving. But once inside, I’d like to be warmly acknowledged immediately, or as soon as possible if the host is occupied. And again, you can tell a lot about a place by the expressions on diners’ faces. If they are all having fun, chances are good you’re in for a good meal.
2. What restaurant do you recommend to people visiting Cleveland? If they are staying downtown, I always suggest Flying Fig, Lolita and Crop. If they are staying on the east side, it’s Fire or Moxie. Out west, it’s Three Birds. I think these places are great representations of our regional dining scene. They offer glimpses into a cuisine that is both local and worldly. And all of them are hip, fun, comfortable places.
3. What restaurant do you miss? The Wagon Wheel. This was a cozy French bistro in the basement of a bar. It was run by a kooky old Frenchman who served frog legs sautéed in garlic, trout amandine, steak with the most amazing béarnaise on the planet. Although it closed when I was young, it taught me to be an adventurous diner, to love all sorts of food, and to see what a truly happy place a thriving restaurant can be.
4. What do you love and hate about your job? I love chatting with chefs and operators who are as passionate about food as I am. I never get tired of discussing great restaurants, both here and in other cities. (And being invited to the taping of the Next Iron Chef finale didn’t suck, of course.) But as glamorous as being a food critic might sound, there are plenty of times when you’d rather swallow anti-freeze than get in your car, drive across town, and spend money at a restaurant you know stinks because you’ve eaten there once already. And just try describing a scallop for the 1000th time!
5. What’s your last meal on earth? Do you know something I don’t? I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a half-dozen steamed lobsters, fresh sweet corn, lots of crusty bread to mop up the tomalley and a couple bottles of Grgich chardonnay. You can toss in a nice salad if you’re buying, but chances are good I won’t get around to eating it.
6. What hidden restaurant/gem have Clevelanders yet to discover? Cheesecake Factory. I kid, I kid. I think Chinatown — forgive me, Asiantown – is often ignored overall. There are tons of great restaurants, markets, funky shops. It is the most foreign-feeling place in the region, apart from Avon, of course. One of my new faves is Wonton (33rd and Payne), where you can get a big bowl of soup loaded with noodles, plump shrimp dumplings, fresh greens and hot broth for about $4. Weekend dim sum at Li Wah or C & Y is an absolute blast, sober or not.
7. Where will Cleveland be culinary wise 10 years from now? I hope not far from where we are now. For our size, Cleveland is blessed with a large number of amazing indie chef-owned spots that more and more are utilizing the wealth of resources being grown in and around Cuyahoga Valley. And if gas prices continue to rise (cross your fingers), folks will stop sprawling into the boonies and the urban core will strengthen and become even more dynamic.
8. What’s your favorite comfort food? Fried chicken livers, weinerschnitzle and chicken paprikash from Balaton at Shaker Square. That or a big bowl of pho.
9. Why do so many indie restaurants close their doors each year in our city? I’m not sure that that is really the case anymore. Yes, places close. But compared to closings, at least lately, the rate of success seems quite better. Most often the reason behind a failed restaurant is either a wealthy, clueless owner or a talented, underfunded chef. There is so much more to a great restaurant than great food. It takes vision, planning, heart and deep pockets to weather a slow start. Also, we can’t stress enough how many independent restaurants the big chains seem to destroy in their wake. Think about where you want to spend your money and who you want to support or else we’ll all be celebrating Valentine’s Day at the Olive Garden. Mmmmm bread sticks.
10. If you could have one chef leave their post and become your personal home chef, who would it be? Michael Symon, because I love kicking his ass at Cornhole. He may be an Iron Chef, but the man can’t toss a bag o’ corn to save his life.
11. What restaurant’s opening do you look forward to in 2008? There are two: Jonathon Sawyer’s Gastropub, because the thought of being able to get good poutine in Cleveland makes me salivate. And Anatolia Cafe, the wonderful Turkish restaurant that is relocating from Cedar Center to Lee Road. It is truly the kind of food you can eat every day and never tire of. And being located about a block from home, that’s a good thing, as Martha would say.
12. If you could review one restaurant anywhere in the world, which one would it be? Speaking of poutine: there is a place in Montreal called Au Pied de Cochon (the pig’s foot) that I’ve been dying to hit ever since watching Bourdain tear it up there on No Reservations. The place serves pig every imaginable way, including meatloaf, cassoulet and stuffed with foie gras. Great for us pious Jews. This place serves duck in a can, where they cram a duck, some foie gras, garlic and god knows what else into a coffee can and roast it. Then they turn it out onto your plate. I mean, who wouldn’t lose their marbles over that?
13. If you weren’t reviewing restaurants, what would you be doing? I’d love to run a small farm raising goats, chickens and honey bees. I’d make cheese, steal honey from the bees and write the great American novel. But in all likelihood, I’d still be practicing law and hating every goddamn minute of it.
14. Do you like to cook? If so, what’s your specialty? I love to cook. After I left the practice of law, I seriously entertained thoughts of culinary school. But the idea of piling new student loans on top of old law school loans made me reconsider. Thankfully. As they say, working as a chef is a great way to ruin a good hobby. I’d much prefer cooking for fun at home than pulling 12-hour shifts in a hot kitchen. Lately, I’ve been perfecting my smoking, pigs, that is, not pot. I make absolutely killer ribs, pulled pork and smoked fish. I just murder that shit.