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Cold, Comfort

Bathing Suit Season Is Months Away; Now Is The Time To Warm Your Soul With Great Food

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As the mercury plummets simultaneously with our nest eggs and optimism, now is no time to diet. What else do we have to comfort us if not for the cheesy, gooey, hearty and creamy goodness that is wintertime food? Here is a list of 15 fabulous dishes guaranteed to add a of bit cheerfulness to an otherwise dreary day. Oh, and this might be a good time to stash that bathroom scale.

UNDER $10

The crazy folks at La Brasa (6110 Denison Ave., 216.319.0500), a new Central-American eatery, do their charcoal grilling inside, if you can believe that. The process imbues the spare south-side joint with a mouthwateringly seductive perfume of grilled meats. Even better than the smell is the taste - and the price. For $8, diners receive a flavorful fresh-grilled chicken with a hill of rice and beans. Doused with tomatillo salsa, the dish is sunshine on a cloudy day.

I know it's just soup, but the onion soup gratinee ($7) at the newly opened L'Albatros (11401 Bellflower Rd., 216.791.7880, albatrosbrasserie.com) eats like a meal. Served in an earthenware crock overflowing with melted cheese, le soupe is one of the most heartwarming sights a snowbound soul could see. Beneath the molten cheese, a hot and hearty brew is loaded with sweet and tender onions, bits of beef and the requisite soup-soaked toast.

On a blustery winter weekend morning, there are few places better to duck into for some solace than Le Petit Triangle Café (1881 Fulton Rd., 216.281.1881, lepetittrianglecafe.com). And there are few better dishes than the mushroom Roquefort crepe ($9) to tuck into to kick-start the day. This savory crepe oozes with melty blue cheese, its tangy twang mellowed by scrambled eggs and buttery sautéed mushrooms. Add a glass of French bubbly to really improve your mood.

Ever since we phonied up a fever to ditch school, grilled cheese and tomato soup have been our guilty reward. As adults, the comforting one-two punch is no less satisfying, but we now require bigger tastes for the same return. Enter Touch Supper Club (2710 Lorain Ave., 216.631.5200, touchohiocity.com), where the Velveeta is swapped with fragrant gruyere, and the buttery griddled sandwich ($9) is beefed up with Italian salami. And the Campbell's has been ditched in favor of creamy tomato bisque. You can't - and shouldn't - mention comfort food in this town without giving props to Sokolowski's University Inn (1201 University Rd., 216.771.9236, sokolowskis.com). The question is where does one start; the problem is knowing when to finish. Order the softball-size stuffed cabbage ($9.95) and call it a (great) day. These expertly bundled cabbage packages are jam-packed with an earthy pork, beef and rice mixture and ladled with sweet tomato sauce. This home-style meal also includes two sides, bread and butter, and a trip to the salad bar.

UNDER $20

Americano (One Bratenahl Place, 216.541.3900, americanocleveland.com) has a menu full of affordable, delicious mood-adjusters, but the ale-glazed pot roast ($18) is like Paxil for the belly. Braised for a day in Great Lakes beer, the roast is meltingly tender. A hefty shank is propped up on a mound of garlicky potato-parsnip-rutabaga mashers, napped with gravy and drizzled with a sharp horseradish cream sauce. This dish makes comfort food uncomfortable.

Owner, cook and server Junior Battiste makes some mean Creole food, but not quickly. That's why we call ahead and order his killer jambalaya ($12.50) for takeaway. Battiste & Dupree Cajun Grill (1992 Warrensville Center Rd., 216.381.3341) is small and occasionally frustrating, but worth every bit of aggravation thanks to dishes with incredible authenticity and complexity. Like a spice rack in a bowl, the exuberant jambalaya is steeped with paprika, black pepper, garlic and cayenne.

Bistro 185 (991 E. 185th St., 216.481.9635, bistro185.com) regulars know to visit on Thursdays, when the ever-popular sautéed calves liver ($16.50) likely will be on the menu. This belly-buster of a meal requires a boundless appetite to complete, but the subsequent nap promises to be monumental in length and quality. Three slices of pan-fried liver are served with applewood bacon, mashed potatoes and a tidal wave of rich onion gravy.

Grits appear a couple of times on this list, and fans of the stuff will not quibble with its inclusion. At the always-welcoming Grovewood Tavern (17105 Grovewood Ave., 216.531.4900, grovewoodtavern.com), creamy cheddar grits serve as the base for an absolutely addictive chicken dish. Moist, crispy roasted chicken ($17) is glazed with a fragrant honey-lavender sauce, which adds a touch of sweetness and an uplifting summery note.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to eat more fish, but where's the comfort in that? Actually, the smoked trout and crab chilaquiles ($17) at Momocho (1835 Fulton Rd., 216.694.2122, momocho.com) contradicts the notion that seafood isn't filling and fulfilling. This Mexican-style lasagna stacks crab and trout into a satisfying stratum of soft tortillas, black beans and cheese. On top of it all is a runny fried egg and perky salsa verde.

UNDER $30

Ask around for a short rib recommend-ation and you'll likely get an earful. This dish has become the poster child for winter succor, and it is served in joints plain and fancy. Normally there's no need to spend $29 on a humble braised beef dish, but the Kobe beef short ribs at Fahrenheit (2417 Professor Ave., 216.781.8858, fahrenheittremont.com) are worth the stiff tariff. What sets these pups apart is the complex Asian glaze and the teriyaki lo mein noodles that take the place of plain old mashers. Low-country cooking is all about making folks feel loved, and few dishes epitomize the cuisine like shrimp and grits. The version ($27) offered at Henry's at the Barn (36840 Detroit Rd., 440.328.6088, henrysatthebarn.com) is staggeringly good, made with fresh seafood, sassy andouille and high-quality stone-ground grits. But what ties it together is the dreamy, cayenne-spiked cream sauce that drips down into the grits.

Almost any plate of pasta could rightly weasel its way onto a roster of must-have winter dishes, but the veal cannelloni ($24) served at Michealangelo's (2198 Murray Hill Rd., 216.721.0300, mangelos.com) deserves a place at the top of the list. Calling this dish "pasta," in fact, does it a disservice; the delicate wrappers are more like wafer-thin crepes than clumsy tubes. They are filled with an airy mixture of ground veal and ricotta cheese, and draped with a sinful mascarpone cream sauce. Nighttown (12387 Cedar Rd., 216.795.0531, nighttowncleveland.com) didn't invent the dish known as the Dublin Lawyer ($22.95), but it may have perfected it. When it comes to impressive pairings, lobster and cream is right up there with Fred and Ginger. In this house specialty, delectable lobster meat is bathed in a luxuriant cream sauce. To keep things from becoming over-the-top rich, the sauce is goosed with a touch of cayenne and a belt of Irish whiskey.

You gotta love a dish that employs nearly every blessed bit of the pig, as does feijoada ($21), a festive Brazilian dish served at Sarava (13225 Shaker Sq., 216.295.1200, sergioscleveland.com). Fortified with a serving of this traditional black bean stew, a diner easily can survive until spring. The long-simmered brew is buttressed with sausage, bacon and ham, and crowned with farofa, a crunchy topping made from the cassava root. Liberally apply hot sauce for an added dose of inner peace.

 

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