Like most years, 2018 was filled with highs, lows and what-the-hecks?! But we managed to sidestep most duds to land upon some truly epic eats. After flipping through our Instagram feed, digesting a full calendar year of dining reviews, and searching our memories for tasty morsels, these are the dishes that we most fondly recall.
Soup Dumplings (xiao long bao) at LJ Shanghai
Diners just about lost their marbles over the soup dumplings (xiao long bao) at LJ Shanghai in Cleveland's Asiatown neighborhood — and I was one of those people. Filled with ground meat and intensely flavored broth, these delicate little packages arrive by the half dozen in a bamboo steamer basket. Once safely on the spoon, the dumplings are nibbled or poked to release the hot soup. Ginger-infused black vinegar is on hand to cut the richness of the filling.
Clam Pie at Il Rione
Since opening its doors a year ago, Il Rione has been drawing robust crowds thanks to its chill vibe and fly pies. Owners Brian Moss and Brian Holleran have a deft hand when it comes to New York-style pizza, but it's the clam pie that keeps me crawling back. The wide-brimmed, red sauce-free platter is dotted with sweet chopped clams, salty pecorino cheese, heaps of garlic and enough parsley to make it all sing.
Veal Crepe at Balaton
When I'm not on the clock, I often revert to familiar favorites, which is why my meals at Balaton almost always begin with potato pancakes. A recent detour rewarded me with the veal crepe, an appetizer that will likely knock the potato pancakes out of the rotation. An eggy crepe is folded around a delicate mixture of ground veal and mushrooms and bathed in a rich paprikash-like gravy. It's decorated, like most dishes, with a tiny Hungarian flag on a toothpick.
Kaiseki at Ushabu
Most of us are familiar with Ushabu's pitch-perfect shabu-shabu experience, but did you know that this tiny Tremont izakaya also offers a Michelin star-worthy tasting menu? Chef Matthew Spinner's seven- and 13-course rides are hyper-seasonal expressions of culinary craft and ingenuity borne of Japanese techniques and tradition. Past bites included panko-fried Japanese wagyu finger sandwiches, grilled walleye with uni and fresh truffle, and a yakitori-style turkey skewer.
Montreal Smoked Meat at Landmark
Cleveland has no shortage of corned beef, pastrami and brisket floating around, but Landmark has imported a delectable new-to-us food that combines aspects of all three. Montreal-style smoked meat is made by curing and then smoking brisket, which produces a lush sliced-meat product with spice, wood smoke and fat. Landmark piles it onto soft rye with mustard or pairs it with sauerkraut, Swiss and Russian dressing and griddles it until hot, toasty and melty.
Korean BBQ at Rising Grill
We've always been fans of Korean barbecue, a communal indoor grill session complete with cold beer. But Rising Grill has upped the ante thanks to spiffy new gas grill-equipped tables and exhaust vents. The hot and responsive cookers make quick work of boneless beef short rib, ribeye and chicken, much of it marinated in a sweetened soy-based sauce with garlic and sesame oil. The sizzling, charred meat is bundled up in cool lettuce leaves with sauce and garnishes and popped into appreciative mouths.
Grandma Bos at Polpetta
Polpetta does for meatballs what other build-your-own places have done for hot dogs, tacos and burritos. But unlike what happens at those places, the resulting dishes here are genuinely unique from one another. While I adored the classic beef ball with spaghetti pomodoro, that pairing gets edged out by the chicken meatballs with paprikash gravy and spaetzle, a genre-busting delight that arrives from Hungary via Italy.
Goat Biryani at Taste of Kerala
When Taste of Kerala opened a full-service restaurant in Woodmere, I wondered if the food would be as exciting and flavorful as what I've enjoyed for years at the original carryout shop on Mayfield Road. Silly me, the food is as electric with spice, heat and flavor as ever. The goat biryani is exotic, aromatic and studded with tender bone-in goat meat. It's also hot as Hades, but those flames are moderated by dollops of cool, calming yogurt-based raita.
Lincoln Park at Lox, Stock and Brisket
After nearly 20 years away from Cleveland, Anthony Zappola returned home to open Lox, Stock and Brisket, a stripped-down version of a Jewish deli. It's there, in University Heights, that you'll find the city's best fried chicken sandwich, which goes by the name Lincoln Park. Twin crispy-fried chicken schnitzels are tucked into a butter-soft egg roll with sweet pickles and a slather of mildly spiced aioli. The uber-crunchy breading gives way to a hot, juicy interior followed by the cool creaminess of the mayo.
Pastrami Sandwich at Larder
The traditional method of making pastrami takes seven to 10 days, but by employing koji (a Japanese mold) to cure and tenderize the meat, chef Jeremy Umansky whittles that time down to mere hours. At Ohio City's Larder, that thick-sliced, butter-soft tender pastrami is layered into soft house-baked rye with red cabbage sauerkraut (also made right here) and grainy mustard. It's an umami-bomb set to detonate on first bite.
St. Paul Sandwich from Sesame and Soy
It's not every day that a new sandwich rolls into town. But thanks to Sesame and Soy, a quick-serve Chinese restaurant in Tremont, Clevelanders can take a big fat bite of the St. Paul. By most accounts, the sandwich was invented by a Chinese-American restaurant owner in St. Louis (not St. Paul) in the early 20th century. Folks in that town grew up loving this oddball sandwich consisting of a fried egg foo young patty tucked inside white bread with lettuce, pickles and mayo. Now diners in Cleveland can get in on the action as well.