Collision Bend Brewery, Photo by Emanuel Wallace
2017 saw our food critic(s) travel culinary terrain recently arrived and long-established, near and not so near, entirely traditional and on waves of incoming dining trends, which is about the perfect encapsulation of Cleveland's ever-evolving scene. What did you love most? Well, news, for sure. Anticipation is high for every new opening, especially if the words Swensons, Slyman's, Shake Shack or Barrio are involved. But when it came to proper reviews, the lockstock judgment of where to go (or, perhaps not), these were the most read stories this past year. In ascending order:
10) Collision Bend Brewery
The new Flats arrival that's putting the restaurant back in the brewery.
"Despite being billed as a brewery with food, Collision Bend, if we're being honest with one another, is more of a restaurant that happens to brew beer. From the high-end finishes and expansive menu to the Zack Bruell School of Service-graduated staff, little about this glitzy new Flats-based eatery functions like a brewery. In fact, if you didn't crane your neck to spot a few bright tanks through a small window, you might never even know. Not that anybody is complaining.
"Zack Bruell's menus are notoriously lengthy, and the one here is no exception. It careens from Buffalo-style tofu to Moroccan-spiced lamb ribs. A roster of 25 small plates joins salads, a handful of wood-fired pizzas, and a dozen or so main dishes. Deciding how to proceed is complicated not only by the sheer number of items, but by the seemingly random arrangement of those items on the menu. Over the course of two visits we sampled an assortment of more than 10 dishes and only one or two was less than special."
9) Tinker's Creek Tavern
James Beard award-winning critic, and current Scene copy editor, Elaine Cicora filled in for Doug Trattner during his sojourn to Spain with a review of this gem.
"Perched high above the stony creek bed, the patio is, especially for nature lovers, one of the most beautiful in Northeast Ohio. The long upstream view from any one of the 13 red-umbrella-topped tables is as bucolic as anything you'll find in the region. The sun sparkles on the fast-flowing water, and rather than Sirius XM, the late-summer soundtrack is blue jays, cicadas, the breeze in the trees and the soft rushing of the creek. While we sit, two deer come out of the underbrush for a sip of water. A peripatetic kingfisher flies back and forth between a favored fishing spot and her nest.
"It doesn't take long to see that the output of the cherry wood-fired smoker — beef brisket, baby back ribs, and especially pulled pork — is the star of the show, and these meats turn up in dishes ranging from the indulgent Mac & Cheese ($15.95) — perfectly al dente cavatappi in a creamy cheese sauce piqued with tiny dice of red tomato and applewood smoked bacon, then topped with an abundance of pulled pork — to the more than ample B.B.Q. Platter, with a sampling of ribs, smoked brisket and that pulled pork. At $24.95, it's the most expensive dish on the menu. It is also worth every penny if only for the firm, tender and astoundingly meaty baby back ribs encased in a savory mahogany char."
8) Boaz/Pizza Whirl Ohio City Two-fer
While Ohio City is ground zero for Cleveland's brewery explosion, two new fast casual joints prove the neighborhood is for more than fine dining and suds.
"Set inside the crisp, glassy former Bonbon Cafe spot, which owner Courtney Bonning closed at the tail end of 2016, Boaz takes all the things we love about Aladdin's and repackages it for the Millennial Generation. That means diners get precisely what they want: fresh, healthy, flavorful fare that also is speedy, customizable and affordable.
"The menu, while trimmer than that of the full-service Aladdin's, won't disappoint longtime fans. Lentil soup joins stuffed grape leaves, crispy kibbe, fattoush and tabouli in the soup, salad and starter section (all priced $3-$4.50). Most of the rolled pita sandwiches ($5) are present, including those wrapped around falafel, shish tawook and seasoned lamb. And those satisfying hummus plates ($6), creamy hummus topped with shawarma, grilled chicken or falafel, all are on the billing."
Kintaro, Photo by Emanuel Wallace
All you can eat sushi and hot pot? Yes please.
"'Do you want ice cream?' our server asked.
"The thought of ingesting one more item of food or drink — even a scoop of free ice cream — not only was absurd, it was physically distressing. After two hours inside an all-you-can-eat Chinese hot pot restaurant, all I wanted to do was burn my pants and lay prostrate on the floor for 40 days and 40 nights.
"We might have been bursting at the seams, but we couldn't recall having that much fun in a restaurant in ages. (The buy-two-get-one-free beer special didn't hurt.) The spot was Kintaro, in Brooklyn, and it's the only place of its kind in the region. AYCE hot pot is like the WWF version of shabu-shabu, where fanatical diners approach the event like a competitive eating challenge, seeing how much grub they can pack away during the allotted time period."
6) Jo Jo Carloni's Italian Restaurant
A bottle of red, a bottle of white... Some red-sauce comfort in Olmsted Falls.
"Jo Jo's has a broad and deep catalog of Italian-American pastas, baked casseroles and meat-based entrees. One of the few house-made pasta dishes, the thick-walled ravioli ($12) come filled with meat or cheese and topped with marinara. For an extra couple of bucks you can swap the red sauce for creamy Alfredo or vodka sauce. In the baked manicotti ($13), large pasta tubes are filled with herbed ricotta, topped with marinara and cheese, and baked. Both pasta dishes came to the table less than hot, perhaps because they were waiting for the veal Marsala ($17), which did arrive piping hot. The veal cutlets were breaded and pan-fried and laid on a bed of linguine. A rich and creamy wine sauce with mushrooms covered the tender meat and pasta."
Xinji, Photo by Emanuel Wallace
A master class in ramen in a city that desperately needs it.
"I don't recall all that much about my first meal at Xinji — not because I was drunk, but because I was too busy eating ramen to scribble down my usual notes. As kids, we're instructed to eat our food slowly, but ramen is best consumed with haste. The noodles, sourced from the same Sun Noodle that supplies most great ramen shops in the States, arrive not in a sad clump but swimming loose in the broth. In the mouth, they are sprightly and springy. If you want to give Liu a conniption — or merely diminish your own experience — take a few moments before diving in to Instagram your bowl, Yelp about the hostess, chat with your tablemates, or drink sake.
"'You have to know that ramen is meant to eat fast; you have about five minutes,' he explains."
4) La Casita
A reminder that everyone needs to make a trip to Painesville for some of the absolute best tacos around this spring and summer.
"Marcos opened La Casita in 2006 with little more than a tortilla machine, which he used to craft the kind of fresh products he was used to back home in Mexico. He reinvested the money he earned by selling them to residents and restaurant owners back into the shop, refashioning it into a Latin grocery with a butcher shop. Given his experience with family taco stands back home, not to mention his wife’s knack for seasonings, a seasonal outdoor eatery made perfect sense.
"From spring through fall, the transitory restaurant springs to life on a quiet side street on the edge of town. On weekends, singles, couples and entire families pop in for a delicious and affordable lunch or dinner. Orders are placed at the makeshift checkout counter and delivered to a pair of cooks manning the outdoor kitchen. There’s no menu, but you can count on tacos, quesadillas and tortas built around chicken, chorizo, tripe, tongue, al pastor and cabeza (cow head). Prices are $1.75 per taco, $3.50 per torta and $3.50 or $4 for a quesadilla depending on your choice of shell (flour or homemade corn)."
3) Bob's Hamburg
Bob's Hamburg, Photo by Doug Trattner
Eighty-six years of griddled perfection in Akron.
"In August, Bob's Hamburg turned 86 years old, making it Akron's oldest continuously operating restaurant by more than a few years. Since 1931, this legendary establishment has been cooking up burgers at the same location, in the same building and — get this — on the very same griddle. The menu is largely the same too, save for some newer menu items that were added along the way.
"How do you make it to the ripe, old age of 86? You focus on a few things, you make them from scratch, and you deliver on them each and every at bat.
"'Every morning I go to the butcher shop to buy fresh ground beef, we hand-cut our fries, hand-dip our onion rings, and make our soups and cakes from scratch,' says owner Aimee Buckeye.
"Each day, Bob's flies through approximately 240 quarter-pound patties, which get gobbled up as singles ($3.60), doubles ($4.40), triples ($5.10) and even quads ($6.25). The burgers are laid to rest on that ancient coal-black griddle behind the counter, where they luxuriate in a shallow pool of sizzling fat. Each patty is smooshed flatter and flatter with a wide, sturdy spatula until it is thin and ringed with a lacey, crisp edge. No seasoning — not salt, not pepper, not Bob's magic dust — goes on the meat whatsoever."
2) Boiler 65
As Cleveland rode the wave of the spicy seafood in a bag trend, it welcomed Boiler 65 in Detroit Shoreway, one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2017. A few early hiccups gave way to fun.
"Despite the comically amateurish service (also, in truth, partly because of it), our rowdy foursome still managed to have the time of our lives. This concept is trending — both locally and nationally — because it transforms the typically sober seafood-eating experience into a casual, playful and interactive one. Where else can diners don plastic bibs and tear into head-on shrimp, twist the tails off crawfish, and crack into crab legs without the humiliation of entering a Joe's Crab Shack?
"For the uninitiated, Boiler 65 sells seafood by the pound, which gets steamed, tossed in a bag with one's choice of spice mixtures, and delivered to the table in large plastic bags. Tables are clad in flimsy plastic toppers, diners are shielded by plastic bibs (and gloves, if they choose), and go to town on items like head-on shrimp ($15 per pound), headless shrimp ($20 per pound), King crab legs ($38 per pound), snow crab legs ($22 per pound), crawfish ($15 per pound) and mussels ($13 per pound). Add-ons like corn ($3), potatoes ($3) and sausage ($5) are a great idea, but appetizers like fried calamari ($11) and fried catfish nuggets ($9) are superfluous, especially when they arrive 50 minutes after ordering and are delivered alongside your mains."
1) Marble Room
The most stunning dining room in Cleveland. A decadent menu. Both huge plusses. One major issue, one which we heard supporting anecdotes for long after the review published: the service.
"It would be another 18 minutes after being seated that water would find its way into our etched crystal glasses. When the wine finally arrived, another 10 minutes later, it was rightly offered to me for assessment and acceptance. The server then proceeded to fill my glass before those of my three tablemates, two of whom were ladies. I'm not one to stand on ceremony, but that runs afoul of both Wine Etiquette and just plain etiquette. I'll admit that the first glass of wine – a lovely Gran Reserva from Rioja ($65) – went down fast, but it would be another 20 minutes before anybody bothered to notice.
"At some point in the evening – precisely two hours after we arrived for our reservations, to be exact – management became woke to my identity and the performance art took a 180-degree turn. That's when no fewer than eight staffers descended upon our table and did their best service à la russe impression, attempting to simultaneously serve each diner. The awkward flourish ended with a slice of Hudson Valley duck breast ($36) lodged between my ass and the chair, to be discovered an hour or so later as we departed."