Sugar Shock

I love to bake. On Sunday I set out to make our holiday cookies.  The only ones I make every year are cut-outs and peanut-butter kisses (but we use mini peanut butter cups instead of kisses because Mark is a PB freak). The others on the list were made on a whim.  So, after sitting down with my recipe box and binder I came up with a stack of 5 recipes and got started. I had high hopes of finishing it all in one day (ha!).

First up – were the PB Kisses:P1060998Tip: parchment paper is your friend (if someone wants to get me 2 1/2-sheet pan Silpats for Christmas, I could save some trees). Use it on your pans for quick clean-up but also prep all your cookies at once on parchment, without having to wait for an empty cookie sheet.

P1060999Mini Peanut Butter cups get really melty.  So after they cool on the rack, I pop them in the freezer to firm up.

These got separated into 2 batches – one for Christmas and one for Mark…there was no way he could wait to gobble these up.

Next I made the cut-out dough and put it in the fridge to chill and rest.  I’ve been making cut-outs for the family since high school when I got disgusted with my mom using store-bought cookie dough to make them. In her defense she used to make them from scratch but with 3 kids (and all the cussing that came from the kitchen), she found an easier way.  Anyway, I have a system for making cut-outs which usually takes 3 days because I normally make a double batch of dough.  Day 1: make dough, separate into 4 batches and flatten on parchment, chill overnight. Day 2: roll, cut and bake. Spend hours cleaning up all the flour. Day 3: frost cookies beautifully with homemade buttercream, preferably using melted chocolate for detail work – yum! But this year it was a single batch and I did everything from dough to baking in one day.

Then it was on to oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  I tried a new recipe that was just okay, no photos since everyone knows what oatmeal chocolate chip cookies look like.  The recipe made a TON of cookies, so there are some for now, some for Christmas and a big bag in the freezer for the future.

Next I took a 2 hour nap and woke up with a huge headache, but the baking must go on! I made no-bake square buckeyes (which are buckeyes, made into bars and topped with melted chocolate so you don’t have to roll and dip). They are basically just peanut butter, sugar and butter – yum!

Then we moved on to rolling and cutting the cut-outs.  M had a blast helping me press the cookie cutters in the dough, but the real fun started when I gave her the dough scraps for her to play with.  She made cookies, a “santa cake” and a “princess castle cake”.


I had grand plans for finishing out the evening by making chrusciki or Polish “Angel Wings” (that’s not the recipe I use, but you can see what they are). I’m the only one left in my family who knows how to make them, because I took the time to have my Busia walk me through the process a few times.  They are delicate, not too sweet fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar.  People love them. But, I was exhausted and chrusciki are very labor intensive, not to mention that the recipe makes dozens and dozens of cookies and I’ve never had any luck halving the recipe.  And my Busia would haunt me if I wasted half of the dough. So I went to bed, instead. Monday night I entertained the thought of making them, but I didn’t have the energy.

Tuesday night we had a rare week-night date at the Cavs game with awesome seats. Plus we got two Shaq bobbleheads.  Score!


Tonight, we frosted the cut-outs with homemade buttercream frosting but no chocolate because I am lazy.  M again had a great time “painting” the cookies when her fingers weren’t in her mouth (don’t worry, we separated those out).  She even made a few to take to her teacher. She was so proud of her work.


And now, with 4 of the 5 recipes done I’m calling it quits.  Our extended-family Christmas is this weekend and hopefully most of these cookies will be consumed.  I used to do huge plates of 7-8 different kinds of cookies for friends and co-workers, but this year I just don’t have the time or energy.  Funny how being 5 months pregnant will do that to you.

What are your holiday baking traditions?

Just Like Ma Ingalls

Last week, at the height of the man-cold I decided it was high time I make some chicken soup.  And, unlike my mom’s yummy chicken soup I wanted to make it with my own stock*, something I had never done before…I know this isn’t rocket science but how much water do you use? How long do you cook it? What veggies are best to use?  Off to Goggle I went and found 1000’s of various ways to make chicken stock.  So next I shot an email off to my foodie friend Danielle who responded to me with this post.  Much like Danielle, I cannot follow a recipe or instructions  exactly so I used her post as a jumping off point.

I had saved the carcass from our last store-bought rotisserie chicken and was planning on getting another for Friday night (shut up, I know how to roast my own very yummy chicken but rotisserie chix have been $4.99 lately and we are a house with 2 parents who WOTH).  So Saturday afternoon I loaded up my Busia’s huge stockpot with the bones, some chicken skin, the wings and thighs – meat on – from Friday’s bird, veggies (minus the parsnips), a roughly chopped bunch of parsley because I think my mom used parsley and 2 nice big pinches of salt.

A few hours later the house smelled divine.  About 5 hours later I poured everything out through a strainer into a smaller pot – a technique that could used some work…it wasn’t pretty.  I kept a few of the carrots and sliced them up, but didn’t do much with the rest of the veggies.  I had cleaned the meat off the bones pretty well before hand, so after giving our dog a few spoonfuls of the stuff, I threw it all away (don’t worry, he didn’t get any onions or bones).  I was kind of disappointed in the amount of stock I had, it only filled my smaller stock pot to not quite the half-way point.  My plan was to freeze some of the stock for future use in other dishes but I was worried I wouldn’t have enough for the soup so I just used it all.  Here is my batch of golden goodness:


I added the carrots back in and threw in the leftover meat from the previous night which had been chopped (about 2-3 cups).  I had sent Mark to the store for egg noodles and he brought back Kluski Noodles which are fine, just not my preference  – I like the super-thin egg noodles.  Since the Kluski Noodles take so long to cook, I was worried about cooking them in the stock and over-reducing it.  So I opted to boil them separately in water with a bullion cube added (damn it, I can’t get away from them!) and then added the cooked noodles to the pot of stock.  The result was delicious.  The stock was rich and had just enough fat for a nice mouth-feel and was full of flavor.  It was so rich in fact that I could have easily kept some stock aside and maybe thinned the rest out for the soup.

The soup  was loaded with noodles and chicken – a perfect heartly meal for a cold autumn night. It has gotten better as we continue t0 dig into the leftovers. Plus I have a big container of soup in the freezer waiting for a cold day this winter. Next time I would make a few slight changes: I would add a handful of whole peppercorns and maybe a bay leaf to the stock, plus some more onion.  And I would add more water about halfway through cooking.  This round I didn’t add any water because the bones and vegetables stayed submerged the whole time, but I could have stretched the flavor into more stock without sacrificing any flavor.


All in all this was way easier then I imagined and I felt quite proud of my finished dish.  The only thing you really need is a full afternoon at home to monitor the pot.  Thanks, Danielle for helping me figure it out!

*My mom kind-of made her own stock in that she boiled a whole chicken along with veggies and used that as a base, but she also ALWAYS added a box of Mrs. Grass’s Soup Mix with a “golden flavor nugget” (i.e. bullion) for extra flavor.  She blamed it on the fact that today’s chickens not being as good as they used to be (which is true).  But now I know that my way is much better.  I was always oddly fascinated by that flavor nugget as a kid.

Restaurant Week Review, Part 2

This is the 3rd of 4 posts containing updates and reviews from our restaurant week.   You can read other posts on this great week here and here. The Greenhouse Tavern is going to get it’s own post because it was hands down the best meal we’ve had in Cleveland. These posts are pretty Cleveland-centric…for any of you not from NE Ohio, there is a bit of mommy-blogging at the bottom of this post.

On Wednesday I was kind of feeling that going out 5 nights in a row was too much. I was not feeling well after too much foie gras the night before and Mark was going to the Indians game so we were headed for an early dinner. The choice for the evening was Ponte Vechhio on the Superior Viaduct, which Mark chose.  He can’t recall how he heard about this place – he thinks it was on the website for Cleveland Independents but isn’t sure.  Either way it was a charming find.  The food was good, the view was spectacular and the service prompt. One of the really nice things is that you can get most of their pasta entrees as a half order, which is exactly what I did to give my stomach a break.

I started with a Caprese salad which was well done with fresh, homegrown tomatoes and a light dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar – nothing special but a well done Caprese. Mark had the Ceasar which he really enjoyed; it was not overly dressed and had a pleasant tang. For dinner I had a half order of Goat Cheese Ravioli which was the perfect size – 3 large pasta pockets. They were served in a brown butter and balsamic vinegar sauce with cantaloupe and prosciutto. I really liked the taste of the slightly warm melon with the goat cheese and prosciutto, I’m not a big fan of cantaloupe plain but I really enjoyed this pairing. Mark had a full order of the Spaghetti Bolognese which gave him enough for lunch the next day. From my bite I found it a really well balanced dish which wasn’t over powered by the flavor of the sausage.  Mark declared it very good with perfectly cooked pasta and a nice, meaty sauce.  His only complaint was that it lacked the hit of garlic he was looking for. We shared a dessert of tiramisu which was…odd.  Instead of the classic ladyfingers theirs had some sort of soaked chocolate cake with pecans.  It was okay, but not at all what we were expecting.

The real charm of Ponte Vechhio is their amazing view of the city. It’s location, tucked far down on Superior Viaduct, is not the easiest to find but I think it would be a fantastic location for a romantic dinner. We were there too early in the evening to enjoy the city all lit up but I’m sure it’s beautiful. They do have a covered outdoor eating area, but it doesn’t have the same views. If you go, ask for a seat by a window to take full advantage.


Yesterday we picked up M after 5 days with my parents and our house is already trashed.  We are so happy to have her back, and from the looks of my mom and dad they were happy to hand her off. M has been talking our ear off with all the highlights of her week including a trip to the Toledo Zoo, the Lima Historical Museum (I didn’t even know they had one) and all the adventures she had with her beloved cousins. She learned new songs – The Beatles Yellow Submarine was their song of the week – and I swear she grew an inch. My parents also discovered her love for hamburgers – something she would never touch before (I’m sure she saw her cousins eating them).  She keeps telling us “I’m so happy to be here” and we are elated to have her back.  This morning Mark suggested we go find Brandywine Falls in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and we had a great time hiking the Brandywine George Trail and playing ing the Brandywine River. She spent a solid 30 minutes tossing rocks into the stream and almost walked the entire 1.5 mile, “difficult” trail…. Mark had to carry her up the steepest hill, poor guy.


Her school doesn’t start back up until Thursday so Mark and I are taking turns next week staying home with her. Hopefully the weather is nice so we can do some more exploring.

Restaurant Week Review, Part 1

As you know M has been at her grandparents house all week so Mark and I embarked on our own little restaurant week, visiting a new establishment every night.  With your help we narrowed down our selections to Lolita, Sarava, Crop, Ponte Vecchio and Greenhouse Tavern. We were so excited to have something to look forward to each night because while we truly enjoyed our kid-free week, the house was way too quiet in the evenings.

Sunday night was to be our first trip to Michael Symon’s famed Lolita.  But the hostess refused to seat us so we sought out Tremont Tap House instead. (And for all of you who have asked, despite a call and email to the restaurant, no one from Lolita has contacted us in response.) The Tap House was pretty empty on Sunday night but that didn’t stop us from enjoying some great food and beer.  We started with the Calamari with hot cherry peppers which were delicious.  I didn’t even know a thing like hot cherry peppers existed but I am so happy to know about them now. The calamari were crispy on the outside with a great bite to the inside. The cherry peppers add that sweet/savory mix that pairs so nicely with calamari. We devoured the dish in just a few minutes.

Next we both ordered burgers – the Blue for me and the Joshua for Mark. We both laughed when they came out on tin plates because it reminded us of our favorite beer and burger place in Toledo – Nick & Jimmy’s – who served their food on the same plates.  The resemblance didn’t stop at the plates because the burgers themselves reminded us of the fantastic ones at N&J’s – big, juicy and tasty.  We both polished off our burgers and fries and were quite happy that the Lolita incident had led us to Tremont Tap House.

Monday night took us just up the road to Saravá.  It’s a place we’ve been talking about trying every since we moved here almost 2 years ago.  We were there quite early – around 5:30 and were seated at a booth in the bar area.  We loved the ambiance of this place and our seats overlooking Shaker Square were perfect. We started with the Garlic-Parsley Shrimp which were perfectly cooked and mildly flavored. I moved on to the Shrimp Bainna which was a dish of more perfectly cooked shrimp and a sweet yet spicy coconut milk sauce.  I loved the sauce so much I even ate all the vegetables in the dish, and I’m not a fan of veggies.  Mark had the Oy Vey! Pizza with kosher hard salami and crushed red pepper. I’m not a big fan of meat on pizza but my bites were very well balanced and the crust was crisp and airy.  We both got dessert – I opted for the Coconut Butter Cake which was every bit as good as you would imagine.  Mark had the Brazilian Carmel Custard which was reminiscent of flan and very tasty.  With a nice children’s menu I think Saravá will become a regular spot for us.

Tuesday night had us at Crop Bistro in W. 6th Street.  I recently had a delicious lunch at Crop and was excited to go back for their dinner menu. First things first – we were seated along the long wall with banquette seating on one side of the table and chairs on the other. I get that the chef has gone for a NYC feel with the tables squeezed close together but I didn’t appreciate the fact that I could have easily reached my fork over and taken a bite of our neighbor’s meal.  We were so close that it was hard to concentrate on our own conversation and not listen to theirs.  The restaurant was only about a third full so I saw no reason for us to be sitting so close to another party – this is Cleveland, not New York, give us a little breathing room.

Anyway, I had heard great things about Crop’s Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras so I ordered that.  I was velvety smooth and delicious, however I think I ate too much because I wasn’t feeling well later in the evening. I had the entree of Ribs in a Cherry Sauce and Mark got the Chicken Fried Chicken with Ohio Maple Waffles.  Both were plated beautifully but I was a bit surprised at how few ribs I got for $28 – just 4 bones.  While the ribs were nicely cooked – tender and flavorful they were lost under the thick coating of overly sweet sauce, I found that by scraping off most the the sauce I was able the enjoy the meat much more.  The sides of slaw and cheddar sweet potatoes were very good.  Mark’s chicken was perfectly tender and juicy but lacked a bit in the seasoning.  The dish was drizzled with a maple sauce which was very sweet and lacked a savory counterpoint.  Crop was the most expensive meal of the week and we were both a bit underwhelmed.  We do want to try it again, but it may not be for awhile.

Still to come… discovering Ponte Vecchio and an amazing experince at Greenhouse Tavern

Lolita is off the List, For Good

Today begins the week of our restaurant crawl. At the top of both our lists was Lolita.  Even though we had experienced some rudeness there before we have both been dying to try it out.  So, on the way home from Lima today – sans child – I called and got reservations.  I spoke with a guy who joked with me that all of Cleveland wants reservations at 7:00 PM, but he was able to get me a 2-top at 7:15.  We were so excited to finally try the famed food.

We arrived at 7:00 and watched as the hostess sat a twosome without reservations.  As we waited for her to return I saw our names on the reservation list so when she got back I pointed to it and said “We are Davis for 7:15 – we’re early”.  She looked at me for a second, looked at her seating book and then said “I just sat the Davis party”.  I told her it was a common name – perhaps it was another reservation and she said no it was Davis for 7:15.  I said perhaps they saw the reservation list sitting on the hostess stand and used our name and she scoffed that “they’re regulars –  I know them”.  She was very clearly implying that I was the one lying about my name. I told her we made reservations this afternoon, that I spoke with a guy. To this she responded that she was the only one who EVER answers the phone – I couldn’t have spoken with a guy. I pulled out my phone and showed her that I had indeed called – at 2:47 to be exact – and told her I did indeed speak with a guy, but I could not remember his name – “Brad? Scott, maybe?” I guessed.  Who thinks to write down the name of the person who takes your reservations?  She soundly reassured me that there was no one there named Brad or Scott.

At this point I asked if there was anything available fully thinking that she would see that an error had been made and would try to accommodate us.  We were 15 minutes early  – and I told her we were willing to wait.  But she firmly told us that she had just given away the last open table on the patio and they were booked for the rest of the evening. She didn’t invite us to sit at the bar, or anything – basically told us ‘we don’t want you here’.  So we left and I was fuming.  What kind of place doesn’t honor reservations?!? So, she sat another couple at our table…I’m sure something could have been done to find a seat for us!

After we walked back to the car I wanted to get the hostess’s name so I called to get it – since she claimed to be the only one to ever answer the phones, you know.  She said her name was Rachel; I asked if there was anything available tonight and she answered “there are some tables open on the patio if you want to sit outside, otherwise we are booked”.  So, not more then a couple of minutes after we left there are magically tables open outside….hmmm.  I’m done with trying to see for myself what all the talk is about Lolita….I have gotten nothing but abject rudeness from the hostesses there. It’s such a difference from Lola where they have bent over backwards to be gracious.  It’s disappointing given how badly we wanted to check it out, but I’m not going to keep going back to a place that treats us so poorly.

Perfect Pancakes

Not long after M began eating table food we established the tradition of Sunday Pancakes in our house.  After some trial and error we realized that I was the chief pancake maker in the house so every Sunday I played around with the routine. It started innocently enough with Bisquick and some Log Cabin but it has now evolved, in true food snob fashion, to pancakes from scratch and local maple syrup.  The first revelation was when I purchased a cast-iron 2-burner griddle which made flipping and heat control much easier.  Plus I could make 4 cakes at a time, thus getting breakfast on the table in less then an hour.

Then I started looking around for the best pancake recipe I could find.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Alton Brown’s was the best. Truthfully pancakes from scratch are not that hard and I’m guessing you have what you need in your pantry already. AB’s recipe tells you how to mix enough dry ingredients for 3 batches so you can use it like instant mix but it’s so easy I just make what I need each week.  His instructions were a new concept to me – you whisk the yellow (melted butter + egg yolks) and the white (buttermilk + egg whites) separately before mixing together and adding to the dry stuff.  This produces a very thick batter which looked all wrong the first time I made it, but it produces thick, fluffy pancakes!

I do have a few tweaks that I’ve learned along the way to make the pancakes even better:

  1. Get good, full-fat buttermilk. You want thick, creamy buttermilk not the watery stuff you find in many mega-marts.  We get ours at the Farmer’s Market but have also found that Trader Joe’s has a good one.
  2. I add in a tsp of vanilla to the liquids before adding the mix to the dry.
  3. Whip the egg whites to almost soft-peak before adding the buttermilk for extremely light and airy pancakes.  Make sure to gently fold everything together after whipping the egg whites.

Mark likes to top his with peanut butter and I prefer local maple syrup that we pick up at the Farmer’s Market.  We both use plain, old Trader Joe’s butter but I suspect that I may soon go the way of Jonniker and Metalia and seek out some cultured butter to try.  As for M, she rarely eats more then 2 bites but I am counting on her to start liking pancakes someday.

Our Private Restaurant Week

Next week M will be spending a week in Lima for “Grandma & Grandpa Camp” along with her cousins.  Mark and I will be taking full advantage of the week by dining out Every.Single.Night.  There are dozens of restaurants we still want to try and we are attempting to narrow down our list.  Right now there is one slot spoken for – Sarava (I won a gift certificate from Trish’s Dish and we will be using it next week).  The other 4 nights are up in the air.  Here are the contenders:

Boulevard Blue
Crop Bistro – I’ve was recently there for lunch and would love to try their dinner menu
Greenhouse Tavern – we’ve been here, but it’s oh so good and I’d like to try it without the kid in tow.
L’Albatros  – I had an amazing lunch here and would love to check out their dinner fare.
Lolita – I know! We haven’t been here yet and it’s a travesty.
Three Birds
Tremont Tap House
** Edited to add Mark’s Picks:
Ponte Vecchio
Melt – I think this one could be saved for when we have to take the kid with us
Bar Symon – seems kid friendly but I haven’t heard if that is true or not, maybe we wait on this one, too?

I’d love to hear your suggestions or votes. Keep in mind we are trying to hit places where it’s more appropriate to be sans kid…I would love to hear your thoughts!

Fleming’s Happy Hour

This is a review of a restaurant based on a free evening for invited bloggers.  I did not pay for any of the food or drinks mentioned. I also received a wine gift pack at the conclusion of the evening.

Late last week I got an email from @Vasilicious asking me to attend a “complimentary wine and appetizer tasting at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Woodmere”.  The very first thing I did was squee a whole lot over my very first invite from my blog.  Seriously people, never in a million years did I think I would get an invite through this blog.  I don’t post here to get anything in return, and honestly I was super-flattered just for the invite because it means my little old blog has readers! I don’t claim to be a food writer, as my category tag says I am a foodie wanna-be, so I was excited and even nervous about the prospect of going.

Anyway, the second thing I did was Google Fleming’s because I had never heard of it.  In all honesty when I realized it was a chain my heart sank a little.  If you know me in real life you know I am an independent restaurant snob. Every place I have ever talked about on this blog is a locally-owned restaurant. I always recommend a local independent when asked where to go and even though it’s close to my house I had never even noticed Fleming’s. So I mulled the invitation over the weekend, with the new Blog With Integrity movement and “swine of swag” BlogHer09 talk in the back of my mind. Come Monday I responded to Amanda with a yes because I knew I would give an honest review, no matter what happened – and it is possible for chains to have good food.  I also asked her if I could bring a friend along because I am shy and had no idea what to expect. So my very outgoing boss/friend joined me for the evening. And frankly I am so happy I went.

Fleming’s has a happy hour menu titled “5 for $6 ’til 7” and that is what we would be sampling. When we arrived they had an area of their patio set up for us and Cliff Cravens, Operating Partner was there to greet us and set us up with drinks. My impression of the inside happened very fast as we were whisked out to the patio quickly.  It seemed typical steakhouse – dark woods, cozy atmosphere, polished bar.  The patio is a small area overlooking the ETON Chagrin Boulevard parking lot and includes a few cushy outdoor couches around a fire pit along with a handful of linen draped tables. Despite being next to the parking lot the space is surprisingly intimate thanks to being tucked into the corner of the shopping center and the big black market umbrellas.

As others arrived I was excited to meet new bloggers and put a face with a blog I already knew. I met Amanda, Tom, Kelly and José, and the folks from Cleveland Sandwich Board. I was also happy to finally introduce myself to Tricia (and her husband and sister-in-law) – the woman who has awesome giveaways on her blog. Drinks were ordered and chatting commenced. It was funny to watch Sue, who is pretty foreign to the world and vernacular of blogs and twitter try to make sense of it all. She and I both had a Basil Lemon Drop which was delicious – much like a mojito but with a lemon flavor. The basil added a great aroma and cut the sweetness of the lemon perfectly. I’m really liking herbs in my drinks and am going to have to experiment with this more at home.

Chef/Partner Eli Kratzert started sending out plates of food and we sat down to Sweet Chili Calamari and Tenderloin Carpaccio. Unfortunately both were victims of having sat on the table too long as we were all chatting and sipping cocktails.  The calamari had good flavor – just enough heat blananced with sweet to make them to my liking, but they were cold and the breading had lost its crunch. My hunch is that this would be a great item when eaten fresh from the kitchen and the portion was huge for a $6 appetizer. The carpaccio was just okay; the toast points were too hard from sitting out and the carpaccio itself had little flavor.  The big hits of the evening for me were the Wicked Cajun Barbecue Shrimp, the Seared Ahi Tuna and especially the Prime Sirloin Burger. The shrimp were cooked very well and were very spicy without being all spice and the bread was nice to soak up the sauce. I really enjoyed the tuna but I seemed to be the only one. It was perfectly rare and mild flavored and was served with a spicy mustard sauce, wasabi and ginger so you could layer the flavors to your liking. The knockout of the evening was the burger – it was juicy and rare and topped with a bacon that we were all talking about. Turns out they rub it with spices and sugar that give it a hint of “heat and sweet” that make a perfect pairing with the succulent burger below.

Cliff told us that while Fleming’s is a chain he and Eli are local boys. They met while working at the Hyde Park location down the road where Eli worked his way up from a dishwasher to a Chef. When the opportunity arose to become owners of the local franchise for Fleming’s and “take on their old boss” at Hyde Park they took it. While the menu itself is controlled by the company all of the sauces, breads (except the burger buns) and accompaniments are made in-house.

So what is my conclusion? Fleming’s holds it’s own against the only nearby steakhouse competitors: independent Moxie (which has never wowed me) and locally-based chain Hyde Park. I think this happy hour menu is great– all the dishes were solid and the burger was amazing. The price for the portion was more than reasonable and I think this would be a fantastic place to meet friends after work without spending a fortune (2 drinks and a plate of food big enough to share for about $22 with tip is not bad). I did not get a chance to look at their dinner menu but they do offer 100 wines by the glass, which would please someone like my father who loves to try new wines; and seasonal prix fixe menus for a reasonable price (right now its 3-courses for $35.95). They also have facilities for private events and play host to several fundraisers each year. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Fleming’s to someone seeking out a steakhouse or a great happy hour in the Southeast suburbs.

OMG! She’s Talking About Restaurants Again!

We are making slow progress through our “restaurants to try” list – no small feat considering the number of fantastic places this town has to offer. Next month, my parents are taking M for a week for “grandma & grandpa camp” during her daycare shutdown. We are going to be kid free for 5 nights (the longest ever – gulp!) and plan to sample a new place every evening. The list of the select 5 is ever evolving. As I’ve said before, M is a very good diner most of the time so we do try many places with her in tow. As we continue to edit down that “top 5” list we are trying to keep it to places we wouldn’t want to take her. Zócalo Mexican Grill & Tequileria on East 4th Street has been on our list but we figured we could take M with us, so tonight we gave it a shot.

We really didn’t research this place at all. We figured that the way they throw around Aarón Sanchez’s accomplishments (James Beard Award nominee, Food Network appearances, finalist on Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”) that it would be pretty good. We also thought that given the caliber of other places on E 4th that any restaurant would have to be very good to draw the kind of crowd Zócalo always seems to have.

So we arrive about 5 minutes early to our 6:30 reservation to find it very full and lively. The hostess is pretty snippy as Mark checks in with her. She seems annoyed at something, but we figured it had already been a busy evening given the baseball game that was just getting underway. As she starts to lead us downstairs she stops abruptly, mid stairs, to reach over the railing and answer the phone on the hostess stand. Um, okay…she just about made all three of us run into her and we were all blocking the stairs which the servers were trying to use. She finally seats us in a booth, throws down the menus and says a server will be with us. Chips and salsa are delivered and we dig in as the review the menu. I was not a fan of either the chips or salsa. The chips were very thick, had little or no salt and were greasy. The “salsa” seemed to be chopped tomatoes with a few diced onions thrown in. The whole bite together was oily, watery and bland.

After waiting at least 10 minutes, a server comes by and tells us of their drink specials. I opted for the classic margarita while Mark got the Key West version. They were huge and while Marks at least had some flavor (pretty much all coconut) mine was very watery and overly salty – maybe I should have dipped the unsalted chips in it!

Service was pretty spotty, with another long wait to order. I got the Carnitas with Citrus Habanero and Achiote salsas. Mark got a combo of a beef burrito and a chicken taco. As we waited for our food we noted the decor. The center of the room was beautiful with a soaring 2 (3?) story ceiling and pretty lighting. A few stereotypical Mexican restaurant wall decor items were scattered about and for some reason there was TV in the corner showing Ghostbusters 2. It was around this time that we realized how loud it was; granted it was probably 90% full, but we could barely hear each other across the table. The music was competing for voice over all the chatter which lead to a pretty loud roar. We had to ask for water which was finally served to us in plastic cups – the waiter mentioned something about the kitchen having trouble washing the glasses.

When our food was delivered it looked good – no bonus points for plating, but appetizing enough. I was extremely disappointed with the carnitas. The pork was dry and chewy, there was no hit of the “adobo rub” the menu had promised and the marinated onions tasted like unseasoned fresh onions that got a quick sauté. Overall the taste was extremely insipid – there were no spices to kick some life into the bland meat. The citrus salsa added a bit of sweetness and some much needed moisture but couldn’t cover up the overcooked pork. The achiote salsa tasted like nothing other then cumin and had very little acid which was much needed. My black beans and rice we also both over-seasoned with cumin which made for a very flat pairing. Mark was not pleased with his selections, either. He said his meats were dry and tasteless and the “salsa” served with it was again the watery chopped tomatoes. I tasted his guacamole and found it to be – surprise! – flavorless. Again it seemed to just be avocado and a few sparse diced red onions. Mark thought his refried beans were okay and the ate most of his rice, but he wasn’t overcome by the plate of all cumin like I was.

The only bright spot of the whole evening was that our bill for 2 entrees, 2 drinks and a kids quesadilla (which was cheese and tortilla – nothing else) was $40. So we weren’t out a ton of cash, but I think for that kind of money we could have had a more flavorful meal at Chi-Chi’s.

In the future, when we want Mexican food we will stick to our local joint, Los Habaneros, for quick, inexpensive meals or the always awesome Momocho for when we want to venture out of the neighborhood. And the next time we are on East 4th there are plenty of other fantastic choices.

In Which I was THAT Parent

I never intended to be that parent.  The one who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to bring a kid everywhere with them.  You will never see me with a baby at the opening night of the summer blockbuster. I won’t be the one with a kid at a boozy “fest” concert. And before Tuesday night I would have never, ever been the parent leading her toddler to a table at this city’s best-known posh restaurant. But circumstances were such that our not-quite-3-year old daughter has now been to one of Cleveland’s premier high-end restaurants.

Usually when it’s not abundantly clear that kids are welcome and expected (usually evident by a kids section on the on-line menu or by seeing it for myself during a kid-free visit), I will call a restaurant first. I got a green-light from the Greenhouse Tavern before we sampled their fare. I called Crop Bistro first when we were thinking about a family dinner there and I stopped by Saravá one day to see if kids are welcome.  However, there are some places that I don’t think I would even ask – places that cater more to the date-night or adult-night-out crowd and even if they allow kids, I don’t think it’s appropriate*. One Walnut, Fahrenheit, & Michael Symon’s famed Lola would all make that list.  But Lola is exactly where we found ourselves on Tuesday evening.

A friend was in town from San Francisco for one night and was staying right by E 4th Street.  When he realized that the Iron Chef’s place was right there, he wanted to see if we could get in.  To be fair, Mark did go in and talk to the hostess before we even took M inside and she gave us the all-clear.  But oh boy, the LOOKS we got as we crossed the restaurant!  Some of the other patrons seemed to recoil in horror when they saw our cute sundress-clad girl.  I felt awful because in all honestly I would totally be recoiling if the situation was reversed.  I went into hyper-mom mode – being very alert to every sound and movement she made, and doing my damndest to make sure she didn’t disturb anyone around us.

Once we got settled into our booth (thank God we had a booth!) things were fine.  We are lucky that 80% of the time M is very good in restaurants.  I had toys and snacks in my purse to appease her and without even asking the server brought her a glass of milk. When she did start to get a bit lively Mark & I took turns bringing her outside to see the people, flowers and street musicians of E 4th Street. She tried a bit of the beef cheek pierogi but then decided that those awesome Lola fries were all she wanted to eat (can’t really blame her!). And sometimes the price you pay for bringing a kid into an adult restaurant is that they eat a dinner of french fries and milk. But it keeps them quiet and busy so it’s all good.

Dinner was fabulous if a bit hard to enjoy with all the toddler wrangling. Mark and I knew from a previous visit that the portions are large so we split the pierogi appetizer and the pork chop entrée. Once again we both wanted to lick our plates clean. And to anyone who was also in the restaurant on Tuesday night – I hope the presence of our little girl didn’t bother you too much, I promise it will never happen again.

*edited to add: I don’t think it’s appropriate for two reasons: 1) Most people go to places like that for a relaxing evening away from kids and 2) it’s really hard to fully enjoy the meal when you are busy making sure your kid doesn’t cause a scene. So even though Chefs Widow – someone who has lived and breathed the restaurant scene from the inside – says not to sweat it, it still do.