Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lola - 06/14/2008

2508 E 4th Street
Cleveland OH 44115
(216) 621-5652

Like Flying Fig, Lola is one of those restaurants Clevelanders point to to show they are not a culinary wasteland. And Like Flying Fig, Lola's menu has never sparked any interest on my part. However, since the owner Michael Symon was made an Iron Chef, I figured there might be something to all the buzz around the restaurant.

Apparently the restaurant does have a tasting menu, although the diner must specifically request it. If you are interested in the tasting menu, it is prudent to make the request. The restaurant takes it's tasting menu seriously, with executive chef Derek Clayton making up the courses based on the day's ingredients. For smaller parties, Chef Clayton also does all of the cooking for the tasting menu to keep the pressure off the kitchen staff.

I did have a wine pairing with the meal although there was some miscommunication and the restaurant thought I would not be having wine. They accommodated me, but did not list the wines so sadly they will be missing from the review. Although if you do try the tasting menu at Lola, I recommend the wine pairing which was solid and a bargain at $30.

The restaurant has a bar in the front that leads to a seating area with an open-air kitchen where all the work is done. Near the front there is a flight of stairs that leads to another dining area. I kind of wish we sat downstairs as kitchen adds a lot of noise to the dining room.

Amuse - Halloumi and Watermelon
The amuse for this evening was a combination of cheese and watermelon. The cheese is based on a Greek cheese made from a blend of goat's milk and sheep's milk. The cheese is unique because of its high melting temperature, making it the only cheese that can be fried or grilled to brown without melting. The cheese had a dry rough texture and a very mild flavor. I thought this contrasted well texturally with the juiciness of the watermelon.

A surprisingly lackluster bread presentation, a fairly nondescript white bread with softened butter.

01: Lobster - Prosciutto, Asparagus, Quail Egg
When I looked at the menu initially, I pegged this course as one of my favorites for the night, sadly things didn't work out that way. The lobster was overcooked, with a heavy dull rubbery texture. The Prosciutto was way too strong for the rest of the dish, overpowering the flavor of the lobster and asparagus. The quail egg was beautifully prepared but not enough to save the dish.

02: Arctic Char - Tomato, Cucumber, Ginger
The Arctic char was cooked perfectly with a rare center and had a rich flavor similar to both salmon and trout. The primary flavors of tomato and cucumber were both cool and light and they contrasted well with the heat from the ginger flavor, a very wonderful summer dish.

03: Halibut - Spring Vegetables, Herb Pureé
Another very good fish, the halibut was meaty and moist. Given the naturally light flavor of the fish, the use of vegetables and herbs provided a wide variety of complex flavors that complemented the fish nicely. Unlike the previous dish, it was difficult to identify the individual ingredients in the vegetables or pureé, but instead are presented with an elusive ever-shifting gamut of flavors all which worked well with the fish.

04: Pork Belly and Scallop - Jicama, Papaya, Watercress
I am still a bit confused on the combination of pork belly with scallop. The pork belly was extremely rich and softer than most western preparations, maybe the fat content was higher than at other restaurants. The pork belly was also a touch sweeter with a strong overtone of star anise or licorice. The "salad" of jicama, papaya, and watercress definitely fit well with the Asian theme of the pork belly. The scallop was out of place and didn't really add much to the dish.

I don't exactly recall what was in the cup, but I think it was a Kaffir lime spritzer, sweet and tart with a bit of effervescence. The spritzer was a very welcome break especially after the ultra-rich pork belly.

05: Shrimp - White Beans, Bell Peppers, Pancetta
I was surprised by the quality of the shrimp. At first glance it looked overcooked, but turned out to be quite crisp and sweet. The dish worked pretty well with the white been pureé adding a bit of sweetness and graininess while the pancetta was crisp and flavorful.

06: Lamb - Merguez, Cous Cous, Fava Beans
The lamb itself was quite good, tender with minimal gaminess. The addition of merguez, or spicy lamb sausage went well with the grilled lamb and cous cous in keeping a Mediterranean theme. However, we were already quite full and struggling to finish these large portions.

07: "Meat and Potatoes" - Beef, Fingerling Potatoes, Crispy Marrow
Another overly large course. I admit after the first bite I was way too full to properly appreciate this dish. The meat was a skirt steak, lean and flavorful. I was actually hoping for a bit more richness from the marrow although I suppose I should be thankful it was pretty light given how full I was.

08: Warm "Pointe de Bique" - Stewed Plums, Dijon, Toasted Pistachio
One of the all-around best tasting cheeses I have had in a while. The stewed plums added an earthy sweetness that went very well with the yeasty creamy taste of the cheese and the heat of the dijon. The plums and cheese both had soft textures and seemingly dissolved on the tongue.

09: Kempf Farm Strawberries - Key Lime Sherbet, Chantilly Cream, Strawberry Water
According to our waiter, Kempf Farms is a small Amish Farm, and I have to say they know how to make strawberries. The dish was light and refreshing very much like the intermezzo. The sherbet was cold and tart while the strawberries had an intense flavor and sweetness.

10: "Amedei" Chocolate Créme - Toasted Bread, Greed Olive Oil, Sea Salt
Our waiter made a big deal about this course. Apparently the restaurant only recently received permission to use Amedei chocolate, and we were the first two people to taste it at Lola. The chocolate might actually be the best I ever tasted. The flavors were intensely concentrated with notes of dark red fruit and many other subtle flavors. The texture was incredibly smooth. My only wish is that I had more.

11: Petit Fours
A very nice fruit (Strawberry?) geleé. Simple but at this point more than enough.

I was hoping Chef Symon would be around, but apparently he was traveling, perhaps busy growing his budding empire. At any rate, the executive chef, Derek Clayton came out to speak with us. I was happy to hear he actually did most of the cooking for our tasting menu. It seems the higher a chef gets, the less cooking he does, but Chef Clayton seems to actually enjoy getting his hands dirty, rather than simply creating the menu and leaving the execution to line cooks.

Lola is easily one of the best fine dining experiences to be had in Cleveland. This is the first tasting menu I have had in Cleveland, if it were only indicative of the general quality of food in Cleveland, I'd be a happy man indeed.


Anonymous said...

Your final statement sounded like an executive chef bash. Just wanted to let you know that not getting to cook every night is an un-desired side effect of being an executive chef. It is partially a creative job (i,e menu) but their purpose is to keep the restaurant running, and getting the most out of the staff. It's a necessary evil, it just makes me sad that you would make it sound as if the chef was too lazy to cook, nothing could be further from the truth.

Epicuryan said...

Just for clarification, I wasn't implying Michael Symon was too lazy to cook, but noting that he had reached the point in his career where he was more of a restaurateur. His primary concern had to do with building his brand rather than the day-to-day management of a kitchen or even a single restaurant. At the time I visited Lola, Symon was already on his way to a successful TV career as an Iron Chef. Since then he has opened several more casual spots in the Cleveland area so it is perfectly understandable he can't be everywhere at once.

While I agree with your assessment that an exec chef's job is to "keep the restaurant running, and getting the most out of the staff" I would argue that the argument is moot as Chef Symon wasn't even at the restaurant. To his credit, my meal at Lola showed that he had built a restaurant that didn't need him around to function smoothly. While I congratulate him on his success, as a diner I simply wanted the opportunity to meet the man behind the meal I just enjoyed.