Kristin and I celebrated out first anniversary with a trip to Cleveland to eat at Michael Symon's signature restaurant, Lola. We drove out to Cleveland after getting out of work and changing into our finery on Friday, April 1. We both had high expectations, and the experience delivered everything we could have hoped for and more. What follows is a long (no, really – long) rumination on the meal. I can't hope to do it justice, but it would just be wrong not to do my best anyhow.
It's a good thing we were warned by some online reviews to watch out for the glass entrance at Lola. It's pretty dim (read: atmospheric) inside, so the glass enclosing the entrance doesn't really look like it's there at all. Yeah, there are shelves on which candles and flowers and such are sitting...but somehow it still might have seemed sensible to just walk right into the glass. Thankfully, we caught the right turn, and arrived at the hosts' station, which was glowing orange.
We were a good 15 minutes early, but the hosts seemed happy to see us, wished us a happy anniversary (this would quickly become a theme for the evening), and seated us immediately. We had a fantastic table – usually a four-top, they cleared two of the place settings for us so we had plenty of space. We were right in the center of the room, underneath a natural looking crystal chandelier of sorts and with a fantastic view of the open kitchen.
It was loud, but not uncomfortably so. The combination of music at the bar, cooking in the open kitchen, and plenty of conversations around us contributed to a significant amount of background noise. If we had been in a larger group seated farther apart, it might have been an issue. For us, though, it was just something to remark on and go back to gawking.
Our waitress, I'm convinced, was a genie. She had the magical ability to appear when needed – and only when needed – to cater to our every delicious whim. They should really send servers from all over the country to watch and learn at Lola, because the level of service was artful. Nicole arrived after we'd had exactly the right amount of time to gawk, wished us a happy anniversary, and offered us one of Lola's rather cool features – an iPad drink menu. Lola has its own custom iPad app for ordering cocktails, beer, and wine.
The iPad drink list was lots of fun to navigate. Kristin clicked through the cocktails and chose a “Mandarin Blossom” - composed of Belvedere orange vodka, campari, and fresh lime juice. I knew I was going for the smoked porkchop as my main course, so I ordered a glass of Baron K 2008 Riesling. We selected our drinks in the app, which was nice and straightforward. It then politely asked us to return the iPad with our selections to the waitress. She appeared out of nowhere to take it away, leaving us with our food menus.
Our drinks showed up nice and quickly. It seems silly to call a cocktail intoxicating, but this was really quite a thing Kristin had. Pleasantly orange flavored without being too sweet, and with a very assertive quantity of alcohol but not the slightest hint of ethanol-esque edge. It was tasty. My wine was certainly the best white I've ever had. Nice and crisp and fruity, just the right amount of acid, and a lingering taste of apple.
My only complaint about the Lola menu concerns the physical menus themselves. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that they were well over two feet tall by a foot wide. Imposing, and aesthetically pleasant, but a bit hard to handle. Thankfully, our table was plenty big, so we had space to put them down and peruse.
We'd cheated heavily and been ogling the menu online since January, of course. Looking at the menu in person was still worth doing, though. Nicole emerged from the shadows to tell us about a special soup – butternut squash and parsnip puree with spicy roasted pumpkin seeds – and the specifics of a couple of the appetizers – the crudo was fresh tuna, and the charcuterie a sinful combination of pork products with Speck in the main role. We were not to be deterred from our pre-made choices, though.
The plan, roughly, was this. We knew we had to try the bone marrow appetizer, because, well...it's bone marrow. Our second appetizer was a close race between pork belly, oysters mignionette, and the famed beef-cheek pierogis. For the main course, I had my heart set on the pork chop. For dessert, the 6 a.m. Special was clearly a requirement. The rest, we filled in on the fly. Here's what we ordered:
Crispy Bone Marrow
The 6 a.m. Special
Chocolate and Donuts
Now, we've both been making a project of eating better since the new year, and have both seen significant results. That was out the window for our Lola trip, though. Our goal was to experience as much absurd deliciousness as possible. Oh, how we succeeded.
The appetizers came out in short order. Kristin's bone marrow appeared on an artfully carved dark wooden cutting board, accompanied by six – count 'em, six! - well...accompaniments: sea salt, salsa verde, caramelized onions, pickled shallots, flat-leaf parsley, and wedges of lemon. Each rested in a dainty little metal bowl on the corner of the board. The marrow itself had been removed from the bones and crisped up so that it was firm on the outside and creamy in the center.
The strategy, our server explained, was to smear the marrow onto the toast points occupying the bottom half of the cutting board, then add whatever combination of accompaniments we desired. There was no lack of marrow (there was actually too much marrow for the toast – we resorted to using bread-basket bread for the last few pieces), so we got to try a whole slew of combinations. Among these, my own favorite was lemon juice and the parsley. Also delicious were the sea salt and salsa verde by themselves, and pretty much anything paired with either the onions or shallots. The marrow was more than flavorful enough to enjoy all by itself, and we certainly did that, too. I don't have any other marrow experiences to compare, but I don't doubt that this has set an exceptionally high bar for the future.
The bone marrow was undeniably the star of the appetizer show, but the beef-cheek pierogis in front of me were no slouch. At first, I was almost disappointed to see that my plate only came with two pierogis. This proved to be plenty, though, as they were enormous. The pierogis themselves contained only the beautifully-seasoned beef cheek inside. On the outside was a sinful sauce of fresh mushrooms and crème fraiche and just a hint of horseradish. I'd have happily eaten a plate of just the mushrooms in the sauce. Maybe two plates. The pierogis were stunning, though – the beef cheek literally melted in our mouths, the pasta was just the right thickness and cooked to perfect tenderness, and the sauce added just the right amount of tang. Alternating bites of pierogi and bone marrow would have been enough to send us home satisfied, I think.
In between courses, we started to worry about our level of fullness. The appetizers were massive, and there was so much more food to come. What a predicament.
After a short wait during which we mostly made “om nom nom” noises about the previous course and watched plate after plate of beautiful food leave the kitchen, our entrees arrived. Kristin had the venison, and I had the pork chop I had been lusting after.
The venison stole the show. Kristin's ordering was on fire, as all the best dishes of the night seemed to show up in front of her. I bear her no ill will for this, partly because I was the one who was committed to the pork and suggested she order the venison. Also, she shared nicely. Benefits of dating an elementary school teacher who has to teach everybody to share all the time? Perhaps. I'm not complaining.
Pork is not the most visually exciting dish in the world. My actually didn't come as a chop, but instead as five different pieces architecturally arrayed into a small tower, resting on a mound of golden, cheesy polenta and surrounded by a small moat of subtle barbecue sauce. A tiny, fresh salad adorned the top of the pork, and somewhere hidden between the layers were shredded, sauteed-and-barbecued onions. The pork was cooked perfectly, not even the slightest bit dry despite being almost two inches thick. It had just a hint of smoke, and was quite subtle. What really made the dish was the combination of flavors with the accompaniments. A bite with pork, polenta, and onion in a tiny bit of the barbecue sauce on the edges of the plate was really fantastic. The section of pork still on the bone was my favorite – it had the most smoke flavor and a bit of crispy, spicy skin. Yum.
Kristin's venison was artful. Eight or nine medallions sat atop a smear of pureed parsnip, surrounded by thin slices of fresh apple and topped with a fresh salad of cabbage and mizuna, some Japanese water greens. The venison was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, firm on the outside and colorful in the center. The array of seasoning on the venison alone was jaw-dropping, complex but subtle, really letting the meat shine but adding to it nicely. As with my pork, though, the ideal bite contained a little of everything. The first bite I stole from Kristin was just venison and parsnip, and that was good enough. She insisted that I try everything together, though. This was quite a task, since it was nearly impossible to fit everything onto a fork at once, but it was so very worthwhile. Meaty, barely-gamey venison married beautifully with the crisp apple, smooth parsnip, and fresh, slightly bitter greens. My mouth is watering just remembering. Despite the array of choices on the menu, I'd be strongly tempted to order the venison again on our next visit – it was that good.
After a long while to savor, we finished off the entrees, leaving barely a smear of sauce on each plate. Good sense would have dictated that we stop there. One does not come to Michael Symon's home turf and leave without consuming bacon ice cream, however. I'm pretty sure that doing so would involve excommunication from the foodie world.
Nicole, as usual, appeared at just the right time to refill my wine and offer us a dessert menu. She talked up the 6 a.m. Special – as if it needed it. We knew one of those had to be ordered. As for a second dessert, I was torn. One, called Pauline's, was a combination of banana-bread with caramel and sour-cream ice cream. The other, called Chocolate and Donuts, was simpler: cinnamon hot chocolate with the chef's choice of donuts. Nicole had proven trustworthy, so I asked her thoughts. She told us that the donuts for the night were chai and lemon, and I was sold. The 6 a.m. and Chocolate and Donuts it was.
The 6 a.m. Special arrived in front of Kristin. Two generous slices of brioche, battered and fried up like french toast, smothered in a scoop of candied bacon ice cream and accompanied by sauteed, carmelized apples, all next to a small lit birthday candle to celebrate our anniversary. We were wished a happy anniversary another half-dozen times by the various servers, blew out the candles, and fell upon the dessert. The bacon ice cream was a surprise – full of tiny pieces of candied bacon, it was strangely subtle. Eaten together with everything else, it imparted just a hint of bacon-y goodness to the rest, neither too meaty nor too sweet. The brioche was the perfect vessel, sweet and thick-cut. The apples were simple but wonderful, perfectly sweet, tart, and firm. We were so full by dessert, but still practically licked the plate.
My chocolate and donuts was a simple arrangement – three donuts leaning on one-another next to a tiny cup of warm cinnamon hot-chocolate and my own celebratory candle. Two chai donuts flanked a single lemony one in the center. The hot chocolate came in an intriguing, spiraled white cup, and was tastier than it had any right to be, both for drinking and for dipping. Kristin commented that it tasted just like hot chocolate tastes as a kid, and was exactly right. Warm, comforting, but neither too rich nor overpowering. The donuts may have ruined me for any other donut. These donuts were what we think Krispy Kremes taste like during our worst cravings. Warm, soft, slightly sticky with a sugary glaze, and perfectly light inside. The chai donuts were my favorites, both eaten alone and dipped in the chocolate. They were the perfect combination of sweet and spicy, a pleasant balance between subtle and assertive. The lemony donut was surprisingly subtle – as if one could take a lemon poppyseed muffin and transform it into a donut, changing the presentation but preserving the gentle flavor. I wouldn't have thought donuts could be subtle, even artistic, but these were. I think I swore at Michael Symon while eating the desserts for being so good at his job.
At the end of the meal, our level of conversation was reduced to repeating adoration for the restaurant and nonsensical noises of satisfaction. We weren't quite finished, though – the check came with two tiny chocolate-chip cookies. Two more tiny bites of goodness to send us out the door. The whole night was filled with little touches like that, but those final cookies really helped solidify the pleasant whimsy of the whole night's experience. Thankfully, it was only a short walk back to the hotel; anything more might have been overwhelming, after the sensory overload of our meal. All in all, I can confidently say that it was the best meal I've ever eaten, and would enthusiastically agree to go back again any chance I get.