Monday, August 31, 2020

Stevenson's Bar + Grill

Named the No. 1 best burger in Cleveland by Thrillist in 2019, Stevenson’s Bar & Grill had to make it onto my 2020 To Dine Challenge list. Did the burger live up to the hype?

Around since the 1920s (moved to current location), it's everything you want a classic dive bar to be: nondescript and even ugly from the outside, but charming with its obvious "regulars", an acceptable amount of grit everywhere, and features like a bar bowling machine. A good-sized parking lot is just to the left of the building and we had no trouble finding a spot even though the bar appeared busy. 

We called in a takeout order because we're not comfortable dining in anywhere yet, and I'm glad we did because this wasn't exactly COVID compliant. Spacing issues and no barriers in sight, some staff wearing masks but others not, and most masks worn were wearing them incorrectly. I watched patrons come out for a smoke and head back in, all while never putting a mask on. So clearly they are letting things slide there.

We took our "Lil Fella" ($6.50) of a single patty with lettuce, pickle, and a secret special white sauce to the park for a picnic. I also had Onion Rings ($4.75), and Mr. H had Jalapeno Poppers ($6).

The onion rings were perfect and even traveled the two miles in a Styrofoam container well. The poppers were cheddar cheese stuffed and a little small, but pretty standard and enjoyable for a frozen product. 

So...the burger. First, that bun was a really darn good bun. Buttered and toasted, it's exactly the type of bun I want with my burger. The patty was clearly not made in-house, as it was too perfectly formed. At 1/3 lb. per patty as the menu states, I thought the "Big Guy" double would be too large, but I'd order that next time. The meat was a little thin. The secret white sauce had no distinct flavor, so even with our best attempt to figure it out, we couldn't. I even asked a couple of folks that eat the burger regularly, and it's still a mystery. Overall, I'd say this burger is much better than your average dive bar burger. I can see why there's a loyal following. 

But "best burger" titles and awards in Cleveland? Not for me, at least. Those claims lie with Tremont Tap House, The Black Pig, and Tinman. It doesn't feel apples to apples in comparison. This one may fall closer to a Swenson's-style burger, but they'll always reign supreme in my book. However, I'd recommend this one. Who has your favorite burger in Northeast Ohio?

Stevenson's Bar & Grill
800 E 200th Street
Cleveland, OH 44119
(216) 999-7156

Friday, August 28, 2020

Fenik's Frozen Custard

After a Saturday morning hike with the pup, a frozen sweet treat sounded particularly appealing. So we made our way west to try Fenik's Frozen Custard. Family-owned and open for 10+ years in Avon Lake, they are open 7 days a week featuring a flavor of the week, frozen custard, ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, and sorbet. 

No window service here, but plenty of parking in the large lot and COVID precautions were in place inside. 

I decided to try the Pistachio Gelato. Mr. H thought he was ordering a frozen custard (and we planned to share), but accidently ordered an ice cream when he got the Blueberry Cheesecake. To be honest, we both didn't find either to be very good.

When we saw a frozen treat just for pups, we knew our pooch would need to try one!

It appeared to have a vanilla frozen custard base, which did look rich and creamy. It just made me regret our human orders even more. Two layers of peanut butter topping and two biscuits had her licking every inch of the bowl! 

Has anyone been and had the actual frozen custard? If so, how does it compare to other local favorites like Rosati's or East Coast Custard? But for what we had, it wouldn't be worth another drive that far west. 

Fenik's Frozen Custard
684 Avon Belden Road
Avon Lake, OH 44012
(440) 930-8499

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Literary Tavern

In the quest to still work through the restaurants on my 2020 To Dine Challenge list, we ordered carry-out from Literary Tavern in Tremont.
Luckily, we had already experienced their atmosphere when we stopped in for drinks with friends back in January. 
It honors the historic elements of the 150-year-old building, while feeling chic and a bit sexy. The intimate tavern only seats 45 guests, and has some killer craft cocktails in addition to beer and wine. With a chef-driven menu and not far from home, this is exactly the type of place that will be in regular rotation for us. Stupid pandemic.
We're trying to do our part to support our favorite local restaurants through this, so we decided to go ahead and order takeout since we'd already experienced inside of Literary Tavern. At that point, I was still holding out hope that late summer or fall would bring some level of comfort with dining out for us.

We started with the Roasted Mushrooms ($9) of cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms with goat cheese, chili oil, and crostini. I'm a sucker for mushrooms, and this was enjoyable even as takeout so I can imagine the good and hot version being excellent.
Then we split the Muffuletta ($8) with olive bread, mortadella, soppressata, porchetta, olive tapenade, provolone, and pesto.
And Charred Corn Carbonara ($12) with charred corn, leeks, crispy ham, pecorino romano, leek ash, and house made linguine.
Both were delicious, but I didn't expect anything less from the same owner as Cantine and D'Agnese's in Broadview Heights, as I've always had good meals at both places. 

I hope this newish tavern makes it through the pandemic, because I foresee many more meals and plenty of cocktail visits in our future. 

1031 Literary Road
Cleveland, OH 44113
(216) 862-1916

Monday, August 24, 2020

Dreamz Cafe

In looking to support more black-owned businesses, we didn't have to go far because there are several wonderful restaurants, retail shops, and services right in our own neighborhood of Old Brooklyn

A newer business to the area, Dreamz Café, was one we'd been meaning to try. So after a recent morning hike, we placed a DoorDash lunch order. 

The restaurant had just opened for Saturday service and the estimated wait was 35-45 minutes. However, it took 1 hour and 15 minutes before the food arrived (just 2 miles away). It's hard to say whether it was entirely on DoorDash (we went through two drivers and another delivery on the way) or the restaurant (our first driver had sat and waited for a while). So I did privately reach out to the restaurant to share our experience, and the response was very apologetic and appropriate. It's always best to communicate any feedback, so that issues can be addressed. 

We shared the Breaded Shrimp ($9) with fries and an upgraded $1 side of Mac & Cheese. The shrimp were very small and the breading was way too thick, so we really didn't care for these at all. The mac & cheese was a bit sweet for my personal taste, but it was nice and creamy.

Not pictured was an order of the Catfish Bites ($7 for 8), which Mr. H scarfed right down before I could get a picture. But I did snag one, and it was much better than the shrimp. Only complaint? It didn't come with a dipping sauce, but that may have been an oversight since it was takeout.

Overall, this experience didn't leave us with the best impression. However, several neighbors have spoken highly of their own experiences so we'll definitely give it another try.  

Dreamz Café
4912 Pearl Road
Cleveland, OH 44109
(216) 303-9125

Friday, August 21, 2020

Independence Dairy King

When I posted at the end of last summer about finally finding a Flavor Burst in Northeast Ohio (and that it was a disappointing version), you all rallied and shared a couple of additional ice cream stands that also carry this Central NY childhood favorite of mine.

One that wasn't that far from home is Independence Dairy King (thanks, Alexa!), but it took me until this summer to get there.
Cash and to-go only (a couple of outdoor picnic tables available), they have all kinds of sundaes, malt, custard desserts, milkshakes and other frozen sweet treats.
But I was there for the Flavor Burst! For just $1 extra, add a swirl of flavor to the creamy, rich vanilla custard. I chose Black Cherry (Small- $3.75). IT WAS ALMOST AS GOOD AS THE ONES AT HOME! *Rejoice*
We've been back 3 times already this summer. Mr. H continues to try a variety of menu items...
...but I just go for my fix of Flavor Burst. Suddenly, this pandemic summer isn't so bad.

6484 Brecksville Road
Independence, OH 44131
(216) 524-1040

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Zanzibar Soul Fusion

With a commitment to support more black-owned businesses in Northeast Ohio, we've been discovering additional restaurants to try and also knocking a few off of the mental list that I carry around. Zanzibar Soul Fusion has been on that "list" and we recently ordered dinner through Uber Eats. 

We started with the Soul Rolls ($9.95) that are egg rolls stuffed with chicken, greens, black beans and roasted corn and a spicy remoulade sauce. It was like a full Southern-style meal packed into a crispy, golden wrapper. We enjoyed the entire dinner, but this dish was my favorite! 
We shared their Shrimp & Grits (both Teaser and Entrée sizes available) with grilled shrimp, onions and peppers marinated in creole sauce and served on a bed of creamy grits. The shrimp were cooked perfectly, and the dish had wonderful flavor without the spice level being too high. 
Lastly, we split their Honey Glazed Fried Chicken ($16.95). A 1/2 chicken deep fried and finished with a sweet honey glaze. It comes with their House Potato, and we added a side of Baked Macaroni & Cheese ($5) because duh.
The House Potato is a winner. As stated on their menu "Thinly sliced potatoes, baked in a savory cream sauce. These are not au gratin!" sure looked and tasted like au gratin to me. Just one of the better versions I've ever had!

While we didn't get to experience dining in, the takeout experience was really darn good and we'll certainly be dining here again. You have two dine-in options (takeout and delivery also available), Downtown Cleveland and Shaker Square. A Euclid location is available for takeout and delivery on Saturdays and Sundays only. This southern cuisine restaurant is owned by the founder of Angie's Soul Café

627 Prospect Avenue E
Cleveland, OH 44115
(216) 862-5772

13225 Shaker Square
Cleveland, Ohio 44120
(216) 752-1035

Monday, August 17, 2020

Capo's Steaks

Always on the hunt for a good cheesesteak, Capo's Steaks made it to my 2020 To Dine Challenge list.
It was an Uber driver that originally told us about this spot on St. Clair Avenue, but I quickly learned that they've been recognized with several awards and honors over the years.

Their 100% ribeye and steak rolls are both shipped in from Philly, home of the true cheesesteak. Located in a strip, there's plenty of free parking available. There also appeared to be plenty of indoor seating here. 

We're not dining in during the pandemic, so we placed an order by phone (available on DoorDash too) and swung by for takeout on our way to a park. I didn't want to stray too far from the Original Cheesesteak (grilled onions + white American cheese), but we love mushrooms so we split the Mushroom Steak ($8.99) with the same toppings of the original but a hearty helping of mushrooms. *Dining Deal Alert*
We also split the Famous Sweet Steak ($8.99) with the same toppings as the Original but the addition of sweet red peppers and Capo's original steak sauce. 
You can also get a Junior size for around $5.99 (some vary). 

First, it was a really good roll. That's important! Because a good cheesesteak can be a wet, creamy mess and it must hold up. While I enjoyed them both, we preferred the Sweet Steak version. You can add on toppings, so I'd probably throw some mushrooms on this one next time. I think we leaned towards the Sweet Steak because it did have more flavor. The meat itself wasn't overly flavorful. 

Now, this is personal preference, but I love Cheese Whiz on my cheesesteaks over sliced and melted cheese. So I did kind of miss it at Capo's. I think it's great when a cheesesteak joint offers both. 

I'd happily recommend Capo's, as it was a better than average cheesesteak for sure. However, The Original Steaks and Hoagies still claims the top spot for ones I've tried in Northeast Ohio.

10509 Saint Clair Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44108
(216) 721-3219

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Guest Post: Hiring a Private Chef

*Tap* *Tap* Is this thing on? Wow, it's been two months since I last popped in here. I'm sure I'm not the only one that feels that this pandemic both slows down time and speeds it up at the same time. Well, a LOT has happened in my world since I last posted. The big news? I quit my job of 9.5 years. Yup, in the middle of a pandemic and record unemployment. I must be nuts. The non-profit I worked for was hit hard financially, and 43% of staff were laid off while it took on a reorganization of its structure. I was offered a new national position, and I took the huge (and scary) leap of faith to turn it down. Honestly, it was the kick out the door that I had needed for years. I'll be taking some time to figure out what the next phase in my career will be, but it will certainly be something quite different and that brings me more joy and peace. COVID, and other life events over the last few years, have highlighted for me just how important your health, happiness, and loved ones are. Nothing else really matters.

But, I've still been enjoying some dining adventures the last several weeks, with new blog posts on deck! However, today I'm sharing a guest post from Jeff (Instagram: @schechterj). Jeff reached out to me not long ago for suggestions on a chef to host a private in-home experience. We've had quite a few wonderful experiences ourselves, and several with my buddy Chef Jeff Jarrett, so of course he was one of the first I recommended. Here are Jeff's words sharing his experience (with a few notes of my own):

COVID has really put a damper on foodie nation and anyone who likes to get out for the food and/or experience and have a change of pace. As this has dragged on, we are still strictly following the takeout/home cooking only approach, not ready to dine out just yet. Just like with home cooking, options for takeout are starting to become monotonous and in the same rotation.

With a “big” birthday on the horizon, the idea popped up to bring in a private chef to try to have somewhat of a restaurant experience but with a much more controlled and a lot more intimate (read safe) environment. After many recommendations, we landed on chef Jeff Jarrett. SPOILER ALERT...already looking at dates to book again!

The Process

This was much easier than expected, which was made possible by the knowledge and responsiveness of Jeff. (side thought – Why is it so hard for people to just return a message?  Do they not realize how it makes them look?)

Back to the process. Jeff was very easy to communicate with and quick to respond. Once we locked in a date, I just provided him with a few dislikes from the group (4 adults – our bubble).  With that in mind, Jeff delivered a menu a day or so later and asked for input/feedback, open to changing any course based on personal preference. He nailed the menu on the first go, so we had no changes.

Example: the salad course consisted of basically raw tomatoes, which I have never been a fan of. I expressed this to Jeff as a concern, but he talked me into it and I was willing to give it a go; thus no menu changes.

We also decided to add on a “snack” to eat while Jeff prepped everything and we put all the kids to bed. We were left in the dark as to what he would prepare, but based on the menu, we were happy to be surprised and knew he would deliver.

We only gave Jeff the address and what time we wanted the first course serve. He noted that he would arrive about 90 minutes before the first course.

The Menu

Snack – which was a surprise before it was presented to us, ended up being a beautiful cheeseboard that included some hand-picked cheeses, a fantastic bison sausage (Editor's Note: I've also had this sausage and it's dynamite), smoked salmon wrapped in an onion pancake, and vegetable dumplings with dipping sauce.

This was the perfect start to whet our appetites for the main meal and it included everything a great cheese board should include.

1) Tuna Tartare: avocado mousse, pickled red onion, arugula, yuzu

The Tuna was fresh and cold.  A great way to get you ready for what you know is about to be a great meal. There was great acidity with the yuzu and a hint of spice with togarashi dusted on top. Really opened up the taste buds.

2) Panzanella Salad: summer tomatoes, cucumber, homemade focaccia croutons, basil vinaigrette 

This was the course that I had the most anticipation for. Not because it sounded great, but because I have yet to find a raw tomato that I like. This dish looked beautiful. Jeff talked about where he got the local heirloom tomatoes while presenting the dish. 

On my first bite, I was sold. These tomatoes tasted like candy. In the end, it ended up being one of my favorite dishes. The simplest of dishes are sometimes what wow you the most. It was clean, crisp, refreshing and most importantly fresh. The homemade croutons added the perfect crunch and flavor to counterbalance the acidity from the tomatoes. Arugula added that nice pepper note to really round out the salad. No need for any cheese to hide other flavors in this dish.

3) Pan Roasted Mahi Mahi: Mediterranean farro salad, lemon pesto sauce

The progression of flavors throughout the night were concepted well. As we moved to the next course, we still had the fresh flavors of summer while taking our taste buds to the Mediterranean. The Mahi Mahi was cooked perfectly. While this is a “meaty” fish, it flaked apart perfectly. Simply seasoned, it paired perfectly with the farro salad that was studded with olives. All of the flavors came together to offer a burst of brightness and really set us up nicely for the meat course.

4) Braised Beef Short Rib: brown butter baby gnocchi, summer vegetables, beef sauce

This was the star of the show, and was the perfect crescendo to the journey our taste buds have been on. The short rib was fall-apart tender that you could easily cut with a fork. There were so many textures and flavors happening on this plate that you wanted to jump from one thing to the next and also all at once. The broccolini was still perfectly crisp and the chanterelles, which Jeff mentioned he was able to get from a friend, complimented everything nicely. Now onto those little baby gnocchi. "Little" and "baby" are only words to describe their size because these packed a ton of flavor. Not only was there a pillow-like texture on the inside, but it was the crisp exterior that made these gnocchi so succulent and a great complement to the real star of the plate, the meat. Everything came together so nicely. 

5) Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta: salted caramel, vanilla bean ice cream, toasted peanuts (Editor's Note: There's a reason this is Jeff's signature dessert. I still see people in local foodie groups on Facebook mentioning this panna cotta from his days at AMP 150.)

Yes, there was more. And I always have room for dessert. Snickers anyone? This is what Snickers hopes to grow up to be one day. The silky smooth panna cotta, not overly sweet, with the warmed salted caramel and toasted peanuts with little scoops of vanilla ice cream.  Sign me up any day of the week. What a way to end the meal. Again, all the textures and flavors melding perfectly so a bite that always wanted to keep you coming back for more.

The Night

Jeff arrived promptly at 6:00, as we requested our first course be served at 7:30 PM.  We asked Jeff if he needed anything or any help, and he was quick to assure us that he would handle everything that night. We had great conversation with Jeff throughout the night as he was very personable while never making the night about him.

Jeff then got right to work constructing our “nosh” board. For the most part, everything was served on our dishes, which we discussed beforehand and were more than happy to provide.

Each course was then presented and explained to us throughout the evening including where the ingredients came from (tomatoes from a local farm, chanterelles from a friend, etc.). This just added to the experience.

Everything was timed perfectly. Jeff cleared all of the dishes and gave us time before presenting the next dish. (oh yea, and if you weren’t able to finish a dish, Jeff packed the leftovers and any other leftovers you may have to enjoy the next day)

After the final plates were cleared, we all headed to the kitchen to wrap up the evening. Jeff left the kitchen spotless with the dishwasher fully loaded and not a crumb in sight!

One thing we hadn’t discussed was how he was handling COVID and precautions that he would take. Let me say that Jeff was the utmost professional, arriving in a mask, cooking in gloves and bringing his own bottle of Lysol cleaner.

Final Thoughts

We weren’t sure what to expect heading into the evening, as this was the first time anyone had done anything like this. All of us in the group were blown away not only by the food, but how easy it was to put together from beginning to end.

I can’t recommend chef Jeff Jarrett enough. He over-delivered on every aspect of the evening and we will not hesitate on using him again.

The night gave us a chance to actually forget about COVID and everything that was happening in the world, even if it just was for a couple of hours. The night was not only about the food, but the whole experience. It was better than being in a restaurant.

This reassured me that I was doing the right thing during the pandemic. With young children, a night out quickly became more about the experience than the food as we were getting babysitters and just making it be about the night out. This option allowed us to do both. We were able to play with the kids and put them to bed and then enjoy our dinner while feeling like we were in our own private restaurant.

The calendar is out and we are already trying to figure out the next date to have another meal prepared by Jeff.

And how could I not mention one of the best parts, your “restaurant” = your dress code. For this food, bring your stretchy pants.

Now it's back to the home cooking and takeout rotation, but with a new outlook and new energy (even if it is the same food).

Thank you, Jeff Jarrett, for allowing us to have this night and we can’t wait to do it again!

Thanks for sharing your experience with my readers, Jeff. I'm so glad to hear that it all worked out so well. But I knew that it would! I encourage you all to consider this way of celebrating a special occasion or gathering a small group for dinner, and I'm always happy to make chef recommendations. Now, stay tuned for more posts coming up about my recent dining adventures!