Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery

2000 Sycamore St #260
Cleveland, OH 44113

By Scarlet Pumpernickel

I began my love affair with bourbon based sauces many years ago with a gravy made by an ex-boyfriend. He was a very good cook, and was making a roast beef dinner. He asked for some wine to pick up all the meaty flavor bits in the pan. I decided on the red I was most willing to sacrifice and discovered I didn't know where my corkscrew was. Being ever resourceful, he suggested we use a liquor instead. After a lengthy discussion on the right alcohol to use, we settled on Wild Turkey. The gravy was amazing; I still use the recipe today.

So you can understand how excited I was when I saw the "Bourbonzola Burger" on the menu at Rock Bottom, with three things I love: Bourbon and Gorgonzola cheese on a burger. Immediate thought: spectacular! Unfortunately, the final result was not as exciting as I expected.

The first thing I noticed when the burger was placed in front of me was that the bourbon glaze was served on the side in a little cup. This was a smart move on their part because the glaze was very powerful. It tasted like a very sweet BBQ sauce with a hint of bourbon in it. Putting it on the burger crushed every other flavor present. The beef especially suffered under the tyranny of the glaze. It's not bad meat, but it wasn't extraordinarily flavorful, so only the meaty texture came through. In fact, the only flavor on the burger that was able to stand up to the glaze was the Gorgonzola cheese. Unfortunately, they didn't put enough on the burger to taste it in every bite. On the positive side, the onion straws were perfect. They added just the right crunchy texture.

A delicate application could, I suppose, keep the glaze for crushing the rest of the burger, but it wouldn't fix my number one complaint about the burger: where's the bourbon? Now, I'll admit that I like to drink my liquor straight. I enjoy the taste of bourbon, and when I hear "bourbon glaze" I expect a glaze that tastes like bourbon. Sure, many people wouldn't want a bourbon loaded sauce, but I have two counter arguments to that claim:

1. The sauce comes on the side anyway, they don't have to put it on if they don't like it.
2. There are other burgers on the menu they can order, including one with barbecue sauce.

I know restaurants across the country are trying to spice up their menus with unusual dishes and ingredients, but that's no excuse for over-promising on what is ultimately a perfectly fine burger. It just didn't have the exciting flavors I was expecting, likely out of a misguided fear of making something that might only be appealing to a small group of people. In the end, I will be going back. The place has a good atmosphere, the staff is great, they let us play a Wii on one of the big tvs, and they have a good selection of beers. I'll just go with a classic burger next time.

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Buckeye Beer Engine

15315 Madison Ave
Lakewood, OH 44107

By Scarlet Pumpernickel

For my first review I decided to go to a place that I know well, the Beer Engine in Lakewood. Located in an unassuming building on a quiet street, the Beer Engine is a bar with a very casual atmosphere combined with good food and a great beer selection. They have around 30 beers on tap including two beers in wooden casks. The casks aren't pressurized like a normal steel keg, so pumping the beer out requires an engine, hence the name of the bar.

The burger selection here is nicely varied. The menu has common standbys like a southwest themed burger and the now near ubiquitous blackened burger with blue cheese, but it also has some more unusual entries as well. I ordered the Cyclops burger. It's loaded with bacon, cheddar cheese, and a sunny-side-up egg. You have the option of either homemade chips or shoestring fries. Most people prefer the shoestring fries, I like the chips better myself.

The first thing you'll notice when you get your burger is the deep fried pickle that comes with it. Normally the pickle on the side of a platter serves as a cool, tart compliment to the meatiness of the burger, letting you cleanse you palette. Breading and frying the pickle makes it much sweeter and heavier so that it can step up to being a full participant in the meal.

The meat in the burgers is, well, unique. It tastes very different from most gourmet burgers. I've heard a range of theories on what makes them so tasty: grass fed cows, grinding the beef themselves, even a little ground pork mixed in (hey, it makes vegetables more tasty), but regardless of how they do it, the burgers are delicious. They even taste great when over-cooked, which brings me to the one real knock on the Beer Engine. The place gets VERY busy Friday and Saturday nights, and on rare occasions your burger will come out more medium than rare/medium rare, or an appetizer will be forgotten, or the wrong beer will be brought (and quickly corrected).

But we need to get back to my burger. When we left it, it was about to be eaten. The Beer Engine knows that the most important part of putting an egg on a burger is to leave the yolk nice and runny. When you place the bun on top, you will break the yolk and it will go running everywhere. That's ok. Much of it will absorb into the top bun (bun consistency is critical here, we're looking for porous, yet durable), but the yolk that makes it to your plate can be sopped up with the side of the burger between bites. It sounds messy, but if the yolk was cooked through, you would have a yolk nugget treacherously waiting for you somewhere at the center of the burger, overpowering all the other flavors for a few bites.

I wandered to another entrée on the menu once. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as good as their burgers either. Perhaps it's just when you find something you really like, everything else seems worse by comparison.

Buckeye Beer Engine on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Burger Nuts

30699 Euclid Ave,
Wickliffe, OH 44092
(440) 585-1111‎

by Beau Cadiyo

I’m all for gimmicks as part of the sales process provided that the underlying object being sold is good. If it’s not good, a purchase-inducing gimmick is like a peacock’s feathers – puffery designed to deceive. Burger Nuts is just that – instead of being gimmicky to get people in, and then producing quality products to maintain customers, they try to sell the gimmick without anything supporting it.

When we got there on Friday at 6:15 p.m., it was packed with people. The crowd was family-friendly; overweight youngsters ate with overweight parents and overweight grandparents. Save for the two guys in front of us still in sweaty exercise clothes, we may have been the only regular gym-goers in the place.

The first thing that made me suspicious were the piles of potatoes I leaned against while waiting in line. I’m all for putting raw restaurant materials in sight of the customer. It allows the customer to see what they’re getting, and done subtly and well – like at Jimmy John’s – it becomes a part of a beautiful presentation. However, Burger Nuts’ approach was haphazard, obvious and sloppy. Burger Nuts: CLEAN UP.

Second, the menu, while fun, was complicated. Because of the number of choices and the number of toppings, figuring out the order I wanted crossed my eyes. Contrast this with In-N-Out, the famous and absolutely amazing Southern California chain which has about three hamburger options on its menu (but numerous more off-menu). I realize that the gimmick was to give the customer the ability to make their own special burger, but the sheer number of choices made it onerous. Burger Nuts: Simplify.

The nuts are similarly poorly run. When I asked about them, the waitress pointed to the only trash can in the entire restaurant. Perched on top was a large cardboard box containing peanuts. I looked for something to put them in; there were a few tiny metal buckets scattered about on the tables, but they were all full of peanut shells, and using them felt like using someone else’s dirty plate. Burger Nuts: figure out a system.

Fourth, the burgers are never frozen and are supposed to be fully customizable. As soon as I unwrapped burger I was disappointed. The onions and sauce had soaked through the bun, rendering it near-mush. The burger patties, while perhaps never frozen, were not, therefore, good; the beef was almost tasteless, even if it did have a pretty good texture and consistency. Frank Khan was similarly unimpressed with his. Burger Nuts: don’t think that the gimmicks will allow you to get away with a substandard product.

Finally, the potatoes I leaned against (and possibly contaminated) were also supposed to be used for the fresh-cut fries, and the newspaper article I’d read about Burger Nuts gushed about the huge portions. Pshaw. My regular fries would be the equivalent of a McDonald’s small, except that McDonald’s are well-cooked and crispy. Burger Nuts followed the recent trend of producing soggy, limp, tasteless fries. When I got up to get ketchup, the large dispensers were out; regular ketchup bottles had to be shaken to get the remaining ketchup out. I glanced over and saw, piled precariously high, boxes of cooking oil, some leaking out. Looking back into the kitchen there was a large, cavernous space; it couldn’t have been that they were out of storage room. Burger Nuts: make better fries, portion them well, and figure out a system for condiments.

By the time we were finished the restaurant had almost emptied out. Looking at the owner, who I recognized from the article, I felt a mixture of excitement and sadness. It is exciting that he is pursuing his dream for operating a restaurant; it’s sad that his dream couldn’t be better.

Burger Nuts on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Goat Soup and Whiskey

820 Catawba Avenue
Put-In-Bay, OH 43456

by Beau Cadiyo

When we got up she barely talked to me. We’d spent the night in the South Bass park campground and packing up was accomplished in near-silence. So was driving, and figuring out where to eat; I could feel her anger and frustration directed at me from the passenger seat. Upstairs, we joined a few other hungover tables on the roofed patio. Her eyes were distant and uncommunicative.

I hated myself. I’d been a complete asshole, and kept apologizing, but nothing. She didn’t care any more. We ordered. It was chilly, so I went downstairs to get a sweater. On the way back up, rows of chocolates caught my eye. I went back down and picked some out. The man behind the counter told me that lots of men stop by for chocolate on Sunday mornings, and nodded. Upstairs, she ate a few.

My soup came – cream of mushroom. Hunger was an unnecessary spice – this soup was absolutely delicious. Then the sandwiches. My fried perch was stuffed in a long roll, with some tomato and lettuce, and fries formed a small pile on the plate with a pickle. They were limp – I’ve started to notice that a lot of places serve limp fries. The sandwich was probably good, but by this point I had no appetite. It just sat on my plate. Small, black varicose veins stood out against the white of the fish. That’s what I remember - the veins. Frank said that you shouldn’t fry white fish, but I don’t know that I’ve ever had perch any other way. The gyro she urged on me was mediocre – the small bite I took revealed almost plain meat, and I feel that gyro meat should be spiced to extinction. I realized that I was noticing the small things that you notice when you want to know someone – the way she poured pepper onto her fries, the way she propped her legs up on the chairs and the table, how she mostly picked at the dark chocolate. She used to insist on always paying half, but today she hadn’t brought a credit card. I had to pay.

When she went to the bathroom, I looked over at a table of three middle-aged women next to me. All three had wedding rings on, and for some reason I plucked up my courage and asked if they had any advice for a young man on how to make relationships work.

1) She’s always right.
2) Keep your own friends.
3) Give each other some space.
4) Compromise.
5) Two of them were divorcees, so maybe don’t listen to them too closely.

She came back outside and motioned me from the doorway. The women wished me quiet good luck as I walked past. In high school, people had nicknamed her the “Ice Queen.” Walking down the stairs, I could still feel her frustration with me even if she’d melted a bit with the meal. I was fairly sure we would not talk again after I dropped her off at home, and that made me infinitely sad, both because I truly cared about her and because hurting her was the last thing I ever wanted to do.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lure Bistro

38040 3rd St
Willoughby, OH 44094
(440) 951-8862

By Beau Cadiyo

The relationships that people have with restaurants mirror human sexuality. Most restaurants that one might enter are like one-night stands – you may remember them, you may know how to get in touch, but you don’t plan on going back unless absolutely necessary. Here, either you’re extremely adventurous, eating things you normally wouldn’t, or you are exceptionally conservative, sticking with what you know. Others are like long-term marriages; you know the restaurant repeatedly and intimately, and you generally stick with one or, at most two, comfortable dishes. That’s a shame: the fun of casual dating, of the learning curve, of the playfulness of exploration and discovery and not knowing what you’re going to get, is lost as soon as you settle down into a rhythm. Restaurant relationships are boring and routine and predictable; you’ve lost the fun, the excitement, the spark. However, sometimes you get a taste of something new and exciting – that’s when you owe it to yourself to explore more, to dive in, to push your own limits. It’s uncomfortable, though, and difficult. It’s difficult to go to a restaurant that keeps you excited and interested and a little bit confused. It’s difficult to walk into a place and not know what to expect. You may be disappointed, you may wish you hadn’t tried at all, you may be scared. But in the end, it’s those moments where you have to close your eyes and remember what is happening and take the risk that it might be incredible.

Lure is a restaurant to date right now. It was just taken over by a new chef and his general manager, and it is evolving and changing and exciting. We would have reviewed it back when it was UrbanSpoon’s number one ranked restaurant in Cleveland, but we thought it was solely sushi and didn’t have sandwiches.

The lighting at first reminded me of a warm dinner party. The entire patio vibe, really, was like that; the only thing missing was a good host to talk to people, introduce them, share them around and mix and match the tables appropriately. Think of the function of a restaurant host. Now replace them with a good dinner party host who ensures that nobody is left alone, nobody feels out of place, and people with common interests, be it the law or architecture or food documentaries or voice-distorting megaphones are made aware of their commonalities and, therefore, brought that much closer. In some places, such a social catalyst would be out of place – the Velvet Dog, for example. At Lure, it felt uncomfortable not to be introduced to the two girls sitting just one table over, and uncomfortable not to know anything about the large dinner party under the outdoor chandelier.

Such a function was partially served when the manager, Jonathan, stopped by and introduced himself around the table. A tall, lean man with a shaved head, a massive watch and intricate tattoos up his arms, he was eager to talk about the restaurant and his plans for the menu – the new dishes he wanted to serve (I want to return to sample the bison and the crocodile), the features to renovate, etc. I got the impression that this was something special, something more than an ordinary restaurant. For him, Lure isn’t a business – it is a passion. It was exciting.

The grouper sandwich arrived and he excused himself. We fell upon the homemade chips, hot with oil, thinly cut and simultaneously crispy and chewy. The waiter absent-mindedly suggested a remoulade, wandering away and returning with a small cup, the contents of which I spread thinly on the bread.

It was simply incredible. The grouper fell apart in my mouth, flaking away, not too moist, not too dry. Frank Hoxha, who doesn’t like fish, actually used her fork to collect some of the bits that fell out. The tomato slice oozed juice and seeds and the bread was crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. The remoulade was nice, but it was an unnecessary addition. It was like adding a single leaf or snowflake to a Hokusai print – it adds an element, sure, but it was not necessary and may have actually detracted from the rest.

Yet something seemed slightly off, and we all noticed it. Perhaps it was first-night jitters on the part of the staff, or fear and uncertainty on the part of the long-time patrons. We sat around talking as the patio and bar emptied out. When the bill came, we asked that it be split 75/25; the waiter mixed up the cards, so we settled it in cash. Things aren’t perfect at Lure, but there’s potential for something if a few of the kinks are worked out. There’s going to be a second date in the very near future.

Lure Bistro on Urbanspoon