Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Relapse at the Velvet Dog

1280 W 6th St
Cleveland, OH 44113-1351
(216) 664-1116

by Beau Cadiyo

We found parking in front of the Velvet Dog, under the shade of the trees - shade I'm not sure I've seen before. It's sometimes hard to remember that West Sixth exists beyond Saturday night; everything looks newer and cleaner and more alive when the sun is out, like a Disney city street. The doorman forgot that it wasn't early afternoon - he told us to "have a good evening," then laughed at himself while he checked my ID.

Upstairs, too, it looked completely different. Instead of being packed with girls in short skirts and guys in striped shirts or Affliction tees, there were patio tables and chairs, lounge chairs on the raised deck, a cornhole set near the bar and only about ten people milling about. It was warm, too - the sun reflected off of the bamboo and the concrete and intensified. Frank Sims, one of the organizers, greeted us with bear hugs and steered us to the bar, his social graces Gatsbyesque.

The first stroke of brilliance was using a rooftop bar for a regular Sunday party. The second was the Bloody Mary station. I got vodka and ice in a glass from the barmaid; my girlfriend mixed it perfectly. We moved to the reclining chairs, where a man with bright white skin and brighter red hair was laying out, anticipating a vicious Irish sunburn. He was friendly, which was the strangest thing about the entire day. West Sixth, and the Velvet Dog, don't strike me as being the most friendly places; the aforementioned skirts and shirts can be downright hostile when drunk. At Relapse, West Sixth became an intimate gathering where social barriers were lifted and everyone was eager to meet everyone else.

Third stroke of brilliance: the barbecue. Instead of traditional grill fare, we had a full breakfast menu. The grillmaster showed me how he was making the french toast, and how the eggs were cooked (over the grill, but in a large, disposable aluminum pan). I ordered the sausage and egg sandwich made out of French toast.

It took a while to arrive. It was, admittedly, huge. He'd added strawberries on top, along with some powdered sugar, and gave me bottles of maple syrup and ketchup. The eggs were surprisingly well cooked (especially over coals), as was the French toast. The sausage was a bit bland, but Sims said that they're going to be constantly tweaking the menu. Earlier I had ordered the home fried potatoes, which were delicious at the time. However, as the day wore on they seems to wilt in their catering container.

Later, girls laid out in their bikinis and the cornhole got more confrontational. I reflected a bit. I liked it a lot and I hope to go back, and I hope that they are successful. However, I hope it's not too successful - except for my girlfriend, everyone I spoke to expressed an aversion to it becoming an MTV beach party. Unfortunately, as people find out about it, I'm not sure that scene is avoidable. Right now, it feels like we're starting something cool, on the cutting edge. Next week, people will have told their friends, and a few newbies will show up, and will be welcomed. In a few weeks, additions will be admitted grudgingly, and then soon after it will be packed with people who don't know each other and stick mostly to their own groups. The forty-somethings who were there at Week One will either feel awkward hanging out with 20-somethings, will go to another venue, or will stay home. When people are fighting to get to the bar, or girls participate in a high-pitched impromptu wet t-shirt party, the people who were there first will not return. Right now, it is a relaxed Sunday afternoon haunt for close - or soon to be close - friends. If it became more popular and you actually had to wait for a drink, it will be yet another beautiful idea destroyed by its own success.

Velvet Dog Nightclub on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stir Crazy

25385 Cedar Rd
Lyndhurst, OH 44122
(216) 381-7600

by Beau Cadiyo

In law school, one is thrust into a situation where one pretends to be close to people that one can barely tolerate. The cattiness, name-calling and petty disputes are legion and legendary. Someone told me that law school is not for making friends. Law school is for learning and, for many, being miserable.

It’s only after law school that you realize who you liked in law school, and by then you’ve lost the opportunity to see your favorite classmates every day. That’s how I began to feel with Frank Duffy and Frank Broadbent. Although I liked them in school, I really started to appreciate them afterward. Thus, it was fortuitous that I made plans with Duffy for dinner and Broadbent happened to park next to me and joined us.

I’d been to Stir Crazy once before, with an ex. We were living together and we went for her birthday. She complained for most of the dinner about how I hadn’t planned anything to celebrate. To shut her up, I told her about the surprise party I’d put together for later that evening. Immediately, she began complaining about how I’d ruined the surprise, and how she’d always wanted a surprise party, ever since she was young. That was in the middle of winter, and we’d been bundled up against the chill. This time I sat outside in the sun, with a gin and tonic, and noted with pleasure an item denoted “*NEW*” on their menu: the bánh mì.

I’d first heard of a bánh mì in an article in the New York Times five years ago. These Vietnamese sandwiches were said to be sweeping New York at the time. A bánh mì is, quite simply, a French baguette with Vietnamese filling, and is a culinary child of colonialism, much like Thai iced coffee. In New York, small family shops serving fresh baguettes and with Vietnamese filling were having trouble keeping up with demand. I first tasted one in Columbus, at the North Market, but was geographically constrained from reviewing it. Eleven months later, I was at Legacy Village, and I knew what to order, and I was excited.

Later, Reuben told me that he’d never heard anything good about Stir Crazy. I wish he’d told me before. The bánh mì came with a coleslaw and a pile of candied ginger, both appropriate for the Ahi Tuna Sashimi I’d ordered as filling. The sandwich was medium-sized and well-presented. The bread was admittedly good, but the rest of it was a disappointment. The ahi, seared on the outside and pink within, was tough and tasted slightly stale; it should have been yielding and smooth. Anything else in the sandwich was forgettable (as I’ve completely forgotten it). The coleslaw was, again, mediocre, but the crushed peanuts was a nice touch. The ginger, which I’d been looking forward to, was bright orange, rubbery and saccharine sweet. I kept eating it, hoping that it would change flavor or reveal subtlety I hadn’t found before, but in the end it was simply bad.

The bánh mì, 1/3 of an order of decent duck wraps, a cup of (almost) hot-and-sour soup, my gin and tonic and a generous tip ended up just under $30. We then sat around talking shop about our post-law-school lives. Eventually, we got around to pondering whether others encountered the same problems with practicing law that we were encountering. I was reminded of the advice given to me by the study abroad people at my college: “Remember, EVERYTHING YOU FEEL IS NORMAL.” Surely, the girl who admitted that the only reason she went to law school was to stock her closet, or the Napoleon who once bragged about punching someone in the back of the head and running away, or the girl whose sole ambition seemed to be to satisfy her mother’s wish that she marry a wealthy lawyer and get alimony (something she’s well on the way to doing) – surely, we thought, they are all feeling the same pains and frustrations we are feeling in their own practices. I’ll never know – I don’t keep in touch with them.

Stir Crazy on Urbanspoon

Odds and ends

Courtesy of my beautiful little sister:

"I feel like I just found out my favorite love song is about a sandwich." Jane, "27 Dresses"

I'm assuming she means that she feels amazing.

Second, someone working for the f'REAL milkshake company contacted me and asked me to review their products. I thought, "Sure, why not?" They sent me two free vouchers and a list of places near me that have f'REAL machines. I waited until July 5, when I was going to the beach with my girlfriend. We walked into the Circle K on Vine street in Willoughby and there, nestled among all the drink machines, was the f'REAL machine, sitting on top of a freezer.

It's a simple idea: you take a cup out of the freezer. You pull the foil top back from it. You put the cup in the machine and press a button based on how thick you want your shake. The machine uses a mechanical arm to move the cup up into the machine, then blenders (or something) mix up the stuff to the desired consistency. Then, the arm brings the cup down, and you get a straw and eat.

I got the Cookie Dough and my girlfriend got the fruit smoothie. Mine was infinitely better - it tasted creamy and moderately delicious. Hers, on the other hand, was overly sweet - the ingredients included more high fructose corn syrup than any of the fruit "purees" it boasted in its ingredients list.

Three things bothered me about it otherwise. First, it was $2.49 for a single f'REAL, which to my old mind is expensive. Second, it is like an "ATM" of milkshakes, but to me it unnecessarily takes the human element out of the serving. It's like it's made for people who don't want others to know what they're eating so as not to judge until you pay for it. I suspect there's some sort of psychological principle stating that when the human element is taken out of serving unhealthy food, people are more likely to consume it - especially when they know the food is not optimal for their health. It also might be that children are more likely to consume when they don't have to have interactions with "adults" while making their consumption choices. Conspiracy theories, perhaps, but I just don't know why one wouldn't go to a fast food place and get an equivalent milkshake or smoothie for less. Perhaps there is a massive demand among late-night truckers for milkshakes that I didn't know about, and they have been demanding them at 24-hour convenience stores? Or perhaps the business model is based on spur purchases?

Third, about that smoothie: it had a LOT of sweetener. I'm not sure if it had more than my milkshake, but it was so sweet that my cheeks hurt and I could only sip a little. Frank went back in to get little coffee creamers to mix in because it was so ridiculously sweet, and the coffee creamers were an improvement. IN A SMOOTHIE. Then, she pointed out that it's likely that people get the smoothie thinking that it's healthier than the others; looking at the nutrition information, it seems that it doesn't have more good stuff - it only has less bad stuff, like cholesterol and fat. I'm sure that Circle K has healthier options like juices, muffins, etc. She finished it, somehow, but said that she wished she'd gotten mine instead. Thus, if you do get a f'REAL, avoid the fruit ones.

They offered me a few more, so I'm going to take them up on it and try the Cappuccino ones. I'm optimistic. Oh, but one thing: there aren't any around my house. I have to drive at least ten miles into the outer suburbs to find one. I'm sure there's a marketing reason for it, perhaps related to the above points. Anyway, addendums will be added to this post.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Arabica Cafe & Coffee House

5115 Wilson Mills Road
Richmond Heights, Ohio 44143
(440) 449-4100

by Beau Cadiyo

I first visited Arabica when it was just starting out. Behind the counter were a husband and wife team, both friendly and talkative and open about working the kinks out of the business. What struck me first was that they were going full-steam-ahead with a new business in the middle of an economic downturn, and were clearly both excited and nervous about the whole thing. It came through in the sort of tremor in their voices, the very real happiness simmering under a slightly forced gaiety, their eagerness to serve and please the customer. I visited again a couple of months later to get coffee, and a teenager was working behind the counter, saying goodbye to her mom before she served me. Then, two days ago, I got a coupon on my door: buy a breakfast or regular sandwich, get one free. As I’m a bit skint at the moment, I eyed the $2.99 breakfast menu – eggs, cheese and few options of meats. I made plans.

When I walked in, it was almost the same store, but a teenage boy and a teenage girl were working behind the counter. Six people, including myself, were getting food – a mother/son duo sitting in the back, both with matching long dirty-blonde hair, and a mother/daughter pair and a middle-aged guy, all taking out. As I entered, the teenage boy, with long brown hair and a goatee, walked a skinny girl out of the door and kissed her briefly before returning to his mandatory duty as a summer food service worker. As he marched back to his station, his workmate told me that they were out of English muffins. “That’s a good sign – they’re at least selling them,” I thought.

I looked around. The space is cramped, but at the same time, one gets the sense that they’re doing with it what they can. The table arrangement had changed, as had the placement of the donuts, coffee and ice cream freezer. Then, suddenly, the boy served me my sandwiches, saying, “here you go, guy.”

My first sandwich was the biscuit, egg and cheese. The biscuit was small but they didn't skimp on filling. Instead, they stuffed the egg and cheese in, creating a sandwich tall instead of wide. The biscuit was dry, but tasted fresh, the egg was nicely cooked and firm, and the processed American cheese slice was standard, sticking to my teeth and the roof of my mouth. However, as soon as I bit into it I regretted not getting the sausage option as it could have used the meat flavor and a bit more grease for the biscuit.

Second, I got the egg and cheese on a blueberry bagel. The blueberry bagel was perfect - well cooked, tender and firm, if a bit smaller than a standard bagel, and the egg and cheese were the same as the first sandwich. However, I immediately regretted not ordering bacon on this one as that would have added the extra flavor that this sandwich needed.

It seems that they’ve made it at least six months now. I’m going to try to go back today to get the blueberry again and use another coupon for a free coffee. However, I’m not going back just for the food. I’m going back to support entrepreneurialism, grit, resolve and passion for becoming one's own boss, to support hiring teenagers to work in the summertime, to support strong coffee, to support experimentation and risk – even foolhardy risk – and to take advantage of every opportunity to build something great.

Arabica Cafe and Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I think we can all identify with this.