28869 Chagrin Blvd
Woodmere, OH 44122
by Beau Cadiyo
The Cleveland Sandwich Board was started as a sandwich-reviewing body, and we fully intended to pay for those sandwiches ourselves. After our first few reviews, we linked up with the Case School of Law Docket, a student newspaper. They reimbursed us up to $30 per meal (which we usually exceeded). For the first year of our existence, we milked it for all it was worth: the Docket got regular restaurant reviews from one of America’s most important and vital sandwich review organizations; we got free food. It was a win-win situation.
Having said that, I absolutely resent it when businesses offer me free food to review. Reviews should, in my opinion, be unbiased assessments of the items reviewed. For something like food, the need to avoid influence is even more acute . A movie leaves one with an experience and a car is often returned to the manufacturer, but food is not regurgitated at the end; it becomes a part of the reviewer. Trading free food for a review strikes me as bribery, as corruption, as absolutely dishonest. However, I am not averse to taking advantage of a free offer – instead, with righteous indignation, I become hyper-critical.
This brings us to Fleming’s. A woman contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in coming down for a complimentary burger from their new happy-hour "5 for $6 before 7" menu. I accepted and immediately regretted it. What would reviewing a free burger do to my objectivity? And, if I gave them a bad review, what would that say about my gratitude? I conceded that I would not be objective, and decided not to care what they thought about my manners. If they asked for a review, they had to be willing to accept a negative one. It was not my fault if I found their food lacking.
So I went, my heart – and stomach – hardened. Frank Hoxha, who often has interesting ideas about what one should do with food, joined me.At the door, we told the hostesses we were there for happy hour with Frank Vasil, who had emailed me. They did not know who this Vasil person was. I escalated: we were with The Cleveland Sandwich Board. The ignorami had heard nothing of us. I was furiously turning to walk away from their dank establishment when I remembered to say "Taste of Flemings," which saw us whisked swiftly through the dark restaurant to a long table on their bright outside patio, with plates and forks and drinks of our choice.
The owner was sitting with a table of food bloggers and talking about the restaurant, and we joined them. I immediately disliked the place a little more. Any place where critics are treated specially is suspect. He went to get the bartender, who asked what we’d like to drink. I asked for a surprise with hard alcohol; Frank got wine. I became even more annoyed. They were trying to liquor us up.
The other bloggers were all friendly; I ended up talking to a Brazilian lawyer who never removed her sunglasses. I expressed my discomfort at receiving free food, at which point one of the other bloggers looked squarely at me and said that most of her meals were free. She said she often contacted restaurants and offered to review them in exchange for free food, and suggested that I do the same. I looked around the table and suddenly wondered if I was the only one who didn’t think this was right or honorable, the only one who thought this practice put the entire reviewing community to shame.
A Sirloin Burger arrived, cut in half and haughtily perched on a huge plate with two giant onion rings and a small ramekin of jalapeño aioli sauce. It was heavy enough that I began to think that the meat was not bulked out with any additives. The bottom bun was slightly soggy, while the top had a smooth, thin crust that was not normal for hamburgers. It didn’t react much when I pushed down, instead retaining much of its shape.
I resented the first bite, and the second, and the third, because I resented the hope on the part of the restaurant that I, and the other bloggers, would be pleased. The first, the corner, was mostly bread, but it was good – egg knot bread, baked at the restaurant by the chef, chewy and warm, tasting of an ethnic nostalgia. The second included more sauce and meat, which was dense, solid, slightly pink and very juicy. The lettuce was wilted on top, and slightly slimy (perhaps from the sauce); the melted cheddar was not noticeable, and the bacon, cooked in cajun spices and sugar, added a small amount of flavor. More than flavor, though, it added texture - a little bit of resistance to the top teeth which, after biting through the bread and just before hitting the sirloin, forced me to pause. The rest of the bites were just as good, although the burger at one point got a bit messy, with sauce dripping and beef slipping out almost sexually. When I finished, I tried an onion ring. I hate when onion rings are stringy, not allowing for a clean bite but instead forcing the eater to slurp the onion out of the breading as if it was a common piece of pasta. This one allowed for a clean bite, the onion remaining perfectly in place. I was totally unprepared for my reaction: I was impressed.
At the end, they gave us gift bags - two wine glasses, a bottle stopper, wine key, foil cutter and a bottle of wine. Walking out, I told Frank, "We were so fucking bribed." Yet, somehow, I didn’t resent them as much as I thought I would. The burger was excellent; the spicy calamari was some of the best I’ve had in Cleveland; the cajun shrimp spicy and crunchy. The staff was attentive, which I didn’t like, until I noticed that they were attentive to everyone – the bartender sat on the couches with another group, chatting, and the busser, a young black man, was perfectly deferential to the customers. (Ever since talking with Frank Frazier about the racial divisions with staff, I’m more and more conscious of black men and women being allowed out of the back to interact with customers; this is a strong point in Flemings’ favor.) My Eight Ball cocktail was strong, and very drinkable. Although the patio looks out onto the parking lot, it’s not as unpleasant as, say, Sushi Rock Beachwood’s, which puts you almost on top of passing cars.
Thus, I was angry at their attempts to influence our writing, and resented them for it. The problem is that the food really was excellent - and, at $6 during happy hour, a very, very good deal. We're already planning on going back.
Addendum: I was happy to see that another blogger had similar reservations about reviewing free food as I did. She is obviously not the blogger mentioned above. There are also some good pictures in this post. We apparently received conflicting reports about where the burger bread was made; I hope that the owners can clear up this confusion, perhaps in the comments section.