Lola Bistro is chef Michael Symon's flagship restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Situated on a popular pedestrian-only street surrounded by bars and retail boutiques, the restaurant sits within 15 minutes walking distance of two of the city's biggest attractions, Progressive Field where the Cleveland Indians play baseball and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Having been named "Best New Chef" by Food & Wine magazine in 1999 and "Best Chef - Great Lakes Region" by the James Beard Foundation in 2009, chef Symon has parlayed his talent and notariety into a culinary empire that includes regular appearances on the Food Network both in capacity of judge and as an Iron Chef, a handful of restaurants, and a couple of cookbooks including his latest release, Carnivore.
One of us travels to Cleveland annually on business, and has had the opportunity to eat once at Lola prior to this visit as well as Lola's sister restaurant on the other side of town, Lolita. This time we decided to make the trip together. Upon entering we were greeted by the hostess, but since we were early they offered us a seat at the bar. The bar top is breathtaking, made from a slab of translucent white onyx that's back-lit, a bright yellow color from within it sits right in front of an impressive, glass enclosed wine cellar. It wouldn't be long before a table freed up for us nearby the copper-clad, open kitchen. The kitchen is surrounded by counter seating which offers a handful of lucky diners a front-row experience to all the action.
The first thing our waitress brought to our table was water, and an iPad containing the wine and cocktail list. We found the interface to be intuitive and extremely user-friendly. Simple to navigate, it permits you to easily narrow down the cocktail selection by preferred spirit or the wine list by type of grape, and even price range. Although our first inclination was to ridicule the notion of an electronic wine list, the ease with which we were able to browse through it, and recognizing the flexibility it must allow the restaurant to input new arrivals or remove depleted stock had us rapidly reconsidering our hasty assessment. The wine list itself was vast with several bottles around the 60$ range offering terrific value.
Our first appetizer was a perennial favorite that remains constant amidst Lola's always evolving menu; it changes continually to take advantage of the best products local suppliers have to offer at any given time of year. Pierogis are a form of eastern European style dumpling; at Lola they're filled with melt-in-your-mouth braised beef cheek, topped with sauteed wild mushrooms and a duo of contrasting sauces. A horseradish creme fraiche with just enough kick to assert its presence but not enough to overwhelm the other elements gives the dish edge, while a rich concentrated demi glace ties together the woodsy mushrooms and the hearty filling in the larger than anticipated dumplings. It's really no mystery why they hold a permanent place on the menu.
Beef Cheek Pierogi, Wild Mushrooms, Horseradish Creme Fraiche - 12$
Crispy veal sweetbreads lived up to their description, their perfectly prepared, delectably crisp exterior gave way to a creamy, soft interior. A smooth as silk cauliflower purée beneath was lovely and pine nuts offered just enough resistance to add a crunchy textural component to the dish before reaching their buttery center. The leek emulsion was relatively indistinguishable and the mustard cress served as little more than colorful garnish. Two components that arrived on the plate which were not listed in the menu's description were smoky bacon bits and julienned green apple. The green apple's crisp texture and simultaneously sweet and tart flavor were a huge asset to the dish but we found the bacon to be completely unnecessary. We know chef Symon is famous for his fondness of pork but it just seemed gratuitous and and actually detracted from the delicacy of the sweetbreads.
Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, Cauliflower Puree, Leek Emulsion, Pine Nuts, Mustard Cress - 14$
A bacon wrapped piece of sturgeon was unfortunately a big flop. It sounded like it may have had promise but we really should have known better than to order it. The trouble with wrapping things in bacon is that by the time the bacon crisps up to an ideal state, the protein within is almost always overcooked. The sturgeon unfortunately suffered a dry and mealy textured fate at the hands of the bacon. Adding insult to injury the clams in the menu's description were absent. The sofrito flavored broth, fresh tomatoes and velvety lima beans beneath the fish were the best part of the dish.
Sturgeon, Bacon, Lima Beans, Clams, Sofrito, Heirloom Tomato - 29$
Sliced thick off the bone with a superb sear on the exterior, the smoked pork chop was quite good. We found it to be slightly overcooked for our liking but nothing the moisture of a unique and intensely flavored BBQ sauce couldn't salvage. The intensely cheesy polenta beneath the pork couldn't have been better by any stretch of the imagination. Spot-on seasoning, great viscosity and zero stiffness - it was absolutely outstanding.
Smoked Hampshire Pork Chop, Chiles, Cheesy Polenta, BBQ Onions - 28$
For dessert we shared an elaborate variation on the polarizing, but classic combination of chocolate and orange. An ultra-dense bavarian chocolate cake that was really more like a brownie than a cake was served with a tower of delicate mandarin mousse. Fortifying the theme of the dish, garnishes included acidic orange supremes, a sharp orange gastrique, and the perfume of grated orange zest; a pile of crunchy streusel provided the textural contrast that was otherwise lacking. While pleasant, and technically flawless from an execution point-of-view, we couldn't help but feel that the dessert was a little one-dimensional despite it's numerous components. We're all for simple, rustic desserts, in fact we usually prefer them. But if your goal is to push the envelope, half-way doesn't cut it, at that point you really have to be firing on all cylinders, there's no turning back. This dish held our interest texturally, but could've greatly benefited from a third flavor element to break up the redundancy of the orange. Perhaps moderate use of an herb like mint or even tarragon in the form of a meringue or a foam may have provided an effervescence that would've taken this dish from good to great.
Mandarin Mousse, Bavarian Chocolate Cake, Orange Gastrique, Streusel -9$
Our meal at Lola had it's ups and downs. We found the appetizers to be excellent which by contrast made the stumbles in our mains seem all the more discouraging. Dessert although tasty, barely missed it's mark leaving us wanting a little something more. Service was certainly a strong point of the evening, from the hostess who greeted us to the bar staff where we waited for our table and finally our waitress for the evening, everybody was well-rehearsed, professional and very friendly. Lola is an upscale restaurant with a suave interior ideal for dates and special occasions but maybe less-so for a business meeting, depending on the location of your table amidst the roaring volume of the large dining room. We look forward to returning to Cleveland next year when we'll share the opportunity to experience the more causal side of Iron Chef Michael Symon's cuisine together with a meal at Lolita.
2058 East 4th Street