Last week we watched the episode of Anthony Bourdain No Reservations where he visits his friend Michael Ruhlman in Cleveland. The episode was filmed in 2007 and is part of season 3. Yeah, we’re a little behind. After watching the show we were inspired to go and check out some of the places that they visited on the show. I am embarrassed to say that I had never been to Cleveland before, so I was excited to see the city and have a mini state-cation. With Pierogi Champion (and Cleveland native) Roland as our driver and tour guide, it was inevitable that as well as being a homage to No Reservations it would also be a pierogi pilgrimage.
Our first stop was Sokolowski’s University Inn, one of the places that they ate at on No Reservations. You can watch some video of Bourdain’s visit on their website. Sokolowski served Eastern European ‘grandmother style’ food, cafeteria style. The portions are huge and the place has a very old school vibe. I tried the stuffed cabbage, pierogies and some pickled beets. The pierogies were swimming in a pool of butter but I guess that’s how grandma liked them.
Ideally we would have found a comfy couch to lie on for a few hours while we digested that pile of food, but that doesn’t make for much a road trip, so we went to check out downtown Cleveland and walk off our lunch instead. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and not too hot, perfect for walking around. Downtown Cleveland has a lot of impressive buildings, open spaces and views of Lake Erie. Cleveland is certainly more than the depressing industrial wasteland cliche that is overplayed by the media.
We found the Free Stamp, the world’s largest rubber stamp – another as-seen-on-TV-Bourdain-was-here-moment.
Just as I was starting to feel less like a stuffed cabbage roll, what should we stumble upon but Lola, one of the two restaurants run by James Beard Award winning chef Michael Symon. Why yes, it was featured on No Reservations, and yes, Anthony Bourdain was here. We planned just to have a look at the menu, which turned into looking around inside, which turned into not being able to resist trying the beef cheek pierogies, which turned into us ordering three appetizers and a side of french fries (blame the latter on the pregnant woman, although I ate most of them). Somehow there was a feeling of inevitability about the whole thing.
We were really glad that we had succumbed. The beef cheek pierogies, reportedly the most popular appetizer, were accompanied by two sauces, horseradish and mushroom and they were rich and sumptuous and melt in the mouth good. The braised bacon was the tenderest piece of pork belly that you could cut with your fork with a coffee rub and served with a nectarine and apricot sauce and almonds. I chose the excellent charcuterie plate of the day which had duck speck, cured pork loin and two types of salami with pickles, mustard and toast. Tasty treats and thank goodness, not too filling! Everything on the menu sounded really good and next time I hope to come here hungry. The lunch prices were very reasonable, the service friendly and attentive and we were welcomed in even though it was 2pm.
More walking, more photos and a short drive later and it was time for the West Side Market. We were there late in the day and so we didn’t get the full hustle and bustle experience of the market but it was still impressive. The WSM has over 100 vendors and compared to Columbus’s North Market has a lot more variety and competition. It also has a grittier feel and is less of a tourist and office worker lunch destination and more of a daily shopping location for city residents. There are countless butchers and produce stalls and less emphasis on prepared meals. I was a little disappointed in the lack of celebration of local foods. I saw one sign for Ohio Tomatoes and a couple of butchers advertising Ohio raised meat but there was a lot less local pride on display than I expected.
Roland made a bee line for the Pierogi Palace to check out the wide variety of filling flavors on offer, we could see the labels but sadly they weren’t open. We spotted pierogies at some of the other stalls as well and have lots of ideas for future pierogi fillings.
We drove past Zubal Books (another Bourdain stop) but no vintage twinkie filling for us. We were headed for The Sausage Shoppe, the final destination in our No Reservations knock-off tour. The Sausage Shoppe was a lighter and brighter version of Thurn’s, but without the intoxicating aroma of wood smoke. They have won lots of awards for their ham, jerky and ham salad. The Sausage Shoppe had a few different specialities and one of the things I was unfamiliar with were the rice and barley rings so of course I had to buy one, along with some mettwurst and jerky. The assistant was very friendly and knowledgeable about all of the offerings. Her passion and pride in the pork products was evident.
Obviously it was just a taste of Cleveland (pardon the pun) but it was a fun day trip and a good introduction. There are more photos on flickr. I think the only Bourdain food stop we missed, apart from Michael Ruhlman’s house, was Skyline Chili, but we have them in Columbus, and one my trip there was one too many. I hope to go back to Cleveland and further explore the culinary scene. I have heard about some great restaurants, but more recommendations and tips for other food destinations are welcome.
We are also planning our next Ohio road trip. This is into the uncharted by Bourdain territory of Cincinnati, so I would love some recommendations of where to go. I know that Jungle Jim’s is on the agenda, and probably The Party Source, but what are the other food related highlights of Cincinnati?