Search This Blog

Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Road Notes: Things to Learn From Lolita's Iron Chef

You know you're a hot sh** chef when you get a street corner named after you. Or maybe you figure it out when you rack up one of the most dominant Iron Chef win-loss records in Kitchen Stadium. Or when a James Beard Foundation award manifests on the mantle. Or Cooking Channel comes begging for a TV show like the one Cleveland native Michael Symon started just days ago, "Cook Like an Iron Chef."

Point is, the guy is cooking, and therefore bound to provide some inspiration. Yesterday I trickled into the trendy Tremont 'hood in Cleveland to scope what I might learn from his sourdough-like rise at Lolita, the casual bistro brother to his flagship Lola. Here's a mini menu of what I came away with:

1. Hungarian hot peppers are good stuff(ing).
Symon's team packs maximum house pork sausage into these beautiful yellow-green, smokey sweet tubes then gives 'em a heirloom-garlic sauce to sit in. The tips are as hot as any pepper I've seen a restaurant dare to serve. Serious heat. Good for the constitution.

2. People like to see some cheffing. (2b. Simple is sexy.)
The open kitchen here might be the perfect way to stoke a lively dining room. Plus the big oven bangs out creative and rustic pizzas, and entrees like lamb steak, pork chop and roasted chicken that echo Symon's m.o.: No more than several ingredients is necessary as long as they are the best in fresh and essence. The back of the menu has long trumped "farmers and artisans we love," like Indiana's La Querica, who super-selective Carmel Belle swears by for proscuitto and such.

Symon's food is "interesting and satisfying and reliant on good technique," writes Michael Ruhlman in Michael Symon's Live to Cook, "but it the end it was very simple food without pretension or self-conscious chefness."

Like the macaroni ($15)—goat cheese, rosemary and roasted chicken. Nada más needed.

The other pastas hit with similar simplicity: pappardelle with pork ragu, tomato and parmesan, or gnocci with just peas, pancetta, Swiss chard and ricotta salata.

3. Some chic-chic is still OK.
Note the Lolita martini—with Stoli Oranhj, Campari, Gran Marnier and orangecello. Not too sweet, and packing enough punch to make the $11 easier to stomach.

4. People love pizza.
Like Big Sur Bakery's principals once told me, they didn't go to culinary school to cook pizzas, but the pies pay the rent. Symon's of-the-moment included simple featured items—local tomato, anchovy, pork sausage, mushrooms—pulled off perfectly. We went for the organic egg with duck prosciutto ($13). Salty but superior.

The cured meats are also a strength here, including a head-turning "big board" piled with coppas, prosciuttos and sopressata ($18).

5. Get the good stuff.
The wild cojo salmon ($19) seared to succulence—or the side of stewed romano beans with bacon and tomato—teased a theme that you'll hear any chef worth his salt pig touch on at some point. ("If I can get better ingredients than you," Thomas Keller once told the Weekly, "I'm a better chef than you.") The theme bears repeating.

"All food is not created equal," Symon writes. "I repeat: The easiest way to improve your food is to improve the way you shop."

That would be a sign this Cleveland street corner's in good hands.