Fair breezes waft gently down from nearby Lake Erie as I tour a small farm called Chef’s Garden in Milan, Ohio. Farmer Lee Jones, who owns the business with his family, wears his signature red bow tie and bib overalls and sports a cheery smile. His appearance may seem colloquial, but it’s a brand he takes seriously—just like his business.
Farmer Lee and his staff oversee a 300-acre farm that grows and ships micro-vegetables, greens, and herbs to some of the country’s finest restaurants. Tiny peppers, beets, carrots, squash, and edible flowers in every color of the rainbow are tucked into tidy white boxes bearing red-bow-tie stickers and placed in cold storage to be shipped overnight to a restaurant near you.
“We exist because of the chefs,” Farmer Lee said. “It’s so important for us to have that connection.”
When I visited Cleveland this fall, I had no preconceptions. I knew it was cold there in winter, and that’s about it. What I discovered was a vibrant city with an exploding culinary scene, terrific attractions, and people connected to their roots but also looking ahead. New generations of Clevelanders are ushering this industrial city toward a sustainable, modern future. After just a few days exploring this innovative region, I couldn’t help but share the enthusiasm of the people I met there. It’s easy to connect with Cleveland, a perfect destination for visitors who enjoy good food, folks, and fun.
Northeast Ohio has long been an important agricultural community. In recent years it’s begun reinventing itself as a wine destination. Just to the east of Cleveland, Ashtabula County, famous for its 16 covered bridges, enjoys a grape-friendly climate with its warm days and cool nights. Scattered among the county’s rolling hills are twenty wineries producing 65 percent of Ohio’s wine grapes, both vinifera and heritage. Ice wines—dessert wines made from grapes harvested after freezing on the vines—are also produced in the region.
Ferrante Winery and Ristorante, a family business since 1937, offers tours and a cozy tasting room where you can sip chardonnay, pinot grigio, and riesling, along with pinot noir, cab franc, and merlot. My favorites were the Golden Bunches Dry Riesling with hints of pineapple, peach, and green apple and the Reserve Red, a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon aged in oak. The restaurant specializes in—what else—Italian fare and features gourmet pizza and mouth-watering entrees.
The Winery at Spring Hill offers both vinifera and fruit wines plus light snacks perfect for pairing with your favorite glass of wine. A large stone fireplace and leather couches invite visitors to relax and reconnect with friends in a cozy setting. Debonne Vineyards’s claim to fame is that besides producing delicious wines, a new sister business, Cellar Rats Brewery, creates flavorful craft beers. Visitors can tour their underground facilities and taste their choice of wine or beer—or both!
On the other side of Cleveland, Chef’s Garden offers another kind of farm experience. How about a luxury farm stay at Chef’s Retreat housed in the Culinary Vegetable Institute? Originally envisioned as a retreat for chefs and their families, the space is also available to couples seeking an escape from the fast lane. At Chef’s Retreat you won’t find a TV, but you will find a peaceful setting where nature rules. If you like to cook, a lovely kitchen awaits in your lodging—or if you’re lucky, your stay might coincide with a CVI event like the monthly earth-to-table dinners. You can also plan to have a celebrated chef cook your own private feast for two. Even better, you can arrange to cook, too, and learn tips from a master. Guests who stay at the Chef’s Retreat are also invited on a behind-the-scenes tour of Chef’s Garden. You can even help harvest the current crop.
If you prefer city accommodations, plan to stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland, which offers luxury accommodations in the heart of downtown. Here you can also enjoy a unique food-themed stay. The hotel’s Fresh Market package features a guided tour of Cleveland’s West Side Market, where—accompanied by a Ritz-Carlton chef—you’ll learn about the seasonal flavors of Cleveland. Based on your preferences, the chef will create a customized menu showcasing some of the market’s treasures, which he will then prepare and serve in MUSE, the hotel’s inspiring restaurant.
On my trip to the market, Chef Constantine Vourliotis delighted in sharing his vast knowledge of Cleveland’s food specialties as we walked around admiring farm-fresh produce, Mediterranean olives, herb blends, rustic breads, sage-infused sausages, and homemade pasta. Farmers’ markets are always worth seeking out in strange cities because you get to see the local people—both shoppers and sellers—sharing in the time-honored tradition of procuring food, a process as old as civilization itself. I found the folks in West Side Market warm and friendly and wished I could have shopped for local food. I knew, however, that I would be dining on local specialties and hearty fare at some of Cleveland’s top food destinations (see sidebar).
INTENTIONS AND LOVE
Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an amazing attraction that highlights the history of rock and roll throughout 150,000 square feet of exhibit space. Currently celebrating its 15th anniversary, this museum attracts visitors from around the world who come to view such artifacts as the pint-sized Cub Scout uniform of the Doors’ Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen’s collection of dinged and dented surfboards. Guitars from the stars, concert films, interactive listening stations, and glittering costumes invite you to get up close and personal with some of your favorite rock stars. My visit was enhanced by watching Patti Smith rehearse for a private party. In her skinny jeans and long graying hair, Patti still knows how to rock!
Another stellar attraction is the Cleveland Museum of Art. Seema Rao, whose lofty title—director of creative content for lifelong learning—hints at her vast knowledge of art, showed me around the museum, pointing out some of its treasures, including several works by Picasso along with a breathtaking Water Lilies panel by Claude Monet. My favorite painting was Cupid and Psyche by Jacques-Louis David who Seema said may have modeled the nude Cupid after the U.S. Ambassador to France’s own teen-aged son, causing quite a scandal.
Perhaps the most memorable part of my visit to Cleveland was the passion of the people I met. Heather Haviland, chef-owner of Lucky’s Café in Tremont—known for its quirky, down-home vibe and home-cooked food—glowed with excitement about both her successful café and her upcoming weekend wedding…to another chef—natch! Her secret to success? “I tell my staff they have to have the best of intentions and love,” Heather explained. Huge portions and quality ingredients also help keep Lucky Cafe’s fans coming back for more.
Amanda and Josh Montague, owners of Lilly’s Handmade Chocolates, are both classically trained chefs and take pride in using the finest ingredients to create their to-die-for artisan chocolates. The couple specializes in pairing their confections with fine wine and craft beers, and the display case highlights their suggestions. I tried Palo Santo Marron, an aged brown ale crafted by Dogfish Head, which boasted vanilla and caramel notes, paired with the Southern Gentleman, a delicious chocolate with Maker’s Mark bourbon and butter pecan bathed in a rich milk chocolate. Oooh.
Another husband-and-wife team, Jerry Onken and Mariann Janosk, started Lake Erie Goat Cheese Creamery in 2006, and their products are featured in Cleveland’s finest restaurants. I visited their humble two-room factory on the West Side and learned the basics of making their signature goat cheese, a lightly salted chevre produced in small batches from locally produced goat’s milk. After sampling their chevre, I could easily understand why Lake Erie Creamery’s cheeses are winning awards. Yum.
Family-run b.a. Sweetie Candy Company in southwest Cleveland’s Parma neighborhood is home to an amazing array of candy, including some you haven’t seen since you were a kid. Owned by Tom and Judy Scheiman, the store features 20,000 square feet of candy and ships sweets across the country. During my visit, folks filled up shopping carts with everything from Slo Pokes to Necco Wafers. If you go, you’ll feel, well, like a kid in a candy shop.
DOLLS AND DOODADS
Back on the East Side, I met Tommy Fello, who started Tommy’s Restaurant in 1972, catering primarily to vegetarians. He still offers healthy fare, although his menu has expanded to include a variety of items for meat eaters and vegans alike.
“Everything is made from scratch,” explained Tommy, an affable 50-ish fellow who seems to glow with an unabashed love for Cleveland. Many of his sandwiches are named for combinations requested by patrons, including a BLT with homemade peanut butter named after Mr. Stress, a local blues singer. Tommy prides himself on keeping prices affordable, and the place was full of happy customers during my visit. Be sure to try their famous milkshakes for a rich, flavorful treat.
A couple doors down from Tommy’s is Big Fun, a crazy store filled to the rafters with colorful kitsch. Owner Steve Presser, 53, who calls himself a “craze collector,” had a variety of jobs—including a seven-year stint in a suit and tie as a stockbroker—before he decided to follow his heart and open Big Fun in 1991. “I try to make people happy,” said Steve. “I want you to leave my store feeling better than when you came in.” Indeed, the cluttered array of gizmos and gadgets, dolls and doodads will brighten your mood almost as much as Steve’s warm welcome.
Besides being an entrepreneur, Steve’s also a community activist and devotes much of his energy to supporting schools, the arts, his neighborhood, as well as local businesses. In fact, that’s what struck me most about Cleveland: how everyone I met seemed to care more about doing their part to create a viable, sustainable community than individual gain. After a few days in Cleveland, I felt equally excited about the possibilities and more than a little envious of the sense of connection that existed in the community. Besides being a great destination for a weekend or weeklong getaway, Cleveland offers a lesson in community spirit that will stay with you long after you leave.
WHERE TO GET YOUR FOODIE FIX
Here are some food destinations you should absolutely include on your visit to Cleveland:
• Lucky’s Café – Try the grilled cheese with carmelized onions and pecans. luckyscafe.com
• Lilly’s Handmade Chocolates – Besides individual tastings, Lilly’s also welcomes groups. lillytremont.com
• Light Bistro – Chef-owner Matt Mathlage specializes in tapas and harvests his menu items from over 65 local farmers. Try the Ohio lamb burger. lightbistro.com
• Lake Erie Creamery – Contact the owners to find out where to purchase their delicious cheeses. lakeeriecreamery.com
• Greenhouse Tavern – Located downtown, this trendy restaurant supports the farm-to-plate movement. Try the Devil on a Horseback appetizer: bacon-wrapped dates, almonds, bitter chocolate, and a roasted fresno pepper. It will amaze your taste buds. thegreenhousetavern.com
• Velvet Tango Room – THE place to go for cocktails, this speakeasy takes you back to another era. velvettangoroom.com
• Tommy’s Restaurant – Don’t forget to try the fries and the peanut-buttery BLT. tommyscoventry.com
• Presti’s Bakery – Homemade pastries, cookies, and cannoli keep this bakery in Little Italy busy. Also offering breakfast and lunch. prestisbakery.com
• Slyman’s – These deli sandwiches are too big for words. Take my advice and share one with a friend. slymans.com
• Moxie, The Restaurant – With its white tablecloths and chic-utilitarian vibe, Moxie’s exudes trendiness, but it’s the food that keeps customers coming back. “No second-rate ingredients here,” says Chef Peter Vauthy. moxietherestaurant.com
• Morton’s, The Steakhouse – Local sports celebs flock to Morton’s for their aged-to-perfection steaks. Save room for their exquisite desserts. mortons.com
• AMP 150 – Housed in the Cleveland Airport Marriott, this is not your typical hotel restaurant. Chef Ellis Cooley uses “really, really” seasonal and “really, really” local ingredients, including fresh veggies from the 1/4-acre garden out back. amp150.com
• MUSE – Check out MUSE’s monthly Farmer’s Market Menu Dinner, offering three courses of seasonal specialties at an affordable $30 ($45 with wine pairings). www.ritzcarlton.com
• Great Lakes Brewing Company – Ohio’s first microbrewery follows sustainable practices and produces award-winning brews and pub food. greatlakesbrewing.com .
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