Saturday, April 10, 2010

Roast, Detroit MI

In planning our dinner before the finals of the Frozen Four I looked high and low, steak and seafood, Italian and Chinese – in the end I went with an unlikely choice because I felt obligated to give Michael Symon a second chance. With the rave reviews continually surrounding Lola I figured my experience at Lola could have been an aberration – the bad service, the miniscule portions, the uncomfortable chairs - I mean, the food was good, right? Having heard nothing but good things about Roast despite Symon’s growing empire I booked reservations for three during the earliest dinner slot on a Saturday in order to make it to the Game 1/2 mile away at Ford Field by puck-drop. Arriving and finding the $5 bargain valet we quickly made our way into the hotel-lobby and were led seamlessly to the hostess stand at Roast. Dressed casually (we, and many others were going to a hockey game) we were greeted pleasantly and led to a great table in the main dining room – surprisingly the place was packed despite the early hour.

Taking out seats and presented with the heavy (really, they’re made of copper) menus we were left to review while our waters were filled by the prompt and courteous ancillary staff. Browsing around the room I was quite taken by the large windows, white tablecloths, and modern décor – even the bar was very stylish and attractive. Tables wonderfully spaced across the long room I found the noise level at Roast “just right” – energetic but not too loud, refined yet casual.

A short time passed before we were greeted by a server – a tall man with short red hair who asked if we’d had “time to look at the wine list.” Stating we weren’t wine drinkers he said “oh, well….okay then” and then went on to describe the roast beast (suckling pig) and lamb special before excusing himself with “one of my associates will be over to help you in a few moments.” Attempting to ask what charcuterie was present on the board he recited it in a flippant manner as walking away. Somewhat distressed that this would be another Symon service debacle we waited for his “associate.”

Arriving after only a minute the successor to our arrogant first encounter was an extremely pleasant young lady named Laura who would care for us for the rest of the evening. Providing accurate descriptions and detail, amusing anecdotes and great recommendations throughout the meal I will note that from the moment she took over the service was vastly superior to that at Lola and exactly what I expect from a contemporary restaurant like Roast. (As a side-note, throughout our meal we watched the red haired man schmooze other well-dressed, wine ordering tables and there is no doubt he was the type of server I’d prefer not have and I was glad he’d dismissed us as unworthy of his time – watching him re-explain the concept of charcuterie to a table who asked “why would anyone pay $12 each for lunchmeat” was top notch.)


With orders placed our meal began with a pair of breads and an excellent sweetened whipped butter from the kitchen. While I personally preferred the hearty and nutty Cracked Wheat bread both my aunt and mother fancied the white bread which was slightly sweet with an excellent crumb and crunchy crust. Ordering heavier fare and learning a lesson from the night prior at Greenhouse Tavern I used the bread mostly for mopping up sauces while my mother, not typically one to over consume bread, ate far too much.

Although I was disappointed that the sweetbreads listed on the online menu was not available on the evening’s menu, a suitable substitute was easily found on the evening’s pork heavy menu – the Crispy Fresh Bacon with Haloumi, Pickled Tomato, Almond. Featuring pork belly fried till crispy on both sides but still melting soft inside the savory protein was very well complimented by sour pickled tomatoes and crispy almonds while the authentically sourced Haloumi (apparently from Detroit’s Greektown) was only slightly browned and added a degree of creaminess. Not expecting the family to enjoy this I was surprised when both mom and aunt requested a taste – and then another – stating it was “delicious.”

Opting against the side dishes as ordered by my companions I instead selected a salad to accompany my main course – an excellent choice and amongst the best salads I’ve ever had. Entitled Warm Spinach Salad with Fried Egg, Mushrooms, Bacon, Crispy Pig Ear, Balsamic the dish featured a lightly warmed (but not wilted) base of spinach absolutely saturated in a sweet fig balsamic. Topping the dish were pan seared and woodsy mushrooms, a sunny-side farm egg, chopped bacon, and small bits of intense smoky pigs ear. Certainly heavier than the average salad given the protein and fat content this dish was and is a must order.

Arriving shortly after the bacon and the salad, a mere 50 minutes after we were seated (they were aware that we had plans after dinner) were our main courses and sides – each presented nicely by Laura and her team. For my aunt the selection was a Filet Mignon, well done as per her liking. Served in a rather austere manner with only a drizzle of olive oil she stated it was great – I did not taste it. As a side with her steak my aunt selected the macaroni and cheese – a combination of goat cheese, brie, and heavy cream with subtle notes of rosemary and parsley over well prepared al dente pasta topped with crispy buttered bread crumbs. An ample portion, certainly warranting the $7 price tag, and a great paring to her steak though not quite as wowing as the less refined version at Slow’s down the road.

For my mother’s dinner selection the choice for the evening was chicken – in this case Pan Roasted Chicken with Ramps, Morels, Tarragon Pan Sauce. Featuring early season ramps and morels the kitchen clearly knew what they were doing in the preparation of this dish as the smooth pungency of the ramps balanced well with the heavy earth tones of the morels. Not a fan of tarragon in general I found its use in the dish quite restrained and the overall potency of the pan sauce was tempered by sweet vegetables – carrots, peas, a slice of sweet potato. Not to be outdone the chicken was a fine example – crispy skin, succulent meat, not quite as good as that at Forest Grill, but excellent just the same.

Ordered along with her Chicken my mother went with a side she frequents at restaurants in recent memory – the polenta. Recalling the miraculously creamy polenta at Symon’s Lola (served in a Shrimp n’ Grits combo at that location) I was excited when I saw this on the menu and it certainly lived up to my memory. Made with mascarpone, cream, and I believe a touch of thyme the amply portioned side was toothsome without being heavy, creamy but slightly sweet, smooth like a pudding but with more body – think creamed corn meets a fine risotto.

For my entrée the choice was difficult – the roast beast of the day was a hearty sounding suckling pig – but the Duck was calling my name. After much indecision I eventually decided on the duck because my other 3 dishes contained pork – I don’t know what the pig tasted like but I can definitely attest to the quality of the Duck Leg Ragu with Pappardelle, Parmesean, and Caramelized Vegetables. With a thick ragu topping flawless al dente hand-torn pasta as thin and transparent as latex I fell in love with this dish on first bite and only came to appreciate it more with subsequent tastes. Hefty and aromatic duck – stewed until the point of nearly falling apart was complimented nicely with the tastes and textures of peas, carrots, peppers, and morels while the flavors were only heightened by sharp notes of shaved parmesean. Filling but worthy of every bite this pasta was “rustic” at its best.

After the surplus of bread, polenta, and chicken my mother tapped out – she actually had no room for dessert…my aunt was full and myself – finishing mom’s polenta and aunt’s Mac – I could have been persuaded to skip dessert, especially after the lackluster tastes at Lola – I could have been persuaded until I saw the menu. Making a selection without hesitation my aunt was also wowed by one of the nightly presentations and prevented me from looking like more of a glutton than was obvious by ordering a dessert herself.

Waiting approximately 20 minutes before our desserts arrived my aunt opted for her standard – Crème Brulee – in this case a Peanut Butter Chocolate version that tasted like a creamy and crunchy (and substantially portioned) refined Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. For myself, continuing the porky trend for the evening (save my duck – drat, should’ve got the suckling pig) my dessert selection was the Bacon Doughnut Sundae with Maple Bacon Ice Cream and Cherry Bourbon Sauce. Anchored by a steaming hot cinnamon doughnut similar to those at Zingerman’s in taste and texture the pastry was subsequently topped with a savory maple laced ice cream, chunks of crunchy bacon, and a drizzle of boozy cherry reduction. Delectable, ample, multi-textured and profoundly nuanced this was a standout dessert, both for restaurant itself and on the grand scale of “wow” desserts I’ve tasted anywhere.

When the meal was complete we settled the bill, just over $40 per person with tax and tip, and made our way to the valet stop after a fond farewell from Laura and the receptionist. Collecting our car rapidly we navigated the short half mile to Ford Field and watched the BC Golden Eagles win the NCAA Championship in a blowout. Having become a bit of an NHL Snob in recent years I was pleased to find pleasure in the college game again – but not nearly as pleased as I was to have given Symon a second chance, it was a great choice.

Uncle John's Pancake House, Toledo Ohio and Mexicantown Bakery, Detroit MI

Staying with my mother in Toledo Saturday morning entailed a Saturday morning experience from my youth – a drive across town to Uncle John’s Pancake House for Breakfast. While my tastes in food and dining have clearly expanded past my early days in Toledo there is one thing that holds true – I still love breakfasts that could easily feign as dessert and Uncle John’s offers just that. Undergoing a substantial upgrade both inside and out since my childhood days enjoying their Chocolate Pancakes we arrived to a bright and inviting house of kitsch – darker and older than Zingerman’s Roadhouse, but similar in Midwestern charm.

Making our way into the restaurant just after 9am the seats were approximately 3/4 full – there would be a line by the time we left. Approaching the pleasant young hostess we requested a table for three and were quickly led to a cozy four-top in the back. Greeted almost immediately by a young server-in-training we were presented with menus and a list of “Daily specials” – something the restaurant certainly didn’t serve on my previous visits. Coffee for myself and mom, tea for aunt and we were left to browse the myriad options.

Returning after approximately 10 minutes (and refilling both my water and coffee on cue then and throughout the meal) with her supervisor, an elderly lady with a significant pack/year history our orders were taken and we were left to chat. Located near the University of Toledo campus the mixture of patrons at Uncle John’s was just as I remembered – older folks in flannel, college kids in pajamas, and some pretty rockin’ mullets. The scenery, including a large sculling boat and plenty of UT paraphernalia intermingled with pictures of old Toledo and signage – very diner, but not dumpy as it once was.

Enjoying our coffee and checked in on frequently our plates arrived after only 20 minutes despite the every growing crowd. Opting against the Chocolate Pancakes for the first time and instead choosing one of the daily specials I was delivered a plate entitled Peaches and Bananas’ Foster French Toast. Featuring soaked and pan seared sourdough with ample cinnamon and vanilla notes the dish was topped with fresh sliced peaches, ripe bananas, and chopped pecans in a hot cinnamon glaze. At $6 this was the most expensive sweet on the breakfast menu, largely due to the fresh fruits, but the portion size was quite ample. Certainly southern in feel I quite liked the blend of peaches and bananas with the sweet glaze, unfortunately while the pecans added texture the bread was somewhat mushy and lacking body. Delicious yes, textural no – comfy diner food.

For my mother her option was the Michigan Cherry Crepes with Sauteed Cherries, Whipped Cream, and Sliced Almonds. Featuring surprisingly light and fluffy crepes wrapped around fresh and hot cherries and topped with a dousing of whipped cream I liked this dish and its nuance moreso than my selection – it was even better with the addition of some of the blueberry syrup on the table rack. Accompanying my mother’s cakes was an enormous plate of well cooked Canadian Bacon. Having dined mostly in high end restaurants in recent memory the Oscar Meyer slices were average and once again gave me a better appreciation for artisan meats and quality farms.

My aunt, not a fan of syrup, opted for the bargain $2.99 Swedish pancakes. Featuring three ultra thin Egg Pancakes Served with Lingonberries and whipped butter this dish was relatively boring to me – it was buttery and the Lingonberries good, but in my opinion it tasted a lot better with something from the syrup sampler (maple, butter pecan, strawberry, and blueberry.)

Settling the incredibly modest tab and thanking our server team with a substantial tip I finished another cup of coffee before we made our way to the front – I’m pretty sure the table was turned before we made it to the door. Good food, great prices, and a comfy setting has kept Uncle John’s at the front of the Toledo breakfast scene since I was a lad and it is great to see that, if anything, the economic downturn has led to an even better experience. If Uncle John’s were in Columbus it would be the best breakfast in town – if it were in a major metropolitan area I gather it would still have a substantial fan base – and the prices would be higher with the lines longer.

After a long morning and afternoon of browsing the Toledo Museum of Art we next made our way north towards Detroit. With dinner plans before the NCAA Men’s Hockey Championship still 4 hours away we opted to stop into Mexicantown for a bite at the much celebrated Mexicantown Panaderia. Having had fantastic Mexican pastries in San Francisco and awful versions in Chicago I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Entering the large shop the first thing I noticed was that unlike the previous bakeries this was a fully functional grocery store and that they also served some composed savories. With an ample selection of sweets, groceries, and breads – none written in English – we wandered about for a bit before reconvening to discuss. Clearly meant to cater to the locals and not us tourists the servers were not very helpful – whether they didn’t speak the English or simply chose not to I cannot be sure, but regardless the decisions were all ours to make.

Watching a number of patrons pick up a large round of bread still warm from the oven I opted for one of those, a “Bolillo” according to the sign. Difficult to describe, my best assessment of this bread is that it is something akin to a hamburger bun on the exterior with an airy and fluffy interior somewhat akin to pain au lait – it was delicious and I understand why everyone was buying one. Other options from the bakery case included a Neapolitan polvorones – a chocolate/strawberry/vanilla cornmeal cookie with a great crumb that would have gone perfectly with milk, and an Apple Empanada that I originally figured was pumpkin but pleasantly found out was a compote of apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, and butter.

Selected from the chilled case by my mother and aunt were a boozy Chocolate and raspberry Roll and a pseudo-Napoleon comprised of alternating layers of cream and a crispy shell akin to phyllo dough. While the Napoleon was quite good and the cream balanced well with the crispy layers, the Chocolate roll was saturated with alcohol at the base and quite dry at the apex – the cocoa accented cream was good, the cake was dull. Not as good as the pastries at the Panaderia in San Francisco’s Barrio but vastly superior to those in Chicago I only wish the servers could have been more helpful – perhaps that is why my selections in San Francisco fared so well.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Greenhouse Tavern and White Flower Cupcakes, Cleveland OH

Following our fantastic brunch at Melt our sites were turned on shopping – a visit to Beachwood and Legacy, The West Side Market, and some of the shops surrounding the ever impressive revamped 4th Street area. The Cavs were in town and the town was abuzz despite the King sitting out to rest for the playoffs and despite the down economy people were out in plethoric numbers. With dinner reservations scheduled for late we did a little sampling at the Market and also picked up a couple of cupcakes from a new vendor at Beachwood Place while waiting to have the strap replaced on my watch.

Entitled White Flower Cupcakes this shop is apparently the second location of 16 year friends Lauren Bozich and Marianne Carroll – their first at LaPlace Shopping Center and featuring larger designer cakes. A limited but delightful collection of well decorated and pricey cakes ($2.95ea) it took a few moments to decide but we eventually settled on something old and something new - Red Velvet and Pancake.

Starting first with the Red Velvet – without a doubt the best I’ve had in Ohio. Dense and aromatic cocoa cake with a somewhat subdued sweetness was a perfect counterbalance for the luscious and glossy cream cheese frosting. Everyone in the car agreed this was not just good, but “wow” worthy. The second selection proved another stunning option with an equally dense cake packing high notes of cinnamon and butter topped with a delectable maple butter cream and a vein of buttery maple syrup running down the core of the cake. Smaller and more costly than the average cake I have to say I’d go back without hesitation – sometimes you get what you pay for.

After more shopping, cheap valet parking, and a visit to Erie Island Coffee Company and the House of Blues Gift Shop we made our way to our dinner destination – a restaurant that for all intents and purposes is becoming a destination due to the chef’s growing critical and popular acclaim. Located only two doors down from the oft celebrated but vastly overrated (in my opinion) Lola a single look at Chef Jonathon Sawyer’s mission statement “…guided by two principles: the idea that the proximity of the farm and soil to a restaurant correlates to the quality of its food and that environmentally conscious or green business practices are fundamental” put it high on my list. A quick perusal of the menu made it a must visit – especially having experienced two of Sawyer’s well conceptualized Pizzas at Bar Cento during his tenure there (shortly after Gayot recognized him as one of their five rising-star chefs)

Arriving rather early in the dinner hour we arrived to find the enormous restaurant already bustling – clearly being featured on Michael Symon’s Best thing I ever ate and in Food and Wine’s 10 best New Chefs of 2010 hadn’t hurt business. Checking in with the hostess we were led to a nice table at the angular front windows at the top of the staircase – a great view of 4th Street one way and a nice view of the strictly green/recycled décor in the other direction. Stairs coursing up above us to the upper floors and others leading down to the controlled chaos of the open kitchen below I must note that the servers at Greenhouse Tavern likely log 500+ stairs a shift. With the varying levels of the restaurant and the elaborate (and enormous) bar centerpiecing the whole room Greenhouse Tavern certainly is not a quiet place, but at the same time it felt more “energetic” than “loud” – think Babbo without the Stones.

Seated without delay our water was filled immediately and along with the menus we were brought a loaf of cool-to-touch crusty bread served alongside a light and airy smoked pork rillet with ample notes of onion, cumin, and bits of sea salt. With my dining partners not enjoying pate I was able to enjoy the whole rillet myself – they wished there would have been some butter and were largely bored by the bread.

Greeted next by our young waitress, Corrine the menu was explained to us – a collection of firsts (essentially amuse bouche sized bites,) second (appetizers,) thirds (mains,) halves (sides,) and desserts. Available a la carte or as a “Chef’s Tasting” consisting of either first/second/third/half or first/second/third/dessert at a bargain $39 (some items at a surcharge of $4-7) we were left to decide – my mother and aunt opting to go a la carte and myself going for the Tasting. While I will note that Corrine was working a substantial portion of the restaurant (upstairs, down, front, back) I found her to be a rather poor waitress – food was dropped off with no explanation, we were checked in on infrequently at best (IE, when receiving a dish,) and drinks required requests to be refilled. While some of this blame may fall on the ancillary staff (I had to make a point of setting my glass down harder than normal to get a water refill) there is a point where the primary server has to be sure guests are taken care of. Without belaboring my service complaints I will say that my biggest pet peeve aside from bad food is when the front of house doesn’t match the chef’s skill and vision – this was my complaint at Lola and it most definitely extended down the street to Greenhouse Tavern (more details to follow.)

Waiting for a long time (25 minutes) before our first courses arrived the dishes finally made their way up the stairs and were set down in front of us – in front of the wrong people – and they looked and smelled tremendous. Beginning first with my aunt’s selection, entitled Bread and Butter - grilled bread, goat's milk butter & sea salt the dish was small and simple yet substantial in taste. Featuring the smoke of the grill the crispy bread was very nicely complimented by the creamy and grassy yet sweet butter with lemon zest and sea salt atop. Quite possibly the same spread as the dearly departed goat butter at Alinea – the second best butter I’ve ever tasted.

For my appetizer I selected the standard - Salted Foie Gras Torchon with Pickled Lemon Peel, Shallots, Brioche. Potentially the cheapest foie gras appetizer I’ve ever tasted the flavor was anything but cheap. Unctuous foie and buttery brioche proved a standard pairing and both were excellent – what picked this dish up was the sweet/sour lemon peel – a flavor quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted and a nice balance for the foie and shallots. The sea salt added a nice textural component.

For my mother’s appetizer – one of the best tastes of the night. Named Devils on Horseback – Dee-Jay’s Bacon Wrapped Dates, Almonds, Bitter Chocolate, Roasted Pepper, this dish is a must order. Served on a skewer atop a creamy hummus the dish featured a roasted almond stuffed in a date and subsequently wrapped with pork belly. Sweet and salty, relatively common on its own, the bites were vastly improved by the interesting pairing of sweet yet spicy roasted red peppers and bitter dark chocolate shavings.

Finishing our firsts it was a matter of only 1-2 minutes before my second was brought by an ancillary server – it was set down without explanation and he ambled off without filling my now empty water. Entitled Soft Egg Omelet - w/ tarragon, chive, stinky cheese, city fresh egg & frisée salad this dish was the weakest of the evening largely because it lacked the subtleties of the other selections. While the egg was certainly fresh and well made the flavors of tarragon and chive were almost entirely lost under the weight of the potent cheese. That certainly isn’t to say this dish was “bad” just that it wasn’t quite as well conceptualized as others – I’d not order it again, though.

With my water sitting dry as a bone even as I finished the egg I tried to make eye contact with one of the servers, alas to no use. At this point I set my glass down with some force on the wooden table and apparently someone noticed as we saw a young bearded man walk over to the bar to pick up the pitcher and fill the water. After this our waters remained filled – a nice touch – unfortunately service continued to suffer as my next plate was brought incomplete. As featured on Symon’s best thing I ever ate I ordered the Animal Style Frites. Featuring, reportedly, hand cut potatoes fried in duck fat and topped with fried bacon, two fried eggs, mozzarella cheese curd & brown gravy this is not what I received – instead I received potatoes, cheese, and gravy – no eggs, no bacon. Thinking perhaps that the pork and eggs had been baked into the poutine I dug in and will admit it was some excellent comfort food – the crispy fries standing up handily to the curd and gravy. Allowing my mother and aunt to take a bite and slowly enjoying the fries a good 5 minutes passed before Corrine appeared with a plate of eggs and bacon – she fully admitted it had been forgotten and was “just sitting there” in the kitchen until they realized the error. Promising to take off the surcharge (a surcharge unlisted or unexplained earlier – and a surcharge of $4 that was still present when the bill arrived) for the mistake she topped the dish with the eggs and bacon and the resultant dish was even better than before – an exercise in excess to be sure, but delicious just the same.

When our mains started to arrive I was already starting to feel a little full – portions at Greenhouse Tavern are substantial to say the least. Beginning with my aunt, she selected Chef Sawyer’s award winning Aaron Miller’s Ohio Beef Burger - raclette cheese, preserved tomato, guss' pickle, pommes frites & GHT beer vinegar – as I do not eat burgers I cannot comment on it, but she ooh’d and aah’d through the dish and said it was the second best burger she’d ever eaten – second only to that at Boulevard.

My mother’s selection was the item I’d originally considered before deciding on my main. Entitled Pan Fried Pork Chop Saltimbocca with Sage, Country Ham, Pommes Puree, Red Eye Gravy. Served meaty and delicate the juicy pork was prominently buttery with ample notes of sage – it was delicious. Further enhancing the dish was a homogenous mix of buttery potatoes topped with chunks of smoky country ham and a gravy that tasted much akin to a pork pan sauce spiked with espresso, notably much less thick than I think of Red Eye Gravy, but better for it.

My selection was a $7 upcharge (this time announced) on the tasting and worth every penny – even if there was no chance I could finish it. A restaurant signature dish the Half Roasted Chicken in Brioche with fennel, onions, herbs & jus was first presented by Corrine still sealed in the flaky Brioche shell before returning downstairs for plating. An enormous half chicken the preparation of this dish provided a nearly sous-vide texture to the meat with ample notes of fennel, onions, and herbs much akin to a Thanksgiving Turkey. To be honest I really have no idea how the brioche maintained its composure with the significant juiciness of the meat and accompanying jus, but none the less it did, providing an almost “fried chicken” quality as I paired it as breading for the bird. A dish absolutely worthy of being called signature this dish was nearly as exceptional as Michael Mina’s Lobster Pot Pie as comfort food served in perfect form. Alas, as good as the chicken was, the previous items had left me already quite full and I only managed to finish 3/4 of the chicken and 2/3 of the frites – the rest going home for my aunt’s dog who has been given carte blanche for human food since his cancer diagnosis.

Completely stuffed I deferred on dessert while my companions wanted something sweet to finish – browsing the menu the “Petit Fours” plate seemed a perfect option. Purportedly featuring six small bites ours actually featured only 5 as one was duplicated. Lacking any description from our server my best guesses as to what was on the plate are a pistachio Lime Cupcake,a Cayenne Truffle, two Cream Cheese Brownie, a Coconut Macaroon, and a Chocolate Chunk Cookie. All items were clearly pre-made and served cold with only the brownie being better than average – the rest could have easily come from a supermarket bakery and the cookie was worse than Chips Ahoy. If this is what Greenhouse Tavern offers in the dessert department perhaps they should contact the ladies at White Flower – there is definitely room for improvement.

Receiving our bill I didn’t want to raise a fuss since the prices at Greenhouse Tavern are a downright bargain – but I did circle the Anima Frites supplement to make a subtle point – it was removed. With incredible savories and an extremely subpar dessert I left the restaurant with mixed feelings. Certainly if I lived in or around Cleveland I would gladly return to see what Sawyer was putting out of the kitchen, but with so many other options yet to explore (Dante, Moxie, etc) it would be hard to justify rushing back – great food and poor service does not make for a destination restaurant. In the end I echo my comments above about the front of house not keeping up with the chef – I found this to be the case at Lola and Spiaggia as well – each chef putting out superb food but the service lackluster to the point I don’t know I’d return – for Spiaggia – no way, for Lola – maybe, for Greenhouse – the verdict is still out.

Melt Bar and Grilled, Lakewood OH

According to their website, "Melt opened in September 2006 with one goal: To provide gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and as many beers as possible in a cool and comfortable environment. No bar food. No boring choices on tap. And something for everyone: it's Cleveland-friendly, slightly kitschy, and memorable. It's relaxing, energetic, and fun." Having missed out on Melt while my sister was at CIA but hearing wonderful things I knew I had to check it out on my next visit to Cleveland - I also knew I would have to get there early as I'd heard stories of 1-2 hour waits even on weekdays. Planning in advance to arrive as early as possible my family and I did just that, pulling up to the back lot (free parking) just after 11:30 on a gloomy Friday.

As the only Melt-Virgin in the group I chuckled as we approached the back door - a setup almost 100% identical to Hollywood's Griddle Cafe - another restaurant specializing in kitsch and quality, in their case pancakes and breakfast foods. Entering the enormous waiting area we found the restaurant already 75% full but were led to a great four-top in the middle of the dining room. Snapping pictures of the hilarious decor and peering into the kitchen we were handed copies of the menu - cleverly printed on the back of old record jackets. Browsing the decor I noticed that Diners/Dives/Drive-Ins as well as Man Vs. Food had recently been to Melt and that they are apparently soon to be opening a second store less than 500 yards from my sister's old apartment - clearly business was going well. As a non-drinker I really didn't pay much attention to Melt's notable beer list, though reliable sources tell me it is quite impressive.

Browsing the menu there were in excess of ten sandwiches I wanted to try and a quick glance at the dessert menu let me know I'd have to save room. Watching coverage of The Masters and listening to the 60's/70's/80's era music over the stereo (plus some rather loud older ladies at the table next to us) we were soon greeted by a young lady named Sophia (Sofia?) who would serve as our waitress - and the waitress for nearly half of the busting-at-the-seems-busy restaurant. Aside from being ridiculously cute and friendly, Sophia was also potentially the best waitress I've ever seen at a busy casual joint - full of information (about the food and restaurant,) checking in frequently, drinks never dropping below 1/3 empty, and always with a smile on her face.

Orders placed we sat back and enjoyed our drinks - for mom and aunt iced tea and for myself a surprisingly rich and flavorful coffee (refilled repeatedly, and served in hilariously mismatched cups.) With myriad takeout orders coming out of the kitchen and the line in the lobby growing longer by the minute Sophia informed us that our orders could take up to an hour - not a problem as the scene was certainly entertainment in and of itself. Noting that this is a "bar" I will say the noise level got quite loud at times - though significantly less so (and noted by the bartender to a woman at the bar) once the older ladies next to us started eating.

Approximately 45 minutes after we were seated our sandwiches arrived - and they were as big, bold, and beautiful as advertised. Served alongside each of the sandwiches were excellent dill pickles, hand-cut fries - crisp on the outside, densely potato within, and lightly salted, and "sweet slaw." Having never been a Coleslaw fan in the past I decided to taste the slaw and I have to say I was impressed. Not creamy or heavy like most traditional versions the overarching flavor of this version was that of cabbage, carrot, onion, and peppery vinegar with a hint of apple and sugar. Cole slaw is still certainly not my first option in vegetables, but Melt's was one of the better versions I've had.

Moving onto the sandwiches and beginning first with my Aunt, a fan of the plain and unadventurous, her selection was entitled Porky Cheese and it featured Honey ham, Crisp bacon, and Swiss cheese (though I admittedly tried to convince her to get it with an egg she resisted.) Featuring hefty slices of white bread, well buttered and grilled perfectly, surrounding a sweet yet savory amalgam of ham, Swiss, and salty bacon I must say it was more nuanced than it reads. With the bacon adding some crunch and the creaminess of the Swiss balancing the ham the overall effect was almost akin to a croque monsieur though not quite as refined (let’s face it, Swiss just doesn't hold a candle to gruyere.) With that said, a very serviceable and delicious sandwich.

For my mother's selection she apparently felt so fondly about her first experience at Melt that she ordered the same thing again - but this time, for a $2 surcharge, Sophia suggested she get it deep fried. Entitled PB and Banana the sandwich featured the same hefty white bread as my Aunt's, but this time was slathered with fresh made peanut butter and sweetened cream cheese served alongside a cup of mixed berry preserves. "Mmmmm-ing" from her first bite I must say it would be hard to say she made the wrong choice - even if I am all about trying new things - as the sandwich was glorious. With the bread first griddle fried and then dunked in a tempura-esque batter before a quick dunk in the deep frier the sandwich came out piping hot with ripe bananas, liquid peanut butter and mascarpone-sweet cream cheese filling every bite. Tasty on its own and only improved by a dunk in the delectable fruit puree of raspberry/strawberry/blackberry the crisp bread married perfectly with the creamy interior forming a nut butter sandwich only rivaled by Keller's Cashew Butter and Apricot Compote on Brioche at Bouchon.

For my selection at Melt I went with the monthly special - the Corny Beast. Opting for the vegetarian version as I don't eat beef my plate contained two enormous cornbread battered and deep fried "sandwich halves" with a wooden stick in each. Contained in the beautiful golden shell was griddled white bread sandwiched around a well charred and excellently textured vegan corndog split and surrounded by double American Cheese - cheese so densely packed that it was leaking out of the batter. Without a doubt this is the best thing one can do with a hotdog (or a tofu-dog as it were) and aside from the fact that the cheese was wonderful, the cornbread was even better. Served with a Chipotle Ketchup that was not really needed but certainly added another level to the "sandwich" the entire effect was smoky yet savory, crunchy yet creamy. While this dish may be only available for a limited time if I were Melt I'd keep that cornbread batter around for appetizers and more sandwiches in the future (Perch or perhaps Oyster or Shrimp - maybe a Po'Boy?).....or how about a cornbread waffle with fried chicken on the brunch menu?

Having skipped breakfast there was certainly room for dessert - at least for myself (the family was stuffed.) With bread pudding ranking as my very favorite way to finish a meal I declined on Melt's oft celebrated fried twinkies and went with their dessert special of the day - Fudge Brownie Caramel Pecan Bread Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream. Featuring a thick and fudgy brownie as the base/crust the dish was topped with a well saturated slab of warm and buttery bread pudding laced with ribbons of caramel and fudge and crunchy pecans adding texture. With two large Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Goldfishes and ample whipped cream alongside the steaming hot dish was topped with a hefty scoop of creamy ice cream and drizzles of fudge. Rich, hearty, large, and whimsical I very much liked the dish and although it was not as refined as many of my favorite bread puddings in the past the flavor and balance was excellent.

Finishing dessert and settling the modest bill we thanked Sophia for the truly excellent food and service before making our way to the door. Having dined at many of the best restaurants in the United States as well as many of the most famous houses of kitschy yet delectable food I can absolutely recommend Melt as a MUST visit for anyone visiting Cleveland. As one would expect from their cult local following (see the tattoo contest) and expanding empire Melt does it right - from food to service to setting. On their website Melt's owner and chef Matt Fish states that he wanted the restaurant to feel like family, but also wanted eating there to feel like an event - I'd say he succeeded on both counts.