In addition to the previous Milwaukee, WI and Minneapolis, MN listings under our Restaurants heading, we have added two locations each for Cleveland, OH and Detroit, MI. The inclusion of these locations and chefs has as much to do with the sensibility of the chef as it does with the menu. Each of the menus for these establishments embodies aspects of Great Lakes Cuisine – ethnic culinary traditions cultivated in the Great Lakes region, local ingredients, pride in heritage, and an inventiveness in utilizing these aspects.
Chef Michael Symon has long been a vocal advocate for the ethno-culinary traditions that he grew up with in Cleveland. I was introduced to him through Michael Ruhlman’s book, The Soul of a Chef, before he became the much-publicized figure on the Food Network. He was nominated for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef – Great Lakes Category in 2006 and again in 2009, when he took home the honor. We add two of his locations to our list, Lola in Cleveland and Roast in Detroit. One of the featured appetizers at both restaurants as of this writing is the traditional Polish dumpling, the pierogi. In the current incarnation, Symon uses beef cheeks and wild mushrooms, stuffed inside the thin dough, which is then boiled and served with a non-traditional crème fraîche. I’m hopeful he’ll retain and promote this local cuisine as his popularity grows.
Another Detroit-area restaurant that we’re adding to our list is the Detroit Free Press winner of 2012 Restaurant of the Year The Root Restaurant, run by chef James Rigato. Rigato is described on the restaurant website in these terms:
“At 26, he opened The Root Restaurant & Bar with proprietor Ed Mamou. His pursuit of localizing Michigan’s food economy stretches into involvement with local schools, hospitals, libraries and other organizations to create a necessary and sustainable change for our state. An avid poet and advocate for all things Michigan, if not working he can be found in some corner of the state exploring, cycling, kayaking, eating or camping.”
The menu is ever-changing, but some examples of Great Lakes Cuisine from a recent iteration are the House Smoked Meatloaf and the Fried Bologna Sandwich, both classic comfort food dishes taken to a higher culinary level. The annual wild game dinners are often filled with local game presented in creative, and often local, preparations. Of particular note in the recent article in the Detroit Free Press was Rigato’s insistence that this is not about the recent trend towards field-to-fork or simply about local providers, rather he feels restaurants are making a fundamental shift toward more local food. And I would add, toward local techniques of preparation as well. His quote in the article captures a central idea – “I don’t feel like I’m breaking any boundaries or changing the game, I’m just trying to bring it back home.”
Finally, we’re adding another restaurant in Cleveland, this one run by the current nominee for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef – Great Lakes Category, Jonathon Sawyer. In addition to running The Greenhouse Tavern, Sawyer also operates the Tavern Vinegar Company. The current menu (available here: greenhouse tavern – dinner) at The Greenhouse Tavern is perhaps the most complete example to date of a chef working in the style of Great Lakes Cuisine. Not since the creative dishes designed by Jason Gorman at the former Dream Dance Restaurant (no relation to the current iteration) have I seen a menu that captures Great Lakes Cuisine as well. Crispy Fried Lake Erie Smelt, Sweet Wintered Carrots Salad, Ohio Black Walnut Soup with a duck meatball, and the various local meat burgers are all excellent examples, but for me the ideal is the Duck Zampone. For the uninitiated, I’ll save you the Google search – zampone is simply the ground meat of the animal stuffed back in it’s own skin to cook. In Italy this is traditionally ground pork stuffed back into the pork hock. Sawyer takes an Old World technique, uses local products, adapts it to a new animal and serves it with braised winter kale, chestnuts, apples, and sage. Inventive, tasty, economical, and quintessentially Great Lakes.
We will continue to search for new locations and new chefs to add to our list. Please feel free to contact me with any suggestions at robertholtonwi(at)gmail(dot)com.