Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Goat dinner this Thursday at Bar Cento (and a rant)

First, Cleveland content only:

A little advertised and potentially very good dinner will be held this Thursday at Bar Cento. $40 gets a goat tasting (including confit of goat shoulder), some great goat cheese, and plenty of quality wine. This will be sans Sawyer--groupies might pass on this one, but I think it will be in good hands, and it will help with the separation pains as Jonathon transitions into his new place.

Now, from the soapbox:

I think this dinner is particularly timely as Cleveland's food scene is coming into its own. And while there clearly are some Polish/Eastern European influences around here, there's no real Cleveland-style food (let's ignore the fried bologna sandwich). California has its "California Cuisine;" the Pacific Northwest has a clear identity (salmon, mushrooms, etc.); New England has its shellfish; the Southwest (Tex-Mex); Louisiana (X2 with Creole and Cajun); Kansas City, Texas, and North Carolina all have their own takes on bbq . . . the list goes on. And that's just the States. Cleveland doesn't have that--farm to table is a start, but it doesn't really distinguish us. Everywhere has (hopefully) "farm to table" (and "whole hog") food. That should be the given, not the ultimate label.

Cleveland's restaurants pay respect to the City's Eastern European immigrant roots (two nationally acclaimed restaurants, Lola and Melt, have pierogi based items on the menu), but while I trust that both places' dishes are great (I, sadly, haven't tried either), I'm not sure if using a pierogi cuts it. Lola does much more with great local ingredients (including hogs), and has turned the City on to some great things, but what is quintessentially Cleveland? Cured meats (And I love Lolita's charcuterie and wouldn't want to do without it, but I don't think it's really ours.)? Really good pizzas/flatbreads (Another thing made really well around in these parts--Ohio City\Tremont--that I'm glad is here.)?

San Francisco and Seattle have rich Italian roots, but they didn't stop with good bread and sausage. The people expanded on what they brought with them, incorporating the best of what was around and creating new things and adapting old recipes along the way. Good hops, make beer, great fish, what do the natives do with it? The ethnic roots are still evident, but the universe of ingredients and techniques evolved, creating a regionalized identity distinguishing their food from that in other places.

Tradition didn't fall by the wayside--there's no shortage of great Italian style wine, olive oil, and sausage coming out of California. But there was also expansion and adaptation, taking advantage of the best of what the area offered. Take the French style wine coming out of Oregon. I'm confident that was not the result of a large French community living in Dundee (at least not 20 years ago). Historic knowledge was applied to local environs.

While I love them (I really do), I'm not sure the pierogi should be the flagship for Cleveland-style food. Fried walleye and lake perch are a bit more indigenous (at least the fish are), but there's so much more here to choose from and utilize. For example, with all of Johnny Appleseed's adventures in the area, where's our Calvados? Instead we're coaxing grape wine out of our orchard areas.

It doesn't take Rachel Laudan to point out that cultural food identity is a murky thing (although I think she does it very well), often shaped more by ideals than reality, but it leads to some tasty stuff. Whether we need a consortium to tell us what's okay is another story (although it might not hurt for things like Philly Cheesesteaks), but it'd be nice to see us have our own style and regional food identity.

The stuff is here. In addition to the walleye, perch, and apples, we have a rich tomato history, ample morels and foragable greens, plenty of other fruit trees, and great beef, pork, and poultry--and goat. Our dairy is great too. And there's much more (including maple syrup)--our soil is as good as any out there and better than most.

Maybe my problem is that I'd like to see more of Western Europe represented here, but when some chefs in the area point out that we have the resources of a freshwater Normandy, it's hard to overlook the potential building blocks. Commingling from the other cultures in the area--African, Middle Eastern, various Asian, and American Southern to name a few--should not be discounted, but I'd like to see the focus be on what those cultures can do with what we have here rather than simply recreating their cuisine (which is great to have too--there's always room for ethnic eats--I haven't read the linked book though). I just think that having a strong regional food identity would lead to some more good food and do more to attract out-of-town eaters (while we have their attention), and there's still plenty of room for the pierogi .


ntsc The Art of The Pig said...

Well I will be in Cleveland this weekend, leaving tomorrow and driving from NYC. This is explicitly a food trip, Lola is on for Friday and I forget the resturant name for Saturday.

While we don't know where we will be eating on Thursday, I don't think it will be Bar Cento as neither of us care for goat.

And what is wrong with cured meat?

The CFT said...

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy the trip (don't miss The Flying Fig). I posted a while back on my thoughts about food trips in Cleveland, but I trust you've done your research.

You should be able to tell from the post, and blog, that I love cured meats. Pierogis too. I'd just like to see more chefs around here creating a distinctive Cleveland-style of food. There's still room for everything else.

Westside Fish said...

never had the beef cheek pierogi at Lola? Its sublime. Nor the Parmageddon (pierogi sandwich) at Melt? Its ridiculous, delicious. Next you're going to tell me you've never had a Dortmunder Gold.
Joking aside, those are two fantastic Cleveland dishes featuring the pierogi. I have always thought of Cleveland cuisine as being a mishmash of European staples. I would also say two of the mainstays are pierogies and sausage and/or cured meats.
Finally, sitting in Melt bar and grilled in Lakewood, surrounded by Cleveland sports memoribilia, eating a gargantuan pierogi sandwich feels so very Cleveland. Add sausage to your sandwich and wash it down with a Dortmunder to get the full effect.

The CFT said...

I agree with everything you said (of course I'll have to take your word for how the dishes tasted--I'll try them soon enough).

Still, while the pierogi is great and versatile, it's not really ours. It's borrowed, and we no doubt treat it very respectfully. But I think I'd like to see something new. Building a regional cuisine takes time, but the sooner we start the better.

Look at the Montreal bagel. It's just a bagel, but the variety is unique to Montreal (and all those who borrow it). Same with their poutine. Just fried potatoes, stock based sauce, and cheese curds, but Quebec made it its own (no doubt based in part on the region's great cheese making and French culinary traditions).

Beef cheek pierogi to represent Cleveland cuisine? It sounds tasty, but I don't see how braised meat is distinctly Cleveland (and sticking them in a sandwich isn't much different). Same with cured meats. What are we doing with them that's so unique as to give us ownership, like Montreal with the bagel and poutine?

Basically what I'm saying is that tasting great isn't all that's required for food to create a regional identity. In part, I'd like to see more of a tie in to the area.