I've enjoyed Flay and been blown away by Batali, thus when Clevelander Michael Symon was named the new Iron Chef I knew it was only a matter of time before I made the trip to Lola. Having seen Chef Symon on Food Network a number of times over the past few months I admit I like his attitude and personality.....alas, his flagship restaurant and food didn't live up to the hype.
With my sister returning to Cleveland for her final year of school we'd spent a long day moving boxed and arranging furniture prior to our 5:15 Saturday reservations. Early? Yes. Strangely so considering the hostess on the phone told me this was "the only time available," yet the restaurant was nowhere near full when we completed the meal at 7:20. On entering the restaurant I will admit I was duly impressed with the dark wooks, hypnotic acrylic bar, beautiful chandaliers, and wide open (Momofuku style) kitchen. Admittedlly the place was VERY dark, but eating so early provided plenty of ambient outdoor light through the gorgeos front windows looking out onto the interesting 4th Street district of Cleveland. The hostess was pleasant and we were seated promptly at a great seat with full view of the kitchen. Chairs were relatively uncomfortable, albeit pretty, and the table setting was visually quite impressive. Servers were dressed "cool casual" with jeans and poorly tied ties while kitchen staff wore Symon's mechanic-esque buttondowns.
With regard to service, there were hits and misses. Our server, a cocky fella named Tony K, definitely knew the notably short menu well and sold each dish adequately, but vastly overstepped his role when I attempted to place an appetizer order for the group (myself and 3 ladies) and he bluntly told me "we'll let the ladies order first." This move essentially led to ordering mains before appetizers and the table accidentally forgetting to order a couple side dishes until after appetizers were consumed. Awkward. Water was filled quickly and repeatedly, but the table bread was anemic and a total afterthought....white bread, plain butter, five 3/4" thick slices from what I presume was a baguette. Yawn.
Watching the kitchen was actually quite interesting and a novelty here in Ohio. Each dish was constructed via chefs, sous-chefs, and servers in a stylish and fresh manner, yet the kitchen was very quiet and pristine, much like Momofuku in NYC. Appetizers arrived in short order and were beautiful and tasty, albeit quite petite in portions.
Crispy Veal Sweetbreads w/ leeks, blue cheese, mushrooms were perfectly seared, crisp, and well textured with a great balance of flavors....one of the better presentations I've encountered.
Crispy Shrimp w/ soft cheesy polenta, chilies, cilantro were less impressive with a relatively basic fried shrimp that my mother enjoyed vastly more than I - I will admit the polenta was fantastic, however.
The highlight of the appetizers, by far, was the Fresh Berkshire Bacon w/ fruit slaw and BBQ sauce.....on par with anything David Chang is doing in NYC, perfectly textured, and an amazing contrast of the salty fatty pork with the crispy sweet fruit - a MUST order if you visit.
Timing for the mains was delayed for unknown reasons (40 minutes and a few plates of mediocre bread between apps and mains,) but when they arrived everything was once again attractive. Portions of the fish dishes were small while meats were substantially larger.
Halibut w/ Morels, Beans, Herbs, Gnocchi was poorly seasoned and bland overall, but the herb sauce was quite tasty with a complex blend of cilantro and rosemary. Being a huge fan of gnocchi I was disappointed that only 8 small pieces were presented, though the texture was quite good.
Black Bass w/ Clams, Mussels, Saffron Potatoes, Olives was well cooked and well textured, but suffered somewhat from an overly salty broth and far too few Mussels and Clams (2 of each if I counted correctly.) The potatoes were excellent.
Beef Hanger Steak w/ pickle sauce, chilies, lola fries I did not taste as I don't particularly favor beef, but the pickle sauce was (once again) on par with Momofuku and the fries (double basted in lard with rosemary and sea salt) were excellent.
The highlight of the mains, like the apps, was the pork. Smoked Berkshire Pork Chop w/ Chilies, cheesy polenta, bbq onions was large, flawlessly fatty yet perfectly textured, salty yet clean, and served with a perfect contrast of smooth cheesy polenta and sweet/spicy chilies/bbq onions. As good as any pork I've ever encountered and the highlight of the menu by far.
A side of butter sautéed mushrooms was substantial and delicious, shared by the table.
Desserts.....desserts were underwhelming, undersized, and overpriced. $9/ea and incredibly small in portions, none were truly mindblowing although one was certainly unique and another had promise that fell far short.
The much hyped 6am special - French toast w/ maple bacon ice cream, carmelized apples was tiny, tasty, and unique, but in reality only a slice of bread drowned in butter and syrup, less than 10 grams of apples, and a tiny scoop of vanilla icecream with berkshire bacon bits embedded.
Savannah Summer - Cornbread, Butter ice cream Peach jam, candied pecan was also quite small and while the butter icecream was quite impressive and tasty, the cornbread was dry and flavorless with a tiny smear of jam that tasted no better than Smuckers. The highlight of the dish was actually the caramel cookie decoration.
Sangria berry Sundae - Blueberry sorbet, chantilly cream, black pepper crumble was another unimpressive dish, though the sorbet was delicious....if there was any black pepper crumble, it was undetectable and somewhere buried in the mildly flavored cream.
Strawberry Short Cake - Mascarpone mousse, strawberry sorbet, lemon curd, almond was possibly the least impressive with only the lemon curd tasting truly inspiring and the cake so small that once everyone had a sliver there was only ~2 inches left.
Coffee was a relatively full bodied English peaberry served from a standard coffee pot.....like the bread this aspect of the meal appeared to be an afterthought, like Chef Symon said "Oh yeah, people might want coffee.....um, just call the distributor and see what they've got in stock"
After dinner we were served Key Lime and Black Pepper jellies along with the bill....these freebies were better than any of the desserts.....and only slightly smaller.
At $58/pp after tax and tip without any drinks, this certainly wasn't a "break the bank" kind of meal, but I've spent less at "Iron Chef" restaurants (Babbo, Otto, Mesa Grill) and been vastly more impressed. I've also spent less at M@Miranova, Rosendales, Rigsby's, Lindey's, and Worthington Inn in Columbus and been vastly more impressed. All told, Michael Symon does two things extremely well - Pork and Polenta - while doing a number of other things adequately, but at far too high a pricepoint for the quality or experience. Sure, he has a great TV personality that many chefs may lack, but for such a celebrated name/restaurant, Lola likely isn't in my top 10 for Ohio let alone all time. More attention to detail, more intuitive servers, more appropriate pricing.....Lola just isn't enough.