Chefing It

On Friday night — at the kind invitation of our friends Bow Tie Guy and Band Mom — Kish and I joined a small group for a memorable “participatory dining” experience at The Kitchen here in German Village.  The Kitchen promises a participatory dining experience that “blurs the line between patron and chef.”  In our case, that promise was kept — and I might add that the blurring was aided by a number of very well-chosen bottles of wine that our group consumed with relish before and during food prep and then with our meal.

IMG_5689First, a word or two about the setting and the concept.  The Kitchen is located in an historic building that was a department store, and later a cheesy video store, on Livingston Avenue.  The building was acquired by two passionate female foodies who were able to see past the video store bric-a-brac to envision a space where people can have fun cooking, and then eating.  The result is a choice setting, with the original high, pressed design tin ceilings and brightly polished hardwood floors, long tables made from refinished barn siding, and a high-end, fully kitted out, restaurant grade kitchen.

When our little band arrived, we gathered around the charcuterie platter and were served an excellent wine — the first of many fine wines deftly chosen by the proprietors to specifically complement what we were eating at the time.  The proprietors described the courses — a salad, garlic shrimp, a chicken dish accompanied by fingerling potatoes and eggplant, and finally a raspberry white chocolate tart — and offered us our choice of food prep tasks.  The “participatory” part of our dining experience was about to begin.

Kish and I decided to do the salad, which seemed to be fraught with the least downside risk from an edibility standpoint.  We donned our aprons and promptly learned the first lesson of The Kitchen experience:  it’s fun to cook, particularly when you have the ingredients laid out in advance, have the appropriate knives and implements available, and have a friendly expert at your elbow guiding you through the food prep process.  We chopped our salad fixins without losing any fingertips, blended our salad dressing, then roamed the room to watch other people at their food prep stations.

IMG_5698And there we learned lesson number two:  many people can really cook, and take pride in producing quality consumables.  Our fellow patron-chefs, such as The Honeybee pictured here, carefully followed instructions, performed their tasks with good cheer, and juggled their wine glasses while brushing and basting and sauteeing their hearts out.  Ultimately, the proof of the pudding was in the tasting — every dish and course of the meal was absolutely delicious.  Our simple salad with olives and peppers and a garlic dressing was tasty, but was promptly blown out of the water by the shrimp, the chicken, the potatoes, the veggies, and the dessert, as well as the wine selections.  Kish and I accepted that not-unexpected result with equanimity and full stomachs.

I’d recommend The Kitchen to anyone who wants to have a fun foodie experience.  And if you would rather not participate directly, The Kitchen offers Taco Tuesday, where the experts do the prep and patrons get to just drop in and gobble down the results.

Hodge’s, On Euclid

During several of my recent visits to Cleveland I’ve eaten dinner at Hodge’s restaurant on Euclid Avenue.  It’s quickly moved up to become one of my favorite restaurants in a city that offers a lot of excellent dining options.

IMG_2948One of the proprietors started out as a food truck operator, and Hodge’s offers the same kind of somewhat zany, try-just-about-anything food truck spirit in a brick-and-mortar restaurant setting.  The menu changes regularly, and the options are always inventive and intriguing.  It’s the kind of place that Cleveland foodies must love to have as a regular dining option.

When I was there earlier this week (before my Meatless Thursday) we enjoyed some well-made cocktails in Hodge’s spacious, modern bar area.  We then moved upstairs and sampled an eclectic mix of “snacks,” appetizers and entrees, washed down by a fine and affordable bottle of wine.  We began with “snacks” of deviled eggs, which were quite tasty, and spectacular “chicken liver toast” — two thick pieces of toast layered about an inch deep with densely packed, coarsely chopped chicken liver.  Next up were appetizers, in the form of wild mushroom and Ohio City pasta gnocchi, which was light and delicately flavored, and the bold and mouth-watering lucky penny goat cheese and leek tart, topped with onion jam, arugula, and parmesan.

By then we were on a mission to try as much of the menu as possible, and we would not be denied.  We split two entrees — the pan roasted scallops with butternut squash risotto and currants, and the house brined pork chop — and both were excellent.  My favorite was the huge, juicy, perfectly prepared pork chop.  Unembarrassed, we ventured into the dessert menu, and my friend wolfed down the massive brownie skillet sundae while I daintily sampled a delicate fruit crisp.

After an appalling display of our ravenousness, we hauled our carcasses off our seats and reeled out into the icy Cleveland night, thoroughly satisfied by an exceptional meal.  Yes, I’d recommend Hodge’s to anyone who likes to pick up knife and fork.

Artisanal Cheese And A Possible Future For Ohio Family Farms

The Kishmans have long owned family farms in the Vermilion area.  Kish’s Dad described himself as a “general farmer.”  He grew corn and soybeans, once kept a chicken coop, and tended to beef cattle because he loved being around animals.  The Kishmans were like many Ohio families who worked the land on property that had been in the family for generations.

Agriculture has always been a big part of the Ohio economy.  According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Ohio has more than 75,000 farms.  The vast majority of these  are family-owned operations, although some of the larger farms are owned by families through corporations.  The statistics also indicate that 2.7 percent of the farms in Ohio produce more than $500,000 in agricultural products.  Most farms, therefore, are smaller business operations. It is unclear how many of those farm involve “general farming,” as opposed to production of only a single crop.  And there are ongoing concerns about how those family farms are faring in an increasingly competitive where, in recent years at least, the credit that farmers need has become scarce and banks have been skittish about lending.

Recently I went to the North Market to buy some cheese and decided to buy an Ohio product.  The proprietor of the cheese stand at the Market recommended Blomma goat’s milk cheese produced by Lake Erie Creamery.  The cheese was extraordinarily good — and made me realize, yet again, that Ohio has a lot to offer, including great, locally sourced meats, cheeses, and produce for foodies and regular folks alike.

It turns out that Lake Erie Creamery is a husband and wife operation that produces artisanal goat’s milk cheese in Cleveland.  They purchase milk from a family farm in Portage County, make it into cheese in Cleveland, return the whey that is a byproduct of the cheese-making process to local farms for hog and chicken feed, and sell their cheeses locally.  Blomma is one of several excellent cheeses made by Lake Erie Creamery.

It’s a great story, and one that I imagine is duplicated elsewhere in Ohio.  It makes me wonder if the future of Ohio agriculture, in part, lies not in the general farming of the past, but in an artisanal approach where Ohio farmers — whose operations could easily be in urban areas, as is the case with Lake Erie Creamery — focus on growing or making one kind of food, be it cheeses, radishes, milk, beef, or blackberries, and make them the best products imaginable.  Americans have an appetite for high-quality food items and, as the booming “local-sourcing” movement indicates, they will pay a bit more for something that is fresh, high quality, and different.

I’d like to see the artisanal agriculture movement take off because it offers a model that will allow family farming, which has been such an important part of Ohio’s history and heritage, to continue.  And those family farm jobs can’t be moved overseas, either.