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Lola Cleveland. Iron Chef? (long review)

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.

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  1. I was also disappointed in the 6 am special that I had soon after the restaurant opened. On a subsequent visit a friend noted that the 6 am special had improved since the last time she'd had it. That was a little frustrating. It made me feel like the restaurant's guinea pig. Aside from that, I've had dessert every time I've eaten there and they're good about 50% of the time. The most recent visit (actually a very long time ago) ended with a tiny ice cream float. It was the savior of an otherwise unremarkable meal but it was also just excellent in and of itself.

    Of my four visits, I remember a delicious quail with foie gras. I remember a delicious walleye with disappointing side dishes. I also had a flavorless ribeye once.

    Two memorable entrees and one memorable dessert in four visits isn't enough for me to consider them a top tier restaurant. Moreover, my experiences at Lolita and the previous incarnation of Lola had an even smaller proportion of winning dishes. On one of my earlier visits, I had a dry, tasteless fried chicken breast. At my last visit before they moved, my chicken was so bitter as to be virtually inedible.

    As of the last time I was at Lola, they didn't bake their own bread and the bread they used made a poor first impression. But if you eliminated restaurants for serving mediocre bread, you'd never eat out again. And you're also right about how dark it is. I guess that's a matter of personal preference. It is sharp looking. The bathrooms (men's at least) are nice. And I really like the light fixtures. They used the same guy who did a very nice art piece at their old location which is now Lolita, his other restaurant.

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    Lola
    2058 East 4th Street, Cleveland, OH 44115

    1. well i have never ever enjoyed flay nor been blown away by batali (outside of a couple greatest hits dishes), so i thought maybe we are just not going to clik, but i will say that was a nicely done and fair review.

      i think mainly i am not so big on dessert so it sounds like i would have left with a better impression.

      also, not sure i understand so much david chang comparison, but just for the record it should be stated the other way around. symon has been doing his thing way longer than chang.

      6 Replies
      1. re: mrnyc

        Simply the pork-centric focus, eating at the bar, kitchen of sous-chefs who essentially run conveyor belt style.

        Regardless of who has been doing it longer, Chang does it better.

        1. re: uhockey

          well that is a fairly common modern kitchen arrangement. more important is the food chang and symon are turning out and imo it is very different. chang is into asian/american/fusion and symon tends to have a local/greek/mediterranean focus. i am more into the food itself than their rather unremarkable process that's why i don't get the comparison. otoh, of course regardless of style it's the end results that are most important of all and in that regard i hear ya.

          1. re: mrnyc

            Fair enough. I missed the "greek" aspects of Symon entirely......and the mediterranean is lost in the underutilization of EVOO yet pronounced (and flaunted) use of butter.

            Chang is a better value for the dollar with better tasting food, better servers, and a 'cooler' scene. Lola is a tiny romantic-esque place with tiny portions.

            In NYC, where Chang is a worshipped even with Kreuther, Humm, Anthony, Batali, Bouloud, Keller, and others just down the street, I think Lola would flounder.

            1. re: uhockey

              I have to disagree with you re portion sizes. I've eaten at Lola several times, and have never felt portions were inadequate. And I don't even care much about dessert - but Cory Barret's creations never cease to wow me.

              Another case of "different strokes for different folks" I guess.

              1. re: NancyH

                I often read posts by people complaining about portion sizes at fine dining places.....those people generally frequent Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, Cheescake Factory, and TGIFridays and then make the comparison.......I'm not one of those people. For the price, the portions were quite small, even when comparing $30+ mains to tasting menu entrees at Eleven Madison Park, Rosendales, Gramercy Tavern, etc. Desserts, albeit decent, were terribly overpriced for the ingredients and size.

                We will agree to disagree, but I've seen fine dining and fine dining portions.....Lola didn't (literally) fit the bill.

              2. re: uhockey

                And clearly you're a Chang worshipper.

                You're comparing apples to oranges, and I certainly don't go to a place like Lola expecting Cheesecake Factory sized portions. Does the mighty Chang serve oversized portions?

        2. I love Lola, and I love the 6am special. But one thing to say, and Symon, himself, will readily admit to this -- he is a meat guy. While he is single-handedly responsible for making me learn to eat fish and seafood (a grouper in Jamaican jerk seasoningwith blue crab tater-tots at what is now Lolita, but was Lola back then), generally, Symon is at his best when concocting interestng meat dishes.

          Thanks for the report; as I said, I love the restaurant, but as another said, your report does seem fair and thorough.

          1. Not my experience. I've been to all those Batali places (Esca/Babbo/Del Posto/Lupa, Otto, etc etc), all those Jean Jorge restaurants, Mesa Grill, Union Sq Cafe, Gotham Bar and Grill, all the trendy Chicago places like Blackbird, Avec, Wolfgang Puck ad nauseum, Alice Water's Chez Panisse in Berkley, over the top Sonoma County restaurants, and even a couple of 3 star Michelins in Paris and NYC(?) , a selection of Boulud's places, etc etc etc. My experiences with Lola and Lolita have always been excellent. I think the ingredients, preparation and recipes are truly WORLD CLASS - just as excellent as any of those that I have listed- and at the price by big city standards it's a real steal. I've paid 3-4x more for lesser meals at more famous places. If they rented rooms and served breakfast, I'd move in.

            9 Replies
            1. re: atievsky

              Please do move in then.......not saying I doubt your culinary adventures, but to say Lola is on par with something like Per Se or Le Bernadin? The ingredient quality ALONE makes that impossible. Lola wouldn't even be a 1 Michelin star restaurant if it were in NYC or SF, but may register in LA if they used a truly skilled server. The place is more Momofuku than Spago.

              Mesa Grill and Lola were on par, IMO.

              Please feel free to write an indepth experience log of some of those meals if you'd like to share details.

              1. re: uhockey

                To be honest, Lola is not as good as most of the 1 star restaurants I've been to, and not nearly as good as any of the 2 stars. But it also isn't in the same price range. iirc, the cost of an average appetizer, main course, and dessert, combined, is $45 - $50. In that price range, there really isn't anything I'm aware of in SF that beats it, and that is saying a lot.

                It is not a culinary Mecca, but it is also in Cleveland and constrained by the population and the prices they are willing to pay. Within the context of Symon's access to ingredients, the ingredients Symon uses, and the prices he charges, I say the restauant is phenomenal. It is as "world class" as I believe anything between the East Coast and Chicago is capable of attaining.

                Personally, if Symon were in a market where he could charge $20 for an appetizer, $40 for a main course, and $12 for dessert and have no one bat an eye, I believe he could produce an easily star-worthy restaurant. But, to be fair, we don't know, because he has never tried.

                1. re: whiner

                  true enough, but i would also add that even tho it was a thorough review i do not get too worked up over a ch poster who has had one meal at a restaurant. since the op is big on ny restaurants i would add that similarly ny food critics like bruni do not review restaurants and make declarative judgements about them based on one visit.

                  1. re: mrnyc

                    I'll agree with that re: 1 visit, but to be fair, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression."

                    I'm not "big on" NYC restaurants, I simply used them since atievsky opted to compare to 3-star NYC establishments.

                    I found M@Miranova, Lindey's, BoMA, Rigsby's, Rosendales, and Worthington Inn in Columbus to all be superior to Lola. Additionally, Bourbon Steak and Iridescence in Detroit were better, Spago and All' Angelo in LA, Mastro's in Anaheim, Ciao in Toledo, and multiple NYC joints to be superior as well.

                    Point is, if I were back in Cleveland, I'd not rush back to Lola based on that experience whereas I'd return to any of the above w/o hesitation and at a similar to lower pricepoint.

                    1. re: uhockey

                      no, to be fair you liked many of the dishes and for sure you need more than one visit to be this kind of definitive.

                      also, first words you wrote were flay and batali...that's pretty ny-centric from the get-go.

                      anyway, what i really wanted was to add that i've eaten at most of those restaurants you now mention and they are almost all to the letter just ok. at least symon stays in your memory with a few of his dishes: beef cheek pierogie, charcuterie, short ribs, etc. -- yes i am saying you misordered a bit, go back again!

                      1. re: mrnyc

                        I don't prefer beef and therefore rarely order it, regardless of chef.

                        I started the review w/ Flay and Batali based ONLY on the fact that they are each Iron Chefs. If I had to choose a favorite chef, neither would be listed, but instead Keller and Mina.

                        I'd say Batali's goose liver ravioli, pumpkin lune, lamb's tongue salad, etc "stay in your memory"

                  2. re: whiner

                    Cleveland's "population and the prices they are willing to pay" aren't excuses for Lola. The prices at Ad Hoc are less than the prices at Lola and Ad Hoc has a Michelin star. The prices at The Spotted Pig are pretty comparable to the prices at Lola. Of course, I never expect Michelin to actually visit Cleveland, but these examples demonstrate that you can serve that quality of food at and below the prices that Clevelanders are willing to pay. I mention only these two because I've eaten there. I'm sure if I went through a hundred restaurant websites that I could find one or two others and it would be even easier if I were using the prices at Giovanni's as a benchmark.

                    I've eaten at a few other Michelin starred restaurants. If Manresa is as good every day as the day that I ate there, then there's not much anywhere that can touch them. On the other hand I've had several meals at other Michelin starred restaurants that were perfectly good but just as certainly not better than the quality I've come to expect at a small number of local restaurants.

                    You'd be right to say that the Cleveland market couldn't support a restaurant like Manresa. And 12 course meals are hardly the only thing that you have to leave the city to find. Price isn't the reason why you can't find a good bowl of ramen in Cleveland. But it's another thing to expect great food. The Cleveland Market can and does support that. Not as much great food. Not as much variety of great food. But some.

                    Is there enough to keep you straight between binges in New York and San Francisco? I don't know. I know I'm looking forward to a few restaurant openings this year. Ask me again later.

                    1. re: stuart

                      " The prices at The Spotted Pig are pretty comparable to the prices at Lola. Of course, I never expect Michelin to actually visit Cleveland, but these examples demonstrate that you can serve that quality of food at and below the prices that Clevelanders are willing to pay. "

                      Never been to Ad Hoc, but I've been to Bouchon... I prefer Lola. Friends who've been to The Spotted Pig also prefer Lola.

                      I think Lola is on par with, or better than, the best similarly priced SF restaurants, that is what I was saying. I think Lola is great. It isn't Manresa, TFL, Bernardin, etc etc. But it it a seriously terrific restaurant, nonetheless, imo.

                  3. re: uhockey

                    No Lola isn't on par with Le Bernadin but it's still an outstanding restaurant and a quarter (or less) of the price of those high flyers. My point is that I have found it to be just as excellent a dining experience as those epicurean temples, regardless of cost. I'm sure Symon could jack up the price by using more expensive/exotic ingredients, more labor intensive recipes, increase his waiter staff and decorate the place to the hilt, but in Cleveland he'd go bankrupt. Frankly, Michelin stars don't move me anyway. I was disappointed with both of the 3 stars I've been. They seem to favor heavy French oriented cuisine.

                2. The Michael Symon restaurants are very creative, and the food is often very good. His pork dishes are always very good, and he likes to create new versions of the "local favorites" (i.e. pierogies, etc.) The prices are high, I agree, for any city. The couple of times that I have been to his restaurants there is always a long wait between courses.

                  I'd have to disagree with your "reviews" of the Cowtown restaurants, however. Other than Rigsby's, there is little creativity in any Columbus restaurant, and certainly not much quality. The Cameron Mitchell restaurants are practically a chain in themselves, and each has a Disney-like theme to them. Rosendale's tries too hard to be something that it is not. It benefits from its prime Short North location.

                  All in all, Ohio sure isn't New York, so we really shouldn't compare anything here to anything there! But I have found a few Cleveland restaurants that I think stack up to anything in Chicago, and it's nice to see a chef like Michael Symon settle into this city to try to spark things up.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: jmargaret

                    A) I agree on Mitchell in general, but M is an exception with a truly exceptional chef and servers.

                    B) What, exactly, is Rosendale's "trying" to be? The vision of a culinary olympian who is currently competing with the best in the country to represent us at the bocuse d'or? I'd say he is doing damned well.

                    C) BoMA is quite awful as a club, but the food and atmosphere are quite excellent and the setting is wonderful as well.

                    D) Generalizing Columbus is pretty sad, IMO, considering we're not even yet discussing Handke, Refectory, L'Antibes, or Kihachi.

                    ......all in all, if you want to overdefend Symon, I'll overdefend Cowtown from the Mistake on the Lake. ;-)