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Sokolowski's University Inn (Report)

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This is a follow up to my earlier post on Michael Symon's Lola's about ten days ago. Sokolowski's University Inn is a Cleveland institution, a throwback to the city's industrial past, an icon of its Eastern European heritage and a gravy-laced food paradise. For three generations, the Sokolowski family has been feeding the hearts, minds and stomachs of Cleveland's working class.

Sokolowski's has always been popular with the locals. But the 85 year old cafeteria-style restaurant is seeing a bit of a resurgence in the food world thanks to bloggers and culinary celebrities like Anthony Bourdain (Bourdain highlighted the Tremont neighborhood restaurant in a 2007 episode of his Travel Channel show No Reservations).

The restaurant is made up of a series of different rooms with the decor being heavy on Cleveland memorabilia. The food is hearty, stick to your ribs, cooking; perfect for those cold Midwestern days. The menu is fairly simple. There are house favorites like salisbury steak, fresh bratwurst and sauteed pierogi that are always available. The restaurant also serves daily specials like stuffed cabbage, paprikash, and beer battered Lake Erie perch.

Since it was my first time visiting Sokolowski's, I had to try the house specialties - the salisbury steak, the brat and pierogi and I wasn't disappointed. To make the steak, the cooks at Sokolowski's mix together ground beef with eggs, breadcrumbs and spices. The mixture is formed into large patties and grilled in a hot skillet until a nice brown crust forms. Using the drippings from the pan, a thick brown gravy is created. The gravy is poured over the steaks, which are then oven-braised into submission. The end result, a fork-tender mouthwatering softball sized salisbury steak covered with caramelized onions, a generous ladle of the braising gravy and a side of mashed potatoes.

The steak itself is as you would expect, hearty, moist and delicious. But the scene stealers are the gravy and the onions. The onions have a rich, sweet flavor from the caramelization process. These onions weren't flash fried in a pan with some sugar. They were slowly cooked with the care and patience necessary to do them right. The gravy, a simple mixture of flour, water and beef stock, is taken to new heights during the braising process. The flavors from the meat leach into the gravy taking it beyond the normal pan sauce to something a beef-addled person might want to mainline.

Next up were the pierogi and brats, which were split amongst the table. While the pierogi were delicious, the brat was a little disappointing. The fresh made brat had great flavor, but by the time it was plated and served, the cafeteria steam table had left the sausage very dry. The addition of spicy mustard was all that could be done to save this one brilliant example of tubed meat.

The disappointment of the brat quietly drifted away as our attention shifted to the pierogi paradise that was our other side dish. Sokolowski's must have a team of old grandmother's back in the kitchen because their pierogi (the Polish word for stuffed dumpling) were flying out the door.

The dough, a combination of flour, water, eggs and sour cream, is rolled flat and cut into little circles. The circles can be filled with both sweet and savory mixtures - think ground beef and onions or cottage cheese and black-cherry preserves. Sokolowski's favorites are potato & cheddar, mushroom, potato & swiss and sauerkraut. The dumplings are boiled for a few minutes and then sauteed with onions and a boatload of butter until nicely browned. For $8, the servers at Sokolowski's will plate you up a dozen.

For dessert, I picked up a piece of the chocolate creme pie. It wasn't fantastic, but it was a nice finish to the meal. The filling was dark and rich, but still felt very light on the fork. The dry crust, which tasted like it was baked with a touch of salt, helped to cut through the richness of the chocolate.

Sokolowski's is the yin to Lola's yang. While Lola takes old-school dishes and puts a modern spin on them with updated cooking techniques and unusual ingredients, Sokolowski's is stuck firmly in the past. Of course, the past is still very, very delicious. Taken one step further, without traditional restaurants like Sokolowski's, creative Midwestern chef's like Lola's Michael Symon would have no foundation to build upon. If then for no other reason, you should give it a try.

For photos of the meal, click here: http://nochoiceatall.blogspot.com/200...

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  1. Thanks for the post. I personally don't get the draw of this place other than the atmosphere. Everyone I've taken here has thought the same - bad, overly greasy food that leaves you with a stomach ache. But I know it's a Cleveland institution and as a local, long-standing business, I'm glad it has its supporters.