One of State of the Re:Union’s very own producers, Tina Antolini, gives a peek of behind the scenes action you’ll hear about in our newest installment of the fall season episodes, just click to listen: Cleveland, OH: Entrepreneurs at Work.
I have an exercise for you. If you were trying to describe what Cleveland, Ohio, tastes like, what would you say? Have any idea where to start? Maybe those of you familiar with the Polish or Italian heritage in the city might inch towards pierogi or salami territory. But, after a week of reporting there for SOTRU’s episode, I have a whole other idea of what Cleveland tastes like, and I can say with 100 % certainty, it is nothing like I’d imagined. Try this: buttered. popcorn. pots. de. crème.
This was the capstone to the kind of meal everyone should have when they go to a new city, a meal of abundant revelations … One that showcases the bounty of the region, but in a way that’s never show-offy. Such is the meal SOTRU host, Al Letson, and I had at Greenhouse Tavern in downtown Cleveland. Greenhouse Tavern is the baby of chef Jonathon Sawyer, a Cleveland native who spent years in the NYC kitchens of famous chefs, only to come back home when his kids were born and open Ohio’s first certified green restaurant. At the Tavern, that doesn’t just mean highly efficient low flow toilets and a compost pile out back (though they have those), it means efficiency in how animals are used, and sustainability in how ingredients are sourced. It was no accident that nearly every dish we tried featured pork in some form or another; when you’ve got a whole local pig to butcher on a regular basis, you better get creative in how to use it (one staff member told me you end up with 20 to 30 pounds of pure fat each time. And that can only mean… lots and lots of sausage.).
The ingenuity with which those pigs are used is what impressed me: pig tongue dolmas, for example. Greenhouse Tavern has a whole roasted pig’s head on the menu, but they have to remove the tongue, because it cooks more quicky than the rest of it. Hence the dolmas, which are not recognizable as anything even slightly resembling a tongue. Instead, they just taste like very moist minced pork, mixed with raisins and spices, and wrapped in romaine leaves that have been lightly pickled. Another example: the appetizer that I might champion as one of the best bar snacks ever: pork cracklins tossed with crisp fried hominy, pickled red onions, lime juice and cilantro. Porky, crunchy, and pickley, all at once.
The Tavern even has a daily changing menu item called “the fifth quarter,” which is a play on the butchering technique that divides an animal into four quarters, and whatever extra falls out—the intestines, the brain, what have you—well, that’s the fifth quarter. The night we were there it was rabbit spanikopita, and, let me tell you, if that’s produced from leftovers, we should all be so lucky to scraps lying around.
But back to the dish that has indelibly stamped itself into my memory of Cleveland. The story behind the buttered popcorn pots de crème is that they emerged out a of a quasi-joke one night. Greenhouse Tavern’s pastry chef, Matt Danko, saw a bag of stale popcorn in the restaurant, and said offhand that they should make a caramel corn flavored custard. The chef told him to go for it, and then he turned out not to be kidding. Matt makes the pots de crème by whipping up a batch of popcorn and then infusing cream with it, turning that into custard, and adding a topping of caramel and sprinkle of sea salt. What you get is what caramel popcorn would be if it had been transported into some sort of ethereal realm. Light, evoking the best buttery popcorn you’ve ever had, but with the dark “roastiness” of caramel and spike of salt. If this is what Cleveland tastes like, it tastes damn good.