If you’re a foodie, you know “A Michelin Star” is a highly-prized – if narrow – rating among restaurants. Basically, Michelin sends people to eat at your restaurant several times (so they can’t be misled by a fluke), and if you’re good enough, they give you between one and three stars. The stars mean:
- One star: A very good restaurant in its category.
- Two stars: First-class cuisine of its type, worth a detour.
- Three stars: Exceptional cuisine, worth a journey.
Which is to say that at three stars, Michelin is stating that it is worth flying into town merely to dine at that restaurant alone.
Now, Cleveland has no restaurants with Michelin stars – which is not to say we couldn’t. For budgetary reasons, Michelin only looks into restaurants in three American cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Which led Gini and I to wonder how Cleveland’s restaurants compared.
A NOTE: You may think that’s a joke… but it isn’t. Cleveland’s actually become a foodie mecca as of late; Cleveland’s residents dine out more often than almost any other city in America, and thanks to the cheap real estate, a lot of New York chefs have fled here to set up a more profitable shop. We have some pretty exceptional restaurants out here, to the point where people routinely make weekend sojourns from New York to try our cuisine. So don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re a joke.
So the question for us was: are any of Cleveland’s high-end restaurants potentially Michelin-starred? We’ve eaten all over Cleveland. (Seriously, I can give you a recommendation for pretty much any style of food and make it work.) If Michelin set up shop here, would any pass muster?
Having dined at a one-star restaurant, I can tell you: No. Not at all.
But we could.
But let’s start with how this all worked out.
Gini and I chose to dine at Babbo, which was a bit of star-fucking: we’ve become enamored of Joe Bastianich after watching him on MasterChef, and his book Restaurant Man is my second-favorite writing on the cooking industry, right after Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Joe is merely the businessman – the chef is slightly more well-known, being one Mario Batali.
Babbo has one star. I’m told it used to have two, which means quality’s dropped a bit, but that fluctuation frequently happens among Michelin-starred restaurants, which is an intensely competitive business. He may be back on to two this year, when rated. Or maybe they’re dropping under the veil; I’d doubt it, as Joe’s an intensely competitive kinda guy, but maybe not. In any case, the Michelin Star is a snapshot of a restaurant in any given time, and restaurants have velocity.
So when Gini and I set out to go to Babbo, we looked like this:
And Babbo itself, in Greenwich Village, looked like this:
And the interior looked like this:
Which is to say that it was a nice-looking interior, well put-together, but nothing particularly fancy. It’s comfortable dining, which is what Joe Bastianich desires: he wants casual business dress, and goes out of his way to keep a few seats free at lunch so anyone can drop by and have a chance of getting in. If you want formal, try Del Posto.
In any case, we were sat down at a little two-top, and before we got past the bread plate we discovered that no, none of the Cleveland restaurants were worthy of Michelin stars. The reason?
There was seemingly one waiter for every three tables, and there were other guys literally patrolling the floor, watching us intently, and our water glasses never dipped below half-full, our wine glass was never empty for more than a minute before someone was asking if we’d like another, the gap between the time we finished our primi and secundi was literally three minutes, tops. They were eyeing us like hawks, attentive to our every move…
…and yet it was not oppressive. I noticed because I’d worked in the service industry and always pay attention to how hard a waiter’s working, but the staff kept a discreet distance, maybe twenty feet away, pretending to be busying themselves with something but always glancing out of the corner of their eyes. It was a team effort, where they’d flick hand signals at each other to keep them apprised of us, and the waiters themselves were very skilled – we asked for a wine pairing, and our main waiter walked us through his thought process and then double-checked with the sommelier.
There is no service like this in Cleveland.
Which is not to say there could not be. If Michelin started ranking local restaurants, then the usual struggle for dominance would begin, and I’m pretty sure in three weeks we’d have all of Michael Symon’s restaurants ushering to us with this level of quality. But this sort of attentiveness has to be insanely expensive, and while it made for a lovely experience I’m not necessarily sure that I’d shell out for that staffing cost if I wasn’t trying to stand out in one of the most competitive markets in the world.
Then they brought the food. And the food was a revelation.
Now, we made a slight mistake in our restaurant choice if we were going to compare Cleveland to Michelin-starred restaurants, as Cleveland is not exactly a hotbed of authentic Italian cuisine. And in Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich discusses how he flew out to Italy through his whole childhood with his world-class chef of a mother, and was determined to bring the native dining of his land to America, not these bastard translations of cheese-stuffed ziti.
So we’d never had what you’d call good pasta.
We sure have now.
I had the pork shoulder agnolotti pasta, which looked delicious – until the guy poured the pork broth in from a little teapot, which was dark, reduced to a pure essence of pork flavor, and the whole thing became a work of art. The pasta was tissue-thin, parting easily under the teeth, with a little wad of soft meat on the inside, and if you got a little bit of that broth on it the whole thing blossomed with a delicious umami flavor that just kicked your fucking teeth in in the nicest of ways. This bowl was like a hug from a pig angel.
Gini had the prosciutto with a fig mostardi, and initially it looked like I’d won the appetizer course – as the prosciutto was tissue-thin and tasty, but still basically prosciutto. (We have some pretty good samples down at the West Side market.) But the fig mostardi was like a sweet, sumptuous candy, entwining with the thin meat to create a wonderful dance of savory and stickiness, and by that time that shimmered out of our mouths we weren’t sure who had won.
For primi, I had the gnocchi, which was, again, a revelation. I’d never had a gnocchi that wasn’t gluey on some level – and I’ve had a lot of gnocchi, since I like the idea of it – so I figured this was a feature of how gnocchi was, and had regretfully left it behind. But this gnocchi was velvety, literally melting at the touch of my saliva, touched with dabs of tomato sauce that, like the pork shoulder broth, had been reduced so that even a little toothpaste-sized dollop was as flavorful as a full bite.
The gnocchi was like the Transformers of meals, because at first I ate the bits with tomato, and that was great. Then I realized it had some mozzarella cheese on it, and that was great in a different way, all chewy and filled with a subtle cheese taste. And then I ate it with the basil leaves, and the crunchy leaves interacted with the tomato sauce in a really zippy fashion, and if there was a fourth way to eat it I didn’t discover it because GET IN MY BELLY.
I should note that I was also drinking three glasses of red wine along the way, which I never do because I don’t like wine all that much. White wine is just too light for me, lacking a boldness in taste, wherein red has that big bottomy taste that I love, but that taste I seek is inevitably accompanied by the big tannin suck that takes all the moisture from your mouth. But the waiter had selected a lovely little wine that skated right up to that tannin-suck and then dissolved into deliciousness and WAITER WAITER GET ME MORADIS DIS IS DELICIOUS.
Gini had the black squid-ink spaghetti with jalapeno and some sort of nuts, which taught us what “al dente” should taste like. (Hint: In about fifty combined years of cooking pasta, neither of us had quite managed to nail that landing.) I was not a fan, as I’m repulsed by the taste of peppers, but even I had to admit it was a subtle flavor, balanced pretty well by the nuttiness. The pasta was excellent, but it was dinged a little bit by the fact that the pepper flavor was unevenly distributed, meaning that some bites were very overwhelmingly peppery to me and later samples had almost nothing at all.
And I fucked up on the main course. I had the lamb chop and beef tongue with sweetbreads, and they were all very well done – but there’s not a lot you can do with a lamb chop or beef tongue, honestly. They were top-tier, and Mario Batali had tried his best by pouring balsamic glaze over it, but in the end, it was meat, done well, but not really displaying the strength of Italian cuisine.
Gini got the branzino, mainly because Joe discussed the branzino at length many times in Restaurant Man, talking about how it’s the kind of fish served overseas but that you never see here, and rhapsodizing about how great it is. And it was seared wonderfully, perfectly even – you can see that in the photo – and Gini loved it. For me, I’m no big fan of fish, and it was, uh, fish.
Maybe Gini will talk about it, if you ask her nicely.
For dessert, I fucked up in a really great way. See, my Uncle Tommy was the man who introduced me to fine cuisine, taking this scrubby little sixteen-year-old picky eater out to good restaurants and encouraging him to try new things. He inculcated a deep love of dining in me, and whenever we dined out, we finished up with a cup of amaretto coffee. And to this day, whenever possible, I finish up every meal with a cup of amaretto coffee and toast to my Uncle.
So when I saw they had a tasting flight of amaro, I said, “Oh! That’s gotta be Italian for amaretto! And it’s a tasting flight? Tommy would kill me if I didn’t try it.” So I ordered.
As it turns out, amaro is not Italian for amaretto.
It is, however, delicious.
Amaro is a syrupy herbal liqueur, and as it turns out I like it – or at least some of it. The first glass was a little like amaretto, a light caramel color with a thick mouthfeel and a sugary finish laced with just the right amount of herbaceousness. The second glass was more serious, and a shade or two darker than Coke, and was a really great blend of sweet and bitters.
The third glass was undrinkable to me, in the exact same way that the Velvet Tango Room‘s Negroni is undrinkable – it’s well-made, and perfect for what it is, but it’s all acrid bitter medicinal flavors that I can’t tolerate. Gini, however, sucks down Negronis like there’s no tomorrow, and I pushed it to her. She finished it off before I could blink, sighing happily.
The desserts were good. The bill was about $300, sans tip. We tipped well.
So in the end, we’re left wondering what a three-star restaurant looks like. We’ll find out, as our plan is to go to Alinea in Chicago in a few months, scrimping and saving for our next culinary journey. Alinea will be totally different, as it is molecular gastronomy – Google that if you’re not familiar, it’s really cool – and we’ve never eaten at a molecular gastronomy restaurant, let alone the best in the world.
And yes. I’ll write that up, too. Any questions?
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.