Chef Michael Symon tells us where to get the best corned beef hash, pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and brats in Cleveland.
Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner Michael Symon is often credited with putting Cleveland on the country’s dining map with restaurants Lola, Lolita, and the B Spot. Symon’s latest ventures are Mabel’s BBQ—named for his first dog—and Symon’s Burger Joint, which opened last fall in the buzzy food town of Austin, his first foray outside of the Midwest. Read on for the chef's secret-weapon spice, his favorite spots in Cleveland, and more.
Favorite ingredient to cook with and why:
I rely heavily on lemon. I cook with a lot of meat, which is typically on the slightly rich and fatty side, so I love finishing things with stuff that’s a little acidic. If I roast a chicken, I almost always finish with a little lemon zest, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh herbs. I also use lemon on lighter dishes. Shaved, raw root veggies like beets, carrots, and parsnip tossed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice are spectacular.
One rule you learned in cooking school that every home cook should know:
Don’t be afraid of salt.
One rule you learned in cooking school that every home cook should ignore:
Strive for perfection, but settle for imperfection. I think home cooks put too much pressure on themselves. They watch a show or look at a recipe and they want it to 100% match. I don’t think that’s realistic.
Kitchen tool you can't live without:
When I set up my station, I always have three things: a microplane, my chef's knife, and a plastic bench scraper to move things from one side to the other. If I have those three things next to me, I’m good. The microplane is a very universal tool for me. I use it with citrus like lemon, orange, and lime. I grate nutmeg and Parmigiano-Reggiano on it.
Secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique:
Coriander seed is an incredibly underused spice that adds a lot of backbone to food. I use that a lot. And I sneak anchovies into dishes. When I braise a short rib, I toast coriander and cinnamon stick while I’m rendering the fat out of the ribs, then throw in anchovies and let them melt in the sauce to give it the umami backbone that people don’t even realize is there.
Favorite dish to cook at home:
My go-to quick, easy recipe is pasta pomodoro. I use tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, sliced garlic, chili flakes, fresh basil, and Parmesan. I can have it on the table in eight minutes—and that counts cooking the pasta.
Perfect day of eating in your city:
For breakfast, I don’t mind a good old-fashioned greasy spoon like Big Al’s Diner right outside of Cleveland Heights. I would get corned beef hash, eggs over easy, rye toast, and coffee. If I’m going heavy for dinner, lunch would be the delicious basic soup at Superior Pho. If I’m having a light dinner, I would go to Sokolowski’s and get pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and kielbasa, and wash it down with a Great Lakes beer. But my most frequent lunch in Cleveland is a bratwurst with brown mustard and sauerkraut at West Side Market—perfect. For dinner, assuming I’m not at one of my restaurants, I’d go to Greenhouse Tavern and just let Johnny [Sawyer] cook. He used to work for me. I’d have roasted pig head or something of that nature, fatty and substantial. My wife is vegetarian, and if she’s with me, we’d go to Flying Fig because Karen [Small] is great with vegetables. I like a good Manhattan, and Velvet Tango Room makes it best. They make their own bitters, and with a little Knob Creek rye, I’d be a happy clam.