I, too, used to be afraid of brussel sprouts, having cried at the tender age of 12 when my parents forced me to eat them at the kitchen table. Just like the rest of the 80's that included Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign/Minor Threat's "straight-edge" and Tipper Gore's "Parent's Resource Music Center," I was scarred further into complacency. While I discovered the pleasures of micro-brews in the early 90's with the likes of Jason Brady and Jeremy Sanford over Edmund Fitzgeralds, and I always had a love affair with fairly insane-o music, this wound carried another two decades into my life.
I'm not really sure how I fell so hard so fast. All I can tell you is where I'm at now, and it ain't pretty. There's the at-home weekly roasting or pan-searing/pan-frying. I'm on the Web, looking at menus to feed my fix. Web page, per Web page, I keep asking, "do they have sprouts, do they have sprouts?" I peruse the starters, the apps, the sides. "Might they be hidden amongst an entree," I wonder while salivating? I've even gone so far as to use social media sites like Facebook to find my next hookup. My farm planning hasn't escaped this scourge either, and I'm ashamed to admit that in 2011 I will be growing brussel sprouts on Old Husher's Farm. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that brussel sprouts have now impacted all aspects of my life.
It is with this mindset, I present you, "Brussel Sprouts Battle Royale," a no-holds barred match between Cleveland's brussel sprouts dealers. I may lose some present/future customers because of this blog. I may also throw out some zingers that I later regret because of said loss, but I go forward with a clear and unbiased conscious. Disclosures will be appropriate.
After a month in the field, patterns emerged. The police will be glad to know that the epidemic is currently contained within Cleveland's Westside. After many attempts to find the most elusive of brussel sprouts on the Eastside, I have determined, that like the rest of us in Cleveland, the brussel sprouts have not made it over the formidable border known as the Cuyahoga River. The going rate on a plate of sprouts seems standardized, consistently ranging from $4-$6. Furthermore, the preparations often took on a similar theme: pork and/or fried in lard, a tanginess, and a crunch.
1st Place: Bar Cento on W 25th
Disclosure: I have sold mizuna and baby bok choys to chef, Mike Nowak of Bar Cento, recipient of 1st place standings in the first ever Brussel Sprouts Battle Royale.
Now, what makes Bar Cento's sprouts so good? To start, the sprouts are deep-fried in a combo of lard/duck fat to the point of slight searing crispness on the outer edge leaves. This single detail is what separated Bar Cento from the rest. The sprouts were then tossed with candied bacon/pancetta and a mustard/cider vinegar reduction. Salty, roasty, firm and crisp, these brussel sprouts rule. Priced at $5, the portion size was average. On the evening of this tasting, the brussel sprouts were paired with Bar Cento's french fries, which I, for the record, think are the best in town.
2nd Place: Tie between Tremont's Fat Cats and Lorain Avenue General Store
Disclaimer: Though I have given samples to Fat Cats kitchen, I have never sold to any Ricardo Sandoval establishment or even heard back from them.
Coming in at a whopping $6, Fat Cats topped the scale within the limited pricing category. Parma prosciutto filled the pork and salt void, which was complimented with chicken broth and sherry. The whole plate came together with some gorgonzola that just perfectly, funk-ily rounded out all the edges. From what I can tell from 4-7 pm, Monday through Friday, Fat Cats has the best food values in town with their food and beverage happy hour.
Disclaimer: The Lorain Avenue General Store folks are my friends, and these brussel sprouts were formally served at their house and not in a restaurant.
This is a time where my memory is a little foggy, where you might be able to say the brussel sprouts are really having a impact on my short-term memory. I remember the sprouts were served family-style to a table of ten diners. I remember that I didn't want to embarrass myself and wanted to look like a moderate brussel sprout eater. But when that Pete guy helped himself to the last sprout, I could hardly control my rage. Thankfully, there was a molten lava cake on hand to subdue my anger. Again, the details are foggy. Pan-seared in bacon fat and then roasted in the oven with garlic, and then all mixed with Aaron's wild-style dressing that was like Sri Racha, soy, honey, maple syrup, and a slew of other things...I think. This was the most complicated preparation of the Battle Royale.
3rd Place: Melt Bar and Grilled in beautiful downtown Lakewood
Disclosure: Matt Fish and I have exchanged exactly one back and forth email about me potentially selling sprouts to Melt this fall.
Even though Melt's brussel sprouts came in third place overall standings, there's enough uniquenesses here that they could be arguably the best sprouts in Cleveland, especially to the Cleveland Jewish/Muslim/vegan/vegetarian communities. That is to say, Melt's sprouts were the only sprouts out of seven preparations that did not contain the swine. Considering all the "game" most of the other restaurants have in the Battle Royale, I find this pork-based standardization bewildering.
Now look at that jumbo plate of brussel sprouts! Just like most things Melt, the portion size was huge. It could feed an army of vegans. Three of us got kind of full before our sandwiches even got there, and then we still had leftover sprouts, as well as, the extra half a sandwich. The glaze was peach chipolte and every once in a while had a slow subtle burn. Amazingly priced at $5.50.
4th place: Lolita's in Tremont
Disclaimer: None needed.
Coming into the Battle Royale, Lolita's was a strong favorite to win, being owned by Michael Symon and also being the birthplace of this extreme love affair about a year and a half ago. I considered it a homecoming. My hands got sweaty just entering the restaurant.
While the sprouts were still really good, they weren't great. Lolita's also fries in lard, and I think they simply forget to drain the sprouts. Between the little layers of leafy cabbage folds, it felt like corpuscles of lard popped out at every bite...and not in a good way. Once, I got over this unpleasantry and laid-back a little bit, I still enjoyed the sprouts (tossed in white anchovy, capers, and walnuts) enough to finish the bowl. $5.
That however can not be said for Michael Symon's world famous burger that night. I ordered medium rare. The aforementioned, Aaron, ordered his rare. Neither of our burgers came out with any redness. For that matter, neither of our burgers came out with any pinkness. Like, for real, what's up with that?
5th Place: Stone Mad Pub in Gordon Square
Disclaimer: None needed exactly (please see below).
But to be fair to Stone Mad Pub, I am not so sure if they are deserving of such low rankings in the Battle Royale. Basically, I went to Stone Mad after I had already eaten dinner for a Gordon Square Farmer's Market Meeting. Though I had expected to have a beer, I didn't expect to randomly find brussel sprouts on the menu. Even though I was full, I couldn't deny what may have been the from-out-of-nowhere x-factor. The sprouts were completely palatable with bacon, sauteed onions, and strong cider vinegar. I just had a hard time enjoying them because of fullness. When the weather warms up, I can't wait to hang out on the beautiful Stone Mad patio and try the sprouts again. If it's any consolation, my friend's teenager who doesn't like sprouts, liked these sprouts. That's actually a pretty big consolation. Low price of $4.
6th Place: Deagan's, also in beautiful downtown Lakewood
Disclaimer: Deagan's is the new "Gastro Pub" in town that I'd like to sell to in the future due to proximity to my home/distribution center. However, I am giving them last place, and I'm gonna gripe a little bit cause I keep it real.
I've had these brussel sprouts twice now, and both times they have failed to impress. As a matter of personal preference, I'm just not a fan of jumbo sprouts like the ones pictured below. The pairing with salted pork belly sounds good on paper, but the salt just doesn't impart the same uniform flavor in the way bacon does. Furthermore, the ample chunks of pork belly with their chewy, fatty, gristly-ness could be off-putting to some. As for the service, it's full of teenage-girls, who describe $6 pints as, "light," or "dark," which is very, very annoying. In Deagan's defense, the rest of our dinner was good. Also, $5. Thanks to Aaron Pearl, who accompanied me and professionally photographed (meaning he had a smart phone with flash, whereas, I just had a phone) three of the seven outings. I believe he used the three outings as surveillance so that he could help achieve a 2nd Place standing for Lorain Avenue General Store. The world of brussel sprouts is seedy, indeed.