Cleveland? POSITIVELY!

“Cleveland? You’re what? You’re going to … Cleveland?”

Yes. Positively Cleveland.

I don’t know why the city gets such a bad rap. Maybe because Pittsburgh and Cleveland are such sports rivals.

But Cleveland wins in some other areas, that’s for sure.

Restaurants for one. I am of the opinion that there are more world-class restaurants in Cleveland than in Pittsburgh. By way of example: Pittsburgh does not have any restaurants owned by a Food Network Iron Chef. Iron Chef Michael Symon owns several eateries in Cleveland.

There is an incredible restaurant community in Cleveland made up of chefs who are very supportive of one another, noted Samantha Fryberger, director of communications for Positively Cleveland, the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland.

This trip to Cleveland was fueled by the desire to dine at Lola Bistro, one of Symon’s restaurants

After having opened a couple of successful restaurants in New York City, the Cleveland native decided to come home and spice up the dining scene.

Our meal at Lola is up there in our top five best places we’ve eaten, I believe. My only complaint was the lighting – it was a bit too dark at our table. But the food – incredible. And the bar scene was hopping. I saw Symon sitting at the bar during the afternoon the day before we dined there.

We started with beef cheek pierogi with wild mushrooms and horseradish creme fraiche. For my entree, I tried the duck breast with green beans, charred scallions, almonds and romesco sauce. It was probably the best duck I’ve ever had in my life at a restaurant. Our second entree was a lamb dish with lamb sausage, lamb sweetbreads and a lamb loin chop. For dessert, we had to try to the “6 a.m. Special,” french toast topped with maple-bacon ice cream and caramelized apple. The crispy, salty bacon was quite a nice foil for the creamy, cold ice cream. Amazing.

Other entree selections include: scallops with grapefruit, endive, fennel and crab; arctic char with celery root, fingerling potato, fried capers and prosciutto; and smoked Berkshire pork chop with chiles, cheesy polenta and barbecue onions.

Symon also owns Lolita, a Mediterranean-inspired eatery, which is located in Lola’s former space in the Tremont section of Cleveland.

Lola is located on East 4th Street, a pedestrian walkway lined with nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

We also had the pleasure of eating lunch at two recently honored restaurants.

The Greenhouse Tavern was included in Bon Appetite’s “Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America.”

A farm-to-table restaurant, practically everything in the place is recycled. A church pew for seating; bicycle spoke lights, cabinets … quite eclectic and fun to look around while waiting for your food.

Chef-owner Jonathon Sawyer worked in New York City then moved back to his hometown to open Symon’s Lolita, where he served as chef de cuisine.

Eventually, he became chef/partner in Bar Cento in Cleveland before opening the Greenhouse Tavern.

Sawyer collaborated with the Green Restaurant Association and became the first certified green restaurant in Ohio.

Some of the interesting items on the menu include French breakfast radishes with butter and salt. And the bread and butter? To die for … It doesn’t sound like much, but I could’ve made a meal of the “grilled bread, goat’s milk butter and sea salt.” I had a hard time deciding between the fois gras steamed clams and the house ground beef tartare frites. I went with the beef tartare. Quite good. And the frites? With raw garlic, rosemary and aioli. Cravable. Also, making the decision difficult: roasted Ohio spaghetti squash, grilled romaine lettuce, coq au vin, shellfish cassoulet and an Ohio beef burger.

Esquire Magazine’s latest batch of “Best New Restaurants 2009” includes L’Albatros Brasserie & Bar, a French restaurant in the University Circle neighborhood. A cute carriage house tucked away near the Cleveland college scene is home to L’Albatros. Dining takes place in a variety of rooms inside the cottage, from one with a large fireplace to a couple with lots of windows.

I had to try the onion soup gratinee – and I am glad that I did. Cheesy and rich with flavor, it ranks with the best. I also had roasted cod with toasted garlic spaetzle, sauerkraut, creme fraiche and cornichon mayonnaise. Delicious. Perfect. Every bite deserved an “ummmmmm.”

Other entrees: roasted trout with almond crust with tomato confit, haricots verts and truffle butter; grilled salmon with lentils and bearnaise sauce; mussels with pomme frites and spicy aioli; duck confit; hanger steak and frites; choucroute garni with sauerkraut, smoked pork chop, sausage and pork belly; braised leg of lamb with pasta risotto and rosemary jus; and veal short rib with wild mushroom risotto and veal jus.

Pizza, cheeses, salads and sandwiches are available on the lunch menu, as well as a variety of luncheon-sized entrees.

Besides the food scene, there is culture to keep visitors busy.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is another highlight of the city. “Its superb but concise collection of 40,000 objects representing many civilizations and media and spanning 5,000 years of world history, has been called an executive summary of the Metropolitan Museum,'” says the museum’s Web site.

Now through Jan. 18, visitors can tour the exhibit, “Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889.”

This exhibition – considered a “landmark exhibition” – gathers about 75 paintings, works on paper, woodcarvings and ceramics by Paul Gauguin and his contemporaries.

Co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, “‘Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889’ re-creates on a smaller scale the radical independent exhibition that Gauguin organized with his artistic disciples on the grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle-a display of about 100 paintings now recognized as the first Symbolist exhibition in Paris,” notes the museum’s Web site.

The special exhibit can be seen in a couple of hours, but you’ll need a day to experience the rest of the museum. And because there is so much to see, before you go, it is a good idea to check out the Web site for some guidance.

Just across the street from the art museum is the Cleveland Botanical Garden. A glasshouse as well as a number of outside gardens are available for touring.

Inside the Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse are the environs of Madagascar (the spiny desert) and Costa Rica (a butterfly-filled cloud forest).

I was especially intrigued by the introductory film, projected onto a turning screen shaped like a leaf. Projections come at the screen from many angles.

In addition to the photos on the leaf screen, the lighting on the surrounding dark walls changes tone and stencil-like designs float on them, explained Molly O’Brien Molpus, director of development communications at the Botanical Garden.

The outside gardens include a rose garden, a children’s garden, a lily pond, an herb garden, a Japanese garden, a topiary garden and several more.

The gift shop is quite expansive and offers jewelry, collectibles, calendars, books, clothing, toys and more – all in the garden vein.

The Garden Cafe offers indoor and outdoor seating.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is always a fun place to visit, no matter how many times I’ve been there. There is always some new exhibit to check out.

On this visit, there was a Bruce Springsteen exhibit, “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen.” Other special exhibits are “Live From Madison Square Garden: From the Lens of George Kalinsky” and “Woodstock: The 40th Anniversary.”