Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Where did you go Cleveland?

Its hard to pin point the soul of Cleveland. After passing the fourth closed gourmet coffee shop, the nth abandoned shell of a business, you can't help but feel a sort of sadness for the place. The buildings are majestic yes, most of them with the old grandeur of Victorian architecture or the flair of art deco, and the centre is littered with financial buildings, becolomned, many in the Roccoco style. They stand like abandoned dinosaurs haunting the quasi empty streets. You come across office workers here and there (so there are some people who still work here then) most of them can be spied at Phoenix coffee roasters on East 9th street. Amongst the office blocks and arcades that hark back to a time when the main drag, Euclid Avenue, was the place to see and be seen, there lies a coffee lover's paradise. The smell hits you as you walk in as do the mis matched chairs and upholstered retro sofas (fingers up to chain's souless homogenised version). At the end of the cafe, past the glass coffee beaned canisters that line the fantastically clashing dressers there are helpful staff who, most importantly, share a passion for coffee. The lady that served me was knowledgeable and helpful, reeling off suggestions of beans like an experienced waiter sells you the special in upmarket restaurants, and without blinking an eye, apparently seems to know the best wine to match it. Fancy that. So after some indecision between a Costa Rican and an Ethiopian I settled on a full bodied Colombian which was manna in a cup. A real cup. Coffee should never be to go. Or in polystyrene or paper. Coffee means a moment of calm. Contemplation. Pleasure. Warming. SLOW. Not steaming down the road to get to work, from work. Spare a moment of compassion for those poor little drops of loveliness being schlepped about a paper cup after having been carefully grown and nurtured by farmers (fairly paid we hope) under a burning sun. I mean really. So, as you can see, I am happy to have found my coffee pot for this city, but the sparseness all around it is seriously depressing. Even about the university campus, a stones throw from the theatre the little ma and pa places are all boarded up. But its not just the little places that are suffering bowing under the offence from chains, Starbucks too, looks tired. The lighting, the plaster, the overall cleanliness was not what I would call tip top. I almost feel a twinge of compassion but not quite. Round the corner back at the place where real coffee is made, the Phoenix (how aptly named, rising out of the ashes of a Cleveland bereft of a classy cup o' java) provided the perfect close to a lovely morning with the grandfolks, spent strolling downtown to The Arcade, an impressive bit of highly ornate Victorian mall based on a similar one in Milan. Three tiered and glass domed it is all light and splendour and you can almost hear the shoppers in the city's height bustling about the stores, today still framed with intricate brass. On the high steel beams gargoyles grin down at you like they know all your darkest secrets. There are people, yes, but it still feel like its soul has been kidnapped. The Hyatt hotel has taken over the upper levels, with their rooms backing onto the balconies that circumnavigate the entire building. The revenue from which I am sure keeps the building going. The handful of shops and small food stops certainly don't appear to be bringing in the coffers. We saw one owner lock up their shop during the height of the lunch hour, and noticed the coffee bar abandoned also. The federal coin shop seemed to be doing ok though, and of course the post office upstairs but it felt like a museum piece with a few dodgy exhibits here and there. The empty windows dressed in strange fabrics in an attempt to divert your attention from the fact that there was nothing in them. A world away from it's day. Same goes for the Euclid Arcade, where we counted only one "store" and that was the (closed) Museum of Baseball history next door to the boarded up luncheon stop and opposite the Kabob (American-Lebanese for Kebab I'm guessing) shop. Strange to see a doner, or Shosh as its called here, twirling about within a marbled 1920s strip. We had the opportunity to explore the place a bit more thanks to the arrival of the automobile, ensconced within which we could get a better flavour of the city without changing busses five times or pounding the pavements. To our tourist eyes it seems like there are pockets of immense prosperity, the Cleveland Clinic for example is one of the best hospitals in the country, Cleveland State University buildings sprawl downtown all glass and contemporary architecture and the Museum of Art is a beauty with some impressive exhibitions and framed on the local street by sprawling Victorian mansions. Turn the corner though and you will drive past dilapidated warehouses, the kind that London Bridger's pay an arm and a leg for and which here too, are slowly being brought up to spec once again in an attempt to lure in the crowds. At the end of one strip a little ray of hope, in the shape of the Art's Centre (gallery, cafe) on the ground floor of one such warehouse, illuminated where some inspired Clevelanders hope their city is headed. I would hazard a guess that if I were to return in 5 - 10 years time I might be pleased to see a bustling artistic community that at the moment seems to be somewhat on the fringes of this place rather than at its core pumping creative life force through a Cleveland humming with suppressed magnificence. I know my in laws were astounded at the beauty and overall cleanliness of the place though we all agreed the atmosphere is like the tail end of a party where all the cool folk have left to go on to the even cooler after-party party. One place for which this is not true is the West Side Market which we hit with glee again today, and made sure not to repeat our mistake of fuelling up off the premises before hand. No fast mexican food for us today. Oh no. We lined our gullets with bona fide breakfasts a la americana in that chrome joint we missed last time. Actually when you sit in there you feel like you are in the shell of the abattoir what with the floor to ceiling white tiles and all but the food we scoffed was lush. I had Market hash - poached eggs with potatoes, peppers and onions, Andouille sausage (a cross between sausage and peperoni) drizzled with a Creole mustard. Pure salty spicy gorgeousness. The family had an array of egg pancake sausage combos (real buttermilk-maple-drizzled sort) and my husband inhaled his yearly dose of cholesterol with a 2 egg topped steak swimming in hollandaise. It was worth it though. So too, was the cup cake we all had a bite of after from Grandma Freda's. We found the will power from somewhere to save another one for home (double chocolate. Double MINE) and a pumpkin one for the folk's journey home. Sausages were bought once again (perhaps I won't cook them to a crisp this time) and so too were a boot load of fresh veggies, a bucket of houmous form Judy's Oasis (ahh yes, that common middle eastern name) and Sardinian Gnocchi from the Medittarranean shop. What a cave of delicacies was this! The small corner plot was stuffed with an international smorgasbord of gourmet ingredients. Dried Chamomile flowers, amarinth, chick pea flour, whole spelt, 5 different types of anchovies, an assortment of Dutch licorice, slabs of unsweetend chocolate, coffee beans, 10 different brands of balsamic vinagar, dried procini, truffle oils and so it went on. I could have smelt it for an hour or more. It took me straight back to the health food shop my mum and I would go into as a child. The closest I get to a fix these days is a quick whiff of Neals Yard Remedies in Covent Garden. This place had that wonderful fragrant mix of herby dried things with tangy garlicky cheesy things. It is a heady mix and a joy for someone who loves to cook. Recipes and ideas came flooding in like a manic stream of consciousness. Thank goodness Sam was beginning to show signs of needing to exit otherwise I would be typing now as someone close to bankruptcy. Either that or tired arms. I did manage to bag those Sardinian gnocchi though. Not the dough potatoey ones the Romans are infamous for. No, I mean the dried type. Look a bit like the shells of woodlice when the body has rotten away. Whip up a good marinara and you have time travelled to my grandmother's kitchen table ablaze with loud family dinners under the dim light of the bare bulb casting all our shadows across the vast marble work top. My cousin and I commanding joint head of the table and singing out for "Aqua e Vino per piacere" in unison, our heads just about reaching over the flowery tablecloth. Summer nights in Sardinia. Aglow with nostalgia. Nauseous perhaps to read but unadulterated pleasure to write. Now we have new guests coming to stay (brother and sister in law) I will be able to do a turn or two by the stove and rustle up some more of my good ole day's favourites. A good ole fashioned roast perhaps? Minestrone's already covered (bimbo did a fabulous job, also involved some Amish bacon - all these clogged animals around here!!!) fridge is loaded with all things fresh and green and there is a spring in my cook persona's step. Outside may be hushed by economic uncertainty but inside our little camp and after a trip to Cleveland's hub of deliciousness the home fires are most definately burning.

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