Put a bunch of foodies together in a small room and ask them to name their favorite nosh. Then watch the collective sweat break out – it’s like asking a mother to point out her favorite kid; the stakes are just too high.
That’s where our group of about 30 found ourselves recently as we gathered at Sarava on Shaker Square to begin our NEO Food Tour of the neighborhood.
As we sipped our caipirinhas, we contemplated the icebreaker question. Some just shook their heads, unable to commit, but others responded by naming cheese, steak tartar, chocolate or French fries. NEO Food Tours president Todd Gauman topped them all with his choice of Canadian fries doused with gravy and cheese (accompanied by a bypass team at the ready).
Gauman, our host for the evening, founded NEO Food Tours in 2010 with friend Pat Johnson. A native Clevelander, he had just returned from a seven-year stint in the Tampa area and was struck by the restaurant community in Cleveland – unique, he believes, in both quality and degree of cooperation among the many talented chef/owners in our city.
NEO Food Tours takes groups of enthusiastic diners on tours of neighborhoods like Shaker Square or Tremont, making four to six stops at restaurants or other culinary attractions for a bite to eat and a sip of something to drink.
Those bites and sips really add up, as I found out.
At Sarava, Sergio Abramhof’s sister restaurant to Sergio’s in University Circle, we passed around platters of Brazilian “street plates” including lightly sweet tamale cakes and crispy, savory artichoke fritters. We munched as we watched a demonstration of how to make a caipirinha, the national drink of Brazil that’s a combination of cachaca, limes and brown sugar.
Then came the main attraction, Shrimp Corness, an off-the-menu treat showcasing Gulf shrimp specially caught and supplied to the restaurant by a former Clevelander with his own shrimp boat. It came nestled on a bed of local sweet corn and chive butter.
Next stop was halfway around the world in culinary terms: SASAmatsu, a Japanese Izakaya restaurant with Scott Kim at the helm. (Izakaya is roughly the Japanese equivalent of tapas.)
The ladies at my table oohed and ahhed over their flute glasses of Hana-awaka (“Sparkling Flower”), a slightly sweet, sparkling sake, as we waited for Lamb Mini Burgers on homemade sesame buns accompanied by fries with little strips of nori and kimchi slaw.
Not being a meat eater, I was accommodated with my best taste of the night: a perfect little veggie burger slider zipped up with fresh ginger and scallions. With our food we sipped tiny cups of Nigori, an unfiltered, milky-textured sake.