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TESS VIGELAND: One of my New Year's resolutions really should be to not spend so much money eating out. Don't get me wrong, I love cooking, too. But when you hit the sweet spot of fine dining, there's nothing like it. One of the best meals I had all year last year was a dish of the freshest sea scallops you could imagine -- lightly seared, sprinkled with pistachios and immersed in -- of all things -- a watermelon broth. It totally worked. And it came to me via a restaurant called Lola in of all places Cleveland.
And as Dan Bobkoff reports from station WCPN, high-end restaurants are one bright spot in an otherwise dull local economy.
Dan Bobkoff: I didn't expect much from Cleveland's restaurants when I moved here three years ago. I had an east coast snob's opinion of Midwestern cooking.
Boy, was I wrong.
Bobkoff: So what are you thinking of ordering?
Michael Ruhlman: I could order anything on this menu and be happy.
I'm at lunch with food writer -- and Cleveland food booster -- Michael Ruhlman. We're sitting in a new restaurant called L'Albatros. It's an old carriage house, with bold artwork on the brick walls. Our waiter comes over to help us decipher the appetizer.
Waiter: It's a braised tongue and oxtail terrine, with pickled mustard seeds. Next to it is kind of a roulade of sorts, pork with dried figs.
I think there was some rabbit in there too. Foodies, take note. Here in the Rust Belt, you can now get a world class meal for about what you'd pay at an Olive Garden.
Ruhlman: Can you believe that? Duck confit, pork belly, two different kinds of sausages and some great white beans, for 14 bucks? You cannot beat that!
This restaurant opened up just last year at the height of the financial crisis. Yet, owner and chef Zack Bruell says L'Albatros is thriving. Cleveland's low cost of living means those with jobs can generally afford some nice meals. And, he says, there's a demand now for interesting food.
Zack Bruell: The sophistication level has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. I would never have thought of doing this concept 25 years ago.
In the next few weeks, Bruell will open his fourth new restaurant in five years. And, he has competition like never before.
From chefs like Dante Boccuzzi, who's putting the finishing touches on two new restaurants in Cleveland's up-and-coming Tremont neighborhood. It's gentrification, just blocks from once-bustling steel mills.
Dante Boccuzzi: Soft benches, some nice coffee tables...
Boccuzzi made his name in big cities like New York, where the pace is fast and failure is common. Cleveland's cheap rent and lower start-up costs make opening here a less risky bet.
Boccuzzi: Everything about it is a lot less. And I think that was one of the main draws that brought me back to Cleveland. Just the whole market itself. There's a lot of great restaurants, but it's not like there's 3,000 of them like New York City.
But 20 years ago, chefs like Boccuzzi likely wouldn't have had much luck in smaller cities. What changed? Americans got a lot more food savvy. They started to ask what's in their meals and where the ingredients came from. "Organic" and "local food" entered the lexicon. Enrollment went way up at U.S. culinary schools. And, let's not forget the rise of the Food Network.
Chairman Mark Dacascos of "Iron Chef": The next Iron Chef is... Chef Symon!
Michael Symon, Cleveland's hottest chef, put his city on the culinary map when he won the Food Network's Iron Chef competition two years ago.
Andrew Knowlton: He was definitely, he's become the poster child for Cleveland, and every city needs a poster child.
Andrew Knowlton is the restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine. He and Cleveland food writer Michael Ruhlman were both judges on that show. Knowlton says the burgeoning foodie scene in Cleveland is a microcosm for what's happening nationwide, and that the availability of great ingredients from local farms gives the Midwest an edge.
Knowlton: The food revolution is going to happen in the flyover states. It's not about New York and San Francisco.
Then, maybe I'm not a snob. Good food is now mainstream.
So, in Cleveland, where the food's great, I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace Money.