Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Cleveland Ethnic Eats

While I didn't originally set up this blog with the intent of doing book reviews (or actually, to be fair, restaurant reviews), since December 2008 I have sort of let the blog grow organically in order to see where it would lead me. Besides the obvious restaurants write-ups that I've done, I've also done two recipe posts, a write-up of my friend Nancy's awesome Seder meal this year for Passover, and a smidgen of commentaries. So, why not include a book review in there as well?

I was contacted several weeks ago by Cleveland author Laura Taxel. Her publishing company had set up a website to coincide with the latest edition (8th) of her book, Cleveland Ethnic Eats. Laura had come across my blog and read several of my posts on various ethnic restaurants that I had gone to and posted about. Considering that ethnic restaurants are her forte, she wrote and asked if we could link to each other's blogs. Now, whenever I get unsolicited email from anyone, the first thing I do is to spend a little time vetting their credentials. After several Google and Amazon searches, it became clear that she was the real deal and not someone I should dismiss right away. Even before I received a copy of her book, it was clear that Laura's writing style was friendly, approachable, and designed to get more people into our locally owned ethnic restaurants. This is completely in-line with my own personal goals.

She also mentioned in her e-mail that she would be happy to arrange for her publisher to send me a copy if I wanted to mention it in one of my blogs. So, full disclosure being what it is, I contacted her publisher and they sent me a copy free of charge. Feel free to take my review with a grain of salt if that bothers you. I was never asked to do a review, much less a favorable one. I am also not a professional book reviewer, so I am looking at this book purely from my own perception of what makes a good book.

First and foremost, Laura takes several pages to explain the methodology she uses in her book: how the restaurants were chosen for inclusion, a description of the terminology she uses within her reviews, and how to use the book most effectively. I found the following point from her Introduction completely appropriate when describing her writing angle:

"I didn't pass judgments on the restaurants I've included, or rate them with stars. That's for you to do, though I have to admit that many times I decided that there really was no reason for me to ever cook again. I wanted to offer information, not evaluations, and encourage readers to investigate and experiment."

And based on the number of restaurant write-ups I've perused in her book, this is exactly what she does. Every now and again a write-up will contain a little bit of commentary along with the rest of the information, but it's never mean-spirited or meant to keep you from trying out the establishment. Laura's write-ups are meant to give you a general feeling for the restaurant as a whole. In contrast, my blog posts are meant to tell the story of my experience at a restaurant, good or bad.

The book is cleverly organized first by cuisine geography and then divided into restaurants and markets. Examples of geography include Pacific Rim; Middle East, Africa, India, and Turkey; Mediterranean; Europe East of the Danube; Europe West of the Danube; Latin America; American Regional; and International. Within each restaurant and market category, they are further subdivided into specific cuisines such as Greek, Italian, Spanish, British, Slovenain, etc. This makes it very easy to locate a specific restaurant or market if you know what type of cuisine you are after.

But sometimes you don't know what kind of cuisine you are after. Sometimes you are out in a particular part of town and want to know what is available. Maybe you want to try a new restaurant. Laura has you covered. As one of the many indexes in the back of the book, she has a listing of restaurants in various Cleveland, Akron, and Canton suburbs. Each listing then has a page number associated with it so you can quickly flip to the write-up for more information.

Not enough cross-referencing for you? She also lists the write-ups by Country, Region, or Ethnicity; Ideas; and Street Eats. The Idea index suggests write-ups by such categories as Around Midnight, Cheap Eats, and Great Choice for Vegetarians. The Street Eats index is designed to showcase groups of restaurants and markets that are geographically close to each other, such as on the same street. Plus, there is always the plain old Alphabetical index if you already know the name of the restaurant or market.

This is clearly a book that will be constantly living in my glove box (and it's about the right size for a glove box, too). What would be incredibly helpful is if all of this wonderful information could be put online so that it was accessible by the many mobile devices that seem to dominate our lives. Clearly the publisher would have to ensure that people using the online service had either purchased an actual copy of the book or perhaps just purchased a license to use the site. But this is a desire that I have of many of my culinary reference books, about which I consider Cleveland Ethnic Eats to be just as important as any book on cooking technique.

With 356 entries, you could try a new place almost every day of the year without repeating. If you are looking to truly discover what the Northeast Ohio area has to offer in terms of locally owned, authentic ethnic cuisine, recipes that have been handed from generation to generation, I would suggest you find yourself a copy of Cleveland Ethnic Eats by Laura Taxel. And, oh yeah, check out her blog, too. I know that I do on a regular basis.

(Image courtesy of Gray & Company, all rights reserved.)

Cleveland Ethnic Eats, 8th Edition
Written by Laura Taxel
Published by Gray & Company
ISBN: 978-1-59851-053-9
List price is US $14.95.

From the letter that was included with the book, Cleveland Ethnic Eats is available at Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Amazon.com. You can also contact Gray & Company at 800-915-3609 or online at their website if you want more information.


Nancy Heller said...

Tom - had you never seen the previous incarnations of this book? When I first moved to Cleveland in 1995, the first editition was my pre-internet "go to" source of ethnic eats info.

Tino said...

Nancy -- I can't believe it either. I had never actually heard of this book before Laura contacted me. I can see why the book was so valuable to you back in the mid-90's.

And even with all the mobile devices that can connect to the Internet today, sometimes it is just nice to sit down with a good book to page through.