This review was published to USA Today.
The scene: A suddenly busy stretch of Detroit Avenue anchors Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, a recently gentrifying hipster part of town on the city’s west side along Lake Erie, home to funky boutiques and creative new restaurants. One of the most interesting – and schizophrenic – of these is Banter, which celebrates and showcases its split personality. The entire concept revolves around not one but two hipster-focused cuisines, gourmet poutines and artisanal sausages, both backed, of course, with a deep selection of craft beer.
Occupying a brick corner building, Banter is narrow and runs front to back with a couple of seats in the front by the windows, tables down the right side, and the bar/counter with a dozen stools where you order. There is a lot of white tile, and tables are all white with black stools. You order and pay at the register, and they call your name when ready, dispensing the food on metal trays. Banter is much larger than it seems, and actually occupies three adjacent storefronts, though it’s hard to tell from the outside, while all are connected within. This includes a beer and wine retail store under the same ownership, with a staggering array of 450 different beers and ciders focused on craft, from all over the country. You can buy to go or to drink in the restaurant, but if you forgo the retail side altogether, there are 10 beers and ciders on tap at the food counter.
Reason to visit: Fried chicken sausage, rabbit pot pie poutine, all other poutines, fried cheese curds, craft beer
The food: “We’re a very unique restaurant, featuring two cuisines: locally sourced sausage sandwiches and poutine,” explained one of the owners, Michael Stipe (not the REM front man). The sausages are custom-made for them to their recipes by local butchers using naturally raised, ethically sourced meat. The signature is the kielbasa, or Polish sausage, because it is a local icon as Stipe explained: “It’s one of the two or three dishes Cleveland is really known for, but its hasn’t gotten the kind of recognition other comfort foods have, so we’ve elevated it.” The bestseller is the Polish Boy, topped with barbecue sauce and cole slaw and served with fries. All the portions here are very generous, and while ostensibly sandwiches, the sausages are more fork-and-knife affairs. The kielbasa is excellent, with a crisp snappy exterior, strong flavor and just spicy enough to add a little interesting zing. The same sausage is offered in the Cleveland, oddly topped with pierogi (potato dumplings), sauerkraut and Bertman Stadium mustard, perhaps the city’s most iconic signature foodstuff, served on hot dogs at Indians games.
Banter also does a gourmet take on the all-beef hot dog, grilled normally or offered as an encrusted state fair-style corn dog, while other sausage options include a German-style currywurst, and a chichi porcini mushroom sausage. But my favorite and the coolest one the menu is the “Fried Chicken,” a chunky white meat chicken sausage that is cooked sous vide to make it tender and moist, then double dipped and deep fried for a crunchy, hearty breading, just like its namesake dish. This crunchy fried chicken sausage is then topped with braised Southern collard greens, sweet corn mustard and hot sauce, and the result is a crunchy texture and flavor explosion.
But while the sausages are tasty and fun, it is the crazy poutines that are the main event. The owners started to notice the beloved Canadian dish, essentially a nacho-style casserole of French fries smothered in brown gravy and melted cheese curds, sometimes with extra toppings, popping up as a special on more U.S. restaurant menus. But there was no place in the city to get it regularly, so they seized the idea. For research they took a few week-long road trip across Canada, eating poutine at more than 25 different places, and quickly determined that the most important element was the quality and texture of the cheese curd. Residents of Quebec, where the dish is most believed, believe the curds need to be fresh and “squeaky.”
After much trial and error, they found a cheesemaker in upstate New York who met the standard and now supplies all their curds, but from there, imagination runs wild. I tried the “rabbit pot pie” poutine because how could I skip a dish I’ve never seen anyplace else? It was fantastic, and really looks like the inside of a pot pie, lighter gravy studded with fresh crunchy peas and cut chunks of carrot and onion, while the braised rabbit is tender, juicy and wonderful. But like all the poutine offerings here, what really makes them shine is the basics: the cheese curds and the fries, often the weak link that turns many a poutine into a soggy carb-laden mess. Here they're thick cut, but for their size the exteriors are unusually crunchy, and they hold up very well to the onslaught of gravy and toppings.
There are a dozen options on the poutine side of the menu, ranging from standard “Banter poutine” (cheese and gravy over fries) to chicken paprikash, a Hungarian take on the genre, which celebrates Cleveland’s Eastern European roots and uses the chef’s grandmother’s chicken recipe, plus spaetzle (pasta dumplings) and crème fraiche. Other options include a poutine topped with seared foie gras and apple gastrique, and the one with the coolest name, the Vladimir Poutine, which as Stipe said, “we came up with the name before the recipe.” Russian meddling in the nation’s heartland takes the form of Ohio-raised lamb stroganoff, mushrooms and borscht gravy. There’s one topped with braised heritage breed Berkshire pork shoulder, another with butter poached wild mushrooms, almonds and scallions, and a breakfast take with fried pork pate and sunny side up eggs. The most comforting of these comfort foods is the “Banter Disco,” covered in sloppy joe, tomato, onion, cheddar and yellow mustard, like childhood re-imagined with top-shelf ingredients.
The poutine servings are even more generous than the oversized sausage sandwiches, and two people sharing a sausage and a poutine will almost certainly be leaving with leftovers while shaking their heads at the very reasonable prices. I loved the rabbit pot pie, and it is one of the more memorable dishes I had all year, but all the poutines are can’t-miss, and the custom sausages paired with perfect buns are strong options too. There’s not much else to Banter, unless you count the hundreds of adult beverage options, two seemingly out-of-place side salads (shaved Brussels sprouts or broccoli), an equally out-of-place gourmet cheese board, and the one constant of the Midwestern comfort food scene, breaded and fried cheese curds as an app, done very well here, with a quick dip in malt liquor before frying and served with a homemade marinara dipping sauce.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes for poutine lovers, this may be the nation’s best slate, and ditto for craft beer fans.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 7320 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland; 216-801-0305; bantercleveland.com