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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mentor Chamber's 'showcase' proves again to be a truly tasty affair

As I’m writing this, I’m still full.

And it’s almost 24 hours after I wandered around Mentor Civic Arena sampling food at the Mentor Restaurant Showcase.

I still can’t even think about eating.

Well, unless someone mentions Jimmy’s Backyard BBQ. Or Skye Restaurant and Pub. Or Beach Club Grill.

Or, well, any of the 17 other eateries that showed off their flavors at the second annual event sponsored by the Mentor Chamber of Commerce.

I’d promised myself I’d be good — that I’d remember an old diet mantra that says when you’re tempted with a lot of food in one sitting, say, at a party, you should only take the things you don’t have available every day.

That was a lost cause when I dipped into Great Harvest Bread Company’s platter of cold-cut-type sandwiches. I opted for the roast beef. I figured its blue cheese made it a little more exotic.

Whatever you call it, it was terrific.

And so it began.

I tried to trick Old Carolina Barbecue Co. into revealing the location of their future Mentor restaurant. They were too smart for me, because all they’d divulge is that it’s on Mentor Avenue.

“Can you say if it’s east or west on Mentor Avenue?”


OK. Start speculating. I certainly did, as I settled on the fact that my first meal at (insert your guess here) Mentor Ave. will be topped with the peppery-mustard sauce.

Wherever it is.

A spin around the rink (ice removed, thank goodness) led me to Chop It Salad Company, which just recently opened in Great Lakes Mall. The Santa Fe Salad, nicely laid out on plates, caught my eye.

Loaded with black beans, cheddar cheese, olives, corn and a tasty dressing, it spoke to me: “You will go to the mall for a little shopping after a good lunch!”

And that’s precisely what Kevin Malecek, president and CEO of Mentor Area Chamber of Commerce, wants me to hear.

As one of the biggest proponents of the restaurants in the Chamber’s drawing area, Malecek has been one of the drivers behind the Showcase.

He knows that the a few nibbles at an event like this can turn into some big business for some of these smaller places that don’t necessarily have a corporate advertising budget behind them.

This week’s event was bigger and better than the 2012 debut in several ways.

“We had about 200 people here, between general admission, some of our VIP ticket holders and then all the restaurant personnel,” Malecek said. “Last year were were probably between 140ish to 150ish.”

The Chamber, with help from its presenting sponsor Lake National Bank, added a VIP hour before the Showcase opened to the public. The VIPs enjoyed a wine tasting and had first dibs on the eats from the participants. They also served as judges for the event.

For the second year in a row, Beach Club Grill, on Johnnycake Ridge Road in Concord Township, was voted Best of Show in the cuisine category. Honorable mentions went to Lakeshore Eatery on Lakeshore Boulevard in Mentor (also for the second year in a row) and Jimmy’s Backyard BBQ, a newer Mentor spot marking its first year in the competition. Jimmy’s is located on Mentor Avenue.

Malecek said the Chamber worked with the city of Mentor on this year’s event.

“We actually this year partnered with the city and sent out an invitation to basically every locally owned restaurant in the Mentor area to invite them,” he said. “Not just the Chamber members. We actually solicited them for Chamber membership, but also said, ‘Hey, if you don’t want to do it, we’ll have you be in the showcase for $100.’ But most of them who were not in the Chamber chose to join because it’s obviously a great way to let people know that they’re there.”

The event took place Wednesday night, which coincided with the beginning of a three-day stretch of rain that has plagued Northern Ohio. The rain draw attention to one of the bigger changes to this year’s event.

Location, location, location.

Last year’s debut Showcase took place at Mentor Beach Park, which had parking in its paved lot for about 50 cars. Spillover was on a grassy area next door. Imagine walking through that during a thunderstorm.

Malecek said Mentor Civic Arena was popular with guests.

“I think that this offered a lot of options in terms of spacing, in terms of the uniqueness of the venue,” he said. “We got a lot of comments from people who enjoyed that, and we have room to expand if we have to. And the parking situation, which at Mentor Beach Park was a little challenging. It’s a great location to have it, but this allowed us to have more people, more restaurants and not as many issues relative to the park.”

Malecek said the event will definitely take place in 2014, and he’s hoping for growth again.

“I think we’d love to see more restaurants, to be in the 25-to-26 area, and to bring up attendance,” Malecek said. “I think the word-of-mouth — people seem to have a really good time at this event — and the restaurants get a chance to show off what they’re doing, so I think it’s only going to improve.”

At Wednesday night’s feast, when I realized it was time for dessert, I headed over to Confectionary Cupboard’s table. The Center Street bakery was serving cupcakes from two towers, and I couldn’t help but think that my tiny Bride’s Cake (almond cake with almond frosting) was the perfect way to end the evening.

A little frosting on a terrific event that showcased some of the best the Mentor area has to offer.
Twitter: @Lauranh


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