Let the record show that my vote for the weirdest dish of 1984 was served in Cleveland, late one chilly evening in December, to a crowd of midwestern bons vivants and Ohio journalists. What the rest of the journalistic establishment missed was no less than:
Zebra shish kebab with maraschino cherries.
The occasion was the First North Coast Game Buffet of Linkas Steak and Tap House. "Internationally Known," declares the menu. "The Eighth Wonder of the World," it boasts. Twenty-four beers and nine wines on tap, 140 beers by the bottle, 69 entrees, and a one-pound, hand-cut, T-bone strip steak for $7.49 -- including soup, potato, vegetable and salad. After all that, Linkas closes at 9 p.m., then reopens at 9:30 for private parties and annual game extravaganzas.
"Secured parking" was promised in the invitations for this $50-a-person game feast, which was planned as a 50-foot buffet (and cash bar). Odd to specify the parking security, one might have thought, until one drove up to Linkas, wedged between Tend-R-Lean Steak Co. and Bee-Hive shoes on a street as quiet and dark as the subway after midnight. Taverns edged bridal shops, which nudged 25-cent adult movie houses, and hardly a car was to be seen on the wide boulevard called Broadway. Yet in the rear of Linkas the rows of vans, trucks and station wagons were punctuated with a Toyota, a Honda, a Cadillac and -- the topic of the evening -- a Rolls.
Linkas has been around since 1931, when Broadway was considered the shopping center of Cleveland. It sort of got lost in the backwash of urban change until three years ago, when Joe Fox revived it, and now it has expanded into the shoe shop next door -- which you can verify by the mirrored columns that are just right for checking the fit of your cordovans. Not only is the parking lot secured, the rest rooms bear signs reading, "Customers only. Waiter has key."
City Councilman Dennis Kucinich, formerly the youngest -- at age 30 -- and most controversial mayor ever seen in Cleveland (or maybe anywhere), has made Linkas the hangout for himself and his City Council cronies, and has become its booster. "Here's a guy who's invested in the community," said Kucinich of Fox.
In return, this restaurant might just be the launching pad for Kucinich's Senate race in '86, he hinted. He lives less than a mile from the restaurant, and describes his neighborhood as Polish, Czech and Appalachian. The area has 11 Catholic parishes, according to his count, most of them over a century old, and two newspapers. Polish is spoken on the street, and there is an active chapter of Solidarity.
On that December night of the game feast, a gypsy band in cloth of gold played an accordion, a violin, a guitar and "a tambourine off beat," as one musically savvy diner noted. The television remained on to add to the festivities. The diners wore name tags; the waiters wore gold vests in leopard-skin design, and several of the waitresses wore T-shirts that boasted, "I Survived Saturday at Linkas." In honor of the season and the occasion the band alternated its polkas with "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" as the gentry dined on venison.
And elk and buffalo and quail. Plus beaver, lion paw, wild turkey, camel, and that zebra.
Zebra. How does a chef know how to cook zebra? "Instinct," muttered Joe Fox, a former fast-foods chef who had never cooked game before buying Linkas. "It's a far cry from fast foods, huh?" he mused to reporters.
Fox laughed as he repeated what he said to himself when he first met that zebra: "This sucker is too tough." So he put it through a cutter, "maybe a couple of times" to tenderize it. But also it had no taste. So he added some spiced salt, and then he remembered a bottle of Mandarin Napoleon liqueur he'd recently gotten. "Mandarin Napoleon, naturally," he thought. And so he marinated it, skewered it, fried it, garnished it.
And summed it up, "If you know how to cook, you know how to cook."
The lion paw soup required special care to strain it through two fine sieves and then a coffee filter. "It's a very mild soup," he explained, "but by itself, you'd look at it and say it looks nasty." So he figured it was necessary to get all the little lion particles out of it. He did display a whole cooked lion paw in front of the soup tureen, though, lest anybody take the weak broth for mere dishwater. As for the smoked lion roast, he probably should be considered a culinary pioneer; certainly this was the first time a lion (or a camel, for that matter) was roasted in a cooking bag.
While the music and politicking went on in the dining room, a rear room had been set up as a buffet, with culinary students in white jackets carving the smoked round of lion and roast of elk round.
Critics-for-the-day were kept busy. Kucinich noted that lion tastes a little like ham, and used the occasion to offer a political homily: "If you don't eat the lion, the lion eats you."
It was obvious why the politicians and the press were there, but one wondered how the general public happened to choose this particular way to spend their $50. Elaine Ullman said it was just her agreeableness; her husband asked if she wanted to eat out, and she replied, "I'll eat anywhere I don't have to cook." As she examined her plate and wondered what part of what animal she had thereon, she added, "Next time I'll weigh my words." She definitely did not like beaver legs, she had learned from this experience.
Meanwhile, everyone did his job. The politicians shook hands and the reporters asked everybody how things tasted. "The zebra tasted just like zebra," said one man in the beige patent leather shoes that have placed Cleveland in the sartorial history books.
There was general agreement that the plain roasts -- elk, venison, smoked lion and smoked wild turkey -- were the best of the buffet. But then they were just hunks of meat stuck in the oven, pretty hard to damage much.
The buffalo stew and buffalo swiss steak, camel stroganoff and stewed beaver legs, for all their exotic ingredients, tasted much like the same old cafeteria stew, swiss steak and stroganoff Americans have grown up on, though with a strong gaminess you might think came from their hanging around the refrigerator too long if you didn't know they were wild beasts, albeit raised in captivity.
The virtuosity of the evening, as it turned out, was less in the kitchen than at the microphone. And the highlight, if anybody is still counting, was clearly Dennis Kucinich's announcement of a resolution presented on behalf of the City Council that commended Joe Fox for making Cleveland known as "The City in America Where Anything Is Fair Game."