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At the Lola Bistro on the North Side, chef/owner Michael Barnhouse combines eggplant, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, zucchini, carrots, plum tomatoes, nutmeg, red wine, coconut milk, and other ingredients for his Moroccan Vegetable Stew, Tuesday, January 29th, 2013. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Michael Barnhouse was an overweight art major at Ohio University when he started cooking to try to eat more healthfully and “get back to a healthy weight.”

But with his eye for aesthetics, he began to understand that “one of the finest arts there is, is cooking,” he says.

After earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting, Barnhouse attended what is now the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan and later cooked in New York; Seattle; Mendocino, Calif.; and San Francisco. While on the West Coast, Barnhouse was an executive chef for Wolfgang Puck, doing mostly catering. Having met his wife, Yelena, in Seattle, the two decided to move closer to his mother, who lives in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

Barnhouse cooked in a few area restaurants but always wanted to open his own place with his wife, a native of Siberia, who is a good cook and pastry chef. The two drove around looking at various neighborhoods and found the Mexican War Streets — “so charming, like the West Village (of New York City) or Georgetown (in Washington, D.C.).”

“I love these old row houses,” says owner-chef Barnhouse of the Mexican War Streets housing stock. “But there weren’t that many restaurants, and there weren’t that many casual fine-dining restaurants here.”

To fill that perceived void, the Barnhouses opened Lola Bistro in August. They chose the name because “every city in America has a Lola Bistro,” says Barnhouse, 44, of Bon Air.

The bistro has light-wood tables, black chairs, peach walls and the original brown-painted tin ceiling. Barnhouse and a friend did the renovation work, installing a small kitchen that “ensures everything is fresh” because there’s not much room to store ingredients for long. And, Barnhouse’s colorful paintings adorn the walls.

“I use Old World techniques and put my own twist on them,” Barnhouse says of his menu. The staff — which includes sous chef Brad Davis, a North Carolina native now living in McKees Rocks, and Yelena — make their own pasta and pates in-house. Yelena’s specialities are desserts and pastries, including a sweetly scrumptious seven-layer Russian cake; and pelmeni, Siberian dumplings stuffed with lamb and beef, along with dill sour cream and white wine vinegar, which costs $7 for 10 as a starter.

Other starters include artisan cheeses and house charcuterie for $18, with selections changing daily.

“I like simple, acceptable food … hearty food,” Barnhouse says. “Most of our entrees are served in a bowl.” They include French cassoulet with duck confit, beef and lamb, house bacon, cannellini beans, tomato and fresh herbs, for $24. Lamb Bolognese features house-made fettuccini, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and orange-infused Castelvetrano oil, for $24.

But Barnhouse doesn’t serve only French or Italian specialties.

“I was at the epicenter of Asian fusion, so I use a lot of Asian techniques,” Barnhouse says.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

Moroccan Vegetarian Stew

Michael Barnhouse, executive chef and owner of Lola Bistro in the Mexican War Streets, loves simple, comforting dishes with fresh ingredients. Such a dish is his Moroccan Vegetarian Stew, made with fresh vegetables and coconut milk. Crushed red pepper gives the dish zing, which the coconut milk balances with mellow flavor.

Vegetarians and omnivores will find the tasty and healthy dish a hearty comfort on a cold February evening. But carnivores can satisfy their appetite for meat by following the option that adds traditional Moroccan lamb.

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon whole coriander

14 cup olive oil

1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped

6 medium-size cloves garlic, chopped fine

Pinch of crushed red pepper

14 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

14 cup ground hazelnuts

2 medium-size carrots, cubed

2 medium-size zucchinis, seeded, unpeeled and cubed

2 medium-size parsnips, cubed

1 medium-size eggplant, unpeeled and cubed

1 cup red wine

1 can (12 ounces) whole plum tomatoes, processed in a blender or food processor

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk

2 cans garbanzo beans, or 1 cup dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight with 3 cups water

1 cup Israeli couscous, placed in a bowl with 2 cups hot water and steeped 10 minutes (see photo 1)

Additional parsnip strips fried in hot oil until crisp

Toast the cumin and whole coriander in a saute pan until you see a wisp of smoke. Cool the spices in the refrigerator, then grind together in a spice or coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a medium-size to large saucepan over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic; sweat them until they are translucent, for about 2 minutes. Add the pinch of crushed red pepper and ground nutmeg (photo 2). Mix thoroughly; add the ground hazelnuts.

Add the carrots, zucchini and cubed parsnips; mix (photos 3 and 4.) Then add the ground cumin and coriander mixture, the cubed eggplant, the red wine and processed tomatoes (photo 5). Let stew for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not mushy. Season with salt and pepper. Add the coconut milk. Add the prepared or canned garbanzo beans and heat through (photo 6).

Serve the stew over couscous; garnish with the fried parsnip strips and serve (photo 7).

Makes 6 servings.

Moroccan Lamb Stew option

1 12 pounds hind-leg lamb meat, cubed

14 cup olive oil

Water or chicken stock

Sear the lamb in the olive oil. Cover the seared lamb cubes with water or chicken stock and simmer gently for about 1 hour. Do not boil the meat or it will toughen. Coat the cooked meat with the ground hazelnuts (see stew recipe) and add it to the stew. Continue at the point at which the carrots, zucchini and parsnips are added.

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