Monday, July 27, 2009

Apocalypse Now: When the Foodies Descend

Gentle reader, if it helps to put you in the right frame of mind, please feel free to start humming Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries.

After my last visit to Vaccaro's Trattoria in Akron, I knew that I needed to introduce my Cleveland friends to the talents of Chef Mike Ferris. The meal had been an amazingly delicious surprise and I was completely blown away by the entire experience. It was with great enthusiasm that I sent out emails and made reservations with Vaccaro's for an intimate dinner for eight people. There were actually supposed to be ten of us, but one of the couples misread the name of the restaurant and went to Trattoria in Little Italy in Cleveland instead. Oops!

When we finally all sat down, I decided to start with a nice glass of wine from the wonderfully constructed by-the-glass wine list. I originally asked for a glass of syrah, but our wine steward for the evening, Martin, informed me that they were out of that selection and suggested I try this instead:

This was a shiraz and grenache blend called Slipstream and is from McLaren Vale vineyards in Australia. It was a very nice wine, not too dry and not too sweet with a lovely bouquet of cherries and plums. An excellent substitution for the wine I had originally picked.

When I called to make the initial reservations at Vaccaro's, I spoke with the chef and he asked if our party wanted to do a tasting menu. I indicated that as this was the first time visiting for my guests, they would probably just order off of the regular menu (and their daily specials), but he should feel free to put something together if he wanted. From my last visit I knew that the kitchen was absolutely fine with some people ordering off the menu and others participating in the four course tasting menu. Sure enough, the chef did put together a tasting menu for tonight's dinner. Here is a shot of the menu (notice whose tasting menu it is):

I officially have my own tasting menu now. I think I might just have to frame that and put it up on my wall. As you can see from the menu, there were four courses paired with four wines and this was only $40 per person. Truly an outstanding value! After hearing the amazing dinner specials for the day, our table was evenly split: four of us decided to order off the menu and four of us decided to give Chef Mike's tasting menu a try.

After placing our orders, the bread service started:

And while I didn't ask last time I visited whether the bread was homemade, this time I did. It turns out that the foccacia served at the restaurant is made in-house. The other two, equally as good as the foccacia, are actually sourced from two separate bakeries, Orlando and Stone Oven. Paired with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and grated Parmesan cheese dip that was prepared tableside, this really whetted our appetites for what was to come.

First on the tasting menu was a skewered phyllo and prosciutto wrapped shrimp:

This was dramatically served with a savory apricot chutney and a balsamic honey port wine reduction. Cooked to perfection, the crispy flaky phyllo dough protected the wonderful salty sweet flavors of the prosciutto and shrimp on the inside. The apricot chutney and the gastrique that lined the plate added wonderful sweet and sour notes to the dish. A wonderful way to start the meal, to be sure.

Paired with the first course was a light, crisp white wine:

This was a Pace Arnies. Our wine steward had decided to not only pair each of our courses with a wine from Italy, but also a specific region from within the country, Piedmonte. The slight acid of the wine helped to cut through the fattiness of the phyllo dough and prosciutto and definitely enhanced the flavor.

Next up was the salad course. A dining companion allowed me to shoot her Insalata Mista with balsamic vinaigrette:

I didn't actually taste this, but the person who ordered it said it was very, very good. This is the salad that I received as my second course:

Placed in front of me was an Asian pear and nut salad with field greens, fresh berries and toasted goat cheese dressed with a champagne vinaigrette. The nuts, pecans in this case, had been candied and then dusted with cinnamon. Just like the last salad I had at Vaccaro's, this one played on the many flavor elements and textures to achieve its success. The vinaigrette was again perfectly applied to the salad so that it was always present in every bite, but not overdressed.

Paired with my salad was our second wine of the evening, the Gavi Di Gavi. Unfortunately, the photo I took was too fuzzy to use here, so you'll just have to order yourself a glass the next time you go to see for yourself. Also from Piedmonte, this was another crisp white wine, this one with a little more sweetness to it. A wonderfully balanced wine, this went particularly well with the goat cheese in the salad.

The third course of the tasting menu was a smoked Moulard duck breast. Here is a photo:

The duck breast was hot smoked and then seared rare. This was served with grilled leak and duck confit mashed potatoes, braised kale and apple braised red cabbage, and a creamy black currrent demi glace (the sauce appears to be brushed onto the plate underneath the duck). The duck was perfectly smoked and cooked. I usually like my duck breast more of a medium rare than rare, but tonight's duck was tender, juicy, and delicious; so no complaints from me or the other diners who got to enjoy this dish. The braised kale and red cabbage added a wonderful bit of acidity to cut through some of the fattiness of the duck. The black current demi glace tied in nicely with the wine pairing for this course (which I'll talk about next). The only problem with this course was the leak and duck confit mashed potatoes. They were too salty. Certainly not inedible, but after tasting course after course of perfectly seasoned food, it was completely noticeable to all four of us who ate this that the seasoning was too aggressive. I'm going to hazard a guess and suggest that the potatoes were made in one batch and then divided onto the four plates for our table.

The wine that was paired with the duck was a Nebbiolo Barbara blend from what is known as a "Super" Piedmonte region of Italy. It went together with the duck really very well and complimented the smoky flavor that Chef Mike had managed to infuse into the duck. One of the tasters thought it was the best pairing so far. The wine was a bit dry and very laid back. The flavor was not aggressive at all. As I already mentioned, the black current demi glace used on the plate brought out the fruit in the wine as well.

Finally we came to the fourth course, dessert. I was pleased to see a riff off the Panne Fritti on the regular dessert menu show up:

These were freshly fried donuts served with lemon curd, raspberry coulis and chocolate sauce. This was a perfect way to end the meal. Warm, sweet, tart, and chocolate-y. The flavors paired very well with out last wine, a Moscato di Asti:

The Moscato brought wonderful aromas of apple, honey, and vanilla to the party. Although this was a dessert wine, it wasn't overly sweet, which was nice. Along with a nice cup of black coffee, this was a wonderfully pleasing way to finish up the meal. I alternated between a sip of wine, a bite of donut and a gulp of wonderfully bitter coffee. Chef Mike came out one last time to check in on us and see how our meal had gone. The group asked him several questions about the various food we had been served tonight and everyone was in agreement that we had a wonderful experience tonight.

Afterwards, I thought it would be helpful to get additional feedback from some of the guests who had ordered off the regular menu.

* One diner ordered the grilled calamari with fresh tomatoes and pesto oil and absolutely raved about how good it was. She said it was the best calamari she had ever had.

* Another diner ordered the Pan Roasted Wild Striped Bass with orange and grilled fennel farro risotto with sauteed arugula and mandarin orange cream. Only she ordered it without the fish (which was absolutely not a problem for the kitchen). She also proclaimed her total love of this dish (which, without the bass was simply more just a plate of farro done in a risotto style).

* A diner ordered one of Friday's specials, the New Zealand rack of lamb. She said that the flavor was exquisite and it paired perfectly with a glass of Malbec that she had ordered, but her lamb was just a touch overdone at medium; she asked for it medium rare. Although sending it back to the kitchen was certainly an option, she choose not to and ate it instead.

* Finally, two of the non-tasting menu diners each ordered the Lasagna al Carne (shown below ... thanks to my friend Stuart for this photo (also released under a Creative Commons license). Check out his photos here). One thought it was wonderful and the other thought it was a little too salty.

Now, gentle reader, before you get all defensive and accuse us of being hypercritical, I want to reiterate that every single diner that I talked with after the meal said that they had a wonderful time and would definitely come back if and when I schedule another dinner at Vaccaro's. Speaking on the tasting menu alone, Chef Mike managed to marry a lot of complex flavors and cooking techniques to produce this menu. If the only negative thing that I can say is that one component of one dish out of four was a little too salty, I think that says much more about what Chef Mike did right than what he did wrong.

I remain excited about this fine Italian restaurant right here in my own back yard. Of course I will continue to patronize those Cleveland establishments that I've grown to love over the last three years, but now I know that I don't have to travel very far if I want a taste of something refined, elegant, and most importantly, delicious.

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