After my last wonderful visit to Chef Louis Prpich's restaurant Chowder House Cafe in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, I made a mental note to myself that I needed to return soon for another experience. Sadly, given my crazy holiday schedule, "returning soon" turned into a several month hiatus. Finally, however, I had a free Friday night and I just so happened to be in that part of the world. Knowing that it might be tricky (if not impossible) to get a table without a reservation on a Friday night did enter my mind, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and go anyway.
I arrived at 7:30 PM to find that while the place was definitely hopping, there were still a small handful of tables available. The hostess showed me to my table and left me with the menu. It turns out that the regular menu is exactly the same as it was last time, which kind of surprised me a little bit. I had commented in my previous blog that the menu seemed a little simple; I had kind of thought that after being open for several months now that it would've been tweaked somewhat. Fortunately, as was the case last time, there were some additional daily specials. I don't want to get ahead of myself in this review, but I do think I should warn you, gentle reader, that both times I have eaten here, the daily entree specials were significantly more expensive than the regular menu items. It's not that I don't think the entrees were priced inappropriately. But I think the servers should make you aware of the prices when they are describing the specials given that they can be twice the price of the regular menu items.
While the potato-less clam chowder was still on the regular menu, I decided to go with the daily soup special, a rustic sausage soup:
First, the good. This soup had a marvelous flavor to it and was excellently seasoned. It very much reminded me of an Italian Wedding Soup without the pasta. The sausage, which had been sliced instead of crumbled, added a nice meaty texture to the beef broth based soup. I would take a hot cup of this soup on any cold winter day. Unfortunately, I didn't receive a hot cup of this soup today. In fact, it was barely lukewarm. To add insult to injury, the piece of bread served with the soup was beginning to go stale. I'm assuming that this bread had been sliced at the beginning of dinner service and was just now being placed on my plate.
For my dinner entree, I decided to go with one of today's specials, braised beef short ribs over mashed potatoes and asparagus. Here was a shot of my dinner when it arrived:
You'll have to forgive the "glitter" effect in the above photograph; the fat suspended in the sauce and the flash on my camera didn't play well together. Overall this was a solid dish. The short ribs were tender and very soft. The mashed potatoes were obviously handmade as they still had a bit of lumpiness to them (which I actually preferred). The roasted vegetables, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and whole garlic cloves were a wonderful addition to this hearty dish. The asparagus, while not in season right now, actually had a sweetness to them that made me think about late spring and early summer when this vegetable is at its peak. I had only two critiques, one major and the second minor. First, both the meat and the potatoes just needed a tiny bit more salt. I think it would've really made the flavors on that plate of food really pop. Second, and sadly, a bit more serious, was the discovery of an entire bay leaf hiding in the sauce:
In the darkened restaurant, I didn't actually see this before putting it into my mouth and only after starting to chew did I realize I had something inedible that needed to be fished out. Bay leaves are obviously a wonderful way to add aroma and flavor to soups and stews, but because they are a choking hazard need to be fished out before serving the food to your guests. While not as bad as finding, say, a used BandAid in my food, it still shouldn't have happened.
That being said, it didn't stop me from cleaning my plate:
After finishing my entree, I decided to take a fifteen minute break (the dining room was now mostly empty, so I wasn't worried about being accused of "camping") before proceeding with dessert. I did, however, decide to have a cup of decaf while I waited:
Fortunately this was one choice they had added since my last visit. Previously, only regular coffee was available. Speaking of beverages, I overheard another server talking about the restaurant's wine policy. When my server returned to check on me, I asked her about it. Currently the Chowder House Cafe does not have a beer and wine license. However, if you bring your own beer or wine, there is only a $5 corkage fee. For those that don't know, a corkage fee is a charge for opening the bottle of wine and providing you with wine or beer glasses. $5 seems entirely reasonable to me. Hopefully they'll be able to secure their own license soon so that they can begin offering their own selections.
Having sat for a few minutes and digested, I finally made the decision to move forward with dessert. Since I had tried the chocolate torte the last time I was here, I went with the only other dessert available, the caramel pecan cheesecake:
Both the chocolate torte and the cheesecake are made locally by a home-based baker named Bernie Tetzel. I have searched what seems to be the entirety of Google and found nothing reliable about her or her business. Apparently she supplies many local restaurants with desserts. Since I enjoyed her chocolate torte the last time I visited, I figured the cheesecake would be a home run, too. It was. Sort of.
The dessert featured your standard New York style lemon flavored cheesecake as the base. By itself, the cheesecake was quite tasty and the tempered sweetness from the custard went well with the bitterness of the coffee. The moistness of the custard was nicely in the middle of ultra-creamy and dry and crumbly. As a piece of cheesecake, I enjoyed it. However, the "caramel pecan" portion of the name only came from the fact that the finished cheesecake had been drizzled with a caramel sauce and then finished with pecan halves on top for garnish. There was no integration of these flavors in the actual crust or custard itself. As such, the predominant flavor I got when taking an entire bite was still lemon. It wasn't the dessert itself I objected to, but how it was described.
It wasn't until I received my check that I realized that the braised short ribs entree was actually $19. Was it worth $19? Yes. Should my server have mentioned this fact when she was describing the daily specials given that most of the other items on the regular menu ring in at between $7 and $10? Hell, yes. Granted, I can't be completely absolved of blame here as I could've asked. But like most people who eat out, if a price isn't given for a daily special, it is a reasonable assumption to make that it will be in line with what you can see on the restaurant's regular menu.
Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed with the food today at the Chowder House Cafe. Certainly nothing was inedible or had to be sent back to the kitchen and clearly the flavors were quite good, but several small and not-so-small problems made their way into my dining experience tonight that made it less stellar than my first experience. Since it is only Chef Prpich running the kitchen, I can only imagine that he was having an off night. I'm still recommending that you give the Chowder House Cafe a try, but make sure you heed some of the information I've given you today, especially if you are interested in the daily specials. I intend to return, and I think you should, too.