I love a good suspense movie where all of the pieces fall into place in the final moments of the film. Experiencing that "Gotcha!" moment doesn't happen often with me, and when it does I remember and cherish it. Such was my experience with the movie The Usual Suspects and such was my experience with tonight's choice for dinner, Ken Stewart's Tre Belle. Before we get into the dinner itself, let's set the mood a bit, shall we?
"Verbal: Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone."
Tre Belle is the third restaurant to bear the Ken Stewart moniker. Truthfully, I have only visited the original, Ken Stewart's Grille, and it had been quite some time. Apparently from those who don't live in Akron, Mr. Stewart has carved quite a niche for himself. Whenever someone from outside of the Akron area finds out that I write about local food establishments, almost inevitably Ken Stewart's name is invoked. Honestly, having never met him, I was almost convinced that he was like Keyser Soze, a name brandied about that was all ephemera with no substance. Kind of like Pink Floyd or Santa Claus. The name epitomized an idea or a notion, but not a real person.
Tonight's impromptu stop at Tre Belle was to prove otherwise.
I arrived at Tre Belle on a Tuesday evening at around 7 PM with no reservation. I was worried when I first pulled into the parking lot because it was quite full. Apparently the majority of the customers must have been there to eat at the adjoining Ken Stewart's Lodge, because once I walked in the front door, there was plenty of seating available. Before I get too far into this review, let me just say that Tre Belle was located at 1911 North Cleveland Massillon Road, Akron, OH 44333 and can be reached at 330-666-9990.
Once parked, I sauntered up to the front of the building:
Walking through the heavy wooden doors, I was greeted by even more wood. Both the dining room and the bar area were brightly lit, but one thing was quite clear: the rustic woodsy look was the primary factor when fleshing out the vision of this restaurant. Many of the tables sported the old 70's standard, the Italian Chianti bottle that had been studded with a candle, burnt half-way down with wax ribbons spiraling in multiple directions as the molten droplets obeyed the laws of gravity. That being said, there were some modern touches, like the flat panel screen in the bar that was broadcasting a basketball game and the somewhat less than authentic music that was being played in the background. While these modern touches didn't bother me, clearly the restaurant wasn't going for absolute authenticity.
When my server first showed me to my table, I asked him where the restroom was located. While he proceeded to tell me, an older, more distinguished gentleman sitting at the bar offered to show me. He led me back towards the front door, pointed down a long corridor and indicated that the restroom was on the right hand side. Almost immediately I was reminded of my very first job working as a bagger at the Buehler's chain in Wadsworth. During my training, I remember my manager telling us that if a customer asks where an item is located in the store, don't just tell them; take them to it. I didn't know who this stranger was, but I immediately began to suspect that he might be the general manager of Tre Belle.
Once I returned to my table, I took a series of pictures of the single-paged menu. The pictures go from left to right, top to bottom:
In addition to the menu tonight, there were four additional specials: a roasted beet with goat cheese salad, a pasta dish with either mussels or clams, a sun-dried tomato pasta dish with chicken, and a veal saltimbocca. Something that struck me as I looked at the menu was that there was much talk on the Internet about how incredibly expensive any of Ken Stewart's restaurants were. In fact, before I walked in, I checked my wallet to make sure I had more than enough cash. I counted $56 and thought to myself that if my meal was going to come to more than that (plus tip, obviously) then I'll just have to enjoy a nice glass of complimentary water and move somewhere else. I was happy to discover that prices are quite reasonable, somewhere between the range of "I wouldn't pay that much for pasta for my six year old" and less than "You want $35 for an entree? Seriously?"
Having kind of grown out of my expensive wine phase of my life, I started off by enjoying a simple glass of iced tea:
This was crisp and clean; clearly, it was freshly brewed. At $2.50, I think it might have been just a bit pricey, but it was definitely a good iced tea.
With my tea, my server brought me warm bread and an unusual dip:
Fully expecting olive oil in which to dip my bread, my server placed a small plate of homemade roasted red pepper hummos in front of me. While I was at first skeptical because of it's rather granular and non-homogenized appearance, a single small forkful of the contents of this dish convinced me that the kitchen staff knew what they were doing. Having prepared roasted red pepper hummos myself, I think I would've preferred a much more forward red pepper flavor, but this was still pretty darn good.
The bread, crusty and warm, also delivered on the goods:
I didn't ask if the bread was made in-house. However, given the freshness and tenderness of the crumb and the crispness of the crust, it didn't really matter. Was this the most complex bread I've ever had? No. But it was quite good for typical bread-service style bread. And while good on its own, its also didn't interfere with the delicate flavor of the hummos.
For a starter, I decided on going with the roasted beet and goat cheese salad:
This was a mixed green salad with roasted beets, crumbled goat cheese, crispy pancetta and dressed in an orange sherry vinaigrette. After my server proceeded to twist a few grinds of fresh black pepper onto the salad, I loaded up my fork with a little bit of everything on the plate and took a taste. I was rewarded with sweet, tart, salty, fatty, tender and chewy. I have really come full circle when it comes to fresh roasted beets (I used to hate them as a child ... then again, mother always used to serve them from the can) and tonight I really enjoyed the combination of flavors in my mouth. The vinaigrette was particularly tart and if you didn't have the sweetness from the beets to counteract them, it definitely would've been too overpowering.
Sadly, the first service faux pas occurred as I was getting close to finishing my salad. With about three or four bites left, my server brought out the pasta I had ordered. Given that pasta is one of those tricky dishes that waits for no one, I can empathize with my server for wanting to serve it fresh. However, at a place like Tre Belle and especially given that the restaurant was probably one-third full tonight, I expected just a little bit better timing between the courses. Honestly, I wouldn't have even minded waiting a few minutes after having finished my salad to receive my entree.
Speaking of entrees, tonight my main course was to be the homemade gnocchi in marinara sauce:
When I was first conversing with my server about this dish, I asked him if the gnocchi were homemade. He assured me that they were and in fact, he indicated that the kitchen first cooked the gnocchi and then sauteed them to give them a bit of texture before saucing them in the homemade marinara. While already sprinkled with a bit of grated Parmesan cheese when it arrived at the table, my server offered to gild the lily and top the dish with just a bit more. The heady aroma of the Parmesan sent my salivary glands into overdrive. It became immediately apparent after tasting the pasta, however, that there was nothing even remotely seared about any of these little dough pillows. Sure, they were tender while still being just a tiny bit toothsome, but alternating textures? Nope, not these guys.
The marinara sauce, while I don't doubt meatless, wasn't the fresh, acidic variety to which I think most of us have become accustomed. This was more in the orange-red color palette of Campbell's tomato soup and much less watery. My guess was that perhaps the marinara sauce had been studded with either a bit of bread or a bit of cheese; perhaps both. I'm not saying the sauce was bad. In fact, it was quite tasty. Really, the whole dish was quite tasty. While the gnocchi weren't ethereally light and potato-y like I've come to expect from my own personal recipe, these also weren't the heavy, leaden dough bombs I've learned seem to be the norm at restaurants that serve them.
Truth be told, I ended up taking most of my entree home with me. This must have confused my server as I was thinking of trying one of their desserts. Sadly, my server must have assumed I was completely full if I was willing to take so much home and simply presented me with the check. In times past, I might have insisted on seeing the dessert menu anyway, but I realized that perhaps I didn't really need dessert after all. And what did I pay for this meal? With my iced tea, roasted beet salad and pasta dish, including tax, it was a little over $29. I realize that had I added a glass of wine to that, I probably would've been pushing close to $40. So, yes, I can see why people criticize Tre Belle as being expensive because the total bill for two people would've come to $75-$80. But honestly, most of the appetizers were between $6-$10, the salads were between $6-$9, and the entrees ranged from $13-$20. The question wasn't "Are they too expensive?" Rather, it was "Was it worth the money?" Yes, I do believe it is.
As I stood to gather my keys and phone, the same gentleman who had shown me to the restroom earlier in the evening stood up from the bar, turned to me and asked me how my meal was tonight. "Really good, " I responded. Without batting an eyelash, he looked me straight in the face and said, "Hi, my name is Ken Stewart. Thanks for dining with us tonight. What's your name?"
Apparently Keyser Soze walks among us.