Saturday, May 15, 2010

Extra Helpings: Vaccaro's Spring Menu

Never let it be said that I am the perfect diner. While I consider it to be my job here on Exploring Food My Way to be critical, and at times hyper-critical, of the food experiences I write about, every now and again, yes, even I get something wrong. And just like when something goes amiss in the restaurant business, admit fault, apologize, and move to rectify the situation as quickly as possible.

I had decided to return to a local Akron favorite of mine, Vaccaro's Trattoria to explore their newly announced spring menu. I received an email notification formally introducing the menu over the Mother's Day weekend, but since my mother was otherwise occupied, I decided to go later in the week. I showed up, per usual, sans reservation on a Thursday night at 5:30 PM and had no problem getting a table. In fact, when I left at around 6:45 PM, I still wouldn't have had too many problems getting a table.

After seating me near a window, my hostess handed me the new menu:

While there were some Vaccaro's classics that honestly will probably never come off the menu, there were new items in virtually every other category of the two page guide. Along with the new menu items to consider, tonight there were also three entrée specials. First, a seared ahi tuna over squid ink angel hair pasta; second, a seafood risotto; third, a twenty ounce steak (I want to say ribeye, but I could be wrong). While I definitely wanted to check out the more permanent menu items, the seared ahi tuna over squid ink pasta really caught my attention.

After much debate with myself, I decided to get an appetizer from the menu and then order the tuna and pasta special. The problem was that apparently between my attempting to remember which of the specials I wanted to order and staring at the menu, my brain switched out tuna for salmon. Had there not been a salmon dish on the menu, my server would've caught my error and all would've been well with the world. The problem was that there WAS a salmon dish on the permanent menu and when I was placing my order, I didn't say, "I'll have the seared salmon and squid ink pasta, please." I said, "I'll have the salmon please, medium." Dutifully, my server took my order and walked away.

After a few minutes, she returned with the bread service, which as always, starts out with a dish of extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese, and optional freshly ground black pepper from their Howitzer pepper mill:

I've talked several times in the past about Vaccaro's bread service so I won't give it too much lip service this time around. It was nice to see that Vaccaro's was still serving the Mediterra Fire bread, with its darkly caramelized crust almost to the point of being burnt, so as to impart a slight bitter note to the flavor of the crust. One thing I've learned over all of my visits to Vaccaro's, Raphael and his kitchen staff aren't afraid to play with bitter flavors and often to great effect.

For my appetizer, I decided to go with one of the new additions to the menu, a Mediterranean flatbread. Here was a shot of the plate that came out of the kitchen:

This was easily large enough to feed two to three hungry people. I forced myself to stop after eating half so that I would have room for the rest of my meal. The flatbread consisted of a homemade crust that had been rolled and baked prior to dinner service and then topped with shaved prosciutto, herbed mascarpone cheese, mission figs, diced Granny Smith apple and dressed lightly with a mustardo. The mustardo was a sweet and savory sauce that had a bit of graininess to it and didn't overpower the flavors on the flatbread.

Here was a close-up shot of a single piece on my appetizer plate:

Because the flatbread dough had been hand-rolled, some pieces were crunchy-chewy and others were completely crispy. The toppings all worked well together, the saltiness from the prosciutto working nicely with the sweetness from the figs and the mustardo, balanced with the tartness from the apples. To me this dish didn't feel heavy and I could've easily eaten the entire plate and been a happy man. In fact, paired with one of Vaccaro's salads or a cup of soup, you could make a meal out of just those two items.

As I saw my server walk out of the kitchen holding my dinner plate, I began to salivate. Squid ink pasta is not something many chefs attempt, and I was definitely looking forward to trying Raphael's version.

As my server set the plate down in front of me, I immediately noticed something was quite wrong:

Where was the pasta? I don't remember my server describing crispy potato cakes in her spiel at the beginning of the meal. I spoke up and said, "I'm sorry, but doesn't this dish come with squid ink pasta?" I still had it in my mind that the squid ink pasta came with salmon, not tuna. My server kind of got a concerned look on face and said, "The squid ink pasta was with tuna. You ordered the salmon. Do you want me to take it back to the kitchen and have them make you the pasta instead?"

When I realized what I had done, I have to admit, I was a little bit embarrassed. The mistake was entirely mine and as you can see from the picture above, what was presented to me was a quite enticing plate of food. Not wanting to penalize the restaurant for my gaffe, I quickly changed my mind and told my server that I would be perfectly happy to stick with the salmon. The squid ink pasta would just have to be saved for another visit.

So, let's talk about what I did order. I ordered the seared Norwegian salmon with a lemon oregano marmalade and crispy zucchini and potato cakes. Let's start with the salmon and the marmalade:

The salmon was perfectly seasoned and nicely seared on the outside. The marmalade was spooned both over the fish as well as served as a "sauce" on the plate. I cut into my fish to discover it cooked to a perfect medium:

The flesh was tender and juicy and the salmon flavor was very subtle. Sometimes salmon can have an overpowering flavor, but this piece was absolutely divine. The outside of the fish also had been dressed with fresh herbs and this brightness helped cut through the flavor of the salmon and the lemon marmalade.

I took a shot of the marmalade on the side of my plate:

Serving as a "sauce," this condiment again played with multiple flavor points in my mouth: salty, sweet, tart, and bitter. It was spooned on at room temperature and as the heat from the plate and salmon warmed it, it gently melted. Some people might not like pairing something sweet with salmon, but I thought the pairing worked exceptionally well. Because the lemon rind had been left in, the marmalade had a wonderful mild bitterness that really made this dish interesting. Of course, I can't forget the herbaceous note that the fresh oregano brought to the party, too. I wish Raphael had been around after I finished my meal as I wanted to pick his brain about where the idea for this dish had originated, but sadly, he wasn't present. Regardless, I highly recommend you give this dish a try.

Finally, I can't forget the third component on my dinner plate tonight, the crispy zucchini and potato cakes:

Extra crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, the zucchini added a subtle sweetness not normally found in a fried potato cake. Fried as one cake and cut into three wedges, this added a wonderful textural contrast to the tender flesh of the salmon. The expertly fried cake wedges were seasoned more aggressively than was the salmon, but still within reason. Of course, neither the wedges themselves nor the plate underneath showed any evidence of extra oil.

Having chosen to go with an iced tea instead of a glass of wine for dinner, I decided that a splurge was in order suddenly dessert was an option. As with the regular menu, there were some old friends and new faces:

I don't think that the homemade donuts with fresh berries and duo of sauces will ever go away. Not that it should, it really has been delicious every time that I have had it. Fortunately, there were four other choices, well five really, if you count the sampler of homemade gelati. Besides the vanilla bean and blackberry gelati that were paired with two of the desserts already listed on the menu, grape, strawberry basil, and butter pecan were the other gelati available today.

I am not a huge coffee drinker as the caffeine makes me jittery, but I do enjoy cutting the sweetness of desserts with something bitter, so I added an espresso to my order:

As promised on the menu, crema was in no short supply. I was a little worried because this appeared before my dessert and I didn't want to drink it cold, but my fears were allayed when my server not only promised a replacement cup with my dessert, but then moments later returned with this:

This was a 72% bittersweet molten chocolate cake topped with a scoop of blackberry gelato. The menu calls this dish, "Chocolate Cabernet Wine Flour Molten Cake" and lists one of the ingredients as "chocolate cabernet wine flour." Now I have heard of eating a piece of dark chocolate with red wine and I'm guessing that this was the riff they were trying to play tonight with this dessert.

The flavor of the red wine was very subtle and could easily be lost if you did nothing but pay attention to the intensity from the 72% cacao in the chocolate. The cake itself was only barely molten, at the very center, and even then there wasn't much, if any, oozing to be had. The scoop of gelato perched atop the cake was expertly crafted and had a nice balance between blackberry tartness and sweetness from additional sugar. The flavor played well off the cake. Sadly, the strawberry garnish, although at the very beginning of the Ohio strawberry season, wasn't a particularly good example. The greenish white crown should have tipped me off, but I bit into the red flesh anyway only to discover a mid-November supermarket quality strawberry.

The one discrepancy I do hope the restaurant takes note of and fixes was that the dessert which I ordered was listed on the menu as costing $6. When I received my check,

it was listed as $7. I didn't notice this until after I had gotten home, and honestly, it was only $1, so I'm not going to sweat it, but it is something that should be fixed.

With only a few minor quibbles over my dessert tonight, I am confident that I experienced another exceptional meal at one of Akron's premiere Italian eateries. Food at this level of execution is obviously not cheap, as you can see from my check total. Personally I would rather save my pennies to be able to treat myself once a month to food this good rather than eat out all the time at fast food places, but that's just me. Service was, as it has always been, outstanding. I highly encourage you to check their new menu out for yourself and discover (or continue to re-discover) one of Akron's consistent culinary gems.

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