As a longtime reader of this blog, you might have wondered why I write multiple posts about a single restaurant. Often times, it will simply be a matter of expounding on dishes from the menu that I hadn't had in previous visits. Sometimes it will be because a new menu or a new special has premiered. Every now and again it will be because something has changed, for the better or worse, and I think it prudent for me to tell you because it might affect whether or not you will choose to spend your hard-earned dollars at the dining establishment in question.
Another possibility is that many of the restaurants I consistently return to are chosen due to convenience. They are either close to where I live or a reasonable deviation from my driving route to and from work. This leaves other restaurants, ones that I've had positive meals at, to be relegated to the once or twice a year schedule. Such was my meal tonight when I returned to Prime at Anthe's on Manchester Road (Rt. 93) in Akron, Ohio. After discovering a completely revamped menu and much improved dining experience a little over a year ago, tonight the thought of returning for another great meal popped in my head as I headed home from work.
The last two times I wrote about Prime at Anthe's, I had praised the food I was served as being hot, tasty, and reasonably priced given the level of cuisine. I was definitely looking forward to a repeat experience. Before going into the review, I should warn you, gentle reader. I wanted to just say that my experience tonight was mostly in-line with previous visits. The food was hot and delicious. That being said, knowing how good past visits have been, I was a little more hypercritical than normal.
I gambled showing up on a Wednesday night at 7 pm without a reservation; fortunately, they weren't too busy. I was seated by the long window in the bar area, with just enough sunlight left outside to be able to go flash-free on my camera. After settling me at my table, my server filled me in on the daily specials and left me with the menu to decide what I wanted for dinner.
Soon she returned with the Prime at Anthe's signature side dishes, the bean salad:
And several of their homemade sourdough rolls:
I won't go into elaborate descriptions of either of these (because I've already done it) except to say that tonight's version was definitely on par with previous visits.
On tonight's specials menu, two appetizers were being offered. First were chicken wings, which, oddly seemed to be a little too low brow for a place like Prime at Anthe's. Second were fried oysters served over a bed of fried spinach and served with a chipotle aioli. Now that definitely sounded interesting.
Not exactly knowing what I wanted for my entrée, I went ahead and placed an order for the oysters while I finished making up my mind. Here was a shot of the oysters when they arrived at my table:
The oysters had been batter dipped and deep-fried. They outer coating was shatteringly crisp and they were not at all greasy. The seasoning was also spot on. My only real complaint was that because there was so much batter (and I do love fried batter), the flavor of the oyster got a little lost. Whereas the fried oysters worked well in the dish, the fried spinach didn't work as well for me. The spinach was definitely crispy, but compared to the expertly-fried oysters, it was a bit too greasy and underseasoned. It was a lovely color contrast to the oysters and aioli, but there was just too much of it. Perhaps doing a chiffonade of fried spinach and sprinkling it over the top of the oysters would've been a more effectual way to garnish the plate.
The chipotle aioli sat at the center of the plate:
Before tasting the oysters, I dipped the tines of my fork into the sauce and tasted it. I was quite surprised at what I tasted. While definitely creamy (and a nice foil for the crispy oysters), what I didn't taste was the smokiness from the chipotle peppers. Quick to check on my culinary knowledge, I looked up the Wikipedia page for chipotle chiles and confirmed that yes, a chipotle was a smoked, dried jalapeño chile. What I tasted in its place, and was certainly confirmed by the presence of bright red chili pieces in the sauce, was the presence of a sweet chili sauce, much like the kind I've used in the past in my own cooking. I tasted the dip several times to confirm my discovery and even asked my server a second time to confirm that the dip was supposed to be a chipotle aioli. Regardless of this nomenclature issue, the sauce was actually quite tasty and worked well with the fried oysters.
When my server had stopped at my table to drop off my appetizer, I had decided to order the Pan-Fried Walleye with a side of the creamy risotto. Knowing that I was already getting full from the pre-appetizer beans and roll and then most of my appetizer, I asked my server if she wouldn't mind boxing my salad to go so that I could eat it later. She agreed and later on that night I enjoyed a mixed green salad with their homemade red wine vinaigrette. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture before starting, but while the salad was tasty and fresh, there wasn't anything particularly unusual about it.
While waiting for the kitchen to prepare my entrée, I sat and listened to the piano player the restaurant had hired for the evening. Shortly thereafter, my entrée arrived:
Here was a close-up of the pan-seared walleye with a bacon, leek, and scallion cream sauce ladled over the fillet:
Since the sauce had only been ladled over the middle of the fillet, I was able to taste a bite of fish from each end of the fillet. I was happy to discover that on the thicker end of the walleye, it was cooked to perfection. Moist, juicy and just translucent, the fish melted in my mouth. Sadly, the fish at the thicker end wasn't seasoned enough. Conversely, the thinner end yielded a drier piece of fish, but more properly seasoned. Fortunately the sauce on top of the fish had enough salt that when combined with the thicker pieces, it lent enough salinity to correct the seasoning on the fish.
Next to the walleye was a large mound of creamy risotto:
While most risottos feature a signature flavor, Prime at Anthe's version lacked a distinctive flavor other than from the Parmesan cheese. The taste of the risotto was good, but the texture bordered on being a cheesy rice casserole instead of a risotto. Many people forget that most of the creaminess in a risotto comes from the starch in the rice released during the cooking process rather than the cheese added at the very end. As I lifted a forkful of risotto from the plate, cheese strands were short, but clearly visible. This told me that much of the creaminess that Prime at Anthe's was hoping to achieve was through the use of extra cheese and not from the starches that are naturally released during cooking.
Lastly, the only remaining items on the plate were the lemon wedge and the cup of homemade tartar sauce:
The lemon wedge was understandable as there was a lot of cream and cheese on my plate tonight and a little bit of acidity could bring balance if I chose to use it. The tartar sauce really threw me, however. Traditionally served with fried fish, it seemed superfluous with tonight's selection, especially given that the fish was served with a reduced cream sauce. While I have nothing against the tartar sauce, per se, and in fact I've had it with other meals here at Prime and it was quite good, it definitely felt oddly out of place on tonight's plate.
I know that picking on the choice of whether to include a cup of tartar sauce may sound hypercritical (and, hey, I did warn you up front, didn't I?). My explanation is that Prime at Anthe's is poised at a price and quality point where every single component on a plate needs to be evaluated. It isn't enough to just have the food taste good, but everything on the place must harmonize with each other and have a point in being there.
After asking for the remainder of my meal to be boxed up, I paid the check, left a business card with a short note to the chef on the back questioning the name "chipotle aioli" and walked back out into the now menacing skyline, threatening to unleash a torrent of rain that would come just a short time later.
While I enjoyed my meal tonight at Prime at Anthe's, there were a few things that I felt were off. Cleveland is blessed with a myriad of really great mid to high-end restaurants. In Akron, I feel we are not quite as blessed with the vast selection, so when I find the gems, I like to hang on to them. When people ask me for Akron-based selections, I have in the past and will continue to recommend Prime at Anthe's, despite the reaction I get from most people who thought that the restaurant had lost its sparkle many, many years ago. I want people to experience the same wonder and amazement I have enjoyed over the last year. My nitpicking, while admittedly a little annoying, is simply my way of pointing out to the kitchen staff that even though they are producing some solid dishes, with just a little bit more tweaking, the results could go from pretty darn good to fantastic.