Monday, August 2, 2010

Dinner For Thirteen At Vaccaro's Trattoria

I suppose that no one, restaurants included, can ignore the laws of physics: For everything that goes up, it must eventually come down.

I have written numerous times (here, here, here, here, here, and here) about my adventures eating at Vaccaro's Trattoria. In fact, when asked, I have also recommended them numerous times to friends and family who are looking for an Akron-based restaurant that serves upscale food without being pretentious or stuffy. While I stand by every single word I've ever written about my previous experiences at Vaccaro's, I have to admit that I have had several people who had taken my suggestion later return to tell me that their experiences weren't as stellar as mine. While my gut reaction is to respond that every kitchen has an off night now and again, I feel like saying this makes me an easy target to be labeled an apologist.

Since landing on Raphael Vaccaro's radar last summer after my first review, I have had an interesting relationship with him. I now understand why professional food critics must keep personal distance between themselves and the restaurants, chefs, and owners that they review. I can surmise that any restaurant, not just Vaccaro's, wants to hear nothing but praise for their efforts. And as much as I want to say, "they just had an off night," and leave it at that, it would be unfair to those of you who have chosen to place value in what I say about this and other eateries that I have reviewed.

I contacted Raphael about six weeks ago to float the idea by him of a prix fixe dinner. We decided on six courses at $40 per person with beverages, tax, and tip extra. He was to take care of the menu and I would be coordinating the guests. Immediately, a Facebook event went up detailing the time, location, and a description of the dinner and I invited seventy of my closest friends whom I thought might be so inclined as to participate in such a meal. While the number guests constantly fluctuated between the time I sent the invitation and just two hours before our meal, in the end thirteen of us showed up, the notions of what to expect having been set by either previous visits to the restaurant or bolstered by the menu that Raphael had sent out roughly one week prior.

Here was the menu that Raphael had sent me:

Course 1

Soup and Sandwich: Smoked Tomato Bisque / Mini Grilled Cheese Panini

Course 2

Baby Arugula / Fresh Citrus / Scamorza / Cirignolo Olives / Cinzano Vinaigrette

Course 3

Fried Green Tomato / Shrimp & Langostino

Course 4

Local Heirloom Tomato Sauce / Fiocchetti Pasta all Uovo Primavera

Course 5

Surprise Main Course

Course 6

Housemade Ricotta with Lemon Mousse / Fresh Berry Compote / Toasted Saviordi

I was excited to see that all of our courses tonight (well, with the exception of course five) would be totally off-menu. It isn't that I don't like their current menu, but it was nice that for our dinner party, we would be having something just a little bit different.

I arrived about five minutes before the starting time to find an already half-filled table. After seating myself next to my date, the sharp witted and ever-so-slightly irascible Miss Penny (of Dante fame), our server for the evening approached me and referenced me by first name. I had never met this particular server before, so either he had done some research on his own or Raphael had prepped him about our dinner party this evening. Service tonight was good when our server was around, but as he was taking care of more than just our table, there were definite lags when he was occupied with his other guests. On several occasions, diners were left with courses sitting in front of them with inadequate silverware to consume the food.

In what was to be a bit of foreshadowing for this evening's meal, bread and dipping oil arrived at our table shortly after 6:00 PM. Unfortunately, no bread plates accompanied the bread. When we finally managed to track our server down, he explained that there had been a miscommunication and there wasn't even supposed to be bread on the table. When asked about the possibility of getting some bread plates, he surprised most of the people at my end of the table by saying that they had actually run out. Really? I guess it was fortuitous that they had accidentally brought the bread because we didn't get our first course until forty-five minutes later at 6:45 PM. People began nibbling bread sans plate to ward off the rumblings in their stomachs.

While the $40 per person was just for the prix fixe menu, I decided to order a glass of the Gavi di Gavi off the wine menu to compliment my dinner:

Miss Penny had requested a white wine that was somewhere between dry and sweet and having had this before, I knew it would be an excellent choice. While my goal wasn't to pick a single glass of wine that would go with every course (especially considering I had no idea what course number five would be), I did want an easily drinkable wine that wouldn't interfere too much with the flavors of the food. In that respect, this was an excellent pick.

When the first course finally arrived, I had my second inkling that there might be continued problems with our meal. Here was the course that Raphael had titled, "Soup and Sandwich":

To the left was a bowl of fire-roasted tomato bisque:

And to the right was a deep-fried panko crusted cheese sandwich with an assortment of cheeses including a smoky scamorza and creamy chevre:

The problem with this dish wasn't in the flavor; in fact, the flavors were actually quite good. It was the size of the dish. For a first course, it was enormous. In fact, Miss Penny commented that were she eating a normal dinner at home, this amount of food would've been more than enough for an entire meal. It's never a good sign when diners are requesting take-out containers for leftovers on the very first course.

The tomato bisque was actually quite good. It was a bit rustic in texture, and the smoky, tart, and sweet flavors from the fire-roasted tomatoes balanced each other quite well. The smokiness from the scamorza was easily discernible and the creamy zing from the goat cheese added extra layers of flavor to the sandwich. The panko crusted and deep-fried aspects of the sandwich made it unusual, but tasty.

Our second dish was the salad course:

Comprised of baby arugula, escarole, small planks of Fontina, grapefruit sections, supremed orange wedges, raspberries, and strawberries, it had been dressed with a Cinzano vinaigrette. Strangely missing were the Cirignolo olives the menu had described. While I love bitter flavors and I know how much Raphael loves to play with bitter elements on the plate, I know it was too bitter for some of the guests. The sweetness from the fresh fruit helped to tame some of the bitterness, but in addition to being too bitter, several of the diners thought the salad was too salty as well. Personally, I felt that the salt level in my salad was fine and suggested that maybe because of the extreme bitterness, it somehow enhanced the sensitivity to additional salt when there really wasn't any. Or perhaps, the salad had been dressed in two separate batches, and one batch did actually receive more salt than the other. As with our first course, I ended up eating only half of my salad in an attempt to pace myself. While I appreciated this dish, I also know it wasn't universally enjoyed.

Our third dish arrived and I was happy to see that the portion size was much better suited to a six course tasting menu:

While the original menu that Raphael had sent me indicated that there would be fried green tomatoes on the plate, what arrived was a baked ring of squash, called cucuzza, that had been filled with a shrimp and langostino salad, dressed with a bit of Balsamico and studded with several long strands of chives. The cucuzza was actually quite delicious and had an almost baked eggplant flavor to it. It was just the tiniest bit sweet and the texture was soft without being mushy. The seafood salad was dressed nicely and the slight sweetness from the shrimp and langostino complimented the acidity from the Balsamico. I enjoyed the delicacy of this dish; Miss Penny did not.

By the time our fourth course arrived, we had been at the restaurant for a good two hours. Tables around us had already been turned once and were now being occupied by a secondary round of guests. It became clear that we were obviously in for an entire evening of food. Here was our fourth course:

This was a local heirloom tomato marinara that topped fiocchetti all uovo, an egg-based pasta which when I originally did some research on the Internet thought it was shaped more like farfalle. Clearly that page had been incorrect because tonight's pasta was definitely not in the shape of bow-ties. A grating of fresh cheese topped the pasta and the entire dish was adorned with a single fresh basil leaf.

First, the good. I loved the tomato sauce. As did everyone around me, too. The sharpness from the aged cheese was also a welcome addition as it provided a bit of saltiness and depth of flavor that matched the marinara well. Second, the not-so-good. While I personally didn't have a problem with the texture of my pasta, others around me felt it was cooked a little too al dente (or perhaps undercooked might be a better adjective) and wished it had been cooked just a minute longer. Given that the texture was probably not what you would've received had this been ordered off of their regular menu, I'll have to concede this point to my guests. Had this been just a meal out with a couple of friends and not part of a prix fixe dinner, the pasta more than likely would've been sent back to the kitchen and re-fired.

The problem that I DID have with this dish was one that is all too common at other Italian restaurants and I was surprised to encounter it here tonight:

What you see in the above photo was the amount of water at the bottom of the dish after I had eaten the pasta. At first I had thought that maybe it was liquid from the marinara, but given how thick and uniform in color the marinara was, I surmise that this liquid was a result of not draining the pasta well enough after cooking. Besides diluting the marinara somewhat, it also made the pasta a little more difficult to eat as the potential for shirt-staining drips became more likely.

We finally arrived at the mystery course for tonight's dinner, course number five:

This course turned out to be a thickly cut lamb tenderloin still on the bone served over creamy mashed potatoes and topped with an apricot compote. As I cut into the lamb, I was rewarded with a beautiful medium-rare steak:

This dish really worked for me. While the first two courses had been enormous, this was the perfect little bit of meat and potatoes. The potatoes were seasoned on point and the richness of the lamb paired really well with the subtle sweetness from the apricot compote. There was very little gaminess to the meat and if you hadn't been told, it would've been easy to confuse this with a beef loin. Of course, the presence of the bone at the other end of the chop might've been a dead giveaway, too. Sadly, Miss Penny's cut was just a bit too rare for her taste and another diner's cut was too well done. Had the two dishes been switched, both diners would've been happier. Bad luck of the draw, I suppose.

By the time the sixth, and final, course arrived, we had headed into hour three of our experience. Fortunately, the dessert was on the smaller side as well:

From the menu Raphael had originally sent, I knew that this was supposed to be a housemade ricotta and lemon mousse with a fresh berry compote and toasted Saviordi. The Saviordi actually took its place atop the dish as finely crumbled Lady Fingers. Both myself and others around me felt like the restrained level of sweetness in this dessert was really one of the best aspects about it. The ricotta added a depth of flavor to the mousse, but none of us really got any lemon flavor. The fruit and syrup from the compote added a nice acidity to the subtle sweetness of the mousse. I was happy to see that there were many empty martini glasses by the time we finished the dessert course.

Noting the time that I finished my dessert, I realized that we had been there for three and a half hours. While it occasionally felt like the distance between courses was belabored at times, I finished the meal feeling full, but not overly so. At the very least, it had given all of us a chance to share quite a bit of time talking with each other, which I suppose is the other positive aspect of planning a dinner party for thirteen people. I was impressed that our server seemed to know who received individual checks and who received checks for two and even more so that he apparently got it completely right on the first pass.

Overall, I will say that I enjoyed my meal tonight, although not as much as other dinners I have eaten in the past. Based on the dishes I was served, I felt that there were both good and disappointing points to our meal. The feedback I received from other diners in our party ranged from very good to disappointing. And while I certainly am not writing a review on my blog from someone else's point of view, I think it is helpful to consider the entire range of tonight's dining experiences so that you get a more balanced view should you decide to entertain the idea of going to Vaccaro's for a meal yourself.

I personally intend to continue patronizing Vaccaro's Trattoria, but I know that based on some of the comments other diners made tonight, that might not be the case for them. As I mentioned earlier, tonight was the first major meal where I had experienced this level of inconsistency and having eaten at and written about them for over a year now, I know that the kitchen is capable of such wonderful cuisine. In the end, my hope is that they can work these inconsistencies out.


DianeS said...

That was an incredibly fair and balanced assessment of what was a much less than stellar dinner. I hope that your observations are heard with an open mind and addressed.

Nancy R said...

I wrote a long comment here.. then had to sign up for a google account and when got back to this point, my previous words went POOF!

so quickly and perhaps not as artful... I personally enjoyed my meal at the slow pace. Other than the sort of slow start, I really like the l o n g drawn out time for this type of thing.

The first course was my 2nd most favorite and the yummy grilled lamb easily No. 1. Now the next day when I had a fab grilled cheeses sandwich left overs for breakfast it might have moved up to no 1 spot.

Thank you Tom for organizing..

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