Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Join Me At The Taste of Akron 2010

Bare with me as I channel my inner Snoopy: It was to be a dark and stormy night.

Fortunately, the foreboding weather held off long enough during this year's Taste of Akron event in Hardesty Park near the intersection of Market and Hawkins that thousands of people were able to try out an array of foods from local restaurants and caterers. This being the fourth year of the Taste, it has steadily grown in both the number of vendors and attendees every year. While my normal method of documenting such an event would be to try out and photo-document something from each vendor, I knew that with two dozen different places to try and a limited amount of time, stomach space, and money, I needed a different strategy.

After parking my car on one of the surrounding streets, I walked up to the ticket booth to purchase my food tickets. Tickets were only $2 a piece, but I have come to learn that it is better to be cautious on how many you initially buy because they are not refundable. No money was actually exchanged with vendors for food, only tickets. Depending on the size or expense of the item, each dish at a restaurant was either one, two, or three tickets ($2, $4, or $6).

As I approached the entrance, I saw a list of the vendors inside:

As opposed to previous years, this year there was a spot for strollers to be left just outside the tent to help avoid the clogged lines of people. This was definitely a positive change from last year when during the busy time (and there really wasn't a non-busy time), you not only had to navigate through the crowds of people, but the double-wide strollers were a bit annoying, too. Knowing how hot it can feel in the tent, fans were placed strategically at both ends. This helped somewhat when you were at either end of the tent, but right in the middle, it was definitely still hot and muggy.

As I strolled around looking at each vendors' offerings, I decided to pick restaurants that I was interested in doing a formal review at some point in the future. I considered tonight sort of a "preview," if you will, of what to expect at an actual meal.

As such, I came up to Piatto Novo and decided that they would be my first stop tonight:

If you look closely at the menu offerings, you can see the start of a major trend in the food this year, sliders. Unfortunately, none of the "sliders" that I saw or ate were truly sliders as none of the buns were steamed. I know, picky picky, but at best, these were just small sandwiches on buns.

Regardless, I decided on going with the Italian Beef slider:

Sadly, there was no spicy giardiniera to put on top of the sliced meat, but out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a jar of Sriracha sauce. Score!

As I took a bite into my sandwich, I noticed how dry (not necessarily stale, just not moist) the bun tasted. In a true Italian Beef sandwich, the customer is given the option of having the sandwich dipped in the jus. While the lack of giardiniera was disappointing, a dipped sandwich would've gone a long way from taking a good sandwich and making it even better. That being said, the meat was nicely cooked and tender and was flavorful. With the addition of the Sriracha, it even had a little bit of the heat that I associate with a properly made Italian Beef sandwich.

My second stop tonight was to Bistro on Main. Technically from Kent and not Akron, I've been hearing some interesting feedback about this restaurant and intend to check them out soon.

While the green menu being handed out at the tent's entrance stated that the Bistro was serving up cheesecake, popcorn shrimp, and a short rib slider, in reality, they were serving a seared scallop with avocado and roasted corn orzo and a second dish, a baby blue salad. I decided to go with the seared scallop:

It is hard to hold seafood for any length of time, so I was a bit skeptical about how good this might actually be. When I got back to my seat, I cut open one of the scallops to reveal a nicely cooked exterior and translucent interior:

First, I tasted the avocado and roasted corn orzo. While the orzo was good, I didn't get a whole lot of flavor from the roasted corn. The scallop, which had been seasoned before being seared, had just the right amount of punch to make this a successful dish. And while some might argue that the scallop was the star of the dish and the orzo should play second fiddle, I felt like the orzo could've used a bit more personality. All in all, though, this was a nice dish.

My third stop tonight was at a rather unusual venue, Virtues Restaurant (warning: Flash content with sound). What makes Virtues unusual was that it was located inside Akron City Hospital. While it would make sense that visitors might want an upscale meal while visiting friends or relatives, it still felt a little strange to think about going to a hospital for dinner if you or someone you know wasn't sick.

Regardless, here was a shot of the items being offered at Virtues' stand tonight:

While the sea scallop sounded good, having just eaten a scallop at Bistro on Main and the fact that I only had two tickets left in my pocket made me choose the BBQ Bison slider. Here was a shot of the sandwich:

I tasted the bacon blue cheese slaw by itself and found it to be quite interesting. The smokiness from the bacon and the sharpness from the blue cheese were present, but not overpowering. I don't know that I'd be able to eat this as a standard side dish, but as a topping it worked quite well. I also tried a bit of the BBQ sauce. By itself, it had a decent flavor, but when combined with the coleslaw, it got lost. The worst part of this sandwich was the actual bison meatball. It was rather dry and uninspired. This slider was also the only item that I had tonight where I had to reassemble the sandwich so I could eat it. Whomever had assembled the sliders thought it would be artful to put the coleslaw behind the meatball instead of on top of it. It looked nice, but was definitely not mouth ready.

Having had my trio of savory, I decided to finish up tonight's tour with something sweet. When I saw that Vaccaro's Trattoria was sporting a hotel pan full of cannoli, I decided to stop and pick one up:

While the famous Godfather quote did flash through my mind, tonight I decided to leave the tickets and take a cannolo instead. Here was a shot of my dessert tonight:

Fried dough can get a little soft in humid weather like today, but Vaccaro's cannolo was shatteringly crisp and fresh. The filling, a slightly sweetened ricotta concoction with bits of chocolate was tasty and refreshing. It was sweet without being too sweet and the coldness of the cheese was a welcome relief on such a warm July day.

After finishing up my meal, I wandered over to a separate area where West Point Market was hosting another annual "The Finest Cut" steak cook-off. A friend and fellow food blogger at Dad Cooks Dinner, Mike Vrobel, had won last year and was entering his newest creation in this year's contest in hopes of walking away with another title.

Here was a shot of Mike presenting his finished steak to the judges (Lisa Abraham, food writer for the Akron Beacon Journal and tonight's MC was on the right):

This year he entered the contest with a grilled ribeye steak served with a chipotle lime butter. While there wasn't a general audience tasting (just the judges), Mike did have a few samples left over after he presented his steak to the judging panel and I have to say, it was perfectly cooked and seasoned. While he didn't present any of the reduced sauces and accoutrement that some of the other contestants had, he presented his steak as I would have preferred it, simple, seasoned nicely, and cooked to a wonderful medium rare.

I won't spoil it here, but Mike wrote up the results of the contest on his blog. Click on the link if you want to see what happened.

Having tried four different tastes at this year's Taste of Akron, I am very much looking forward to sampling some of the food at each of the respective restaurants sometime in the near future. While the Taste of Akron is finished for this year, I encourage you to check it out next year. The event is always on a Thursday, late in July, and really does showcase some of the best eateries that Akron and the surrounding communities have to offer. Make sure the Taste of Akron is on your list of events for next summer, you won't regret it.


John K. said...

I was one of the eight finalists at the steak coo-off as well. I didn't place, but it was a great experience, a lot of fun, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Enjoyed meeting Mike (I'm a regular reader of both blogs), and the other contestants. I thought I saw you there while Mike was presenting his steak, but didn't get a chance to say hello. Next time...

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

Tom, it was great to finally meet you in person. Thank you for stopping in to say hello. I'm sorry if I was a rushed at the time...but I was a little busy!

I had a great time at the cook-off, sharing cooking tips with my fellow contestants (Hi, John K!). It's a lot of fun to get a group of fanatic cooks together - we just can't help sharing tips and recipes.

My only regret was that I didn't get to do the taste of Akron. I had a sandwich, but it was more for sustenance than anything else - I was too wrapped up in the cooking competition to pay attention. Next year I'll have to make a point of getting something good to eat.

Tino said...

@John K.: So sorry I missed you, I would've like to have met you in person. Next year, definitely!

@MikeV: No problems. I knew you were busy and didn't want to throw you off your game. I can imagine that with all the nervous energy that comes with being in a competition, it would be easy to forget how much food is all around you.

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