Monday, October 11, 2010

A Surprising Lack Of Virtue At Virtues Restaurant

If negativity turns you off, gentle reader, you can stop reading right now. It has been my experience since I started reviewing restaurants on my blog that most of my experiences fall somewhere in the middle, with the restaurant doing some things right and some things wrong. It is the very rare occasion that a restaurant blows me away or severely disappoints me.

Tonight's visit to Virtues Restaurant was the result of fulfilling the idea that came to me during this year's Taste of Akron. Instead of trying to sample and write about two dozen different vendors, I had the idea to sample the cuisine of three or four restaurants at which I hadn't eaten or reviewed and then follow that up with a formal review of the restaurant experience itself. Having already done this for Bistro on Main and Piatto Novo, the final restaurant on the docket was Virtues.

Virtues was located in the Ann and David Brennan Critical Care building, itself located inside the much larger Summa Akron City Hospital complex. Technically, the address for the restaurant was 525 East Market Street, Akron, OH 44304 and they can be reached at 330-375-7444. They also have a website here (warning: Heavy Flash content with music). While there was a front entrance for the restaurant and their website indicated that valet parking was available, I choose instead to park in the garage off of Adams Street and navigate my way through the hospital to find the entrance to the restaurant. The parking garage did cost money ($3), but the restaurant validated my parking when I requested it at the end of my meal.

Here was a shot of the entrance to Virtues:

Entrance to Virtues Restaurant
Once inside the main entrance, I was greeted by an open and expansive space with the kitchen in full view. Looking around, it appeared to be a rather slow Wednesday night with less than one quarter of the tables filled with guests. After the hostess sat me at my table, she handed me the menu and asked for my drink order. After she left to fill it, I surreptitiously snapped photographs of the menu:

Virtues' Menu Page 1
Virtues' Menu Page 2
Virtues' Menu Page 3
Virtues' Menu Page 4
Virtues Menu Page 5
While the first page of actual menu items appeared to change weekly (which I appreciated), the rest of the menu only somewhat resembled the menu posted on their website. I was happy to see that many of the menu items came in full and half sizes, not so much because I was concerned about cost, but as a food writer, I love being able to sample more items if the sizes of the dishes are smaller. A note on the menu: the red circles with the phrase "Just This" in them refer to healthier choices. I couldn't find a legend on the menu that explained this, but the hostess who had originally sat me explained that it was on the display outside the restaurant.

The first sign of a problem was the lone waiter who seemed to be running from table to table, never quite able to get everything accomplished he set out to do. In fact, after waiting about ten minutes without any acknowledgement from him that I was even sitting at the table, the hostess who seated me stopped back over and asked if I had been helped yet. After I indicated that I hadn't, she walked away and returned a few minutes later with an order pad in her hand and asked if I was ready to order. Seeing as this might be my only opportunity to order my dinner, I took advantage of the situation. I decided tonight to do a three course meal: a butternut squash risotto with seared scallops to start, a half order of the barbecued Thai chicken watermelon and goat cheese salad for my intermezzo, and finish up with a full order of the Bell and Evans organic chicken over hand cut tagliatelle.

I'm not sure that the hostess actually entered the order into the computer herself as she flagged down one of the other servers who happened to be working a small private party in the back of the restaurant. Realizing that there were actually two servers working the floor, it made even less sense why the first server I spotted was having such a problem keeping up with the tables in the front of the restaurant. I don't know if bread service was standard, but I do know that I saw baskets of bread on other tables and I never received one.

After about fifteen more minutes, a second woman who was neither the hostess nor a server started walking towards my table. Apparently my salad had arrived before my appetizer:

BBQ Thai Chicken, Watermelon, and Goat Cheese Salad
Expecting the first course to be the risotto, I was a little surprised to receive the salad first, but I thought I'd give the kitchen the benefit of the doubt and just roll with the punches. What the menu didn't say was that this was a Barbecue Thai chicken, watermelon, and goat cheese salad over spinach. Since I love raw spinach, this wasn't a big deal, but conceptually I had envisioned a different dish than what was put in front of me.

Let's talk about the positives first. The chicken was cooked all the way through. The spinach leaves had been dressed properly (not too much dressing) and weren't wilted. Now let's talk about the negatives. The dressed spinach lacked salt. The watermelon chunks still had seeds in them. The chicken was literally smothered in a thick sauce only vaguely tasting of peanuts and unlike any Thai flavors that I've ever come across. In fact, not only was it unlike any other Thai flavors I've had before, but it was simply bad. I don't know if the more-than-judicious use of the sauce on the chicken satay skewers amplified the effect, but I can tell you that this is a flavor I am not eager to try again.

Halfway through my salad, my risotto arrived in more ways than one:

Butternut Squash Risotto with Seared Scallops
A little annoyed that the kitchen couldn't stagger the courses better at this level of dining establishment, I was even more surprised that the dish that had been placed at the opposite side of the table gave off an ammoniated smell so strong that I sat straight up in my seat. My mind was suddenly flooded with memories of walking through standard supermarket grocery stores with fish counters where the fish wasn't exactly "fresh." The kind where there is almost an invisible fish-smell "shield" that keeps you from getting too close.

I finished up my salad and switched the position of the two plates, so I could better inspect the risotto. Visually, the dish looked nice. It had been garnished with two sprigs of fresh thyme, a nice touch indicating that the herb used in the actual risotto would also be thyme. The two generous scallops had been seared to a nice golden crust on the outside. I cut one of the scallops in half and took a picture of the interior:

Scallop Interior
While I usually prefer my scallops on the rare side, given the smell coming off of them, I was actually hoping that they were cooked a little more than rare. Had these been pristine scallops, I would've gladly gobbled these closer-to-raw-than-rare beauties down. Mustering up my courage, I took a bite. I was moderately happy to discover that the ammonia odor I had detected earlier was much more muted in flavor. That, however, was primarily due to the fact that the scallops had been so oversalted that no other flavor could co-exist. The delicate sweetness that fresh scallops were supposed to have was nowhere to be found. I gave up on the scallops and decided to focus on the risotto underneath the disappointing bivalves.

It was at this moment that the server who had been working the private party in the rear of the restaurant approached me with my main entrée, the pan roasted chicken over tagliatelle. Having taken only a single bite out of the risotto (and a not very pleasant one at that), I looked up at him and said, "Seriously?" It was at that moment I realized that not only were there serious problems in the kitchen, but also that no one seemed to be in charge of managing courses in the front of house either. He mentioned that he would have the kitchen hold the dish until I was ready. While I appreciated the gesture, I also realized that the likely success of holding a freshly cooked pasta dish under a heat lamp for another ten minutes was approximately zero to none.

I turned my attention back to the risotto. While the risotto definitely had a better flavor than the scallops adorning it, the butternut squash suffered from two flaws. First, the squash had been cut into a brunoise and the tiny cubes, while evenly cut, didn't lend much flavor to the risotto itself. Second, after gathering up four or five bits of butternut squash on my fork to see if I could get some actual butternut squash flavor, I discovered as I mashed the soft squares between my tongue and the roof of my mouth that they were actually gritty.

Still hungry, I left the other 1 1/2 scallops and finished the remainder of the risotto. Personally, I would have loved to seen the kitchen roast the butternut squash cubes, thus intensifying their flavor and adding a bit of crusty caramelized exterior to achieve some nice texture. After I finished with the risotto, I wanted to make sure that there was no mistaking that I was ready for my third course: I placed the plate on the place mat opposite mine. This apparently worked as I had hoped because only a few minutes later, my entrée arrived via the same server who had brought it previously.

Here was a shot of the Pan Roasted Bell and Evans Chicken over Tagliatelle:

Pan Roasted Bell and Evans Chicken over Tagliatelle
As my server set this down in front of me, he helpfully added, "I had the kitchen re-fire the dish." While this pasta dish was available in both half and full sizes, I opted to go with the larger size figuring that I could take any leftovers home with me. One of my first thoughts was that it seemed like a rather small bowl of pasta and chicken for $17. Thinking that maybe the kitchen had made a half order instead of a full one, I asked my server. He confirmed that it was indeed the full size order.

When the server then asked if I would like freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top, I agreed. Pulling out a Zyliss-like rotary cheese grater, instead of grating the cheese on top of the pasta, he held it upside down, grated a copious amount of cheese, and then dumped the entire mass on top of my pasta. I'm not quite sure what the server was thinking as the end result was that I wasn't able to control how much cheese was added. It was either none or way too much. At this point in the meal, however, nothing seemed to surprise me any more.

Instead of cooking an entire chicken breast and then slicing the cooked protein and fanning it over top of the pasta, the kitchen had actually cooked up several smaller individual pieces of chicken. While the sear on the outside of the chicken was nice, that's where the pleasantries stopped. Not only was the chicken uniformly grossly underseasoned, but because of the thickness of the "tenders," it was wholly dried out as well. The rest of the ingredients in the bowl didn't fare much better. The spinach, tomatoes, and roasted red pepper strips were also underseasoned and the sauce pooled at the bottom of the bowl was thin and watery. While the sprig of fresh rosemary garnishing the top of the pasta added a nice herbaceous nose to the dish, it turned out that there wasn't any rosemary actually in the pasta.

The tagliatelle went from okay (a single strand from the top of the dish) to grossly overcooked (the pasta sitting in the watery sauce at the bottom of the dish) and falling apart. Sadly, there were more clumps of doughy pasta than not:

Clumped Fresh Pasta
I ate as much of this as I could, but probably ended up leaving about a third of the clumped pasta behind. During none of the courses did anyone check to see how my meal was, but the hostess who seated me did stop by and refill my water glass once or twice. I asked two separate employees if the chef was working tonight and I never did receive a consistent answer. Based on the photo of Chef Frank Zifer on the Virtues website, I don't believe he was. Or if he was, he certainly wasn't running the pass. Whomever was in charge (and given the abject failure of both the front and back of house I'm not entirely sure someone was), did an awful job in terms of quality control and course timing.

Everything said and done, with tip and tax, my dinner tonight came to just slightly under $40. I can say without doubt that I've had better meals at one eighth this price. So many people right now are having to watch every penny they spend because of the continued downturn in the economy. While I am in a fortunate position that I can spend $40 on a single meal, I am seriously hesitant to return to this comedy of errors, much less recommend it. While many would be quick to write off my experience as the restaurant just having a bad night, I find that I cannot recommend a restaurant where so much seemed to be so wrong. The fact that I spent $40 for the privilege makes me feel like someone was rubbing salt in an open wound.

Chef Zifer, Virtues needs direction. I am certainly willing to do another review (anonymously, of course), but not before some quite serious issues are addressed.

[Ed. Note: I felt so underwhelmed by my experience at Virtues that I did something I rarely do: I contacted the General Manager, Dan Dewitt, and forwarded him a rough copy of this review before its publication today. He freely admitted that the night that I went and experienced my meal was a completely off night for the restaurant and understandably asked that I give the restaurant another chance before printing anything negative on my blog.

While I certainly am not egotistical enough to think that this blog entry will reach millions of readers out there on the Internet, I also realize that the words that I write have impact. At the same time, I feel duty-bound to my readers and to the several hundred other restaurants that I've reviewed that, good or bad, the review is an accurate reflection of the experience I had.

Based on the feedback I've had from other foodies familiar with the heights that Virtues has attained in the past, as well as the statement I made at the end of this review, I actually do intend to do a follow-up visit. Even though it's difficult to overlook first impressions, I will approach it with as much of the same critical eye and objectivity as I tried to do here.]

Virtues on Urbanspoon

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