Up until now, I have not had good success in obtaining a meal from Wooster's South Market Bistro. The first time I went, I had mistakenly used information from the Yahoo page I looked up on the Internet and hadn't verified that they still had lunch hours. Upon showing up to their doorstep (yes, yes, gentle reader, I should've called to confirm) for a mid-day meal, I quickly learned that no, they did not have lunch hours. Of course, this led to the wonderful discovery of both the Broken Rocks Bakery & Cafe and Tulipan Pastry & Coffee Shop just across the street. My second attempt at having a meal at South Market fared no better. While I did show up during the correct business hours, unfortunately, the entire restaurant had been booked for a special event and they weren't able to accommodate guests not on the list. Sigh.
So now, more than a year later, I decided to give my luck just one more try and showed up on a Friday night at 5:45 PM with no reservation. I hoped that I would be early enough that I could slip in and out before the tables filled up. As I drove past the restaurant, I was happy to see that most of the tables by the front window were devoid of patrons: a good sign (at least for me). I parked on the street and walked north about a block until I was standing outside the front entrance to the restaurant:
South Market Bistro was located at 151 South Market Street, Wooster, OH 44691 and can be reached at 330-264-3663. Parking was pretty much wherever you could find it, but fortunately, if you manage to find a spot on the street, there appears to be a generous three hour limit, so you shouldn't feel rushed to get in and out.
As I walked in the front door, I was greeted with a single room, longer than wide, and an semi-open kitchen at the rear of the room just past a small bar area. As my eyes adjusted to the new level of light, I realized that other than myself, there were only two other patrons currently in the restaurant and they were both sitting on stools at the bar. Unless the restaurant had lots of clients showing up right at 6:00 PM, I reasoned that accommodating a walk-in would be just fine. One of the servers greeted me with a smile and when I asked if they had room for me, she responded with an enthusiastic, "Absolutely." I have a funny feeling that her enthusiasm was due more to the time of my walk-in as a four top did the same thing an hour later and there was some consternation as to whether they could be sat. Handling walk-ins can be a tricky affair since you want to accommodate everyone without penalizing other customers who took the time to call and make a reservation.
Regardless, the server showed me to my table, told me of the daily specials, and left me with a menu to examine:
One of the draws of South Market Bistro was chef and owner Michael Mariola's focus on using local, seasonal ingredients in his dishes. The restaurant's menu felt small in some ways (at only two pages), but looking through the courses, there were at least four or five dishes in each category from which to select. I guess I've gotten so jaded over the years from having to make selections from menus that have entire pages (or two) dedicated to just chicken entrées that finding a menu which was succinct, yet complete, was quite refreshing.
While pondering my dinner choices tonight, my server brought over the bread and butter. Here was a shot of the pre-sliced breads thoughtfully served on a wooden carving board:
As soon as she sat the board down in front of me, I was highly suspicious of the bread on the left. Even though it had been a year and a half since I had eaten it, it looked very much like the European sourdough breads that Broken Rocks was serving. The minute I picked it up, inhaled deeply and took a bite, I was convinced it was the one and very same. The bread to the right was a thinly sliced focaccia with rosemary and crunchy grains of sea salt. When my server stopped back in to take my order, I think I surprised her a little when I asked if the sourdough had come from Broken Rocks. She admitted that it did and then further went on to tell me that the focaccia was made in-house. Both were absolutely tasty and fresh.
Along with my bread, a triangular wedge of softened butter accompanied the board in a small bowl:
I did try the butter on a bit of the sourdough and it tasted, well, buttery. But as Broken Rocks sourdough bread was a truly fantastic bread all on its own, I ended up using very little of the butter.
Seeing as all of the entrées came with a house salad, I decided to order a starter. As I scanned the menu for something suitable, I came across what the menu described as "mussels and fries," but I knew far better as moules frites. Having had this dish at several other Cleveland eateries (including L'Albatros Brasserie), I was excited to try South Main Bistro's version. I was a little concerned because of my disdain for poorly executed hand cut fries, but I put my trust in the kitchen.
After only a short time, I saw my dish placed on the pass and my server grabbed it and walked it over to my table. As she set it down, some pretty amazing scents wafted upward:
Consisting of mussels steamed open in a wine and butter broth with the addition of garlic, leeks, and spinach, it was then topped with super crispy slightly thicker than shoestring fries. The smell was amazing. As I dug into my first shell and retrieved the small nugget of mussel meat, I was rewarded with an incredibly tender and flavorful bite of food. I next turned my attention to the fries. They had clearly been seasoned when they came out of the fryer as the salt was nicely distributed along the entire surface of the fries, not just on the top. I tasted my fries and came upon what would turn out to be a theme running throughout tonight's dinner: salt. The chef running the kitchen liked aggressive seasoning. Not overly salted where I would send it back, but probably more salty than I personally would've used.
Regardless, I hoovered up every last mussel and fry and then used the leftover sourdough bread to mop up as much of the steaming broth as I could muster. It really was that good. Toward the end of my appetizer, I heard my waitress talking to a nearby table who obviously saw what I had ordered and asked her about it. When I overheard her say that the mussels were accompanied with the restaurants signature truffled fries, I thought to myself, "Did I miss something? None of these fries had any truffle flavor of any kind to them."
In fact, when she stopped by to pick up my empty plate, I asked her specifically about the statement she had made to the other table and she confirmed that they were indeed truffled fries. I didn't disagree with her, but it did make me think that maybe I should've tasted them more carefully. I reviewed the photograph of the menu I had taken earlier on my smartphone camera and the menu listing said nothing of truffled fries, even though they were available as a side item.
The mystery was solved when she returned with my house salad with mustard vinaigrette:
It seems that when she took my plate back to the kitchen, she actually asked the chef and he confirmed that the fries served with the mussels were simply seasoned with salt. Phew! I thought my taste buds had taken a hiatus on me. As I turned my attention to my salad, I was happy to see that the greens were only lightly dressed. The croutons appeared to be a small dice of the focaccia I had eaten earlier and then toasted. Several thoughts popped into my head when I started to eat the greens.
While I could definitely tell that the greens were dressed, I got almost no flavor from the vinaigrette. This let the bitterness from the greens shine through. The olives, a welcome addition, added mouthfuls of more salt. On the occasion when I would get a crouton or two, I would get more hits of salt and rosemary. So, as I sat there and ate the salad, the two flavors that kept returning to me were bitterness and salt (there it was again). I don't know that I would call this salad unbalanced, but it definitely could've used a sweet component to it, perhaps some dried fruit.
When my server stopped to check in on me, I asked her which of the gentlemen in the kitchen was in charge.
"Oh, that would be Eric."
"Eric?" I responded. "I thought Mike Mariola was the chef."
She then proceeded to tell me how he rarely spends much time in South Market Bistro anymore after their sister restaurant The City Square Steakhouse opened up two years ago across the street. And, in fact, the chef wasn't spending much time there either since he was looking to open up a new venture, a beer and burger joint, in Fairlawn fairly soon. So, it seemed that he left Eric in charge of the kitchen at South Market Bistro with Eric's wife Liz taking care of various front of house tasks (bartending, hostessing, managing).
She returned just a few minutes later with the risotto I had ordered for my entrée:
Layered into the risotto were some of the same Killbuck Valley shiitake mushrooms I had eaten before at the AMP 150 Mushroom Dinner, fresh spring peas, corn, Mascarpone, garlic, and Parmesan. In addition to the ingredients listed on the menu, fresh greens and carrots had been folded into the risotto as well and it had been topped with a fine chiffonade of fresh tarragon. While I could have had the kitchen add some grilled shrimp for a small upcharge, I decided to go with the vegetarian version that was listed on the menu.
Texturally, this risotto was about as perfect as they come. Creamy, rich, and with just a little resistance in the rice, the bowl of starchy goodness didn't fail to deliver. The individual components such as the corn and green peas exploded with just a bit of vegetal sweetness when I tasted them. This sweetness was critical because as my previous two courses had been, the risotto was once again aggressively seasoned. At first I thought it was okay, but as I dug around to find one of the mushrooms to try on its own, I realized that it had given up its own earthy flavor and had been overtaken by salt.
While I had been fine with the prominence of salty flavor in my first two courses, by this point, I think my tongue must have been suffering from salt fatigue as I only managed to get about half-way through this, even with multiple refills on my water. Of course, the risotto had been quite filling, too, but I knew that I could've eaten more. I chose to stop on purpose because I didn't want to be chugging bottles of water after leaving the restaurant.
I chose to skip dessert today, but managed to get a photograph of the dessert menu so that you could see what was available:
It seemed that Jenis ice creams and sorbets were featured prominently on the menu and while I am a HUGE fan, knowing that I will be stopping in for my yearly fix at the upcoming Ohio Linuxfest in Columbus coming soon, I declined to indulge tonight and simply asked for my check instead. My meal tonight, with tip and tax, came out to roughly $35. Which, for a three course meal, wasn't a terrible deal. I will proffer that I selected one of the more inexpensive entrées, however, and the meat courses will run you about $10 more.
It was clear from my meal that Chef Eric was not afraid of using salt; indeed he was incredibly consistent with it. While this works well for some chefs (such as Jonathon Sawyer at the Greenhouse Tavern), tonight's dinner was truly teetering on the precipice of excessiveness. Which was a shame because the flavors and textures of my food were simply marvelous and were it not for that one issue, I would be jumping up and down, flagging down complete strangers on the street, telling them to make the drive to Wooster to check out this quaint little bistro with its big flavors and seasonal menu. While every other part about my experience tonight was excellent, timidity with seasoning in the kitchen will get you about as far as excessive boldness; a happy medium should be where the restaurant needs to strive.