Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Finding Southern Hospitality At SOHO

Nolan Konkoski first entered my gastronomic world view earlier this year at the Dinner In The Dark Special Edition event that was held to raise money for a scholarship in memory of Matthew Finkel. At the time, SOHO Kitchen & Bar was just an idea that had yet to come to fruition. Regardless, Nolan's concept of "Southern Hospitality" food was warmly embraced by the crowd that evening and many of my fellow food enthusiasts were greatly looking forward to the addition of this unique concept to the Cleveland dining scene.

Fast forward a few months later when I learned that not only was the Cuban-inspired Lelolai closing, but also SOHO had found its home at the same location as the failed bakery and cafe. While there was still no immediate opening date scheduled, I did manage to keep it simmering on a rear burner, ready to descend upon the restaurant once the doors officially opened for business. Which was exactly what happened several nights ago on a Friday night.

Not knowing what kind of crowd to expect on a Friday night in a recently opened restaurant, I called at around 5:30 PM to see if it would be possible to make a reservation for the same night. I was a little surprised that it was no problem at all to get a four-top table at either 7:30 or 8:00 PM -- my choice. I went with 7:30 PM and actually left my real last name to hold the reservation. I normally try to avoid reservations in order to not tip off the restaurant that I'm coming in for a review, but since there would be four of us tonight, I wanted the security of knowing there would be a spot ready for us when we arrived.

SOHO was located at 1889 West 25th Street, Cleveland, OH 44113 and can be contacted at 216-298-9090. Parking was wherever you can find it and fortunately since our four-top came in one car, we needed to only find a single parking spot. SOHO currently does not have valet (at least they didn't that night).

Once inside, the hostess promptly seated us at a table by the front window and left us with the menu to browse:

SOHO Dinner Menu
I liked the fact that the entire menu fit onto one side of the page (the rear was cocktails and other beverages). The menu seemed nicely divided into several sections with each grouping having five or six selections. It didn't feel overwhelming, but at the same time, there was a decent number of choices to fit any appetite.

After our server introduced herself and took our initial drink and appetizer orders, a complimentary basket of fresh biscuits appeared at our table:

Biscuits, Butter, Jam
Paired with the warm biscuits was a scoup salted honey butter as well as peach preserves. One of the diners at my table noted that the biscuits had a "floury" gritty mouthfeel to them. As far as I could tell, however, the biscuits were cooked all the way through. While I could see his point, it didn't particularly bother me too much. The salted honey butter wasn't particularly noteworthy, but the peach preserves were fruity and just a bit sweet, but not too much.

While the four of us at the table knew we would be sharing tastes all around, we each ordered an appetizer to start. I ordered the Crawfish and Crab Fritters:

Crawfish and Crab Fritters
I'm not sure why these were called "fritters" as they weren't battered before frying. I suppose we are all guilty of casually using words in a way that can be deceptive, but what was put in front of me were crab cakes, pure and simple. They were placed atop a spicy slaw and then drizzled with both a green onion aioli as well as a blended pepper coulis.

I liked the slight spice to the slaw. I disliked the raw red onion flavor -- it was too strong and overpowered the dish. The crab cakes were just the tiniest bit overcooked, but had good flavor and worked well with the sauces on the plate. The caramelization on the cakes added a depth and intensity to the crab.

My compatriot across the table ordered the Low and Slow Lamb Belly:

Low and Slow Lamb Belly
Interestingly, the lamb was incredibly mild and didn't have the gamey flavor that lamb often exudes. The finished protein had been topped with collard greens and Benne seeds (aka sesame seeds). As can be expected from the belly of any animal, it was fatty and unctuous, but not over the top. The lamb was very flavorful and the collard greens on top added a brightness to an otherwise heavy dish.

The third appetizer we ordered was truly a southern staple, Pimento Cheese:

Pimento Cheese
Served with homemade BBQ potato chips, this was the clear winner so far (not that the others had been bad). The chips alone was absolutely fantastic and all of us agreed that they were dangerously addictive. I have to admit that I've never had pimento cheese before, but SOHO's version was nicely balanced between the small cheese curds and lots of tasty cheesy flavor. I was a little apprehensive about how much pimento cheese would safely transfer on the very thin chips, but there were no breakages from plate to mouth.

Our appetizers now finished, we moved on to the entrees. First up was my entree, the Smothered Pork Chops:

Smothered Pork Chops
Served with jalapeno hushpuppies, baby broccoli, and a rich brown gravy, this was a substantial dish. When my server suggested that the kitchen preferred to cook the pork medium, I was in complete agreement. While I will concede that the restaurant was too dark to tell if the interior of the chops were pink, I can tell you that the meat was rather tough and chewy. Not leather-like, but not particularly pleasant either. The hushpuppies were tasty, but a bit overfried and dried out. The gravy, again being tasty, was a bit one-note and a mixture of too thin in spots (which I am guessing came from juices coming out of the pork) and too thick in others. This dish was decent.

My dining compatriot across from me ordered the daily special, the St. Louis-style Ribs:

St. Louis Ribs
Accompanying his full pound of heavily spice-rubbed ribs was a potato salad. While I didn't have a chance to try the potato salad, my friend did share a rib bone with me. The meat was hot, but also a bit dry and the rub was very intense, to the point where it dominated my palate and the pork flavor was a bit lost.

The clear entree winner tonight was the Shrimp and Grits that the person to the right of me ordered:

Shrimp and Grits
Photo used with permission by Edsel Little. Original located here.

Sadly, I didn't take a picture of it at the time, but fortunately, my friend Edsel did. The shrimp were HUGE and cooked very well. The grits were creamy, corny, and seasoned nicely. As you can see from the picture above, the dish came with asparagus and mushrooms and added a nice complementary flavor. All of us agreed that this was the standout dish tonight.

When it came time for dessert, the four of us decided to split one. Here was the dessert menu for the evening:

SOHO Dessert Menu
There weren't a whole lot of choices on the dessert menu, but having just opened recently, I'm willing to concede that SOHO might want to start small and work their way up. We collectively decided to split the Crispy Beignets:

Crispy Beignets
Of course, when I think of beignets, the first thing to come to mind are the light, fluffy, pillow-like treats served at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. While tonight's version was similarly covered in powdered sugar, sadly the comparison between the two versions ends there. While still warm, these had been overfried and were a bit dry and lacked the tenderness I was hoping to find. The blackberry jam was a nice choice for a dip, but there were still smalls bits of blackberry seeds that had survived the straining process. This gave the jam a grainy mouthfeel for which I didn't particularly care.

I would like to mention that the service was very good. Our server was knowledgeable, prompt, and did a good job keeping us up to date on our order throughout the meal. One of my tablemates didn't care for the first cocktail she received and our server wasted no time in whisking it away and bringing her something else to replace it. As far as the service goes, SOHO gets a resounding recommendation.

Overall, however, for a meal that was over $40 with tip and tax, I was a tad disappointed. Of the four of us at the table tonight, one doesn't feel the need to ever return and the other three of us (me, included), felt that the food was just average tonight. I've heard wonderful things about the food, and I'm hoping that tonight was just a fluke. That being said, based on the strength of the meal we had tonight, I'm going to marginally give you a recommendation to check it out for yourself. I am looking forward, however, to returning for another meal at some point in the future to see if SOHO has managed to work out the kinks.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dinner In The Dark - Noodlecat!

Holy moly! I just realized that I haven't written a blog entry about a Dinner In The Dark charity event since April earlier this year. That means that five of these fantastic dinners have come and gone (one month was canceled and another month was skipped due to low attendance) since I have mentioned this wonderful Cleveland-based organization seeking to not only bring together some of northeast Ohio's best chefs, but also help a local charitable cause in the process. While one of the founding members, Ellis Cooley (who was the chef at AMP 150), has left the Cleveland area to return to his home in Florida, he remains a part of the group along with co-founders Brian Okin and Jeff Jarrett (who interestingly enough now presides as chef at AMP 150). The trio has also recently given their website a face lift to feature events, news, bios on the participating chefs, and the pictures that yours truly has taken at prior dinners.

Tonight's dinner was held at Noodlecat, Jonathon Sawyer's recently opened Japanese and American noodle house mashup. This time around, the dinner was being held to benefit Michael Cantu, a Brecksville young man who earlier this year was involved in a gymnastics accident that left him in a wheelchair with many months of hospital stays.

Since the dinner was on Monday night, parking was a breeze. Since there were no downtown events happening that night, the valet next to Lola Bistro on East 4th was only $8 and the walk from the valet to the front of Noodlecat took all of five minutes. For those unfamiliar with the location of Noodlecat, it is just west of the House of Blues on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland.

Once inside the restaurant, my friend Tami and I were quickly shown to our empty table, having arrived prior to the others in our dining party. I quickly got out the necessary camera gear for tonight's shindig and started to get set up. Here was a shot of the front of the menu:

While I know you haven't seen that menu in some time, gentle reader, a lot of the same players involved now are those that have been with the group since the beginning. Probably the one major addition to those sponsoring the event is Fat Casual BBQ, who graciously provided the staff meal for those involved in pulling off this event.

Flipping the menu over, the back contained the usual list of chefs and symbols cryptically suggesting what each course would be:

All were pretty straightforward except for the guy in the lederhosen for the dessert course. Knowing that Cory Barrett used to be the pastry chef for Lola Bistro, we knew that whatever it turned out to be, it would certainly be very creative and tasty.

Having finished examining the menu, Tami and I turned out attention to the platter of sliced bread sitting in the middle of the table:

While most DITD events have started with an amuse bouche, we couldn't figure out if this was a pre-amuse or this was the main event. It turned out that the bread with herbed olive oil was either the amuse or perhaps just a pre-dinner nibble and there was no official amuse. Either way, mix tasty bread with tasty oil and my mouth was definitely ready for what was to come next.

To go along with our pre-dinner nibble, Joe Deluca and Tobin Northrup sent out a cocktail called Winter Eve Warmer:

Served hot, this mulled wine had all of the warming spices from the Thanksgiving and Christmas season infused into it. There was just enough in the glass to give you a warm feeling inside while the first course made its way into the dining room.

Speaking of which, the first course was Chris Hodgson's (from Dim and Den Sum, Hodge Podge, and the soon-to-be opened Hodge's) and was a play on a "Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwich":

The patty consisted of a combination of sous vide and ground chicken thighs mixed with foie gras, seared on the flat top. It was served on a toasted bun with a waterlily leaf, roasted jalapeno and orange blossom aioli and a sliced grape tomato. When assembled, this was quite the mouthful, but a tasty mouthful at that. The foie gras had done its job of adding lots of moisture to the patty and when taking bite after bite, it was imperative to keep the slider over the plate, lest you wear the juice. The sandwich also had a very subtle spice, which was enjoyed by everyone sitting at my table.

The second course came to us from Ben Hsu (from Sushi 86):

The sushi "sandwich," as Chef Hsu put it, was actually seared Albacore tuna sushi done in an Osaka style presentation (where the sushi is made by pressing it into a box), Ghost Chile aioli, shredded daikon radish, wakame jelly, celery leaf, and scallions to garnish. I had never tried Ghost Chiles before, but I do know they are the hottest chile peppers on the planet. I was intrigued to see how well the chef had controlled the heat.

I took a bite with a little bit of each component in the dish and my mouth was rewarded with culinary bliss. Chef Hsu completely knocked this out of the ballpark. The fish was tender, perfectly seared on just the exterior. The Ghost Chile aioli was creamy with just a hint of spice, the wakame jelly added a bit of seaweed flavor and the gelatin helped to cool off the spiciness from the sauce. This was absolutely delicious. I would have been a very happy man with four more courses of the exact same dish.

Fortunately, for me, more delectable goodness was on its way. Specifically, the third course from Brian Goodman (of Greenhouse Tavern fame):

Jonathon Sawyer has been prepping himself to serve a meal at the James Beard house in the near future. He and Brian turned to Richard Olney's Souffle a la Swissesse to accomplish their task. The cheese souffle was cooked well on the outside and managed to stay tender, moist, and steaming on the inside. The souffle was nestled in a bowl of pureed mushrooms and chestnuts and was garnished with fresh thyme. This was truly an umami "bomb," if you will, with the flavors of mushroom, thyme, and cheese predominating. It was also incredibly good and more than one of us at the table wished it wasn't so verboten to lick the bowl in a public restaurant.

Normally at this point in the meal, an intermezzo is served to clear the palate from the previous courses and to prepare the palate to receive the final dishes in the meal. While an intermezzo is usually something slightly sweet and acidic (like sorbet), in sticking with the theme of Noodlecat, a plate of pickled vegetables appeared at our table for us to share:

Starting at twelve o'clock on the plate, you have pickled beets, pickled turnips, pickled pumpkin rind, pickled radishes and the small ramekin in the middle held kimchee, that wonderful pungent and spicy fermented cabbage that Koreans contributed to the global culinary scene. Each was good, but I particularly liked the pickled turnips because they had a nice balance between the acidity of the vinegar and a natural sweetness.

The fourth course was presented to us by Scott Kuhn (from Washington Place Bistro & Inn):

The scallop had been encrusted with dried porcini powder before being seared to a beautiful medium-rare. The scallop was soft and tender and a delight to eat, although mine was a touch on the aggressively seasoned side. That being said, the Israeli couscous that was served with the scallop was a bit underseasoned, so perhaps they were meant to be eaten together. Having only one type of mushroom on this plate was definitely not enough, so in addition to the porcini, sauteed Chanterelle mushrooms made an appearance as well as impossibly-thin shaved black truffles.

For our final savory course, Brian Reilly (from Noodlecat) gave us a soul-satisfying Japanese noodle dish with a twist:

This was the more traditional Japanese component of tonight's fifth course -- fresh Ohio City Pasta udon in a kombu broth with Enoki mushrooms, softened kombu, and scallions.

The American twist came to us in a Chinese take-out box:

Inside was a battered and fried halibut with nori on a stick -- Americans love anything fried on a stick after all -- sitting on top of micro-greens. After combining the two components, I ended up with this:

By the time we were served this course, many at my table were ready to cry "Uncle!" because we were so full. Some ate a little, some ate it all, I ate about half. I ate all of the crispy and juicy halibut, which was cooked to perfection. The pasta served tonight was a little bit flatter than regular udon and after much debate amongst my tablemates, a table-hopping Jonathon Sawyer finally put it to rest by asserting that it was indeed a form of udon. The noodles were tender while still retaining a bit of toothsomeness. The broth was characteristically Japanese, light with great depth of flavor. Overall, this was a lovely dish, even if I didn't finish it.

Our final taste of the evening came from Cory Barrett, former pastry chef at Lola Bistro and now executive chef:

It turned out that the gentleman in lederhosen on the menu actually referred to a citrus Bavarian cream on top of an almond spongecake all topped with a white chocolate plaquette. Also on the plate was a lime curd, Mardarin orange and ginger beer sherbet, and a cardamom crumble. Garnishing the sorbet was a single red sorrel leaf. This was the PERFECT way to end the meal. The dessert was both sweet and tart and easily cleansed the palate after so much other food had preceded it. The cardamom crumble almost had a peppery spice to it that was a wonderful foil for the sweetness. Cory may no longer be practicing the pastry arts on a daily basis, but he has lost none of his skills at balancing competing and complimentary flavors.

Our three hour culinary journey at an end, we packed up our bags and headed out into the chilly Cleveland air. Before we left, it was announced that next month's Dinner In The Dark event would be held at Rocco Whalen's Fahrenheit in Tremont on Monday, January 16th at 6:30 PM. While tickets for this dinner are the same $65 base price as all the other dinners, with tip, taxes, and fees, it comes out closer to $86. One big difference is that the Fahrenheit dinner only has fifty seats instead of the usual seventy, so if you're interested in going, I'd suggest you get your ticket sooner rather than later.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The New (and Improved?) Crop Bistro & Bar

The last time I wrote about Crop Bistro & Bar was nearly two years ago. Since that time, a lot has happened. I've been back numerous times, to enjoy both Sunday Supper as well as the Chef's Table. Steve Schimoler has also closed the original location of Crop and relocated to the gorgeous space on the corner of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, just catty-corner to the West Side Market inside a completely renovated space previously occupied by an old bank. If you've been to Restaurant Dante, you will have an understanding of how such a space is utilized since it, too, lives inside an old bank. However, I have to say, the new space for Crop will leave you pretty breathless -- it is amazing!

What brought our intrepid band of diners back to Crop tonight was two-fold. First, we were all eager to experience Steve's food after being without for many months while they relocated to the new space. Second, and more importantly, we were there to celebrate the anniversary of friends and fellow food enthusiast Nancy and her husband Bob. While you can certainly attempt to find parking nearby in Ohio City, we decided instead to valet at the front of the restaurant for a nominal fee. For those looking to plug directions into your GPS-enabled device, the new location was located at 2537 Lorain Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44113. They can still be reached at 216-696-2767 (CROP).

Once inside the magnificent space, we were escorted to the long table facing the open kitchen at the opposite side of the building. Whereas the Chef's Table at the old Crop had been limited to six chairs, the new space had two to three times as many seats. When all six guests had arrived, Steve came over, pleasantries were exchanged, and he offered (and we accepted) a tour of the basement of the new restaurant, which included the enormous vault guarded by a ninety ton door. A work still in progress, when the restaurant manages to finish all of the space on both floors, it will probably be one of the most visually impressive restaurants that Cleveland has to offer.

The physical tour now concluded, we all congregated back at the Chef's Table to begin the gastronomic tour -- the Tour de Crop. For $65 per person, you are treated to a multi-course bonanza of whatever the chef wishes to serve you. I must warn you at this point, gentle reader, as the pictures you are about to see are particularly drool-worthy.

First up was bread service:

Bread Service
The basket contained a combination of very fresh baguette, chewy on the outside with a wonderful crumb on the inside; corn bread sticks; and a slightly sweet compound butter.

Our first actual course was something I recognized from my previous Chef's Table visit at the old Crop -- Deviled Egg with Crispy Prosciutto, Balsamic Reduction and Beet Reduction:

Deviled Egg
Sprinkled with just a touch of chile powder for garnish, this hit a lot of notes on my palate, spicy, salty, sweet, tart and played the creaminess of the egg and filling off of the crisped Prosciutto adorning the top. This was definitely a nice way to start.

Next up was a dish composed of Raw Tuna, Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil Oil, Balsamic Reduction, and Chiffonade of Fresh Basil:

Raw Tuna, Heirloom Tomatoes
Anyone who has eaten and enjoys raw tuna (maguro for you sushi-lovin' folks) knows that it has an incredibly delicate flavor and can be easily overpowered by stronger elements. Steve showed a deft hand in combining the components on the plate: each flavor stood on its own, but at the same time helped to elevate the tuna even further and definitely made it the star.

Our third course was the Grilled Mission Figs with Goat Cheese, Honey, Hazelnuts, and Arugula:

Roasted Figs, Goat Cheese, Arugula
While it doesn't take much to put figs and honey together, adding the acidity from the slightly softened chevre and the bitterness and pepperiness from the arugula made sure this mouthful satisfied all the taste points on my tongue (beginning to notice a pattern here?). The ground hazelnuts added a nice textural contrast to the other soft components of the dish.

For our second salad, we were served the Roasted Beet Salad with Orange Supremes, Pistachio-encrusted Goat Cheese, Mixed Herbs, and Orange Basil Vinaigrette:

Roasted Beet Salad, Pistachio-Encrusted Chevre
This was another holdover from Crop's previous location and menu, but it was still a welcome sight. Having become a lover of roasted beets only in the last couple of years, these were flavors that were bright, fresh, and really went well together. If there was one minor criticism, the dish could've used just a touch more salt. Other than that, it was a delight to look at as well as eat.

Ever the one for a dramatic presentation, our next course actually came out in two stages. First, the kitchen staff set a small plate with a perfectly seared scallop sitting atop a wedge of roasted potato. Chef Schimoler followed quickly behind with an incredibly aromatic black truffle cream. Here was how the dish looked topped with the cream and finely minced black truffle:

Truffle Explosion
And here was a cross-section after I cut into it with my fork:

Side Shot of Truffle Explosion
What can I say about this dish? The scallop was cooked expertly -- translucent in the middle and incredibly tender. The roasted potato had a nice crust on the outside and was tender and yielding on the inside. The black truffle foam was rich and creamy and had the heady earthiness from the mushrooms. While certainly not the most colorful plating, the stark black and whiteness made me think of the way that by removing color from a picture, you are left to concentrate with your other senses.

It wouldn't be a Steve Schimoler dining experience if pork wasn't involved at some point in the meal. In tonight's case, the followup course to the truffled scallop was the Braised Pork Belly with Gigante Beans, Brunoise of Carrots and Peppadew Peppers, Confit Garlic, and Roasted Tomatoes in a Tomato Broth:

Pork Belly, White Beans, Tomato Broth
Whereas the previous dishes had been executed quite well, taking my first bite of this dish caused me to roll my eyes back into my head and for just a split second, enjoy culinary nirvana. The balance between sweet and savory was perfectly balanced in this dish. The pork belly was crispy and yet also amazingly creamy, the pork fat instantly melting on my tongue. The gigante beans, while not really contributing a flavor of their own, had graciously soaked up the tomato broth flavor. If you get one dish on your visit to Crop, this would be the one not to miss.

After such a rich and decadent dish, the next course was a very light and refreshing intermezzo of Lemon Sorbet:

Intermezzo: Lemon Sorbet
This was exactly what the doctor (or, rather, the chef) ordered and served its purpose in cleansing our palates. My only critique was that it was rather one note. Lemon combined with some type of herb (thyme, rosemary, or lavender) would have really elevated this dish and made it special.

Our final savory course of the evening was a play on Surf and Turf. The "surf" side was comprised of a Seared Tasmanian Salmon, Cauliflower Mash, Mushroom Jus, and Fresh Basil:

Surf and Turf: Tasmanian Salmon
Several others at the Chef's Table thought that this dish was underseasoned. While I agree it probably could've used a touch more salt, it didn't particularly bother me. The salmon was nicely grilled on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. The big hit of the dish for me was the cauliflower mash. The only two presentations of cauliflower I have ever really enjoyed are when it is either roasted or served baked in lots of cream and butter. Tonight's version was incredibly flavorful and dare I say it ... delicious! The fresh basil added a bright herbaceous note to the dish as well.

The "turf" portion of our final savory dish was Braised Beef Shortribs, Mushroom Barley, Carrots, Veal Demi, and Horseradish Cream:

Surf and Turf: Braised Beef Shortribs
The shortribs had been braised until they were incredibly tender -- no knife required. The mushroom barley was thoroughly soft and pliable under tooth, but not broken down or mushy. The carrot cut easily under the pressure of my fork, while managing to avoid the texture of baby food and the horseradish cream really brought a brightness and spice to the entire dish without overpowering it. Personally, I would've liked to have seen a sharper horseradish note to the cream, but as this was geared toward all diners and not just me, I felt that the level of heat worked very well. While I enjoyed the medium-rareness of the salmon, I also enjoyed the thoroughly braised texture of the shortribs.

The first of two desserts were now presented by Crop's newest acquisition, Pastry Chef Lauren Stephenson. First up was a duo of Banana Chocolate Chip Petit Four with Peanut Butter Mousse and covered in Chocolate Ganache and a Salted Caramel Affogato:

Dessert Duo: Petit Four, Affogato
Once the hot coffee hit the caramel and cream, it instantly mixed together. I did the affogato first and enjoyed the salty, sweet, and bitter combination of the ingredients. Were there alcohol in this, I probably would have felt like I was back in college. The petit four was clever, but I wished that it was a little closer to room temperature as I think the flavors would've sung together much better (plus you wouldn't have seen the chocolate sweating).

The other dessert, a Tarte Tatin with maple cream, wasn't served individually, but as one dessert for us all to share. Sadly, the tarte was more or less decimated by our group before I had a chance to take a picture of it, but I did manage to get a bite and can say that it was absolutely delicious. When caramel is involved, you worry about the dessert being too sweet. Lauren managed to balance the sweetness and tartness from the apples well.

Our meal now at an end, we each paid our checks, gathered our coats and bags and headed out into the now dark, cool Cleveland air. While there was a very minor issue with one or two of the dishes (slight underseasoning), I very much enjoyed the entire meal, the company, and the new space that Crop Bistro & Bar gets to call home now. As with past visits, Chef Steve Schimoler has a very thorough understanding of flavor and texture combinations and his food never comes across as too fancy or gimmicky, which can be a very hard line to walk. While I don't know that I'd want to do the Tour de Crop every time I go back, it's nice sometimes to let someone else make the decision of what you will be eating from time to time.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dinner At Beau's Grille

Last December, I wrote about a lunchtime visit to Beau's Grille located in the Hilton Hotel Akron Fairlawn. I had made a mental note to myself while researching the menu online that dinner seemed a bit pricey and that lunch was much more reasonable. Having had a successful lunch visit, I decided that a return visit for dinner was in order. Clearly my mind must have been preoccupied with other distractions for the last eleven months because my follow-up visit didn't happen until just recently.

In fact, it was completely spur of the moment. On a Thursday night with literally nothing better to do, I pulled out of the parking lot at work and as I drove east on West Market Street, the Hilton's illumination gradually became visible through the falling rain. Taking just a moment to decide, I pulled off into the parking lot for the hotel, grabbed an umbrella and my camera bag, and walked towards the hotel's main entrance:

Entrance to Hilton Hotel in Fairlawn, Ohio
Once inside the main door, a door bearing Beau's name on it was on the left:

Exit from Beau's Grille
This was the exit from the bar area and not really the proper entrance to the restaurant. For that, I walked into the main lobby, made a left turn, and approached the hostess waiting just beyond the opened double doors. I was a little worried they might be too busy to accommodate a walk-in on a Thursday night, but as the restaurant was only about half full, she greeted me cheerfully and led me to a two top and left me with the menu to peruse:

Beau's Grille Menu Front
Beau's Grille Menu Specials
Beau's Grille Menu Page 1
Beau's Grille Menu Page 2
Beau's Grille Menu Page 3
While Chef Beau Schmidt may indeed rotate seasonal item on the daily specials menu, the printed menu looked eerily familiar to the one I had used during my last visit. If the menu items looked similar, then it didn't surprise me to see the same high prices for the food. I don't mind paying for value, but when appetizers start climbing past the $10 price point, I start to sit up and take notice.

In a rather unusual move, when my water came to the table to take my order, he didn't remove the napkin, silverware, glass, or side plate at the setting across from me, which is usually standard at most restaurants (it frees up the table from unnecessary clutter). Seeing as I needed the extra space to set up my camera in order to get the shots I would need for this review, I moved some of these items to the side of the table and actually stacked the other side plate on top of mine to make room. In an even more unusual move, when he saw that I had moved the other setting, he actually reset the opposite side of the table right in front of me. That was the first inkling I had that something odd was up with the service.

Regardless, after placing my order, my server returned with the Bread Service:

Basket of Dinner Rolls
And accompanying the warmed rolls were cold pats of butter:

Pats of Butter
Generally speaking, I prefer butter being softened when it arrives at the table, even if the bread is warm or hot. While the rolls and butter were good in both flavor and texture, having to wait for the butter to melt on the bread was a minor inconvenience. Were this an establishment that was less expensive, I probably wouldn't have given it too much thought. At Beau's Grille, all of these little details should have already been anticipated.

For my appetizer, I decided to start with the Fried Green Tomato "BLT":

Fried Green Tomato 'BLT'
As the food runner approached my table with this nearly toppling tower of tomatoes, I thought to myself that this couldn't possibly be my appetizer as it was large enough for an entire meal. Sure enough, it was mine. In addition to the fresh red and yellow heirloom tomato slices, green tomatoes had been sliced, dredged, and fried to a golden brown. The entire stack had been skewered in order to provide stability and then placed on arugula. Two separate aiolis, basil and red pepper, dressed the salad and crispy pancetta was strewn throughout.

As I removed the skewer and allowed the contents to topple down onto the plate, I began to remember my previous experience during lunch. Yes, Beau's prices are high, but the portion sizes are ENORMOUS, each easily split between two or three diners. Like I mentioned earlier, had this been all I ordered, I probably wouldn't have needed anything else for dinner. Right away, I decided to only eat about one-third of the dish in order to save room for future courses.

As for the appetizer itself, it was quite tasty. The heirloom tomatoes had flavor and just a bit of sweetness to them and the fried green tomatoes were crispy on the outside -- having just a bit of snap on the inside with acidity that balanced out the other sweet flavors on the plate. The arugula added a pepperiness, the pancetta added both salty, chewy and savory elements, and the aiolis provided creaminess. Did it really need two aiolis to be a successful dish? No, not particularly, but other than not being able to separate the flavors in my mouth when eaten together, it didn't detract from the overall deliciousness of the dish.

Since I had ordered an entree, I had the option of either getting a free basic side salad or I could add a half-portion of one of the more "plated" salads from the menu for a small upcharge (I believe it was roughly $3). Since I had been eying one of those salads from the get-go, I decided to go ahead and add it to the line-up for tonight.

Here was the Baby Green, Sun-dried Tomato, Artichoke, Buffalo Mozzarella Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette:

Baby Greens Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
First off, again with the portion size: this was a HALF portion of a salad. I suppose it could've been because I had already eaten so much of my appetizer, but I could've probably done better with half of this "half." I tasted each of the elements on the plate before combining them together into one unified bite. The sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and mozzarella were quite tasty (the softness of the cheese was especially gratifying). The baby greens were fresh-looking and crisp. The balsamic vinaigrette, however, really disappointed because it was incredibly sweet. I understand that balsamic vinegar has an inherent level of sweetness to it by nature, but this vinaigrette had been sweetened quite a ways past that. If you like sweet, gentle reader, you might like this. Personally, I found it unbalanced and unsuccessful for this very reason.

After eating about half of my salad, I pushed it away to wait for my final course. The standard table setting at Beau's Grille was two forks, one knife, and one spoon. I had used the first fork and my knife during the appetizer. When I got my salad, I used the second fork. By this point in the meal, I was only left with my spoon. No problem, I figured. When my server brings out the entree and sees I am missing silverware, he'll get me the appropriate pieces.

Sadly, what actually transpired after he brought me the Cavatappi with Grilled Chicken, Roasted and Fresh Tomatoes, Spinach, Garlic, Basil, Lemon and Olive Oil,

Cavatappi with Chicken, Tomatoes, and Spinach
was that he simply dropped the plate off and immediately walked away from the table without checking to see if I needed anything else. Being the ever resourceful foodie that I am, I reached across the table and with firm resolve, broke up the silverware set at the spot opposite me at my table. Having retrieved a clean fork, I dug into this dish. Some of the pasta at the rim of the bowl was a bit tepid in temperature, but the food in the center was still nice and hot. That was the good news.

The bad news, gentle reader, was that the pasta was way overcooked, one step below mush. The pasta was also quite bland. This trend seemed pervasive throughout the dish, actually. I tasted component after component and each was either completely unseasoned or grossly underseasoned. While the server had dropped off grated Parmesan cheese for me to apply to my taste, I knew that even with a generous sprinkling of the salty fromage, it would really only season the top of the noodles. Probably the only really assertive flavor in the dish was the garlic, which I couldn't help but notice because of its slight crunch and incredibly pungent flavor -- and indication that it probably hadn't been sauteed enough before building the rest of the sauce.

I probably don't have to mention this as well by this point in the review, but the serving of pasta was enormous.

In the end, I had my server box up the remainder of my appetizer (at least half) and the remaining pasta (at least two-thirds) and asked for my check. As I suspected after doing some mental math, the check with tax and tip came to roughly $31-$32. I wasn't sure if I was going to eat the rest of the pasta for breakfast or lunch, but I figured for that much money, I'd at least give myself the option.

I'm torn on Beau's Grille. The food and service during my first visit was fairly good. In fact, good enough to spur me to return for a dinner service. While the Fried Green Tomato "BLT" was definitely worth ordering, the cloyingly sweet vinaigrette on my salad and my way overcooked and underseasoned cavatappi left me quite a bit unsatisfied. That the server came off as quite aloof and not particularly helpful, I am only left to conclude that if the restaurant is having a good night, you'll receive the same in kind. If not, well then, I hope you enjoy your pasta mushy and with very little flavor.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

No "Mamma Mia!" at Gervasi Vineyards Italian Bistro

One of the benefits of living in east Akron and working in Canton was that I often stopped at restaurants along the way and was much more versed in the comings and going of Canton and North Canton eateries. Since then, I have moved to the west side of Akron and now live and work in the same vicinity. As a consequence, getting to dinner in Canton is a bit more of an effort for me than it has been in the past. However, after reading extensively about what can only be described as a "complex" due to its enormous size, I knew I had to check out the Italian Bistro at Gervasi Vineyard.

The entire complex was located at 1700 55th Street NE, Canton, OH 44721 and can be reached at 330-497-1000. Getting there was a bit time consuming from my origin, but surprisingly easy. Exit I-77 south at the Everhard Road exit and head east until you run into Cleveland Avenue. Make a left and then an immediate right onto Easthill Street. This will turn into 55th Street and within about ten minutes, you'll come upon the entrance to the vineyard. Turn into the driveway and take it all the way back to the large building at the back of the complex. Ample parking was available in front of the bistro:

Entrance to Gervasi Vineyards Bistro & Winery
Prior to going for dinner tonight, I had read their online menu with great interest and came prepared for the type of food being served. What I didn't expect was that simply showing up on a Tuesday night at 7:30 PM sans reservation was not as fabulous an idea as I had originally thought. Upon asking the hostess for a table for one person, she got a pained expression on her face and basically stated that unless I had a reservation, there were no tables available. There was, however, a communal table that was about half full of "people like me" (e.g., no reservationists) and several two top bar tables. Fortunately, one of the bar tables just opened up, so I took it.

At this point, even with servers passing by my table every minute or so, it took about ten minutes for someone to notice me and bring me a menu. Fortunately, once my server noticed me, service hiccups disappeared. Here was tonight's menu:

Gervasi Vineyards Bistro Menu Top
Gervasi Vineyards Bistro Menu Bottom
It was nice to see that the Italian Bistro was serving seasonal cuisine. The menu was appropriately sized with several selections in each category -- this made it feel uncluttered and not overwhelming. Seeing as there was only one of me tonight, I decided that instead of ordering a larger entree (at a larger price), that I would sample several of the smaller plates.

After placing my order, my server brought out the Bread Service:

Toasted Bread, Oil, Herbs, Salt
The bread had been sliced, oiled, herbed, seasoned and slightly toasted so that it had a crunch but wasn't completely dried out. Not wanting to spoil my meal, I had a slice or two, but pushed them aside in order to make room for the rest of the meal.

I decided to start my meal out with the Butternut Squash Soup:

Butternut Squash Soup
When someone other than my server (who I assume was a food runner) approached my table with an extremely shallow bowl with several toasted hazelnuts in the bottom, I was a bit confused. He set the bowl down in front of me and produced a pitcher from which he poured the soup into the bowl, covering the nuts. Sadly, the effect was a bit lost because the soup was so thick that as you can see in the above photograph, it didn't even cover the entire bottom of the bowl.

The flavor of the soup was a bit on the sweet side, but I expected that as the menu listed "truffle honey" as one its ingredient. That being said, only one bite of the many I took did I get the remotest hint of truffle flavor. The hazelnuts added a nice textural contrast to the smooth, thick soup and the fattiness from the heavy cream used to enrich it would have been well served by an acidic component to the dish to help cut through it. Overall, I thought the soup was decent.

As I was originally looking through the menu, I noticed that it had four pasta dishes listed. I asked my server if the pasta was made in-house. After checking with the kitchen, she returned and told me that none of the pastas were homemade save the ravioli on the appetizer section of the menu. A little disappointed that a place billing itself as an Italian Bistro didn't make their own pasta, I decided to order the one dish that featured said product -- Smoked Salmon Ravioli with Capers, Horseradish and Dill Creme:

Smoked Salmon Ravioli
At $12, this meant I was paying $4 per square of filled pasta. I first tasted the horseradish and dill creme. The horseradish flavor and heat were there, but was incredibly subtle. I then cut into one of the pasta squares. The ravioli had a good amount of filling in them, enough to get a substantial taste, but not bursting at the seams. The filling was actually a combination of mashed potato and smoked salmon. I dragged my forkful in the creme sauce and took a bite.

Two thoughts simultaneously fought for attention as my mouth starting sending warning signals northward. First, the smoked salmon was WAY too strong and pretty much the only thing I could taste was the smoke and the salt from the fish. Second, the filling was COLD! Whomever had cooked the pasta had not cooked them long enough. The pasta casing was fine, but the filling itself was at best, slightly colder than room temperature. Thinking I might have gotten a bad one, I cut into both of the other ravioli to discover that they were cooked exactly the same way. This dish was pretty much a fail -- unbalanced flavors that were not executed properly.

For my final course, I decided to try the Creme Anatra Pizza:

Creme Anatra Pizza
While I was pretty certain that the Italian Bistro was making their dough daily, I was curious to see if I could taste the effects of using a pre-ferment or any kind of aging in the dough. Seeing as the pizza oven was directly in front of me, I actually watched as they prepped and then baked my pizza. The pizza, at a $12 price point, seemed a bit on the small side, but came topped with some delicious looking toppings: pulled duck, garlic cream (Ed. Note: Every other time it was spelled "creme" on the menu except here. I wonder why?), mushrooms, spinach, fig jelly, ricotta, and aged provolone.

The crust was crisped nicely, although I would've have personally preferred a bit more color on the bottom. The crust had a nice balance of chewiness and crispiness, but I didn't notice any sourness to the dough's flavor on its own. This leads me to believe that the dough was made without the use of cold fermentation or a pre-ferment (like a biga or poolish). It wasn't until I got to my third piece of pizza that I finally got a slice that actually had all of the ingredients on it. When I finally bit into that piece, my mouth was quite happy. Prior to that slice, previous bites lacked a balance between all of the flavors of the toppings.

All said and done, my bill with tip and tax came to roughly $36-$37 and I left with a few slices of pizza remaining that I took home with me for a snack later on that night. Honestly, I'm a little torn about the Italian Bistro at Gervasi Vineyard. It aspires for greatness, that is for sure. However, the dishes I had tonight ranged from bad to so-so to good. The restaurant has been open for a while now, so I can't chalk up tonight's experience to breaking in a new restaurant staff. In the end, I would marginally recommend you check them out. At this price point, everything coming out of the kitchen, while maybe not fantastic, should at least be in the very good category. Hopefully they will get there soon.

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