Monday, January 3, 2011

Fulfilling A Promise To Return To Virtues

The last time I visited Virtues Restaurant located in the Ann and David Brennan Critical Care building at Summa Akron City Hospital, my experience wasn't just a little off, it was outright bad. Between poor back of house execution of the food and ill-timed food running by front of house staff, I could only come to one of two conclusions. Either the restaurant was having a really (and I mean really) bad day or it was in the throes of extinction, mere days from shuttering the windows and closing the proverbial front door. As I stated at the end of my prior review, I made a promise to return for another anonymous meal. I kept that promise when I returned exactly two months later on a Monday evening with no reservation.

My last visit had been on a Wednesday evening and I had found the restaurant strangely empty save for three or four tables of people. While tonight's crowd mirrored that first visit, it didn't particularly surprise me because Monday's are often a restaurant's slowest day. After checking out the menu posted on the outside of the restaurant, I approached the hostess stand and was quickly shown to a table with a partial view of the open kitchen. While I didn't see Chef Zifer running the line, he was definitely in the restaurant as he made several appearances to check on the food coming out of the kitchen.

Since I have already posted the regular menu from Virtues, I only needed to snap a photograph of the weekly specials:

Virtues Restaurant Weekly Specials
While there were several items that caught my eye from the weekly specials, I still wanted to re-explore the rest of the menu, too. The thought occurred to me that I should re-order the same meal I had eaten before in order to see if it had improved. While the Thai BBQ salad and the Pan Roasted Bell and Evans chicken over tagliatelle were actually still available, the seared scallops over butternut squash risotto had been a weekly special during my prior visit and was no longer available. Instead I decided to stay within a similar theme as last time and order a multi-course meal to test the mettle of the hopefully re-tuned restaurant staff.

Based on feedback I had received from my previous review, a number of readers had suggested that I needed to try the signature roasted eggplant soup. In a fortuitous turn of fortune, each entree came with either a cup of soup or a house salad. While I would have gladly paid the $3 for a cup of soup all on its own, I was happy to save a little bit of cash and still get to try the soup.

After placing my order, my server verified the order in which I wanted the courses to arrive at my table, walked away to put the order into the system, and soon returned with something that was woefully missing during my first visit, warmed rolls and butter:

Bread Service
The basket contained a whole wheat roll and a white roll, both of which tasted good and were fresh.

Along with my rolls, my server also brought my cup of Roasted Eggplant Soup:

Cup of Roasted Eggplant Soup
This was adorned with a few pieces of roasted peppers and eggplant and a drizzle of oil. I tasted the soup by itself and was happy to discover a well balanced dish. The sweetness from the roasted eggplant played well off the salt in the soup and the background had a nice hint of garlic and herbs. When I mixed in some of the roasted vegetables on top of the soup, I got an even bigger hit of vegetal sweetness. I can see why others have recommended this soup so highly as it was pretty darn tasty. In fact, I skipped the Saltines supplied with my cup and went straight for the dinner rolls to sop up the remnants in the bottom of my cup.

For my salad course, I decided to go with a half order of the Roasted Tomato and Mozzarella Napolean:

Roasted Tomato Napolean Salad Angle 1
From this angle, you have the Napolean in the front of the shot, a red onion marmalade next to that, and a slightly dressed salad at the opposite end. Here was the same salad, but from the opposite perspective:

Roasted Tomato Napolean Salad Angle 2
As with the soup, this salad was all about balance. While I expected the red onion marmalade to add sweetness, what surprised me was the addition of maple syrup in the balsamic dressing. The salad had been ever so lightly topped with the dressing and I think had the salad been fully dressed, it would've been too sweet. The salad artfully sat in a Parmesan frico "bowl," which while a little difficult to cut, added a nice salty, umami flavor to the rest of the dish. I was a little concerned about getting a good tomato at this time of year, but roasting them had the effect of concentrating the flavors. I was actually a little surprised at how large this salad was for $5 (remember, I got the half portion). I cleaned my plate and had I not had an entree coming, would've gladly polished off another plate of this.

Wanting to give the Bell and Evans organic chicken another chance, instead of ordering it over the tagliatelle, I decided to instead go with it accompanying a barley risotto:

Bell and Evans Roasted Chicken with Barley Risotto Angle 1
Here was the same dish, but from a different angle:

Bell and Evans Roasted Chicken with Barley Risotto Angle 2
In place of the several strips of unseasoned tenders that plagued its previous incarnation, this time the plate came out with an airline cut consisting of the breast and drumette. The breast had been sliced into thirds and a mushroom and roasted red pepper beurre blanc had been drizzled on top of the chicken. A timbale of barley risotto had been unmolded onto the plate next to the chicken and artfully adorned with several strips of roasted red peppers. The final element on the plate, organic spinach, had been combined with fresh chevre, shallots, and pine nuts.

The chicken was nearly flawlessly executed. It was seasoned properly and cooked until it was safe to serve, but still juicy and tender. The only complaint I had with the chicken was that the skin was a little on the flabby side. The beurre blanc added a wonderful richness to the chicken and the acidity from the sun-dried tomato helped to cut through the fattiness of the sauce. The barley risotto had been finished with cheese, presumably Parmesan, and had a nice saltiness to it without being overpowering. The barley had been cooked so that it was slightly chewy without being mushy. The one weak point I had with this plate was the spinach. While the goat cheese and pine nuts were a nice addition, in the end the spinach had been oversalted. I took several bites of the spinach from different spots on the plate just to make sure I hadn't accidentally hit a lone salty spot with my first bite. I finally came to the conclusion that yes, it was definitely too salty.

When my server came over to clear my plate, he listed the possible desserts tonight, but I was so full that I simply asked for the check. As opposed to my previous visit, this time the check only came to $27 with tax. This was primarily due to the fact that my soup was included in the cost of my entree and I had subbed the soup for the much more expensive butternut squash risotto I had ordered last time. I also mentioned during my last meal at Virtues that I felt the amount of food I had received during my entree didn't feel like it lived up to its price tag. This time around, I had no problem with that particular issue and felt that for $27, I had received both good food and good value.

After paying my check, I asked my server if the chef was available for a few minutes. He indicated that he would check and just a few moments later, Chef Zifer came out to my table. I stood, introduced myself, and invited him to join me at my table, which he graciously did. I more or less gave him the same rundown of my experience tonight as I gave here to you, gentle reader, and he was very happy that my experience this time around at Virtues was much better than my last. He also apologized for my previous meal, which I neither required nor expected, but was still happy that he did so. He also offered to comp my entire meal tonight, but knowing that I wanted to be able to write about my experience tonight without any encumbrances, I politely turned his offer down.

We chatted for about ten minutes and he gave me a little background on both himself and the restaurant and it was then that I discovered that the restaurant's busy time was during the day, not the evening. While the daytime saw anywhere from 200 to 250 covers, during the evening the number was closer to 70 to 100. Chef Zifer invited me back for lunch in order to experience the restaurant running at full production and I intend to take him up on his offer.

While I am happy to see that it appears my first visit did turn out to be the restaurant having a bad day, it just goes to underscore the fact that even when a restaurant normally operates as a well-oiled machine, the randomness of life can occasionally through a wrench in the entire affair and bring the delicate structure crashing down. While I imagine that Chef Zifer took my previous critical review with a grain of salt (after all, it was just a single review), I also think he reaffirmed tonight that one can never sit still in the restaurant business. If you aren't looking for ways to continuously improve and innovate, life (and your customers) will simply pass you by.

Based on the strength of my meal tonight, I recommend that you stop in and give them a try. If Virtues hasn't solved its consistency issues, I am sure that will bear itself out in the comments.

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