For my first official fish fry, I was excited to be given the opportunity to return to the one church which had canceled during a Friday in last year's Lenten Project, St. Mary Church in Hudson, Ohio. It seemed that between the snow that had fallen between Thursday night and Friday morning and the impending second snowstorm that was prepared to dump even more snow on Akron that Friday evening, St. Mary cried, "Uncle!" and decided to err on the side of caution. As they were still serving fried fish and pierogi (my two basic criteria for selection) this year, I was glad that I would finally be able to see if they were worth the wait.
St. Mary Church was located at 340 North Main Street, Hudson, OH 44236 and can be reached at 330-650-0722 ext. 244. Since the church was on the corner of North Main and West Prospect, I came in the back way to avoid the downtown Hudson traffic on a Friday night. Parking was in the extremely ample lot off of Prospect. Promptly at 4:55 PM, I got out of my car and approached the back of the church, where the following sign had been planted into the snow:
Apparently the Lenten dinners are handled by the St. Mary Men's Club and upon walking through the entrance to the back of the building, it was apparent that the men were definitely running the show. Immediately upon entering the room where the dinner was being served, a gentleman handed me tonight's menu:
The first thing that popped into my head was, "Wow! That's an ambitious menu for a church fish fry. I know restaurants that offer fewer options." That should've been my first clue that something was going to be amiss. I was ushered to the left front side of the room where another gentleman was waiting to show me pictures of all the fish products available tonight. While I thought it was an interesting touch, it confirmed that every single seafood product was a food service, fried-from-frozen product (the corporate label on each of the photographs was a pretty good tell).
After showing me the pictures, he asked if I knew what I wanted. After responding that I was interested in the beer battered fish and the pierogi, he exclaimed, "Oh, the pierogi are really good!" After inquiring if they were homemade, he responded, "Well, no. But I had some just the other day and boy did they hit the spot." Um, okay. Not exactly the kind of thing a pierogi-lover likes to hear, but you never know.
Once a spot had opened up at the ordering table, I placed my order for a beer-battered fried fish dinner, a side of pierogi, and a bottle of water. As I got my wallet out to pay, the man taking my order pointed to a table next to the current one where I had to pay. As I walked over to the paying table, a laser printer spat out a copy of my order, which came to $13.70. After paying the tab, the man instructed me that the kitchen at the other side of the room would call my name when my order was ready. I just had to show him the receipt and I could take my food and sit wherever I liked.
In addition to the food service window, there was a condiment / silverware / napkin table to the left and a beverage dispensing table to the right. After about three or four minutes, my name was called. I took the tray, added whatever condiments and cutlery I thought I needed, collected my drink and sat down at a table near the back of the room where I knew I wouldn't bother anyone with my picture taking. Here was a shot of my dinner tray tonight:
After unloading everything onto the table, one of the men working the room came over and helpfully removed the tray from my table. For tonight's dinner, I decided to start with a standard assortment of condiments: sour cream for the pierogi, ketchup for the French Fries, and tartar sauce for the fried fish:
Sadly, high fructose corn syrup reigned supreme as it was within the first couple of ingredients in both the ketchup and the tartar sauce. As expected, when I tried the tartar sauce, it was too sweet for my taste.
The first box I opened was the Beer Battered Fried Fish:
The above was a bit deceiving since there was an additional fillet of fish underneath the one you can see. In fact, it turned out to be the thicker end of the fillet. While the fish had been fried so that it wasn't greasy, a lot of the beer battered coating had flaked off. When I finally got around to getting a nice thick piece of fish on my fork, I was disappointed to find that it had been fried to within about an inch of becoming fish jerky. The flavor wasn't objectionable, but even with an application of tartar sauce to introduce some moisture, this fish was well done.
Here was a shot of the interior of the fillet:
Dry, dry, dry! The pumpernickle dinner roll, however, while more than likely food service in origin, was actually fresh and tasted good.
The only side that my fish dinner came with tonight was French Fries:
These were clearly also fried-from-frozen, but they weren't half bad. Some of the fries were a little limp, but most had a nice crunch to them and they weren't greasy.
When I finally got to my pierogi, I was rewarded with ... yep, you guessed it, gentle reader, Mrs. T's (or an analogue):
Interestingly, the sauteed onions appeared to be homemade because the onions were cut to different shapes (uniformity usually means machine processing). When I tried a bite of the nicely caramelized onions, I was rewarded with the sweetness from the caramelization, but revolted by the fact that they were wholly unsalted. Now, an astute reader out there might say, "But, Tom! Perhaps they were purposely unsalted because of all those folks out there watching their salt intake." A valid argument, for sure. However, given the fact that the ONLY thing that seemed to be made from scratch tonight were the onions, every other product I tasted was definitely salted. So, that argument doesn't fly for me.
So how were the pierogi? Average. Okay. Basically, what I would expect from a commercial product and what I could get in the freezer section of my local supermarket. I ate about half of the serving with the onions and sour cream before pushing back from the table in order to leave room for my second dinner of the evening. As I sat there pondering the food I had just eaten, I realized that St. Mary's fish fry was exactly the opposite of what I was craving. Sure, I realize that fried-from-frozen fish can be good if done correctly, but tonight's meal just reinforced the notion that just because you can serve food service products, doesn't mean you should. I mean, isn't Lent the time to pull out the big guns and do it from scratch?
I'm sure it didn't help that the menu was gargantuan. For goodness sake, they had Lobster Ravioli! How about this ... pare the menu back to one or two fish offerings, a basic list of sides, and some honest-to-goodness homemade pierogi? More does not necessarily mean better and if I needed a real world test of this theory, St. Mary Church would be it. I really don't feel that they have anything unique going for them except the breadth of the menu. Additionally, $13.70 seemed a bit on the pricey side for everything I ate tonight.
Starting with this post and continuing for the remainder, at the end of each review, I'm going to give my rankings from best overall to worst overall as well as an individual grade for each of the major elements on the plate.
1. St. Mary Church (Hudson): Fish, D+; Pierogi, C-; French Fries, B