I first heard that Mike Mariola, owner of two highly praised restaurants in Wooster, Ohio, was thinking of opening a burger bar in the Fairlawn area all the way back in August/September of last year when I had the opportunity to review his flagship restaurant, South Market Bistro. At the time, he had left the bistro in the more-or-less capable hands of Chef Eric running the back of the house with wife Liz ran the front while he proceeded to open up and run The City Square Steakhouse across the street.
Noting that Mr. Mariola was absent at South Market Bistro that evening, I figured he must have been working across the street at the sister restaurant. My server surmised that he was more than likely out on the prowl looking for real estate for his new burger joint to join the burgeoning gourmet burger scene that has taken hold of Americans over the last several years. Putting himself in direct competition with other similar restauranteurs such as Michael Symon with his B Spot franchises and Sean Monday with his Hudson Flip Side restaurant, this new venture was sure to draw comparisons to more established eateries.
I learned that The Rail was opening for lunch yesterday and decided to give them an inaugural visit to see how high the bar had been set. The Rail was located at Summit Mall, nestled in between First Watch and PF Chang's with an entrance facing outward into the parking lot. For those with GPS requirements, the actual address was 3265 West Market Street, Akron, OH 44333 and they can be reached at 330-864-7245. While Facebook and Twitter accounts are no doubt in the works, the only Internet presence they have at the moment is their website.
After parking my car in the vast mall parking lot, I approached the front of the restaurant:
While seating was available outside, not-so-oddly since it was a hot day, no one partook of it. Here was a closer shot of the outdoor sign:
Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the place was fairly busy on opening day, it was by no means packed. Visual comparisons to Flip Side and B Spot began immediately and while the three restaurants were not exact analogues of one another, they were eerily similar with their concrete flooring, rather Spartan wooden tables, and interesting hanging light fixtures. The Rail differentiated itself by providing a long communal table, which while empty when I arrived, had a fair share of guests sitting at it when I got up to leave.
Hanging on a wall across from the communal table were two chalkboard signs:
As with other high-end burger joints, The Rail goes out of its way to make sure you understand that the beef is local and from Ohio. In fact, to reinforce the Ohio concept, one look at the menu was all that was required:
To be honest, I had thoroughly studied the menu online before ever setting foot inside the door and I pretty much knew what I was going to order. Sadly, when I looked at the "Floats" section on the physical menu, the Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout Ice Cream Float had been replaced by a Guinness Ice Cream Float. However, as a lover of Guinness, I was willing to make the substitution. Unfortunately, I learned that the tap system was only partly in place and even more unfortunately, neither Guinness nor Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout would be available. More than pumped that I could potentially get Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout on draught sooner rather than later, I acquiesced and decided to wait until my next visit to procure this heavenly sounding concoction.
I went ahead and ordered my burger and side and within just a few short minutes, David Drumm, General Manager of The Rail hand delivered my lunch to the table:
This was the 7th Heaven burger and a side of their homemade onion rings. When David asked if I needed anything else, I asked for a steak knife so that I could cleanly bisect the burger. He looked at me with a stunned look and replied, "You know, you would think that running a steakhouse would have given us the forethought to purchase steak knives. I'm sorry, we don't have any." Not a deal breaker, mind you, and I certainly used my regular butter knife to satisfactory effect, but as you will see in a photograph or two, a steak knife would have been perfect.
First, let's talk about the 7th Heaven burger:
The well-seasoned burger patty had been joined by several strips of Nueske bacon, truffled butter, and red onion jam. The burger was perched upon a bun that had been nicely toasted and assembled with a cellophane tipped toothpick to hold it all together. After removing the toothpick, I cut the burger in half.
Here was a shot of my bisected burger, cooked to the perfect medium rare for which I asked:
The first thing I noticed when Mr. Drumm set the burger down in front of me was the heady aroma from the black truffle. The second thing I noticed was that there was a lot of black speckled butter in the paper-lined basket. It seemed that the truffle butter had more of less completely melted. I raised the first half to my mouth and took a bite. It was juicy, it was seasoned nicely, and the crisp, thicker cut bacon added some nice textural contrast to the softness of the bun and the meat. The red onion jam definitely added some sweetness, but what I really needed was a bit of acid. Between the truffle butter, the fattiness of the burger and the bacon, something pickled needed to be on that burger to help balance it out. Don't get me wrong, it was good. Some might have even thought it was great. But it wasn't magical.
My largest gripe with the burger, and it's a complaint that I've also levied against B Spot and Flip Side, was that the bottom part of the bun, the heel, was completely sogged out from all of the juice of both the meat and the truffle butter. This made the burger quite difficult to eat without essentially wearing the juice on my fingers, hands, and down my wrists. [Ed. note: To be fair to B Spot, they did fix this issue, which I wrote about in later reviews.]
I next turned my attention to the onion rings:
Before ordering these, I had asked my waitress what kind of fat was used in the deep fryer. After checking with the kitchen, she returned to inform me that the chef, Gary McNeely, had told her it was a non-hydrogenated vegetable oil. As she looked fairly green, I didn't want to push her into information overload, so I let it go at that. So, while it certainly wasn't vegetable shortening, it also wasn't something more luxurious, like duck fat or tallow either.
As I bit into my first onion ring (always unsauced for the first one or two), I was rewarded with an onion that was thick enough to have some texture, but not too thick that it was crunchy or had a raw taste. The coating on the outside of the ring was a combination of crispy at first and then just ever-so-slightly moist on the inside. The salt level was fairly good, but could've tolerated just a touch more. The problem with these rings was when I took a bite, the onion on the inside completely detached from the coating and pulled right out. As you can imagine, with rings this size, having a long, hot onion strand hanging out of your mouth was neither pleasant feeling nor pleasant looking.
About two-thirds of the way through my meal, David Drumm again stopped by my table, this time to garner feedback. I still had not identified who I was or why I was there, but David took my feedback with great professionalism and he honestly made me feel as if what I had to say counted. He admitted that he was an aficionado of onion rings, too, and he wasn't 100% happy with them either. As for the sogged out bun, he mentioned that they toast the buns and only put the burger onto the bun at the very last second before sending it out from the kitchen, but clearly some further tweaking will be required to address this issue.
With tip and tax, my lunch today came to around $20, but then again, I ordered the most expensive burger off of the menu at $11.75. Your basic burger starts at just over $5, so you could certainly get away with a check closer to $10 if you selected more inexpensive items off the menu. While The Rail's 7th Heaven burger didn't quite satisfy that carnivorous burger lust that a Red Hot from B Spot seems to do, I do think it was a tasty burger. With a few tweaks, I think they could potentially have a real winner. As for the onion rings, again, they are pretty darn close, but don't quite live up to the gloriousness of either B Spot or of all places, Twig's Diner in Barberton, Ohio.
All said and done, I do recommend that you check them out. Opening days can be a tricky affair for any restaurant and after a month of playing around with the menu to hone the concept, I feel they might just achieve the burger glory for which they are clearly striving. Since they are VERY close to where I currently work, you can expect a follow-up review in the following months to see if things have improved. I certainly hope they do.