Sunday, August 28, 2011

Blue Door: A Compendium of Visits

When I heard that the local diner, Golden Goose Restaurant and Bakery, was closing down for several weeks for remodeling, I was a little surprised. When I finally came to understand that the remodel was due in no small part to head baker Michael Bruno and his wife taking over the entire operation of the establishment, both bakery and restaurant, then it became a little more understandable. For several weeks, Michael would send out updates via Facebook about the progress of the remodel. When it finally came time to open back up for business, he announced that in the Golden Goose's ashes would rise a new restaurant and bakery, Blue Door Bakery and Cafe.

While I have covered Golden Goose during numerous visits, I couldn't help but think that once Michael controlled the restaurant's kitchen, he could apply the same level of exacting thought that he put into his baked goods. This definitely had me excited. In order to help him out, he brought in Valerie Miller and Tim Carson to help him run the kitchen while he focused on breads and pastries and managing front of house activities with his wife.

I should say upfront that by now, Michael, his wife, and many of the front of house staff know me by sight, so doing any kind of anonymous review would be laughable at best. At the same time, I neither asked for nor expected any kind of special treatment. I paid for all of my own food during each visit and probably the only "special" treatment I received was a visit from Michael at the end of each meal to ask how my experience had been.

The first item to note is that the transition from Golden Goose to Blue Door is still a work in progress. While the main entrance to the restaurant has finally been painted blue, the sign out front still says Golden Goose. Don't let that fool you. The restaurant located at the corners of State Road and Broad Street in Cuyahoga Falls has definitely begun a metamorphosis. Stepping into the freshly painted door, you come across the remodeled reception area:

New Pastry Case at Blue Door
This was the new pastry case. While the old one wasn't objectionable, I definitely like the open feeling to the new one.

To the right of the pastry case is the counter area and the new shelving behind it to hold the freshly baked loaves of bread coming out of the kitchen:

New Counter Area at Blue Door
On my initial visit (the day after they reopened), I was presented with an moderately redesigned menu:

Blue Door Menu Page 1
Blue Door Menu Page 2
Blue Door Menu Page 3
Blue Door Menu Page 4
There were definite holdouts from the Golden Goose's menu, but Blue Door's menu had been tweaked to really emphasize quality, organic, locally procured or produced items to really amp up the dining experience. While I can't really give many style points on the design of the menu, it definitely delivered on choices and descriptions.

Since my first visit was during lunch, I decided to start out my meal with a bowl of the Blue Door Tomato Soup:

Bowl of Gazpacho
Made with San Marzano tomatoes and homemade vegetable stock, what surprised me when it came out of the kitchen was that it was served cold. Gazpacho! While I didn't mind it being served as gazpacho, the menu didn't describe it that way, so be prepared for the temperature difference should you decide to order it, too. The flavor was everything that summer should be: slight sweetness and acidity from the tomatoes, ever-so-slight pungency from the garlic, and a bright, cool flavor that made this a refreshing soup.

While there was a lot from which to choose during my first stop, I decided on going with the Homemade Chicken Salad Sandwich and a Dressed Organic Greens Salad:

Homemade Chicken Salad on Challah with Dressed Organic Greens
Served on Blue Door's homemade challah, this was a total knock-out. I have loved Michael's breads since I first discovered them, but using it in this way really highlighted the flavors and textures of this fantastic eggy bread. The chicken salad was moist without being overdressed and the organic field greens had been dressed in an extra virgin olive oil and 30-year-old balsamic vinegar emulsion. The greens had also smartly been seasoned with salt. I have to admit, I was very impressed with the positive changes coming out of the kitchen.

So much so that I returned two days later to have breakfast with fellow food blogger Cedric and his lovely wife. After being seated at a booth, I was surprised and delighted to see that the restaurant had started using a local purveyor for their coffee, Angel Falls Coffee Company. Here's a shot of my steaming cup of decaf:

Cup of Angel Falls Decaf
To pair with my wonderfully bitter cup 'o Joe, I decided to indulge in a calorie-laden breakfast and ordered the daily special, Challah French Toast with Grilled Peaches, Thick-Cut Nueske Bacon, and Real Maple Syrup:

Challah French Toast, Grilled Peaches, Thick Cut Nueske Bacon, Real Maple Syrup
Holy. Crap.

To say that this was good would be a gross understatement. At one point I did a French Toast Battle between Golden Goose and another Cuyahoga Falls eatery, Chowder House Cafe. Golden Goose definitely lost points for serving maple-flavored syrup. This was no longer an issue. The bacon, hand-cut by the kitchen staff, was crispy, chewy, smoky, and salty: a perfect pairing with the sweet maple syrup. In fact, I think I paired the maple syrup more with the bacon than with the French Toast.

And how was that French Toast? The peaches added a wonderful textural and sweet compliment to the more savory battered and griddled challah. In addition to the standard vanilla flavor in the batter, Blue Door had finally upped the ante and started incorporating Vietnamese cinnamon, boosting the heady flavors even further up the scale. Were this my last breakfast, I could die a happy man.

My third visit was again for breakfast, this time with friend and fellow food blogger Tami. Both of us ended up succumbing to the Omelette du Jour, her the vegetarian, and I the porcine:

Omelette Du Jour with Potato Croquette
This was a chorizo, spinach, roasted red pepper and Havarti omelette with a potato croquette. I've had Michael's two inch high quiche in the past and one of the qualities I've always admired about it was how well-balanced the flavors behaved together. Sweet, sour, salty, crunchy, creamy. In much the same vein, this particular omelette also delivered. The eggs were light and tender and the filling just enhanced the experience. The potato croquette, an item which Cedric had gotten during my last visit, proved to be a deep-fried bit of love on a plate. Crunchy on the outside, it was tender and creamy on the inside. Honestly, I've never come across a restaurant that serves potato croquettes before, so I'm glad that Blue Door is not only serving one, but a decent version to boot.

Along with our omelettes, Tami and I each had the option for a "toast" side. Not only was Blue Door making their own breads and croissants, but they also were making homemade English Muffins! Now THAT is a rarity indeed. I knew what my side would be:

Homemade Toasted English Muffin, Strawberry Jam
Served with an individual jar of strawberry jam, this was a carb lover's dream. For someone who grew up eating Thomas' English Muffins, this was what an English muffin should be. While you certainly won't go wrong ordering up a slice of some of their other toasted breads for breakfast, try the homemade English muffin when you go. I'm looking forward to another one with my next breakfast.

On my next visit for lunch, I decided to go with one of the daily lunch specials, the Cuban Sandwich with Dressed Organic Greens:

Cuban Pork Sandwich with Dressed Organic Greens
All of the typical Cuban sandwich ingredients were present: pulled pork, ham, swiss cheese, stone-ground mustard, and pickle. One of the problems I had with the sandwich was actually the bread. It wasn't that the bread was bad, but the toasted challah it was served on just didn't seem to match up with what my sense memory said it should. When Michael stopped out to check on me, I mentioned this to him and he admitted that it was definitely better with the homemade sourdough bread, but unfortunately they had run out. Fair enough. The dressed organic salad greens were tasty as always though.

During my last visit (which was a week ago), I had intended on going for a late breakfast and getting something light, like a bowl of the oatmeal. Of course, once I saw the daily specials board, I knew my plans were going to change:

Daily Specials Board
Now is the time of year for great tomatoes. I'll happily forgo hard, grainy, not-even-close-to-ripe tomatoes the rest of the year so that I can indulge when they are in season. I mean, why even bother with them if they aren't at their peak?

So, my bowl of oatmeal morphed into a Heirloom Tomato Croissant with Fresh Mozzarella and Basil Chiffonade:

Heirloom Tomato, Fresh Mozzarella, Fresh Basil Croissant, Angle 1
Realizing that this was more of a knife and fork "sandwich" than a handheld one, I cut off a piece with all four ingredients and took a bite. Waves of pleasure rolled over me as I savored each chew. The tomatoes were sweet, sour, salty, and tender. The mozzarella was creamy and rich. The toasted croissant was crisp and buttery. The basil added a bright herbaceous flavor that unified the entire sensation. This was incredible.

Here was a shot of the reverse side of the croissant:

Heirloom Tomato, Fresh Mozzarella, Fresh Basil Croissant, Angle 2
If you are thinking to yourself, gentle reader, that the croissant pictured above looks incredibly flaky, well, you'd be absolutely right.

Along with my sandwich, I also received a Prosciutto and Cantaloupe Salad:

Prosciutto and Cantaloupe Over Dressed Organic Greens
While pairing cantaloupe and prosciutto isn't anything groundbreaking, it's nice to be reminded now and again why they work so well together. The cantaloupe must be absolutely ripe in order for the sweetness to balance the saltiness from the prosciutto. In today's case, the pairing was perfectly executed.

I also wanted to mention the overall service I have received since the restaurant transitioned to its new name. Blue Door has been fairly busy every time I've gone (with the exception of the last visit), so if you are looking for a thirty minute lunch, I'd suggest trying it out when you have more time. Also, note that there have often been daily specials that also appear in a "regular" form on the printed menu. French Toast is a great example. The day that I ordered the French Toast with the grilled peaches, that was the daily special. There was also a regular French Toast already on the menu. Just make sure your server understands which one you actually want in order to avoid confusion.

These few minor quibbles aside, I think what Michael and his wife have done to transform the Golden Goose into the Blue Door is nothing short of remarkable. The food coming out of the kitchen is being held to the same standard that the breads and pastries have long achieved. The food is not inexpensive, but at roughly $10 for breakfast or lunch per person and for the quality you receive, I think it is a great value. If you've been hesitant to try out the restaurant or just haven't been back for a while, now is the time to take action.

And if you go on a day where they have the heirloom tomato croissant, get it. You won't be disappointed.

The Blue Door Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Filing My TPS Report at The Office Bistro

I find it interesting that after writing on this blog for the last two and a half years (has it been that long already?), I am in the unique position now of being solicited by restaurant owners, chefs, or general managers who actually want me to come to their establishment and do a review. I have to laugh a little bit at this because had I ever thought this would have been even a remote possibility when I started doing restaurant reviews, I'm sure my ego would've swelled to fill the room. I don't know that I think of myself as famous in any way (I eat my pasta one forkful at a time after all), but acknowledging that I now seem to have a certain level of notoriety is an entertaining notion to me.

Several weeks ago, Steve Turner from The Office Bistro and Lounge (Facebook fan page here) contacted me via email and asked if I would review his restaurant. Located at 778 North Main Street in Akron, Ohio, I had driven by The Bistro hundreds, if not thousands, of times since I moved back to Akron in 2004. While the notion of stopping there for a meal had crossed my mind once or twice, I simply had not done it yet. I replied to Steve that I would be happy to review the restaurant, but I made it clear that I would come unannounced and it could be weeks or months before I did so. He joking replied that he would prefer to know exactly when I planned to arrive so he could send out a carefully selected and prepared (and paid for) meal. Having set his expectations, I waited several weeks before giving serious thought to stopping by.

This past Monday night, as I was leaving from work, I decided to stop in for dinner. Parking was available on Main Street as well as in a small lot behind the building. Here was a shot of the front of the restaurant:

Entrance to The Office Bistro and Lounge in Akron, Ohio
There were several doors that appeared to be associated with The Office; only the one on the far right actually opened. As I entered from the street, I found myself in the lounge area. To get to the restaurant, I simply walked to the back of the lounge and waited at the entrance to the restaurant portion of the building (there was a sign asking customers to wait to be seated). Being a Monday night, I was surprised to find the restaurant pretty full, although this was tempered with the fact that the restaurant itself was fairly small to begin with. After being seated, my server left me with the menu to peruse:

The Office Bistro Menu Page 1
The Office Bistro Menu Page 2
The Office Bistro Menu Page 3
The Office Bistro Menu Page 4
The Office Bistro Menu Page 5
The Office Bistro Menu Page 6
As you can see from the pictures, the menu was fairly diverse, drawing from a number of influences, including Cajun/Creole, Italian, Greek, and American. While I pondered what to order, my server returned to tell me that the soups of the day were a hot curried carrot and a chilled cucumber avocado. Thinking that a cup of soup might just be a perfect way to start my meal, I went with a cup of the curried carrot:

Curried Carrot Soup
One bite and I could tell that the soup had been finished with heavy cream because of the way it coated my tongue. The flavor of the soup was tasty, but the two predominant flavors, carrots and curry, were a bit muted. The only way I was sure that it actually was a carrot soup was the occasional piece of cooked carrot easily dissolved on my tongue and the unfortunate presence of rather tough, fibrous shards of carrot that remained after the soup was pureed:

Fibrous Carrot Shards
Granted, some diners might not be annoyed with these fibrous bits, but to me it was the same sensation as getting a hair in you mouth, irritating and requiring immediate removal. I got about halfway through my soup before becoming annoyed enough at having to pick out the fibers from every spoonful.

A few minutes after giving up on my soup, my entree arrived, followed shortly after with a basket containing biscuits and a small ramekin of butter:

Biscuits and Butter
My server actually called these "rolls," but they were more biscuit-like. Actually, they were somewhere between a biscuit and a cake in terms of texture. The butter was nicely softened and spread easily and for the most part the biscuits were a bit unusual in that they were infused with a black pepper spiciness, but they also ran a touch to the dry side, too. It certainly wasn't a bad biscuit, just not a stellar one. I'm guessing fresh out of the oven, these would be pretty tasty.

For my entree, I decided to order the Seared Scallops in Sweet Tobasco Blanc with Mushroom, Asparagus, and Prosciutto Risotto:

Seared Scallops and Risotto Entree
As I was reading today's news on my smartphone, I saw my server approaching my table with something in her hand out of the corner of my eye. As I turned to look at her fully, I realized that she was leaving a trail of sauce drips in her wake. Even though she was only carrying one plate, it was tilted in such a way that the corner that was being gripped with her thumb was slightly lower than the rest of the plate and the sauce was making its journey to floor and table alike. While her thumb swimming in the sauce from my entree was my first concern, I quickly realized that it wouldn't be my only one.

Here was a close-up of the seared scallops, sauced with a sweet tobasco blanc:

Seared Scallops in Sweet Tobasco Blanc
While the menu didn't specifically say buerre blanc, by using the word blanc, I assumed that was what the sauce was supposed to be. And classically, buerre blanc is often served with seafood because the rich, buttery sauce plays well off the delicate flavor of the seafood. Done right, it is luxurious, sinful, and quite delicious. Consistency-wise, it should be thinner than a sauce hollandaise, but much thicker than say, a jus or pan drippings. Unfortunately, tonight's sauce was thin and watery and lacked substantial body. The scallops themselves were seasoned simply with salt and pepper and while cooked perfectly with a lovely translucent interior, the aggressive salting resulted in them losing their inherent sweetness.

Paired with the scallops was a mushroom, asparagus, and prosciutto risotto:

Mushroom, Asparagus, and Prosciutto Risotto
Had this been described as a cheesy rice casserole with mushroom, asparagus, and ham, this dish would have succeeded marvelously. As a risotto, however, this side dish fell into the Olive Garden interpretation of what a proper risotto should be. The rice traditionally used in risotto, the short-grained Arborio, releases starch as it is cooked and stirred, naturally thickening the dish. At the very end of the process and right before service, a small amount (key word: small) of cheese can be added to not only heighten the umami intensity of the dish, but a touch of creaminess as well. Too much cheese and you end up with a stiff mound of rice sitting on the plate, not a softly cascading and still slightly liquid pile of creamy rice ready to tantalize your palate.

That being said, the mushrooms and asparagus were cooked well and added a nice texture and flavor to the side dish, but I do take issue with the prosciutto. Based on how thickly cut the prosciutto was and its flavor and texture, it more closely resembled traditional American ham and not so much the Italian delicacy of prosciutto. While the astute among you might point out that both American ham and prosciutto are cured pork products, I will defend my position by saying that prosciutto is usually shaved impossibly thin and is marbled with lovely packets of sweet, white fat. As such, it has a very delicate taste to it. Tonight's prosciutto, along with its thicker cut than normal, was missing those blobs of cured fat. Like I said, as a cheesy rice casserole with mushrooms, asparagus, and ham, this would be a satisfying dish that lived up to its description on the menu. As an Italian risotto with mushrooms, asparagus, and prosciutto ... not so much.

I finished most of my entree and when my server checked in to see if I would like dessert, I politely declined and asked for the check. My meal tonight, while not a wallet-buster, was also no slouch at $26 including tax. The scallop and risotto entree itself was essentially $22. I realize that there are those who would complain that $22 is too much for something you could get at Red Lobster for $12, but I am the first one to acknowledge that good raw ingredients cost money and I'm willing to pay $22 when I know I can get better ingredients prepared correctly. While the scallops themselves were cooked perfectly, there were quite a few other execution problems with the dish that bothered me. Were I to select from the menu again, I probably wouldn't repeat this one. Other than the thumb in the sauce incident, service was quick and polite.

In the end, would I recommend The Office Bistro and Lounge based on this one visit? Yes, but barely. Nothing tasted bad to the point I would have sent it back to the kitchen to fix it, but there were some obvious execution errors in both the soup and the entree. And while The Office is not the most expensive menu in Akron, it is also by no means inexpensive either. That being said, there was a kernel of understanding in what flavors worked well together and that has me curious to return for another visit.

In the end, I'd be an idiot to not think that Mr. Turner would have preferred a glowing review of my experience at his restaurant. And all things being equal, I would have loved to give it to him. This is exactly the kind of establishment that I love to find and promote to hungry Akronites and Clevelanders looking for a tasty meal that would prefer avoiding national chains. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, it is what it is; those were the cards I was dealt. Now the question becomes, is publicity, even less than ideal publicity, better than none at all?

The Office Bistro & Lounge on Urbanspoon
Related Posts with Thumbnails