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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?