Monday, January 31, 2011

More Breakfasts From Mrs. J's Restaurant

Having been perplexed by the strange biscuits during my last visit to Mrs. J's Restaurant in downtown Orrville, Ohio, I found myself again in need of sustenance on a Sunday morning. Preferring to give my business to a local mom and pop place rather than a national chain, I decided to give Mrs. J's another go. When I arrived at 9 AM on Sunday morning, while the place was definitely hopping, there were still three or four booths still open. As with my first visit, it wasn't apparent whether I was supposed to wait to be seated or simply seat myself. Fortunately, another couple walked into the restaurant at the same time as I did and immediately sat themselves. Trying to fit into the crowd, I did the same.

After a few minutes, my server stopped by with a glass of water and some much needed coffee:

Coffee and Water
Between the food I had eaten last time and what appeared on the breakfast portion of the menu, it surprised me a bit when I spied packets of Sugar In The Raw sitting in the sweetener holder:

Selection of Sweeteners
Since I had tried (and not particularly cared for) the sausage gravy over biscuits the last time, I decided to try out something else on the menu today. I wasn't feeling the love for carbs this morning, so my menu choices were simplified down to one food group: eggs. Fine, an omelet it was! While there were only a couple of specific omelettes listed, you could essentially build one to order if you chose.

Not wanting to go the route of building my own, I decided on the Western Omelet:

Western Omelet with Whole Wheat Toast
With my omelet, I had my choice of breads for toast; I chose wheat bread. Overall, I'd say that my breakfast today was average. Nothing in particular was wrong with it, but neither did it endear me to Mrs. J's in such a way that I would swayed to return if I didn't already happen to be in the area. Everything was hot and tasted appropriate (crunchy for the toast, tender for the eggs). The filling of American cheese, ham, and onions was nicely heated through and weren't overly salty. The only oddity I noticed was that at one end of my omelet, it was seasoned. At the other, no seasoning whatsoever. My server was attentive without being obtrusive when it came to refilling my breakfast beverages as well as checking in on me.

On my second visit for this entry, I was bound and determined to try something a little more substantial and carb-laden. During my previous meal, I noticed something on the menu called the "Pancake Sandwich." Intrigued about this interesting sounding dish, I finally decided to order it for today's breakfast. After a bit of a delay (it was Sunday during peak breakfast hours), this finally arrived at my table with maple-flavored syrup:

Pancake Sandwich
This was a short stack of pancakes with two strips of crispy bacon between them and finally topped with a single egg cooked to my prefernce; I chose sunny side up. As somewhat expected, the egg had been served unseasoned. I added some salt and pepper and ate the egg first. It was cooked well and the yolk was nice and runny. After finishing the egg, I skipped the cup of margarine and went straight for the maple-flavored syrup instead. The bacon and pancakes were cooked thoroughly, and the syrup added a bit of sweetness to balance out the saltiness of the bacon.

Overall, today's dish was a decent breakfast. I think what I've come to terms with over my trio of visits is that Mrs. J's serves a basic, no frills breakfast menu. While the biscuits in my original review were a bit off-putting, everything since then has been good, but not great. That being said, the price has ALWAYS been right. My pancake sandwich today cost a mere $4.35 and it was quite filling. Looking around me, I noticed lots of families and friends who were out for Sunday breakfast and some great conversation. I have no qualms about continuing to recommend Mrs. J's if you live in the Orrville area. While the food might not be particularly inventive, every small community needs a place like Mrs. J's and Orrville is well served by this simple eatery.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lunch At Cafe Bricco

Bricco Restaurant has made quite a name for itself. Originally opened in downtown Akron, locations have spread to a second location in Cleveland across the street from Playhouse Square, Pub Bricco on Merriman Road in The Valley, and it's newest location, Cafe Bricco located inside the DoubleTree Hotel on West Market Street right across from Summit Mall in Fairlawn, Ohio. Each restaurant has its own focus on the cuisine served and my intention is to eventually do a comprehensive review of all three. Of course, in order to do that, I will need to divide and conquer. With work being in close proximity to the Cafe Bricco location, I decided to stop in for lunch and check out the first location.

Cafe Bricco does not have a dedicated entrance, but was instead just a few short steps inside the main doors at the DoubleTree Hotel. The DoubleTree was located at 3150 West Market Street, Akron, OH 44333. The dedicated line for the restaurant was 330-835-2203. Parking was in the lot surrounding the hotel. I parked in a spot just outside the front door of the hotel, walked inside and veered to my left.

Only a few short steps later, I was greeted by the entrance to the restaurant:

Entrance to Cafe Bricco
When I stepped inside, I stood by the hostess stand, waiting for someone to seat me. What surprised me about the space was that it looked deceptively small. When I finally got around to estimating how many guests could be accommodated, it was actually close to fifty, so I suppose the space wasn't all that tiny. The room was long and narrow, so perhaps that was why I had perceived it as being small.

As I sat down at my table, I noticed that each table had either an amber or tangerine-hued margarita class with an unlit white tea candle in the center of each. While this little bit of color was appreciated, when I looked above the bar, I was stunned to see this hand-blown glass chandelier:

Blown Glass Chandelier
While certainly eye catching and stunning, it felt a little discordant with the rest of the settings, the colors on the walls, the carpeting, even the napkins, which were more of a butterscotch color. The gentleman who seated me left me with the two page menu to peruse:

Cafe Bricco's Lunch Menu Front
Cafe Bricco's Lunch Menu Back
While the dinner menu could be significantly more expensive (read: twice the price), the prices for lunch today were fairly reasonable for an establishment at this level. Do note that the online menu for lunch (and I'm assuming probably breakfast and dinner, too) didn't exactly match the menu I was handed today in the restaurant. Scanning the menu, I was happy to see that some of the salads came in half portion sizes at quite attractive prices. Since I was a bit hungry today, I decided to pair a half salad with one of Cafe Bricco's sandwiches and included sides.

Looking around the room, I noticed that other tables had received baskets of bread; I never did. Perhaps only entrees came with bread. While I didn't miss it today, I was curious as to why some had bread and others did not.

As an avid lover of anything with apples, bacon, and fresh chevre, when I saw the Mixed Greens Salad with Caramelized Apples, Goat Cheese, and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, I knew what my half salad would be. After a noticeable wait, my salad finally arrived:

Mixed Greens Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
Tossed with a warm bacon vinaigrette, there were also pieces of bacon tossed into the salad as well. The salad was dressed well, with only a minimal amount of dressing remaining on the plate after I scarfed this delicious salad down. The caramelized apples had been lightly dusted with cinnamon and when combined with the tang from the goat cheese and the smoky-salty flavor of the bacon, each bite hit multiple taste receptors in my mouth. This was a tasty salad. If the toasted pumpkin seeds were added for texture, they were kind of lost to the bacon pieces. Additionally, at only $4, this was a great value as the amount of salad was enormous for a half-portion. Should you decide to order a full portion, gentle reader, know that it would be enough to make an entire meal.

Sadly, I was only one-third of my way through my salad when my sandwich platter arrived:

Salmon BLT Platter
A tad bit annoyed that the kitchen hadn't timed the two courses a little better, I went ahead and let my server place the plate on the opposite side of the table while I finished my salad. Did the quality of the sandwich and fries suffer because it sat for an extra five minutes before I got around to eating it? Perhaps just a little. But my only other option was to have them hold it in the back until I was ready for it under a heat lamp, and I don't think it would have fared much better.

Having now finished my entire salad, I switched the plate out for my Salmon, Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich served with a Basil Aioli on a laterally bisected croissant:

Salmon BLT on Croissant with Basil Aioli
After cutting the sandwich in half, I also took a side shot to inspect the layers:

Side Shot of the Salmon BLT Croissant
When I originally ordered the sandwich, I asked my server if the fish was cooked to order. He indicated that unless otherwise requested, the fish was cooked to medium. I was happy to learn upon taking my first bite that he was exactly right. The fish was tender and juicy and had decent salmon flavor. The lettuce and, more importantly, the tomato were fresh and ripe and added notes of crunch and sweetness to the flavor. I didn't get a whole lot of basil flavor from the aioli, although small strands of it were clearly visible. I tried a bit of the bacon and just as in my salad, it was smoky and salty without being overly so.

All that being said, something felt amiss. The bacon tasted fine by itself, but wasn't overly assertive (like bacon can be sometimes). When I tried just a bit of the salmon with my fork, I discovered the issue. The salmon wasn't seasoned at all. Even with the salt from the bacon, once you combined it with the unseasoned lettuce and tomato, the sandwich simply lacked salt. While there was a combination salt shaker/pepper grinder on the table, given how thickly the aioli had been applied, it would've been a messy proposition to try and correct the situation tableside.

Fortunately, my side of freshly cut steak fries were properly seasoned:

Fresh Cut Steak Fries
These thick cut fries were decent. The good news was that they weren't oily and a few of them were crispy. The bad news was that more than not, these fries were just a tad limp. While I did enjoy them with the cup of ketchup provided with the platter, I ended up leaving more on the plate than I ate. To be fair, however, that was due more to the fact that by this point in my lunch, I was definitely full.

With the bill coming to just over $13 with tax, I think I had a solid meal that was also a decent value. There were a few missteps along the way between the seasoning on the salmon, the rather limp steak fries, and the service guffaw that led to my sandwich platter arriving only minutes after receiving my salad, but the flavors were decent and the half-portion of salad was an outstanding value.

When I was doing my research before my visit, I discovered that one of the other duties of Cafe Bricco, besides being a restaurant catering to outside patrons, was to provide food for the DoubleTree's guests, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As such, they are open seven days a week from very early in the morning until very late at night. Unless you are looking for a spot to eat in the wee early morning hours after the bars close, Cafe Bricco will have their door open and a table waiting. I suggest you give them a try.

Cafe Bricco on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

All The Chinese Classics At China Gourmet

When I first stumbled back upon Vacarro's Trattoria after a ten year gap, I was amazed at the transformation from what I remembered in the past. On the other hand, when I revisited childhood staple Angelina's Pizza some twenty years later, the pizza didn't quite live up to the memory. Falling somewhere in the middle, China Gourmet in Akron, Ohio has managed to not only survive since I first started going there decades ago with my grandfather, but has since expanded to add a sushi bar and an underground banquet room.

China Garden was located at 1971 West Market Street, Akron, OH 44313 and can be reached at 330-867-8838. Parking was in the lot surrounding the building. If you are traveling eastbound down Market Street, your best bet for navigating the traffic is to make a left at Pershing and then a right into the lot.

Having lived in Akron for so many years, I pass by the restaurant frequently as it is located directly across the street from Ken Stewart's Grille. So what was the reason I hadn't stopped until now? Honestly, my memory of the food being served at the restaurant wasn't particularly memorable. It wasn't a bad memory, per se, just not a stand-out one. The shape of the building indicated that it had been converted from a Wendy's many decades ago. The interior was pleasantly decorated with linen tablecloths and napkins, a slender white vase on each table with a single flower sticking out of the top, and nary a chopstick visible in the entire dining room. Some things don't change.

Here was a shot of the roadside sign outside the restaurant:

China Gourmet Sign
As soon as I walked inside, I was greeted with EXACTLY the same interior that I remembered from fifteen years ago. While I can't attest to colors on the wall being a match to my memory, the feeling it invoked was exactly the same. This time, however, I looked around at the other clientèle and was unsurprised to discover that the only people of Asian origin in the entire restaurant were the owner and the staff. This did not bode well for getting authentic Chinese dishes. When I finally started to peruse the menu, my suspicions were confirmed:

China Gourmet's Menu Page 1
China Gourmet's Menu Page 2
China Gourmet's Menu Page 3
China Gourmet's Menu Page 4
China Gourmet's Menu Page 5
China Gourmet's Menu Page 6
China Gourmet's Menu Page 7
Having a wonderfully authentic Chinese restaurant in northeast Ohio like Wonton Gourmet has truly spoiled me. So much so that when I am firmly yanked back into Americanized Chinese food (which I, like so many other Americans, grew up on), I had to regroup to get my bearings. At six pages, the menu had a lot of the classics like General Tso's Chicken and Szechuan Beef, but since I at least wanted to attempt to find something a little more authentic, I had to scour the pages a little harder.

While I was looking at the menu, my server brought me the pot of green tea I had requested:

Green Tea Service
Sadly, only one tea bag had been used for the entire pot. This meant that the tea was quite weak until the very end of the meal when the tea bag had finally steeped long enough. Until that point, the liquid coming out of the pitcher's spout was nothing more than barely flavored hot water.

To get several tastes from tonight's menu, I decided to go with an appetizer, a bowl of soup, and one of the stir-fried dishes. For my soup, I skipped over the Wonton and Hot and Sour soups and decided to try the Vegetable and Bean Curd Soup:

Vegetable and Bean Curd Soup
The menu claimed that "all Chinese people eat this soup." The broth by itself was almost perfectly seasoned and had a slight vegetal taste to it. When I dug into the bottom of the bowl to retrieve the tofu and vegetables, I discovered that the "vegetable" portion of the title referred to fresh spinach and sliced green onions. It occurred to me that the vegetal taste of the broth was coming from the spinach itself. Sadly, when I got a spoon filled with not only broth, but also tofu, the barely underseasoned broth was now not salty enough to compensate for the unsalted tofu. Overall, this was a filling soup, but a little flat and two-dimensional. A drop or two of toasted sesame seed oil would've done wonders to the aroma and flavor.

While potstickers appear on almost every Americanized Chinese restaurant menu, only a few places do them well. Wonton Gourmet has set the bar high for me and I wanted to see how China Gourmet's version compared. Here were the potstickers with a soy and rice wine vinegar dipping sauce:

Potstickers and Dipping Sauce
As you can see, gentle reader, the kitchen clearly spent some time making sure the bottoms were crispy:

Crispy Potstickers
These particular potstickers were filled with ground pork and ginger:

Potsticker Filling
I only had two real criticisms on the potstickers. First, the casing was a bit doughy. Second, while I didn't expect the casing to be salted, I did expect the filling to be. It wasn't completely bland, but it was light on seasoning. I did enjoy how the ginger helped to cut through some of the fattiness of the pork, however. The dipping sauce served its purpose by adding some of the missing salt and acidity. These were definitely above average potstickers, but still a few levels below what you can get elsewhere.

After wading through page after page of non-authentic dishes, when I got to the "Pork" section of the menu, I was happy to discover an old friend, Ma Pa Tofu. Classically a spicy dish, when I asked my server about the spice level, she indicated it was already pretty spicy. I asked about my options for extra spicy. She indicated that she would not only turn the ticket in with "extra spicy" written on it, she would also bring out a dish of chili oil so that I could adjust it to my preference. Perfect!

After only a short time, she arrived with my entree:

Ma Po Tofu
Additionally, she brought me a medium-sized bowl of rice and the aforementioned dish of chili oil:

Steamed Rice and Chili Oil
After loading up my plate,

My Dinner Plate Tonight
I took my first bite. I held off on using the extra chili oil at first because I wanted to see how spicy the dish came out of the kitchen. "Extra spicy" at China Gourmet came out to about "medium" on my palate. This, as it turned out, was a nice level of heat as I could still taste the other components to the dish. While someone unfamiliar with a more traditional Ma Po Tofu might look at the picture of the entree above and say, "Where's the pork?", China Gourmet actually nailed the proportions correctly in that most of the protein on the plate was from the tofu, not the pork. China Gourmet's version also had water chestnuts in the mix, which I haven't had before. Overall, it was a decent rendition of Ma Po Tofu and even though I had eaten a bowl of soup and a plate of potstickers, I managed to get my way through about three-quarters of this plate.

While dessert was offered, I politely declined and asked for the check which, with tax, came to exactly $20. While tonight's meal was decent and would fit the expectations of 90% of Americans looking for "Chinese" food, to me the flavors just didn't pop like they did at more authentic restaurants. When I go out for any kind of cuisine, I want to be excited about the possibility of trying flavors that are foreign to me. The food tonight felt more comforting than exciting. In that sense, tonight's experience completely lined up with my last time dining here, some fifteen plus years ago. If this is the type of Chinese cuisine that you like, gentle reader, I think China Gourmet would make an excellent place for dinner.

For myself, however, I'd rather drive the forty-five minutes to Cleveland's Asiatown and experience some truly delicious and more exciting Chinese flavors.

China Gourmet on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Extra Helpings: Blogger Dinner At Chowder House Cafe

One of the self-imposed job requirements I have for myself as a food blogger is the responsibility to help drive as much traffic as possible to the independently owned, northeast Ohio restaurants as I can. My routine modus operandi is to do this via anonymous restaurant visits where I show up unannounced, do not identify who am I or why I am there, and pay for everything I eat. While this may work for the first visit or two, when my identity is eventually discovered, my relationship with the restaurant and the chef is bound to shift.

The first two times I reviewed Chowder House Cafe back in October and December of 2009, Chef Louis Prpich had no idea of why I was there or what I intended to do. Having no website of their own at the time of opening, my initial review served as the landing point for many, many Google searches for the restaurant (and still does, actually). It must have been one of my readers who alerted him to the fact that someone had not only written about his restaurant once, but twice. He reached out then by leaving a comment on my second review. Interestingly, he reached out to me again about a year later in October 2010 with an email.

Seeking to harness the power of those most concerned with writing about the vibrant food scene in Cleveland and Akron, he wondered if I would mind stopping by the restaurant before the dinner shift on a Saturday evening. When I arrived, we sat down at a table in the back of the restaurant, he brought out a few dishes for me to try, and systematically began to pick my brain about the notion of doing a blogger dinner. A blogger dinner, for those of you who don't know, is where a restaurant will organize a comped (meaning, free) dinner for local food bloggers in the hopes that they will then return to their respective blogs and write about it. While writing honestly about gratis meals is a tricky affair, I always make it a condition of attending such a meal that I am free to write about my experience, good or bad.

After making some recommendations about how best to structure a menu for food bloggers (we are an adventuresome bunch, after all), I agreed to bring together several of Cleveland's and Akron's top current food bloggers; Chef Prpich was tasked with putting together the menu. We had originally scheduled the dinner for a Tuesday in December before the Christmas holiday, but because of bad weather, had to reschedule to last Tuesday. At 6:30 PM, representatives from six blogs, evenly split between Akron and Cleveland, convened at the restaurant for what would be a nine course tasting menu.

Here was a list of the courses we were to be served tonight:

Chowder House Cafe Blogger Dinner Menu
Wisely, Louis put together a list of roughly half of the items coming from his seasonal menu and half what he would consider "specials" that might rotate in and out depending on ingredient availability. Before starting the meal, the chef came out and gave us a nice background of the highlights of his culinary career. Having graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, he had founded and run several kitchens in the Cleveland and Akron area, including the original Grotto location in The Valley, Coaches, and Office Bistro. It was in 2009 he decided to open Chowder House Cafe as a small little cafe featuring fresh seafood and homemade cuisine that would still allow him to balance his work and personal life. The cafe has been such a hit, however, that they've already expanded into another area of the building and grown from a small, one page menu to two full pages of seasonal, sustainable, locally purchased food whenever possible.

Introductions now finished, he directed our attention to the first course, soup. We each had our choice of the signature potato-less clam chowder, the lobster bisque, or the traditional French onion soup. Having already had the clam chowder, I went for the French Onion Soup:

French Onion Soup
Topped with a crouton and melted and bubbly cheese, the soup was delicious. The onions were soft, the broth was both slightly sweet and savory, and it really did a good job of warming my soul on this cold wintry night. I heard moans of gastronomic ecstasy from diners around me, equally enjoying their soup selection. When you go, gentle reader, start your meal off with a bowl of soup. You won't go astray.

Our second course was Crudo:

Consisting of thin slices of raw tuna, scallops, and walleye, the fish had been dressed with Meyer lemon and olive oil and topped with a warm, wilted arugula salad. The fish was immaculately fresh and gave off no hint of off-smells or flavors. In fact, the flavors were remarkably clean and blended together quite harmoniously. The wilted salad also gave a nice temperature contrast to the fish. Chef Louis had clearly designed tonight's menu to impress and by the end of course two, every single person sitting at that table was definitely salivating for more.

Our third course was a Portobello Streudel using fresh phyllo dough from Athens Food and served with a small salad and a pool of house-made demi:

Portobello Streudel
The mushrooms had been poached in cabernet sauvignon and mixed with Provolone before being wrapped in these burrito-esque logs and subsequently baked until perfectly golden brown. The phyllo was so delicate that the outer layers broke into a thousand little shards when I first lowered my fork into the streudel. The filling was rich and earthy, and the Provolone lent a nice creaminess to the filling. The veal demi-glace saucing the plate added another layer of richness and flavor.

For our fourth course, Chef Louis gave us the second of what would be five courses involving seafood, Baked Oysters:

Baked Oysters
These were Chincoteaque oysters that had been shucked, topped with spinach, bacon, Manchego, and sherry cream and then broiled until golden brown. Each diner got three oysters and I have to tell you, these were rich and decadent. Each of the ingredients lent its own flavor without taking away from any of the others. The oyster, essentially protected on the bottom by the shell and the top from the toppings, were plump and juicy.

For our fifth course, plates of Crabcakes with Oven Roasted Creamed Corn arrived at our table:

This was an interesting plate of food. While the crab in the crabcakes had come already pre-picked and packaged, there was also no filler in the cake itself. This led the cake to have a very intense crab flavor. Normally paired with a sauce remoulade, the creaminess instead came from the creamed corn, infused with cream and Adams Reserve white cheddar cheese. The small salad in the back of the plate had cleverly been dressed with a jalapeño vinaigrette, adding a modicum of chile heat that caused it to pop on my taste buds.

Our sixth course was an item that I have actually never had before, line caught Wild Shark:

Wild Shark
Seared nicely and finished in the oven until perfectly cooked, the fish had the texture of swordfish. Had one sworn off of meat in favor of fish, this particular dish would satisfy that primal urge for meat. The Caribbean spice-rubbed shark filet was served over a julienned vegetable medley of baby leeks, bok choy, and red peppers and finished with a ponzu fish sauce. This was an interesting pairing of protein and vegetables and up until this point in my life, I would have expected to see something like salmon in its place. The shark, however, stood up well to the other flavors on the plate.

It was also at this point in the meal where the chef stopped and informed us that he always tries to make responsible choices for the fish he serves at the restaurant. Believing firmly in the role of sustainability, he pointed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch website to determine which fish he bought and which he passed on. I am in total agreement that this is a great website which I use all the time when determining which fish selection I will be having for the evening. Since the website is perfectly browsable on my smartphone, I have it with me wherever I go.

By this point in the dinner, the strain on our guts was beginning to manifest itself with moans from the diners and physical stretches to make sure we had room for the remaining three courses. Course number seven was a recent addition to Chowder House's menu, Cassoulet:

This incredibly hearty meat and bean casserole had been made with chicken and homemade pork sausage, confitted in duck fat and stewed with white beans before being topped with a garlic-infused, almost Panko-like bread crumb and toasted to utter perfection. It was interesting to note that when Chef Louis originally put this on the menu and made it with the more traditional ingredient, duck, he could barely move them out of the kitchen. Changing the protein to chicken and pork sausage apparently made this dish highly accessible because it is now a wonderful seller. After tasting the earthy, creamy, rich and complex flavors, I could tell why. While the crudo course was probably one of my favorites for how light and delicate it was, the cassoulet course was right up there for the complexity and depth of flavor.

Our eighth, and final savory, course was a Proscuitto-Wrapped Monkfish over House Stewed Tomatoes:

Monkfish with Stewed Tomatoes
Monkfish is considered to be a "poor man's" lobster. It has a similar texture, but I find it isn't quite as sweet as lobster meat can be. That being said, the monkfish was cooked properly and more importantly, served over the most luscious stewed tomatoes that I have ever eaten. When Chef Prpich stopped back in to check on us, he told us that during the late summer months, when tomatoes are at their peak, the restaurant madly stews and jars these tomatoes for the cold winter months. Sadly, he informed us that they are about to run out of their reserves of this dynamite condiment until the summer months bless us once again with ripe tomatoes. The tomatoes were acidic, savory, unctuous and sweet all at the same time. Simply amazing.

Our gargantuan task nearly completed, there always seems to be room for dessert, right? Our ninth course was the classic Creme Brulee, Chowder House-style:

Vanilla Creme Brulee
The creme brulee itself was fairly standard, but the inclusion of a cayenne and chocolate tuille and a cocoa infused whipped cream really amped the dish up. The vanilla infused custard was super smooth and creamy and the tuille added a nice textural contrast to the dish. The only part of this dish I was a little disappointed with was the lack of chili kick from the cayenne pepper. Otherwise, this was a fantastic way to end our journey from "soup to nuts." While it's obvious that Chef Prpich had time to prepare for us and present only his best dishes, I think I can safely say that our expectations were equally as high coming into this meal. Having sat through this momentous meal, I can safely say that he delivered with aplomb.

Our meal at its inevitable conclusion, we thanked our host and servers, left a tip for the waitstaff that we thought was commensurate with the value of the food we had eaten tonight, and headed back out into the cold January air. Going into the dinner, I already knew two of the other food bloggers in attendance. One of the benefits of tonight's meeting was the opportunity to meet three more. The incredibly cool thing about these dinners is that in addition to being able to talk about the cuisine of a local chef or restaurant, you get to hang out with some very cool people.

As I have done in the past, I highly recommend you check out Chowder House Cafe. The restaurant is incredibly charming, the chef has the desire to present local, seasonal, and sustainable food in a way that truly highlights the ingredients, and the vibe of the place is ... well, just really cool. They currently don't have an alcohol license, but the chef informed us before we left that they are working on the final stages of getting a beer license. Of course, should you want wine or beer with dinner, you are free to bring your own and they will charge you a nominal corkage fee for opening and storing your beverage of choice.

I encourage you to check out the other bloggers' entries regarding last Tuesday's dinner. Links to their articles are provided for your convenience:

* Interesting Akron
* Carano's Cucina
* Fun Playing With Food
* The Chubby Cook
* Eating Around Town

(I'll update this list as more articles post, so check back.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Restaurant Expansion At Flury's Cafe

It's been about six months or so since I last talked about Flury's Cafe located in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, but after my latest meal there, I felt the time was ripe to bring them back up. In fact, having only discovered this gem of a cafe less than a year ago, I had only written about them three times. So why the need to cover them a fourth time? The food has stayed remarkably consistent and delicious during every visit (and trust me, gentle reader, I have gone WAY more than those three times). The ambiance is still small town friendly. What changed today was that as I pulled into the parking lot only to find a large number of cars, I suddenly worried that the small 14 seat restaurant wouldn't have any room for me.

As I walked through the front door ready to deal with a mob of restaurant patrons, I was delighted to see that a project that owner and chef Kim Dunchuck had been talking about for some time had finally come to fruition. It seemed that the space next to her tiny restaurant had become available and she was thinking of expanding. Every time I was able to stop in for a visit, things were getting closer, but none of the renovations had yet begun. Today as I walked through the front door, there was an enormous opening to the right of the door which led into a brand new space with extra tables and chairs.

It turned out that the work on the new room had been finished on the eve of Thanksgiving and while Kim wasn't quite ready to open the new room up for business, when a large crowd showed up for food on the day after Thanksgiving, they quickly moved the tables and chairs from the outside patio into the new space and officially christened it. It's been open ever since. Seeing as there was now twice as much space as before, I had no problems finding a seat at the original counter.

Due to a recent Flury's Cafe Facebook post, I had banana pancakes on my brain. Without even needing to consider the menu, as soon as my server came up to took my order, I quickly responded with my request and selected bacon as my included side. I then settled in and wouldn't you know it, not one, but TWO of my readers out there had also come into Flury's today to escape the cold and get a delicious meal. It's always a treat when I get to meet and talk with folks who take time out of their busy schedule to read my little dog and pony show. Thanks to you both for stopping to say, "Hello."

As my breakfast made its way from griddle to plate, my mouth began to water in anticipation of pancake goodness. Here was a shot of my banana pancakes with whipped cream and a brown sugar/butter/lemon juice syrup:

Banana Pancakes
With my first bite, my taste buds went to their happy place and did a little dance. While the "syrup" that Kim makes a la minute was sweet, it wasn't overpowering or cloying. The combination of the fresh bananas (which she peeled and cut to order) with the soft cake-like texture of the pancakes and the freshly melted whipped cream was just amazing. Almost every item off the menu was made from scratch and I have always been able to tell the difference. Can you get a cheaper breakfast at a fast food place? Sure. But, you simply cannot beat Flury's for quality and flavor.

Along with my pancakes came a side of crispy bacon:

Crispy Bacon
What can I say? I'm a sucker for bacon. Even not-so-good bacon. However, this bacon was salty without being too strong and was a nice way to balance the sweetness from the pancakes. I've never gotten around to asking what kind of bacon Kim uses, but it always comes out crispy with a bit of chew to it.

After I finished up my breakfast and paid the check (which came to $7.40 including tax), I decided to walk into the newly finished area and take a few snapshots to give you an idea of what the space looked like. Like I previously mentioned, the new space essentially doubles Flury's Cafe's seating capacity.

Here a shot from the west wall (same side as the entrance) looking left:

Flury's Cafe Expansion Angle 1
Here was another shot from the same wall, looking right:

Flury's Cafe Expansion Angle 2
And finally, a shot from the opposite wall:

Flury's Cafe Expansion Angle 3
While the space is nearly finished, Kim told me today that she still wanted to add a few more stools for the counter areas and the small tables in the middle will most likely need to be replaced with something a little more permanent as they were the tables and chairs that originally the patio outside. They've also added a new bathroom space in the renovated area that was nice and large. The door to it was actually on the left hand side of my first photograph.

When I have had the opportunity to stop in for a meal prior to today at Flury's Cafe, I have always tried to select a time when I thought it wouldn't be difficult to get a spot at the counter. Now that they have managed to pull off the Trifecta of great food, great ambiance, and lots of space to sit, I don't know that this concern will ever cross my mind again. I'm sure by this point, gentle reader, if you've read any of my previous reviews on Flury's, you'll know that I've been recommending that you check them out since my very first visit. The good news is that nothing has changed. Seek them out and you will be rewarded.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Veggie-Vegan Project: Flaming Ice Cube

For the second installment of The Veggie-Vegan Project, my previous compatriots, Paul and Eric, suggested we convene for dinner at a recent addition to the Cleveland scene, Flaming Ice Cube restaurant. This location opened up only midway through 2010, with the original being located in Boardman, Ohio. As Paul works in downtown Cleveland, this has been a lunch go-to spot for him ever since it opened and as far as he knew, it was one of the only 100% vegan restaurants that was in the area. In a rather odd twist, Akron actually has two vegan restaurants that I can think of off the top of my head: the obviously much more famous Vegiterranean, but also a newer addition, Mrs. Julie's Kitchen. Clearly both will be fodder for future stops on this project.

Flaming Ice Cube was located at 140 Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44114 and can be reached at 216-263-1111. Parking was wherever you could find it. My dining companion Edsel and I ended up parking in the lot next to the Marriott and walking to Public Square. What I would advise you against doing, gentle reader, is not using Google Maps to help you find the restaurant. We tried this last night and it had us simply circumnavigating the block where the Key Bank building stood. The restaurant was actually directly south of the large monument on the square and just east of Tower City.

Here was a photograph of the front of the store:

Storefront of Flaming Ice Cube
Once inside, Edsel and I joined Paul and Eric at a four top near the front door. While it was busy, it wasn't crazy, even for a Friday night at 7:00 PM. As I would surmise that most of their traffic probably arrives during the business day, it didn't surprise me that the restaurant wasn't packed. After seating ourselves, I began the process of photographing the menu:

Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 1
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 2
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 3
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 4
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 5
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 6
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 7
Flaming Ice Cube's Menu Page 8
In addition to the menu, there was also a daily specials board which listed the sides and soups for the day. I was so intrigued by one of the soups listed, a Stuffed Pepper soup, that I had to order a bowl in order to satisfy my curiosity:

Bowl of Stuffed Pepper Soup and Crackers
Here was a closer look at the soup:

Close-up of Stuffed Pepper Soup
I had assumed that the soup would be similar to the meat-laden version sans ground meat. When I went to taste it, I was happy to discover that not only were the flavors pretty much spot on compared to the version with which I am familiar, but there was a texture in the soup that very much resembled ground meat. Had I not known that this was a vegan version, I would've simply assumed that it had ground meat in it. The seasonings were expertly done and there was a subtle, yet welcome, kick from the addition of cayenne chili. The soup was definitely hearty and filling and the only real criticism I had was that some of the rice grains weren't fully cooked and as such were just a tiny bit crunchy.

The menu was broken down into salads, sandwiches, panini, wraps and burgers, and while I would normally order a "plain" burger to test out the mettle of the kitchen crew, tonight I decided to order one of the veggie burgers, the Pizza Burger. Each burger came with one of Flaming Ice Cube's homemade sides; I choose the Sweet and White Potato Salad:

Vegan Pizza Burger Platter
The homemade veggie burger patty had been griddled and topped with dairy and soy-free cheese, faux pepperoni and each bun half had been toasted and coated with the from-scratch marinara. Here was a side shot of the assembled burger:

Side Shot of Vegan Pizza Burger
Eaten as a whole, this was a fairly tasty and definitely filling burger. Unlike the soup, I could tell that I was eating a veggie patty and not a meat patty because the texture was a bit looser. Not that the patty crumbled (as has happened with other veggie patties I've had in the past), but had I been blindfolded and someone put this in front of me, I could've picked out that it wasn't a beef patty. The marinara sauce added a nice sweetness and acidity. The faux pepperoni had just a bit of spiciness to them, but it lacked the chewiness that I've come to appreciate from the real deal. The only disappointing part of this sandwich was the bun, as it just wasn't sturdy enough and kind of fell apart as I progressed through the sandwich.

After tasting my sandwich, I turned my attention to the small black cup of potato salad:

Sweet and White Potato Salad
For the second time during tonight's dinner, I was again stymied at how delicious and non-stereotypically vegan this tasted. The potatoes were cooked to the perfect texture, being both creamy and tender and the mustard-vegan mayonnaise dressing made for a nicely dressed side. As I rolled the flavors around in my mouth, I also began picking up hints of clove, and Edsel suggested that the chopped pickles that had been incorporated into the potato salad might have been brined using cloves. In all, this was a very tasty side that I would have no qualms ordering again.

Because my sandwich only came with one side dish, I decided to order an extra cup of the other homemade side for tonight, a Black Bean and Corn Salsa:

Black Bean and Corn Salsa
In addition to the usual suspects of tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and lime juice, the black beans and sweet corn were joined by a bit of earthy cumin. The salsa hit all the right notes on my palate, but conceptually as a dish, it felt a little weird eating this with a fork; freshly fried corn chips would have made this a real winner.

With the main portion of dinner now complete, we now turned our attention to the dessert offerings. While Paul and Eric opted to split one of the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bars, Edsel and I decided to split a slice of their walnut encrusted Carrot Cake:

Walnut Encrusted Carrot Cake
First, what I liked. The sweetness was controlled. The flavor was decent. The faux cream cheese frosting complimented the cake well. Second, what I didn't like. The cake itself was very dense. While there was some hint of traditional carrot cake spices, it wasn't strong enough (i.e. cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.). By examining the cake, it was obvious that there was carrot in it, but no real carrot flavor came through in the finished product. Of all the problems, the biggest was probably the density issue. Solve that and the others would simply be minor quibbles.

In the spirit of sharing, Paul cut off a small piece of his Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar for me to taste:

Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar
In addition to the chocolate and peanut butter, vegan marshmallows and a crunchy cereal were used to create this homage to a dressed up Rice Krispies treat. It was chewy without hurting my teeth and the prominent flavors of the main ingredients worked well together. I am particularly glad that chocolate is not verboten to vegans as that might very well just be a deal breaker for me.

Since I decided to put the piece of carrot cake on my check, with tax and tip my grand total came to slightly over $20. My sandwich with one side, however, was a very affordable $7. Having dined at the Flaming Ice Cube tonight, I can definitely see why Paul goes here quite often to pick up lunch and return to his office. For vegans looking for another dining option and for non-vegans who just like to shake things up a little, the Flaming Ice Cube restaurant offers a tasty and diverse assortment of menu options that will please your taste buds and your wallet. I definitely recommend that you give them a try.

Flaming Ice Cube on Urbanspoon
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