Saturday, July 7, 2012

Red Rover, Red Rover, Let Dante Come Over

Prepare yourself, gentle reader, for a lengthy blog post today. In trying to give Dante Boccuzzi's new Akron-based D.B.A. restaurant as much chance to impress as possible (or not), I ended up going to the restaurant twice during its opening week and have included both experiences in this one post.

D.B.A. (aka Dante Boccuzzi Akron) is Dante's latest restaurant opening and his first in the Akron area. Located in the old Vegiterranean space situated across the street from Luigi's, it doesn't represent a brand new concept for him, but merely an extension of his current offerings at Restaurant Dante in Tremont and The DC Pasta Company in Strongsville. That being said, there are far fewer restaurants in Akron to compete directly with D.B.A., both in terms of cuisine and price.

D.B.A. was located at 21 Furnace Street, Akron, OH 44308 and can be reached at 330-375-5050 or by fax at 330-375-1670. While there is parking available in a lot across the street from D.B.A., it can be tricky to find a spot as Luigi's shares the same parking space. I was easily able to find a space to park during my first visit on a Tuesday. For my second visit on a Friday night, I gladly paid the $4 valet charge to not have to worry about it.

Once inside, I was impressed at how the interior had been transformed from the rather hard and edgy space of its predecessor to the more broken up and darker look that the restaurant space currently has. One of the problems that Vegiterranean always seemed to have in the past was that when full, the noise levels were extremely high and it was often difficult to have a conversation with dinner companions without having to yell at them. Smartly, the bar area now has a wall between it and the main dining room and the space at the front of the restaurant has been converted into small nooks, each containing three or four tables.

As Dante is also a musician, cleverly, the dinner menu comes presented on an LP album with an actual record inside:


D.B.A. Dinner Menu Back

Just as with Dante's other restaurants, many of the dishes are offered at various sizes, from a tasting to an appetizer to an entree sized portion. As a restaurant reviewer, I greatly appreciate this because it can be difficult when going out by yourself to get as many tastes as possible during a single visit. Immediately, my brain began to devise a plan on how to get the maximum number of courses for a minimum amount of cash.

While there was no prix fixe meal available at D.B.A. (at least, my server didn't indicate that there was one available on my first visit), I decided to take matters into my own hands and ordered a five course progression, three from the appetizer section, one from the pasta section, and a final course from the entree section of the menu.

Within just a few seconds of placing my order, standard Restaurant Dante bread service arrived at my table:

Bread Service

The breads are sourced from a variety of locales (one of which is Mediterra in Pittsburgh) and arrived in an old vinyl LP that has been heated, remolded, and shaped into a bread basket. The hummos that accompanied the bread was also identical to what is served at Restaurant Dante. Both were fresh and delicious and a nice way to start the meal.

What came next was the onslaught of food I had originally ordered, each course skillfully arriving at my table only mere moments after my previous course had been removed and new silverware carefully placed in front of me. First up was the half portion of the Mackenzie Goat Cheese appetizer:

Fried Squash Blossom

I had assumed that the chevre would be inside the fried squash blossom, but it was actually under the dressed salad greens. The squash blossom was exquisitely fried -- crispy, tender, and not greasy -- and seasoned perfectly. All of the elements on the plate worked very well together, but the one standout that made my mouth swoon was the zucchini agrodolce. It was sweet and sour (as the name would imply) with just a touch of heat to it.

The next course was one of the menu's many vegan offerings, the half portion of the Asparagus Salad:

Asparagus Salad

In addition to the shaved asparagus, there were asparagus spears, frisee, pickled Chanterelles, and an eggless bearnaise that served as the dressing. The seasoning of this dish was a bit uneven as the frisee was more heavily salted and the asparagus a little less. But, at the end of the day, when combining a little bit of each element from the plate, everything evened out and I thought it was quite tasty. The eggless bearnaise (I'm assuming the yellow color probably comes from the use of tumeric) worked quite well and gave the salad an acidity and richness that really balanced the other flavors well.

The next course to cross my table was the Crispy Calamari and Rock Shrimp appetizer:

Crispy Calamari and Rock Shrimp

Accompanying the fried items was a chile-spiced mayonnaise and sliced pickled Shiitake mushrooms. The spiced mayonnaise had a considerable amount of heat, but nothing that I would consider excessive. The squid and shrimp were very tender and the coating on both was crispy and not greasy. The only real complaint I had regarding this dish was that the rock shrimp were fairly aggressively seasoned and the calamari a tad underseasoned. Eaten together, they balanced each other out, but woe to the diner who decided to eat three or four rock shrimp in a row.

Having finished three appetizer courses, my fourth course came from the middle portion of the menu. Items from here were available as a taste, an appetizer-sized portion, and as a full entree. I decided to go with an appetizer-sized portion of the Arborio Risotto Carbonara:

Arborio Risotto Carbonara

The portion was HUGE. It might be because I had already eaten three courses already, but I realized as soon as this was sat in front of me that I should've ordered the tasting size. I immediately knew that I would be leaving the restaurant with leftovers.

Nestled in the center of the dish was a soft poached egg with a small dollop of black truffle puree next to it. The trick, of course, is to break open the egg and stir the contents of the bowl together before eating it (much like the Korean bibimbap). After thoroughly mixing, I took my first bite. First, the good points. It was rich. It was earthy. It was creamy. The pancetta has excellent texture. Second, the not-so-good points. It was incredibly salty.  Just to rule out the possibility of the pancetta's salt being the culprit, I made sure I found a forkful that had none in it. I repeated the experiment several more times. I quickly reached for my water. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't inedible. It just wasn't balanced. I ate about one-third of this dish before asking for the remainder to be boxed up.

The final course of this first evening at D.B.A. was the Seared Sea Scallops:

Seared Sea Scallops

Perched atop three potato cakes, the scallops were dressed with balsamic glazed strawberries and lemon zest strips. In between the scallop mounds was fresh arugula, baby Shiitake mushrooms, and sliced dehydrated strawberries. As opposed to my fourth course tonight, this one was spot on. The scallops were cooked perfectly, seared brown on the outside and beautifully translucent on the inside, the strawberries and balsamic played so well together on my tongue. The salad had a lovely bit of pepperiness to it and the dehyrdrated strawberries really reinforced the fresh strawberry flavor nicely. The only thing I didn't care for was the texture on the lemon zest "strips." While I dig the visual presentation of the strip, I think I might have preferred a more finely grated zest.

My second visit to D.B.A. was during the same week as my first, but this time on a very busy Friday evening. Whereas I had been seated at a small corner table in the main room before, this time we were seated at a small two top right by the front window. One of the trickier aspects of food photography when done in a restaurant setting is the natural light coming in through the windows in the evening. The color temperature of the light can change rapidly as the sun sets and over the course of our two and a half hour meal, I found myself recalibrating the white balance on my camera in between each course and actually having to use light painting on my dessert course because of the lack of good light.

To start off tonight's meal, I went with the half portion of the vegan-friendly Cold Soup:

Cold Soup

Made from heirloom tomatoes, it also had a basil cream mousse and was dotted with bits of crisped pita bread. The acidity and sweetness of balsamic vinegar added to the complexity of flavor in this quite delicious and refreshing dish. The seasoning was spot on and the crispy pita added a wonderful textural contrast to the smoothness of the soup and the mousse. Truly, this was an excellent way to start my second visit at D.B.A.

My next course was also from the appetizer portion of the menu and was something I had been eying since I first gazed upon the on-line menu, the Hudson Valley Foie Gras:

Hudson Valley Foie Gras

Served over a raspberry short cake and topped with duck prosciutto, this dish truly delivered in every way possible. As I took my first bite, I think my eyes must have rolled back in my head just a little bit as I savored the wonderful balance of salty, sweet and tart from the various components of the dish. While this is one pricey appetizer at $19 (indeed it is more expensive than several of the entrees), I decided to consider this my entree for the evening and was very happy that I did. The raspberries, both used as a garnish and baked into the short cake added a very necessary amount of acid to combat the heavy richness of the foie gras. I'd order this again in a heartbeat.

For the next course, my dining companion and I each ordered a "tasting" portion ($5 each) of one of D.B.A.'s pastas and decided to share them with each other. The Pappardelle alla Bolognese is a popular dish at Restaurant Dante and makes its appearance on D.B.A.'s menu, too:

Pappardelle alla Bolognese

This dish was rich and hearty, the pasta was cooked perfectly, and the veal, pork, and beef ragu that dressed the noodles was present without being too much. Honestly, if I wasn't attempting to get in as many tastes of the menu as possible, I could be a happy man with a nice big plate of this pasta.

I, on the other hand, ordered the Green Spaghetti:

Green Spaghetti

Topped with garlic braised rock shrimp, spinach, poor man's cheese, and finished with crispy bread crumbs, this pasta also delivered, albeit with a little less intensity than the pappardelle. Once again the pasta was cooked and dressed perfectly, but I felt that the rock shrimp were a bit too salty. I had first noticed this when I tried the Crispy Calamari and Rock Shrimp appetizer on my first visit. I'm not sure whether the shrimp themselves are naturally salty or if the coating used on the shrimp is the culprit.

My final savory course on my second visit was the appetizer-sized portion ($12) of the Hong Kong Style Mussels:

Mussels 'Hong Kong' Style

As opposed to the appetizer-sized portion of the Arborio Risotto I had ordered during my first visit, this time, the portion was perfectly in line with what I had room for in my stomach. The mussels were tender and flavorful and all except one of them had steamed open during the cooking process. The broth had been infused with chiles, lime and cilantro and while the broth by itself was a bit aggressive in seasoning, when paired with the sweet mussels, it was a nice complement. One thing that was missing from this dish was a nice piece of grilled bread to soak up some of the broth. Fortunately, I asked my server for some fresh bread and she was happy to oblige.

While I didn't have room for dessert on my first visit, on this second one I purposely made sure not to stuff myself such that I couldn't sample something from the dessert menu:

D.B.A. Dessert Menu

Continuing in the vein of cleverness, while the regular dinner menu was presented on the album cover of an LP, the dessert menu came on the liner notes of a Compact Disc.

After considering all of my options, I ended up going with the Double Baked Chocolate Brownie:

Double Baked Chocolate Brownie

I had originally thought that perhaps the brownie would be more like a biscotti, the twice-baked Italian pastries that are often dipped into coffee or espresso to soften. Instead, what arrived was a nut-free brownie wrapped in phyllo, brushed with butter and then baked until golden brown. Paired with a stone fruit compote, chocolate sauce, and a scoop of apricot sorbet, this turned out to be an unusual, but delicious dessert. The brownie, even though it had been twice baked, was decadent and moist and the tartness from the apricot sorbet did a great job of cleansing my palate from the rich and sweet brownie. The chocolate sauce didn't do a whole lot for me and something like a raspberry coulis might have better served this dessert.

Over the course of two visits, I was able to try eleven of the twenty-nine dishes on D.B.A.'s current dinner and dessert menus. Of them all, while the seasoning on a few of the dishes was a little uneven, and one of them was way too salty, on the whole, I think the flavors were spot on, and most dishes I tasted had no issue with seasoning.

Service between my two visits was interesting. With only a third full restaurant on my first visit, it took approximately one and a half hours to enjoy a five course meal. During my second visit during a busy Friday night service with a full restaurant, a similar five course meal took two and a half hours. As you can imagine, the first visit felt a bit rushed as the minute my plate was cleared and silverware replaced, the next course appeared, really giving me little time between courses to relax. On my second visit, the pacing at the beginning of the meal was much better, but as the courses progressed, so did the lag time between each course. Between the pasta course and the mussels, my dining companion and I probably waited a good thirty minutes.

While the servers during both visits were knowledgeable about the menu, the server during my second visit forgot to bring a glass of wine requested by my dining companion and decided to drop off the final check to our table before we had actually finished our meal. I realize that this is the first week of D.B.A. being open and I can easily chalk up these glitches to the staff getting its collective feet wet. Given a few weeks, these problems should correct themselves.

As you can imagine by looking at the menu and some of the prices I've quoted along the way, eating at D.B.A. can be reasonable or expensive. I had water with both of my meals and the totals for each of my meals, with tax and a twenty percent gratuity were $80 and $65, respectively. I imagine that were you to throw in a cocktail and a glass of wine, you could easily approach $100 per person. That being said, if you stick to three or four of the $5 options or simply choose one entree, you could get away with a check totaling closer to $25 to $30. While this is certainly comparable to what you would spend at some of Cleveland's more upscale restaurants, D.B.A. finds itself on the pricier end for an Akron-based restaurant.

Noise levels during my Friday night visit were light to moderate and I had absolutely no problem carrying on a conversation with my dining companion. Unlike Restaurant Dante where, at times, it can be nearly impossible to carry on a conversation without yelling at the person across the table, D.B.A. was much more conducive to productive conversations.

Everything said and done, I would recommend that you check out D.B.A. The food and the service have a lot of promise and given a couple of weeks to get everything running like a finely-oiled machine, I imagine an experience will be similar to any of Dante Boccuzzi's other restaurants. While the menu isn't a huge departure from Restaurant Dante, it also offers a nice assortment of vegan, vegetarian, and meat-based options that can be enjoyed by all audiences. I know that I am looking forward to returning soon and giving some of the remaining menu items a try.

Dba [Dante Boccuzzi Akron] on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday Morning Amusement

Dear Food Blogger,

Can I offer you and your readers a special discount coupon for organic sesame butter?

While you are probably aware of the nutritional benefits of sesame butter, and despite the fact that the yummy nutty flavor has been in use for decades in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, sesame butter is not yet common in America. I'm on a quest to change that.

If you reply positively, I will be happy to send you a customized introduction coupon with your site's name that would give your readers an exclusive 40% discount. I will also send materials and images to help you with writing a post.

If you are willing to give it a try yourself, the following coupon already gives you a 40% discount (for food writers only). Please keep this private. Once you agree to post on your site, I will send you a customized coupon for your readers.
Use coupon: foodblog
(it works after entering the shipping address)

After a long quest for the perfect sesame butter, I decided to make it myself. This premium sesame butter is made from the highest quality organic sesame seeds grown in Ethiopia, crushed in a traditional method using a 90-years old millstone, and is free of nuts or any artificial additives. Healthy and delicious...!

So, what do you say – can I send you a customized coupon for your readers?

I will be looking forward to receiving your feedback.

All the Best,
Tomer Treves

Dear Clueless Product Pusher,

Thanks for taking the time to personalize your message to me.

Please do me a favor and keep your organic sesame butter. Your marketing effort to rebrand tahini as "sesame butter" feels as silly to me as does calling something like High Fructose Corn Syrup, "Corn Sugar." While I love to use tahini in many of the Mediterranean dishes that I make, trying to pass it off as something else does not sit well with me.

I am usually tempted to pass things along to my blog readers when it benefits them; however, I also keep no secrets from my readers either. If you are giving me a discount on a product, I will disclose it. And as for the offer of assistance in sending me "materials and images to help you with writing a post," I can assure you, were I to take you up on your offer, I'm pretty sure I could come up with plenty of words on my own to describe your product.

I have no problem with the notion of incorporating more tahini into the diet. Your impersonal approach, silly marketing rebrand, and rather shady "let's just keep this between us" modus operandi makes me give this opportunity a pass.

Tom Noe
Exploring Food My Way

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Week In The Life At The Blue Door Cafe

Am I recognized when I walk through the front door? Yes. Am I given seating priority over other customers? Never. Do I ask for special treatment or go off menu when ordering? Nothing that I wouldn't do at any other restaurant. Do I think that the kitchen might take an extra second or two to make sure my plate of food is a stand-out dish both visually and in how it tastes? Absolutely.

Lest I set the bar too high so early in the review, let me bring some reality to the situation. I have been going on a fairly regular basis to Blue Door since they converted over from The Golden Goose just under a year ago. On the whole, the food is creative, very tasty, and fun. Have I ever gotten a bad plate of food -- something I would send back to the kitchen? No. Have I ordered items off the menu that weren't as stellar as others? Yes. It is a sad fact of life that not all dishes are created equal and while I've been knocked out of this world too many times to count with the food here, sometimes a dish can be cooked correctly and seasoned properly, but still only register a "meh" in the taste department.

So why do I love Blue Door so much? Mostly because of the commitment of every single person that works there to provide a positive experience, from the homemade breads and pastries, to the effort to use seasonal and local ingredients as much as possible, to the knowledgeable waitstaff, and to the kitchen team that not only continually strives to innovate new dishes on a daily basis, but also has the chops to be able to pull it off.

While the restaurant has a regular menu which changes very little, the true magic of this place is the daily "specials" menu, which tends to rotate definitely on a weekly basis, and quite often, on a daily one. This week, dishes on the specials menu centered on an Italian theme, some of which were of true Italian descent, others were a nod to an Italian tradition.

Shall we begin the journey with Wednesday, May 16th?

Blue Door Cafe's Specials Menu for Wednesday

Many times I already know what I am going to order even before walking through the front door. This is because owner Michael Bruno does a great job of fairly regularly updating the status of the restaurant's Facebook page. He'll list out the daily specials for the following day so that customers have an idea of what to expect. Nine times out of ten, that status update will be what prompts me to come in the following day for breakfast or lunch.

So what was today's sirens' song? Fresh Pasta Carbonara:

Homemade Pasta Carbonara

Made with homemade egg noodles, fresh peas, shallots, Nueske's bacon, and Parmesan cheese, this creamy and salty concoction made my head swoon with delight. I am particularly fond of the fact that from it's very inception, Blue Door has championed the use of the deliciously smokey and salty Nueske bacon, which adds such great depth to any dish it appears in. The fresh peas were delicious and added little pops of sweetness to a pasta dish which could've easily landed on the salty side.

Not wanting me to miss out on the opportunity to try one of the kitchen's homemade meatballs, at the chef's request, my server also brought me one covered in the house marinara sauce:

Homemade Meatball with Marinara

This was one of the most tender meatballs I think I've ever eaten, probably due to the freshly ground bread crumbs that were added to help retain the meat's moisture. The marinara sauce had a nice acidity to it that complemented the fattiness of the meatball. On the menu, this meatball was intended for the "Not Just Any Spaghetti and Meatballs," also with homemade egg pasta. Had I not been so hot and bothered for the carbonara, I would've gladly ordered this in its place.

On Thursday, May 17th, I returned for lunch and decided this time to try the Italian Sausage Sandwich accompanied by a selection of Fresh Fruit:

Sausage and Peppers Sandwich with Fresh Fruit, Angle 1

Here's a slightly different angle:

Sausage and Peppers Sandwich with Fresh Fruit, Angle 2

Placed in a toasted housemade baguette roll, the Italian sausage was a little bit spicy, substantial, and delicious. Housemade marinara along with roasted peppers and onions also filled the roll and was finished off with melted cheese and a chiffonade of fresh basil. When the plate was first set down in front of me, I had to pause for a moment to consider my line of attack. While I'm sure some could unhinge their jaw and attempt to eat this like a normal sandwich, today I opted for knife and fork. Everything about this plate of food was delicious. And while the interior crumb of the baguette was nearly perfect, the only concern that I had was with the exterior. When toasting a baguette, it can get a bit too crusty for my dental work. The fresh fruit was an excellent complement to the savory sandwich.

When I stopped in on Friday, May 18th, I noticed that some of the specials had been reworked (like the Cannoli French Toast was now a Sicilian French Toast) and new items were listed where others had lived before:

Blue Door Cafe's Specials Menu for Friday

I am ALWAYS up for a good burger and having never had one at Blue Door before, I decided to go with the Mafia Burger with a side of French Fries. Here was one angle:

Mafia Burger with Fries, Angle 1

and a different angle:

Mafia Burger with Fries, Angle 2

So what made this burger so special? For one, the ground beef was local Ohio beef that had been grass-fed. It arrived at the perfect medium-rare I had ordered it. Second, the pesto creme fraiche, organic roasted red peppers, and toasted ciabatta roll were all made in-house. As you can well imagine, the French Fries were hand-cut and fried to a proper crispy golden brown and delicious texture and flavor. While I had read the night before on Blue Door's Facebook page that the bun was going to be a seeded brioche, I was a little surprised that the burger actually came on a ciabatta roll.

If there was one gripe about the burger, it was the ciabatta roll. Don't misunderstand, gentle reader. It was impeccably fresh and had a wonderful crust and crumb. And it was right for the kitchen to split and toast the roll in an effort to avoid a soggy bottom bun from the juicy burger patty. But because of the nature of ciabatta, the crust was tougher to bite through. This meant that with every bite, the interior contents of the burger were being squished out the other end of the roll. A minor gripe to be sure, but when you're working at such an elevated level, every little consideration counts.

I mentioned it to Michael on my way out of the door and he concurred that ciabatta wasn't the best match for the burger, but that he just hadn't had time to get the brioche done that morning. Fair enough.

 On Saturday, May 19th, I was completely stoked to see that Blue Door had received a shipment of ripe heirloom tomatoes. There are few pleasures in life as a really ripe tomato and I was excited to see what would appear on the specials menu for the day:

Blue Door Cafe's Specials Menu for Saturday

While there was a Salad Caprese on the menu:

Salad Caprese

I was thinking more along the lines of a sandwich. So, in a moment of foodie inspiration (or desperation, depending on your point of view), I decided to order the Salad Caprese and one of Blue Door's signature croissants, split and toasted on the flattop:

Split and Toasted Croissant

With salad and croissant in hand, I simply assembled the breakfast sandwich I had been envisioning all along:

Salad Caprese Breakfast Sandwich

I mean, how can you go wrong with fresh ripe tomatoes, fresh Ohio basil, fresh mozzarella cheese, 30-year-old balsamic vinegar and an incredibly buttery, flaky croissant? Truth be told that one croissant only used up about half of the salad's contents, so I had a lovely time finishing the remaining salad with my fork. For about a tenth of a second, I thought about ordering a second croissant to make an additional "sandwich," but decided to keep my butter quota in check for the meal. If you have the chance to try this for yourself, do it!

For my final visit, TODAY, I had arrived early enough to consider a breakfast dish instead of lunch. As such, I decided to give in to my sweet tooth:

Blue Door Cafe's Specials Menu for Sunday

Any time I order something sweet, I also try to order something to balance it out. In today's case, that would a cup of coffee from local, Akron-based coffee roaster Angel Falls:

Angel Falls Roasted Coffee

Hot and bitter, this was a lovely way to start my meal and wake up in the morning.

The Sicilian French Toast had been teasing me most of the week and a comment from a Facebook friend finally pushed me over the edge:

Sicilian French Toast

The French Toast was made with housemade Challah bread, soaked in lemon, milk, cream, and eggs, which had then been griddled and then layered with a lemon pastry cream, topped with Creme Chantilly (aka fresh whipped cream), sprinkled with Vietnamese cinnamon, a chiffonade of fresh mint, fresh raspberries, and powdered sugar. I was surprised at how well the lemon and mint went together. Actually, the whole thing was delicious and while it wasn't the best French Toast I've had at Blue Door (that honor goes to the brandied peach French Toast), if you're looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, this would be the way to go.

Along with the sweet portion of my meal, I decided to add a bit of smokey saltiness with some of the Nueske applewood-smoked, thick-cut bacon:

Nueske Applewood-Smoked Bacon

Honestly, this is some of the best bacon I've ever eaten. It isn't inexpensive, but it is meat, hearty, rich, salty, and smokey all at the same time. I probably shouldn't have gone the extra step because I couldn't finish everything, but every time I taste this bacon, it takes me back to my youth when I would camp out with the Cub Scouts and we'd cook most of the food over an open fire.

So there we have it, gentle reader, an entire week's worth of Blue Door Cafe and Bakery.

Now, I will be the first to admit that Blue Door is not inexpensive. On a fairly regular basis, with tip and tax, each of the meals I wrote about above was anywhere from $15 to $20. Those wandering in thinking that Blue Door is the same old greasy spoon diner it used to be in one of its previous lives will be a bit shocked. In fact, I have seen people sit down, look at the menu, then at each other, get up and leave before ordering anything. Honestly, those aren't the kind of folks that Blue Door cater to anymore.

But if you are interested in nearly everything being made from scratch, local, organic, sustainable food being cooked and seasoned properly, and understand that quality ingredients cost money, then you really ought to check out Blue Door as soon as you can. Do note that while the outside door is now blue, the old sign for The Golden Goose is still standing out in front of the restaurant. That will change at some point, according to Michael, but it is worth remembering in case you are trying to locate the restaurant for the first time.

I've included lots of gorgeous pictures in this write-up from my past five visits (which open up extra large when you click on them), however, I have many, MANY more starting from the day they opened in on my Flickr account. If you'd like to see more pictures, click here. You can even start a slideshow to view them from beginning to end.

There is so much I didn't get to cover during these five visits. Gee, I guess I'll just have to pick another week in the future and repeat the experiment. And that will be fun for both of us!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Destination Italy at Lucca Restaurant

Opening a restaurant is a daunting proposition. Were you to tell me that you wanted to open a high-end restaurant featuring local and sustainable products, I would assume you were talking about the Cleveland market, where clientele tend to be more aware of this kind of dining option. If instead, you told me that the restaurant in question was in Canton, Ohio, I'd have a tougher time believing you. Unfortunately, just having well-executed food isn't enough sometimes to ensure a restaurant's longevity. You also have to have patrons who are willing to pay for the privilege of a chef willing to go the extra steps to ensure that what is put in front of you represents both wholesomeness and seasonality.

This is exactly the angle chef Josh Schory has taken with his restaurant, Lucca. Located on the corner of Cleveland Ave and 4th Street NE, by 7 PM on a Saturday night, it was abuzz with activity, each and every table filled with hungry patrons. But before I get ahead of myself, gentle reader, first some pertinent information. Lucca was located at 228 4th Street NW, Canton, OH 44702 and can be reached at 330-456-2534. Parking was streetside or in a parking lot just north of the restaurant. The restaurant has both a website and a Facebook fan page.

After being seated, the hostess handed me several menus. First, the regular menu:

Lucca's Regular Menu Front Top

Lucca's Regular Menu Front Bottom

Lucca's Regular Menu Back Top

Lucca's Regular Menu Back Bottom

And the daily specials menu:

Lucca's Daily Specials Menu Top

Lucca's Daily Specials Menu Bottom

As I began to look over both menus deciding which bits to pick from each, my server arrived at my table with freshly sliced crusty bread and herb-infused olive oil:

Bread Service

The bread, baked at a local Canton bakery, had a wonderfully chewy crust and soft crumb. The flavor of the bread plain was delicious on its own -- paired with the herbaceous peppery bite of the olive oil, it made a wonderful way to start out the meal.

I decided to begin my meal with the Carpaccio Insalata:

Carpaccio Salad

Traditionally, carpaccio is incredibly thin slices of pounded raw beef tenderloin that is dressed with various toppings. Chef Schory riffed on the original dish and served thinly-sliced, cured Bresaola as the base. He dressed it lightly with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon, a small green salad and a balsamic gastrique. Salty, sweet, and tart sensations danced over my tongue as I rolled each bite around in my mouth. Although the dish sounds heavy, it was surprisingly light and a perfect segue into my next course.

I was happy to see that many of the pastas came as both full entree-sized portions as well as half-sized portions. After reading over the many choices, I settled on a half portion of the Buccatini with Gorgonzola Dolce:

Buccatini with Gorgonzola Dolce

Accompanying the cheese sauce was pancetta, spinach, parsnips, and a hint of truffle oil. When my server sat the plate down in front of me, I inhaled deeply and was rewarded with a heady earthiness of the truffle. Since buccatini is a hollow pasta, the long strands had not only been coated in the sexy cheese sauce, but also soaked it up into the hollow cavity inside of each noodle. The pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente and the cheese sauce had a wonderful balance between the strong blue cheese flavor and sweetness. Neither overpowered the other. Essentially, this was an adult macaroni and cheese dish, but a far more elevated version than I've had before.

I have but two criticisms for this course. First, the pasta was oversauced. In true Italian cooking, the sauce is considered a condiment (thus, it being called condimento) and should essentially coat the pasta lightly and evenly. That being said, most Americans prefer their pasta drowned in sauce, so if this is your preference, you'll be pleased with the dish as it came from the kitchen.

Second, and this is less of a criticism, and more of a suggestion, the cutlery brought out to consume this course included a butter knife, a fork, and a spoon. While there is a great controversy over whether pasta should be rolled onto the tines of a fork using the spoon as a base, when I asked my server why he brought the butter knife, he answered, "In case you wanted to cut the pasta." As a general rule, pasta should neither be broken before cooking nor cut afterwards.

The first two savory courses behind me, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my entree for the evening, the Sole En Papillote which was being offered on today's specials menu:

Sole en Papillote

The sole was perfectly steamed and incredibly moist and tender. As I took bite after bite, the flesh simply melted in my mouth. One of the benefits of cooking fish in parchment paper (en papillote) is that you end up with fish that is almost always perfectly cooked. The filet of sole came atop salty sea beans and frenched local organic baby carrots. Additionally, fingerling potatoes that had been roasted separately were perched to the side of the fish. Honestly, everything was delicious, but the seasoning on the fish was a bit uneven. If you combined some of the sea beans with the fish, it worked well, but the fish itself could've used a bit more seasoning.

I wasn't sure if I was going to have dessert or not, so I asked my server to recite the list for me. While there were six or seven options, the only two that were made in house were the creme brulee and the fresh fruit parfait. I have nothing against a good creme brulee, but it seems that every restaurant anymore offers creme brulee (and chocolate lava cake, too). Thus that left me with the Fresh Fruit Parfait:

Fresh Fruit Parfait

Composed of macerated strawberries and blueberries, the mini-martini glass filled with fruit had been topped with a Grand Marnier-infused freshly whipped cream and garnished with some shaved chocolate. To complement the "mini-ness" of the glass, the accompanying spoon was designed for hands far more delicate than my own. All that said, this was the perfect dessert to finish up the meal. It was only slightly sweet and paired well with the cup of decaffeinated coffee I also ordered.

All said and done, my check with tax came to just under $48 (I only had water to drink). Was this expensive? I suppose that depends on what you normally spend on dinner. I would think that Lucca isn't a place that someone goes to on a regular basis and has a four-course meal. However, most of the full-sized pasta entrees are at $20 or below and you could certainly make a meal out of that, while perhaps splitting an appetizer with a dining partner.

One final note about my experience tonight at Lucca's. Dining out by yourself has its advantages -- primarily, people watching. At several points during the meal, in addition to my server and the hostess making sure I was enjoying the meal, the chef went from table to table asking people if they were enjoying their meal. As it turns out, even though I don't believe I had ever met Josh Schory before, he actually recognized me from the work I've done here at Exploring Food My Way. That being said, others around me were having as equally a pleasurable meal as I was, so I don't believe I received treatment that would've compromised this review.

Do I recommend Lucca? Absolutely. Will I be going back soon? You'd better believe it. I left a business card with my server at the conclusion of the meal and he obviously passed it along to the chef as I got an email not fifteen minutes later thanking me for my visit and telling me about some of the culinary techniques he is trying to work into the cuisine (sous vide and the antigriddle to name two). There are few chefs I have come across where I'd walk in, sit down, and simply ask for the "Chef's Whim." Lucca is a place where I can see myself doing exactly that.

Lucca Downtown on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 2, 2012

Noticing The Color Purple

As part of my college coursework, I was asked at one point to read Alice Walker's The Color Purple. An amazing read all on its own, I have always remembered certain quotes, even decades after reading the book and watching the subsequent movie. Most memorable to me was when Shug and Celia are walking down the road and Shug says,

"I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it. "

It took me a while to figure out what that statement meant. My take on the phrase these days is that it is a real shame when you find something so simple, so perfect, so delicate and don't take the time to enjoy and appreciate it fully, it is wasted. It doesn't live up to its potential. I'm here today to tell you that I've found the color purple and it lives in a North Hill restaurant called Ranchero's Taqueria.

Ranchero's Taqueria was located at 286 East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue, Akron, OH 44310 and can be reached at 330-510-2110. Sadly, their web presence is almost completely off the grid. Parking was along the street, or more likely, the fairly large parking lot across from the restaurant.

Speaking of which, here was the front entrance:

Entrance to Ranchero's Taqueria in Akron, Ohio
What started out as a small operation has grown to include the space next to the original restaurant with a number of tables at which you can sit and enjoy your meal. After being seated, my server left me with the menu:

Ranchero's Taqueria's Menu Page 1
Ranchero's Taqueria's Menu Page 2
Ranchero's Taqueria's Menu Page 3
In addition to the menu, a small whiteboard hung on the wall by the beverage cooler and listed the daily specials. While the daily special during my first visit wasn't anything particularly interesting, I did note that Saturday was "mole" day and Sunday was "menudo" day.

As with every other Mexican restaurant, Ranchero's was quick to deliver fresh corn tortilla chips and salsa:

Tortilla Chips and Mild Salsa
During my second visit, my chips were accompanied by both a mild and a spicy version of salsa:

Tortilla Chips with Mild and Spicy Salsas
The chips were fresh and tasty, but nothing remarkable. The salsa, however, wasn't your traditional tomato, onion, jalapeno, lime, and cilantro. There was something else in the salsa that danced on my tongue -- a slight fruity sweetness. Not so much that it threw off the balance of flavors, but it was completely noticeable. It really added a nice brightness and uniqueness to Ranchero's version of this ubiquitous condiment. It made me think of peach or mango.

The menu was comprised of more traditional and less traditional dishes. If what you seek is your standard complement of burritos and enchiladas, smothered in tons of cheese, you can probably find it without too much trouble. And I'm okay with that because in addition to those more Americanized dishes, you can also find this:

Burritos Al Pastor and Carnitas
This was the Al Pastor and Carnitas Burrito combination with refried beans and Mexican rice. Seeing that the carnitas tacos also came dressed with nopales (aka cactus pads), I asked if my burrito could have the same and the kitchen happily complied. While the burritos did have finely shredded cheese on top of them, they also came sauced with a creamy queso bianca salsa. The sauce added a wonderful creaminess to each bite.

And speaking of bite, the al pastor burrito had a wonderful combination of savory, sweet and sour (from the pineapple). The carnitas burrito was also a real winner with the cactus salad adding to the overall flavor of the burrito. I think I finished both burritos in record time as they were so delicious. I'll talk about the beans and rice in another minute or so.

Of course, this write-up would not be complete without me going back for a second visit to check out the mole. Even as I sat down at the table and the waiter handed me the menu, I knew what I wanted. When my server came back to take my order, I simply said, "Mole." He then asked if I wanted flour tortillas with my meal or the more authentic corn variety. I asked for corn. During my first visit, my dinner had come out of the kitchen fairly quickly. This time, it took a few minutes. I suppose the anticipation was what had me checking my watch time and again.

Finally, my server approached my table with this incredible plate of goodness:

Chicken Mole
At every other restaurant in which I've ordered mole, the chicken has come pre-shredded. Adorned simply with freshly chopped cilantro, I thought Ranchero's was a thing of beauty to behold. While there are many different kinds of Mexican moles, one thing to note is that they are usually long-simmered complex sauces comprised of garlic, onions, chiles, spices, and seasonings. In addition to my chicken mole, my server also brought a foil wrapper with freshly steamed corn tortillas,

Corn Tortillas
and a separate plate filled with more of the refried beans and Mexican rice:

Refried Beans and Mexican Rice
I gingerly began to shred the chicken from the bones and discovered that the leg meat was hot, juicy, and incredibly tender. After separating meat from bone, I tossed the chicken in the sauce, grabbed two of the corn tortillas and ran a line of sauced chicken from one side to the other before folding it up. From first bite to last, I was in pure heaven. The chicken was luscious and soft, the tortillas added a small hit of sweetness and the mole added everything else.

As I let the flavors linger on my tongue, individual components of the sauce revealed themselves, like peeling layers of paint off a well-worn wall. There was heat from the chile, citrus notes from coriander seeds, earthiness from cumin, bitterness from chocolate (I'm guessing chocolate), pungency from garlic, and a whole host of other flavors -- each of which perfectly balanced the others, none of which took the lead. Was the mole spicy? My sinuses registered yes, but just barely.

As I savored the flavors, I felt the love that the chef put into this dish and I immediately realized I was seeing the color purple. After greedily chowing down on that first corn tortilla, I took my spoon, pooled some of the sauce in it and brought it to my lips. As I cleaned the spoon of its contents, I closed my eyes and savored the peeling layers all over again. Pure bliss.

I finished up the corn tortillas and the chicken mole before turning to the beans and rice. I appreciated the fact that the beans weren't smothered in melted queso fresco. I also thought that while both components were tasty and fresh, they weren't particularly interesting. Perhaps the beans and rice were there as supporting characters to the burritos and the chicken mole. I'm okay with that. While there were salt and pepper shakers on every table during both visits, everything I've had so far has been seasoned perfectly coming straight from the kitchen.

What amazed me more than the food was that as I sat there last Saturday waiting for my dinner to arrive that the restaurant wasn't completely packed. There were perhaps five tables filled when I arrived and only two when I left. Ranchero's Taqueria may be one of the best kept secrets in Akron right now. I suppose I am doing myself a disservice by telling you, gentle reader, about this hidden gem. But if you are a fan of authentic flavors, of delicious food, of food that will make you thankful that you have taste buds, you owe it to yourself to check this restaurant out.

I should mention that the cost of experiencing heaven in your mouth is roughly $10. I'll be back for the mole often and the menudo soon.

Ranchero's Taqueria on Urbanspoon
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