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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