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.

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