Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lenten Project III: Week 1, Part 1 of 2

For my first stop on this third year of the Lenten Project, I was happy to be returning to a place where I've gotten pretty good fish fries in the past, The American Legion Post 281 located at 1601 Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. This wasn't my first Friday fish fry at the Legion as they offer these fish dinners starting in the fall through the winter and finish up in the spring. While the fish has never been spectacular, it has always been in the sort of "very good" category and I was looking to a nice piece of fried fish to kick off this year's search for good fried fish.

I pulled into the left parking lot around 5:00 PM to find a nearly packed lot. Here was what the front of the Legion looked like:

American Legion Post 281 in Cuyahoga Falls, OH
After parking, I approached the rear of the building and the entrance to the hall was located at the very center of the wall. Once inside the door, I found myself in the outer room, lined with tables, chairs, and patrons. Moving towards the inner room, I found a bar, more tables, chairs, and patrons, and the kitchen. Here was a shot of tonight's menu:

Fish Fry Menu
Here was how the system worked at the Legion. There was a person sitting at a table by the menu on the wall. After giving her my order, my name, and paying for it, she submits the written ticket to the kitchen and gives a carbon yellow copy. Keep this ticket as you will need to submit it when they bring your food to the table. Between the end of the bar and the spot where I ordered my food were several other service tables. One contained such items as napkins, silverware, coffee, etc. The other contained a variety of "side" dishes. There were three salads from which you can choose (you can have one, two, or three), slices of white bread and pats of butter, and other pre-dispensed condiments (such as tartar sauce).

After building up my sides, I was fortunate to find a four-top table open up and cleaned off. I should also mention that drinks were my own responsibility at the bar. After unpacking my camera get and getting it ready, all I had to do was wait ten minutes or so before the food runner called out my name. As she approached my table, I retrieved the yellow ticket from my shirt pocket and we switched ticket for plate. Here was a shot of my dinner tonight:

Fried Fish Dinner
This was fried whitefish, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans. There were other forms of potatoes I could've ordered instead of mashed, and they were available sans gravy, but the green beans were the vegetable of the evening. Let's talk about the star of the plate first. The batter was light, crunchy and grease-free. The fish was moist and tender. The seasoning was nowhere to be found. One could easily make the assertion that since most of the people attending these fish dinners were seniors, perhaps the kitchen was just being prudent and allowing people to season their own food, given the presence of salt and pepper shakers on each table.

One could make that assertion until trying either the mashed potatoes and gravy or the green beans, veritable salt bombs that were straight from the box (or can). While the mashed potatoes and gravy weren't bad, they were also clearly not homemade. I tried the green beans and images of every bad school cafeteria vegetable came rushing to my brain. If you like this flavor, you'll certainly be happy with the results. I personally don't like the taste of canned green beans.

For one of my side salads, I decided on a small dish of the cole slaw:

Cole Slaw
It was food service, but was decent enough and I appreciated the slight horseradish kick to it.

The other items I had retrieved before sitting down were a slice of the white bread and a small plastic ramekin of pre-portioned tartar sauce:

Bread Slice and Tartar Sauce
The bread was ... well, plain old white bread. I did try the tartar sauce with the fish and found it to be a bit too sweet for my taste. It did add some seasoning to the largely unsalted fish, but the sweetness it added didn't help the cause. Fortunately, there was ketchup on the table and I found that because of the acidity and salt in the ketchup, it made a much better pairing with the fried fish.

My meal finished, I asked for a "to go" box and crated up my other large fish filet and cole slaw (I still had one more meal to review tonight and I didn't want to completely fill up) and packed away my camera gear. As I got up to leave, I heard a "Tom?" from behind me. At first I didn't respond, but when the voice repeated the question, I turned to discover that two of my blog readers had decided to come to tonight's dinner and were seated at the table directly next to mine. We chatted for just a minute or two before I thanked them for coming tonight and made my way out into the dimming light.

Would I go back the American Legion again? Absolutely. For all of the negatives I identified above, the notion of fish cooked to order that was juicy and fresh, even if not seasoned properly, would be enough of a draw to get me to return. The fact that the Legion does these fish fries every Friday, even outside of Lent, is a big plus, too.

Here are the current rankings so far from best overall to worst overall as well as an individual grade for each of the major elements on the plate.

1. American Legion Post 281 (Cuyahoga Falls): Fish, B; Coleslaw, C+; Green Beans, C; Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, B-

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lenten Project III: The Search For Fabulous Fried Fish

It is upon us once again, gentle reader, the season of Lent. And with the season of Lent comes the third annual installment of the Lenten Project. While I am not a particularly religious person, I do look forward every year to a good fish fry. Sadly, and if last year was proof of this, it isn't easy finding a good fish fry. So I've decided to take the fish by the tail and try and improve my odds.

Two years ago, I came up with the idea to use the list of churches and organizations published in the Akron Beacon Journal to determine which churches and organizations to visit during the surprisingly short fish fry season. And because of my love of pierogi, the first year I used the criteria of selecting only those establishments that served both fried fish and pierogi. This yielded me nine different places to visit over the course of five weeks. That first year, I found an overall winner and a runner up where the pierogi were mundane, but the fish was great.

The second year I did the Lenten Project, I decided not to visit any of the organizations from the previous year that were in the lower half of the standings. I again used the criteria of fried fish and pierogi as the determinant for which establishments to try. Sadly, last year's crop were mediocre at best and really, even though there was a church that finished on top, it wasn't a knock-out winner. To top that, several of the organizations I ended up visiting two years in a row not only didn't improve, but some actually got worse. As Joshua so eloquently stated in the 1983 movie Wargames, "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Bound and determined to get a nice piece of fried fish THIS time around, when Lisa Abraham published her annual list of commercial and non-commercial fish fries, I immediately realized that the list needed to be in a more computer friendly form so that I can add notes and sort more easily. Thus, I transcribed the entire list into a Google spreadsheet. It is free for anyone to view and no software needs to be installed, but obviously I've set it up so that only I can update it.

Since none of the descriptions in her article listed whether the fish being used was fresh or fell off the back of a Sysco food truck, I took it upon myself to call each and every organization on both lists. What shocked me (and might go a long way in explaining why last year's fish fries turned out so poorly) was that virtually none of the organizations were using fresh fish. Of the forty-three non-commercial organizations listed in the Beacon article, only TWO were using fresh fish. Pierogi fared a little better, percentage-wise. Of the seven establishments offering pieorgi, only two were homemade and one of those was only being offered this Friday, February 24th -- so if you miss it, too bad.

Now, gentle reader, before I get a deluge of emails and comments saying that you can fry up a perfectly nice piece of fish from frozen, I agree. You can. But a good majority of these organizations are getting the fish pre-battered and frozen and simply frying them from that state. There just didn't seem to be an emphasis in the past on putting out a piece of fried fish that was moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside and not greasy. Thus, save a few exceptions where I know that care has been taken to make sure the fish will be at its best, I have decided to only include places where the fish is fresh.

However, given that only two non-commercial establishments are serving fresh, how will I be able to come up with eight to ten places to try during the next five Fridays? I've decided that I am going to open it up to the commercial (e.g., restaurants) locations listed in the Beacon article, too. Instead of telling you where NOT to go as in the past two years, I want to tell you where you SHOULD go. I want you to have options. Just to be sure, I also called (actually, I'm still in the process of calling) all of the restaurants on the list to determine which places I will visit.

Because I haven't quite finished calling all of the restaurants yet, here is the list of places I will be going for a fried fish dinner during the first Friday of the Lenten Project III, Friday, February 24th:

American Legion Post 281 (4:30 to 7 p.m.)
1601 Front St., Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44221

Fat Casual BBQ (5:00 to 8:00 p.m.)
223 East Highland Road, Macedonia, OH 44056

I'm planning on hitting up the American Legion right at about 5:00 PM and then venturing my way up to Fat Casual between 6:30 and 6:45 PM. If you'd care to join me for either location, you are cordially invited, no reservations required. Once you arrive, you surely cannot miss me, I'll be the guy sitting by himself with a massively-sized camera on a small tabletop tripod. It's hard to miss, really.

So, with that, the Lenten Project III: The Search For Fabulous Fried Fish officially kicks off for 2012. After finishing up my research on the final twenty-ish restaurants, I will post the remainder of my fish-eating schedule next week. If Lent has a more spiritual meaning for you, I wish you the best during this next forty days. For me, I'm looking forward to some good fried fish!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Preview of Dante Boccuzzi's The DC Pasta Company

Dante Boccuzzi seems to be on a roll. Having established his very popular restaurant in Tremont, Restaurant Dante, he added Ginko to that list, and starting two nights ago, his latest venture, The DC Pasta Company. The newest restaurant, a collaboration between Dante and Carmela del Busso, was designed around the concepts of affordability and sharing a lovely meal with the other members at your table. The DC Pasta Company was located at 12214 Pearl Road, Strongsville, OH 44149 and can be reached at (440) 238-8500. Parking was in front of the restaurant and the rear of the complex.

My friend and partner in crime for this evening's dinner was Edsel, who not only made the reservation for tonight's dinner, but was also almost immediately recognized by the general manager, John Williams, as he stopped by our table to check on us and introduce himself. While having the food paparazzi suddenly show up at your restaurant can often unnerve the staff, tonight's complement seemed to handle it in stride.

Having arrived slightly earlier than my table companion, I had the chance to check out and photograph the one page menu:

I immediately liked three aspects of DC Pasta's menu. First, it all fit on one page. Second, even though it fit on one page, it had plenty of choices. Third, this menu was definitely designed around affordability. As a patron, you could go a more traditional appetizer - salad - entree route, or if you were feeling a bit more adventurous, you could build a meal entirely on small plates and get to try a greater number of tastes. I'm sure that you can already guess which route that Edsel and I took tonight, gentle reader.

To start out our meal, we decided to order a trio of Le Cose Marinate (i.e. "marinated stuff"):

Le Cose Marinate
DC Pasta was offering marinated items that originate both from Italy and are made in house. Tonight we choose the carciofi (artichokes), melanzane (eggplant) and peperoni picante (peppers). While this was the first I've had artichokes where they didn't have that canned flavor, they also didn't have a lot of other flavor either. They were so-so. The peppers, however, really stepped up the game and by the time I tried the eggplant, I was blown away. Of the three, the eggplant was not only delicious, but also paired well with some of the cured meats we ordered.

Next up was the sole appetizer that we ordered, the Fritto di Mare:

Fritto di Mare
This dish was a combined trio of fried shrimp, calamari, and smelt. Honestly, what caught both my eye and Edsel's were the smelt. Smelt is a small oily fish that is by far more popular in Italian cuisine than in American. Always on the lookout for something unique and interesting, when I mentioned possibly ordering this dish to Edsel, he quickly agreed. Served along with the fried seafood was a lemon-caper-olive dipping sauce that most closely resembled a sauce remoulade. The seafood was fried perfectly with a crispy exterior and tender interior. While it could've used just a touch more seasoning after coming out of the fryer, the sauce remoulade made up for this slight shortcoming. This dish is highly recommended.

Along with our marinated vegetables and fried seafood, we decided to add a trio of house-cured meats, or Salumi Affetati. First up was a plate of the Coppa Dolce and Sopressata:

Coppa Dolce, Sopressata, Gressini
On a second plate was some additional Sopressata and the Mortadella:

Mortadella, Sopressata, Gressini
All three were delicious, but the coppa dolce and the mortadella really stood out. Each plate was also adorned by several gressini (e.g., breadsticks), which was a very nice touch and added something with a bit of crunch to balance the softness of the meats. With the exception of the Prosciutto de Parma, all of the salumi listed on the menu were being cured at Restaurant Dante. If you are a cured meat aficionado, you'll want to pay special attention to this part of DC Pasta's menu.

Our appetizer portion of the meal now complete, something familiar to Restaurant Dante appeared on our table after ordering our second round of food, the bread service:

Bread Service
Our server dropped off some fresh bread served in a reshaped vinyl record accompanied by a rosemary bean dip. While delicious, I was kind of curious why this was served in the middle of the meal instead of at the beginning. Regardless, Edsel and I scarfed it down with contentment.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the key points of DC Pasta's menu was the ability to customize the dining experience to suit many different moods. All of the pastas were offered as a taste ($4), an appetizer ($8) or as a full-sized entree ($15). Continuing along our sharing theme for the evening, we decided to round out our meal with a pasta tasting. First up was the Bucatini Con Salsa Di Agnello:

Bucatini Con Salsa Di Agnello
The bucatini had been infused with lovely tomato-braised lamb and fresh chopped mint. Of the four pasta tastes we would enjoy tonight, this was by far the stand-out and the one I would have no reservations about ordering as a full-size entree. The lamb was tender and the mint added a lovely bit of contrast that was at the same time unusual and delicious.

Our second pasta was the Lumache e Polipo:

Lumache e Polipo
The pasta was dressed with toasted garlic, octopus, snails, broccoli, parsley, and chile flakes. Of the four pastas, this was definitely the most spicy, nothing obnoxious, but the heat still hitting you at the back of the throat after that first bite. The octopus and snails were lovely, having a bit of chew to them without that "rubber band" effect that can happen if overcooked.

The third pasta taste of the evening was the Linguine Alla Carbonara Con Tartufo:

Linguine Alla Carbonara Con Tartufo
Having had a very similar dish at Restaurant Dante, both Edsel and I knew what we were in for and this dish didn't disappoint. Dressed with a barely cooked egg on top, the first thing Edsel did after we snapped our pictures was to break the egg open and allow the golden, runny yolk to ooze out over the linguine, enriching an already rich dish. While this pasta was indeed delicious, I didn't really pick up too much on the earthy truffle notes that I was expecting. Even without the truffle, this was still a dish worth seeking out.

Our final pasta taste of the evening was the rather unusual Pizzoccheri Con Patate:

Pizzoccheri Con Patate
Consisting of a buckwheat noodle, this vegetarian dish was also complemented with cabbage, potatoes and Fontina cheese. Interestingly, both the noodles and the potatoes had a rather firm texture to them. One might be inclined to think that they were undercooked, but they weren't. While tasty, by the time I got to this last dish, I was ready to cry "Uncle!" and as such, managed to just get in a taste of it before throwing in the towel.

When the check finally came, Edsel and I were shocked that between the two of us, without wine, we had only managed to spend $44, including tax. For a mere $22 per person, we had managed to try a trio of marinated vegetables, a trio of cured meats, a seafood appetizer, and four different tastes of pasta. If DC Pasta was going for affordability and value, they certainly achieved it. Edsel had also decided to accompany his meal with two glasses of wine, priced at a very reasonable $5 each.

While technically this "review" is a preview since we went on the day after their big opening, there were no service or kitchen glitches during our visit. In fact, our visit was on par with a restaurant that had been open for several months. I can safely say that I really enjoyed my experience tonight at The DC Pasta Company and Edsel expressed more or less the same opinion at the end of the meal. I am still not a fan of the location of this restaurant, but I can definitely recommend that you take the time to find and check them out. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The D.C. Pasta Company

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Preview of Amber Li's Restaurant

New restaurants often have soft openings before opening to the general public. Surrounded by family and friends, every layer of hospitality can be tested -- the kitchen, the front of house, and the management -- in an environment that simulates real-world dinner service, but with people who might be a little more understanding if the experience isn't quite yet perfect. But, of course, to feed people (often for free) and to pay employees isn't a small inconvenient expense. And even with a soft opening, it can still take a restaurant a month or two to really start humming with efficiency.

I knew going into tonight's dinner that Amber Li's Restaurant had only been open for a few days. This meant that there would likely be a few delays and perhaps the wrong soup being brought to the table, but I've developed a keen eye in spotting actual problems versus opening day jitters. Having learned of them from Lisa Abraham's weekly Food Notes section in the Akron Beacon Journal, I decided that a visit was warranted since she wrote that the menu consisted of, " traditional Chinese fare, sushi, hibachi-grilled and Japanese dishes." It was the traditional Chinese fare that caught my eye.

After work today, I hopped in the car and headed to 4195 Massillon Road, Green, OH 44685. The location of the restaurant was inside the Green Plaza, at the corner of Steese and Massillon Roads. There was ample parking in the common lot. If you wish to contact the restaurant, Amber Li's can be reached at 330-899-8856.

Here was a shot of the front entrance of Amber Li's:

Entrance to Amber Li's Restaurant in Green, OH
Once inside the main door, I noticed the sushi bar located in the rear left of the restaurant with the remainder of the space broken up into tables and booths. I was surprised to see the restaurant only about one-third full as I figured a mention in Lisa's weekly food column would have packed the customers in. I was seated almost immediately, but noticed within moments of sitting down at my table that it had a severe wobble. I thought that perhaps as I settled in that I may have knocked something loose used to level it, but upon checking the floor, I found nothing. I decided to put up with the annoying wobble.

As I prepped my camera for the upcoming pictures, I began to people watch. It became immediately clear who the owner was, Amber Hazel. A native from China, she was the very stressed person running back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, her diction being very harsh on one side of the kitchen door and much softer on the other. I sat quietly at my table for about ten minutes before anyone acknowledged me and asked if I would like something to drink. It took another ten minutes before my waitress finally stopped at my table to take my order. Twenty minutes is a bit too long for a restaurant that is only one-third full, so I'll have to chalk that one up to opening week jitters.

Fortunately, when I was sat, the hostess left me with the menu to peruse:

Amber Li's Menu
Sadly, the "traditional Chinese fare" for which I was hoping to dine upon tonight ended up being the same Americanized Chinese cuisine served at every other Chinese restaurant in Akron. While I can appreciate Americanized Chinese cuisine from time to time, I find it to be rather boring and often times way too sweet. Never heard of Americanized Chinese cuisine, gentle reader? General Tsao's (aka Tso's) Chicken is a perfect example. This is a dish that doesn't exist in China and has been fine tuned for the American palate over decades since its introduction.

All that said, I have come across a few really excellent General Tsao's Chicken dishes over the years and I figured I would give theirs a try to see if Amber Li's version was at least worth seeking out. I was happy to see the menu indicated that all entrees came with either steamed rice or a California roll. When my server finally stopped to take my order, I asked about this unusual choice as I had never seen it before.

"No, it's just the steamed rice that is available. Amber changed her mind about offering a sushi roll."

That was too bad since I was actually going to order the California roll in place of my steamed rice. C'est la vie.

So, in order to try a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B, here is what I actually ordered:

* Shrimp Eggroll
* Miso Soup
* General Tsao's Chicken, extra spicy
* Steamed Rice

Here was what came out of the kitchen about fifteen minutes later. First up was the General Tsao's Chicken with Steamed Broccoli:

General Tsao's Chicken
And a plate of what I had originally thought was a California roll, but was actually a Spicy Shrimp roll:

Spicy Shrimp Roll
No Shrimp Eggroll and no Miso Soup. As for the appearance of the sushi, I figured that Amber had okayed the substitution of the California roll for the steamed rice since I had asked my server about it. Assuming that the eggroll and the soup would be coming out of the kitchen shortly, I decided to go ahead and dig in to what was already in front of me.

I started with the sushi. As I ate my first piece, several thoughts went through my head. First, the California roll was missing the avocado. All I could taste were cucumber and what I thought was imitation crab. Second, California rolls don't usually have a spicy sauce associated with them. I figured that might just be a personal touch at Amber Li's. Third, and most surprising, the sushi rice was utterly and thoroughly bland. I even dissected one of the six pieces on the plate and tried the rice just by itself. Yup, steamed white rice, nothing added.

Why is this point so important? Su-shi literally translates to "vinegared rice." Sushi rice is made by adding rice wine vinegar, sugar, and salt to the rice after it is cooked. This gives the rice a bit of acidity as well as seasoning from the salt. Soy sauce applied at the table would not have helped in this case. Curiously, while dissecting the sushi piece, I also noticed that the imitation crab looked an awful lot like a piece of shrimp. That's because it was! What I thought had been my accompanying California roll for my General Tsao's was actually my server thinking I had asked for a Spicy Shrimp roll instead of a Shrimp Eggroll. D'oh! The final check confirmed my suspicions.

On to the General Tsao's Chicken. It actually wasn't all that bad. The chicken was fried until crispy; the sauce was a bit oily and sweet and could've used a bit of acid to balance the other flavors. The steamed broccoli was a nice touch, but the carrots and green peppers the menu description promised were nowhere to be found. I had asked for the dish to be extra spicy and the kitchen's response was simply to add more whole chili peppers to the dish. Not being a complete moron, I moved the whole peppers to the side of the dish. Overall, I would say this dish was about a medium spicy and not particularly incendiary.

Having finished my sushi and chicken, I realized that nothing else was going to come out of the kitchen for me. After asking for and receiving the check, I finally understood what happened with the Shrimp Eggroll / Spicy Shrimp roll mistake; however, I had still been charged for the Miso Soup. I pointed the mistake out to my server, who quickly removed it from the bill. I could've contested the Spicy Shrimp roll mistake (as the sushi was $6 and the eggroll that I had ordered was only $2), since I didn't correct the error when I first detected it, I decided to pay for it. The check, with tax, came to just under $18.

While there were some components from tonight's meal that I enjoyed, there was a LOT that needs to be improved upon. Quickly. If Amber Li's is running this inefficiently and with this many mistakes a month from now, customers will tire quickly and decide to spend their dining dollars elsewhere. While my personal preference in Chinese cuisine tends more towards the authentic side, if Americanized Chinese cuisine is your bag, once Amber Li's gets it right, this might be the place for you. Since I can get these flavors much closer to home, other than visiting again in order to re-review it, I personally wouldn't make the drive from Akron.
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