Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dining On The Mezzanine

[Full disclosure: In 2007, I apprenticed (and got paid) at Mustard Seed Market in Solon in the baking department for two months. I also gave away several gift cards provided by Mustard Seed Market in my blog post about the grocery part of the Montrose store back in May 2012.]

I find it both odd and interesting that having lived and worked in and around Akron for much of my life that I really haven't spent all that much time trying out the cafe portion of Mustard Seed Market. With their recent acquisition (and subsequent departure) of one Mr. Lanny Chin, I decided that perhaps now was as good a time as any to investigate further. As when any new chef starts, he or she invariably takes control of his predecessor's menu and has to execute it until it can be replaced with something new. This was the role that Lanny played.

Fortunately for me, Mustard Seed Market prominently features not only their cafe and its mission but also the menu online for all to see. Given the variety of healthy choices (gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, etc.), it was also nice to see that they offered something as hearty as a burger (grass-fed beef, bison, or veggie). Before each of my visits, I was able to study the menu in such a way that would allow me to try maximum tastes for minimum cash outlay.

First on the discussion block are soups. The Tomato Bisque was a member of the regular menu:

Tomato Bisque

Although I thought that the soup was a bit chunky to be called a bisque, the flavor of the tomatoes was pretty profound. The acidity of the tomato matched well with the cashew cream used to give the soup its body. While perfectly tasty on its own, don't make the mistake that I did and pair the soup with something equally acidic, like the whole wheat gemelli with marinara sauce.

While the other soup always on the menu is the Miso Soup, always be sure to check the daily specials. On a different visit, the Chicken Florentine Soup struck my fancy:

Chicken Florentine Soup

Rich and velvety, this was a hearty soup that satisfied. There was ample chicken and spinach in the liquid and the soup itself was the perfect consistency. The only real complaint I had about the soup was that since the chicken had been shredded, I pulled many a spoonful of soup out of the bowl where chicken was hanging over the edge of the spoon, mercilessly taunting the shirt I was wearing. Needless to say, the perilous trip from cup to mouth was fraught with danger.

While the soups were delicious and relatively worry free, both of my salads had me perk up and say, "Hmmm." One of the niceties of the cafe's current menu was that many of the salads were available in both half and full portion sizes. All the salads pictured here were of the half-portion size variety. First was the Avocado Salad:

Avocado Salad

The avocado was rich and buttery and the acidity of the dressing on the greens balanced the richness of the fruit. The bisected cherry tomatoes were a nice touch, but sadly, my salad came from the kitchen missing the fresh raspberries the menu promised. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that until after I had eaten most of the salad, so there was no sending it back to the kitchen. Regardless, it was still a tasty salad sans raspberries.

The more dubious of my salad experiences was when I ordered the Spring Panzanella Salad during a different visit:

Spring Panzanella Salad

With fresh peas, asparagus, and more bisected cherry tomatoes, this was a perfectly serviceable salad. Except no one bothered to tell the chef who made the previous menu that what he actually created was a garden salad with croutons, not a panzanella salad. Traditionally, a panzanella salad is made by taking day old cubed bread and tossing it with cut up tomatoes. As the mixture is tossed, the juice from the tomatoes softens the bread. Other ingredients can be added, of course, but clearly what I had been served was not panzanella.

Here was the conversation that ensued when I released the picture on Twitter with a comment:

Tom Noe @tnoe27 21 May
Listed on the menu as a Spring Panzanella Salad at @MustardSeedMrkt, Bzzzt, wrong! It WAS a tasty salad w/ croutons.

Mustard Seed Market ‏@MustardSeedMrkt 24 May
@tnoe27 We apologize for mixing it up and giving you the wrong salad. Mistakes do happen but not often in our Cafe. We hope to see you soon.

Tom Noe ‏@tnoe27 24 May
@MustardSeedMrkt So, based on the picture I posted, I am curious as to what salad you sent me instead of the Spring Panzanella Salad?

Mustard Seed Market ‏@MustardSeedMrkt 24 May
@tnoe27 Looks like a garden salad with croutons but let me check and get back to you. -Gabe

Mustard Seed Market ‏@MustardSeedMrkt 24 May
@tnoe27 It is our Panzanella salad but not a traditional Panzanella salad. I hope you enjoyed it and come back to see us again soon.

So, the basic point I am trying to make is that if you expecting a more traditional panzanella salad, I'd avoid the one at Mustard Seed Market. If you are looking for a tasty garden salads with croutons, this one's a keeper.

Now that we've covered soups and salads, we move forward to sandwiches and entrees. On my initial visit to the cafe, I decided to go with a plate of Whole Wheat Gemelli and Turkey Meatballs:

Whole Wheat Gemelli

The picture doesn't really do the platter of pasta justice. At only $8 on the menu, I EASILY received enough food for two meals (or two people). Honestly, they could've given me half the pasta, kept the two meatballs and only charged $6 for it. I had no problem with the texture of the cooked pasta, but as you can see in the lower bottom right corner of the plate, the kitchen hadn't drained the pasta completely before saucing it. The meatballs were tasty, but a touch on the dry side. Overall, this dish scored an average rating.

At Lanny's suggestion, I gave the Bison Burger a try on my second visit:

Bison Burger

The cafe has sort of a "build your own" burger philosophy. You pick the protein, the cheese (or soy-based alternative), the toppings, and the side and the kitchen will send you out exactly what you ordered. In this case, I went with grilled onions and a side of the house made cole slaw. I knew that bison was a lean meat, so I ordered my burger medium rare. And that was exactly how it came out of the kitchen. The burger was marvelous: juicy, seasoned properly, and cooked perfectly. While the house made whole wheat bun held up well against all the juices coming out of the patty, it was also just a touch stale. The cole slaw was a creamy salad, unusual in that it had large planks of colored bell peppers in it.

The first time I ordered chicken was as the Pan-Seared Chicken Breast:

Pan-seared Chicken Breast

Fanned over a savory fennel and tomato farro and adorned with a herb pistou, everything on this plate tasted fantastic. The chicken, sadly, was a touch overcooked and dry. The pistou helped in that regard, but too much pistou and it tasted like I was eating an herb garden. The whole cherry tomatoes were hot and when I bit into one, the hot cherry juice exploded into my mouth.

My second experience with chicken fixed one problem, but introduced others. Here was the cafe's take on Pasta Carbonara:

Bucatini Pasta Carbonara with Chicken

This time around, the chicken was seasoned and cooked beautifully. The chicken was actually an add-on to the base dish of bucatini pasta carbonara (which was vegan). Many of the dishes offered at Mustard Seed Market operated in this fashion. Start with a base and add whatever "topping" you'd like, for an additional fee. The problem with this dish, and I think it is pretty clear in the picture above, was that the pasta carbonara portion of the dish was just too much: too many ingredients and too much sauce. A traditional carbonara is made with pancetta, which is smoked. I wondered how that particular flavor profile would be recreated. It turned out that the mushrooms were lightly smoked and really infused a remarkably similar flavor to this vegan dish. While in the end this was a tasty dish, it just tried to be too many things to too many people.

Of all the entrees I tried during my visits to the Mustard Seed Market cafe, none were so perfect as the Black Pearl Grilled Salmon:

Black Pearl Grilled Salmon

Served exactly medium rare over a grapefruit quinoa salad that had been drizzled with a balsamic gastrique, this was heaven on a plate. The fish was eminently juicy and perfectly seasoned, the quinoa had amazing depth and was slightly chewy while still being cooked and the grapefruit supremes embedded in the quinoa matched the sweetness from the gastrique very well. Honestly, the grilled baby bok choy was cute and added a contrasting color, but was wholly unnecessary.

The final sandwich I tried during my visits was the good old Turkey Reuben:

Turkey Reuben Sandwich

Served with Kettle potato chips, a pickle spear, and a side of "1000 Island" dressing, this was a decent interpretation of the real thing. Actually, on the sandwich itself, the rye bread could've been a bit more toasted and the sauerkraut could've been a bit more tangy, but the quality of the turkey was quite lovely and the sandwich more or less worked. What didn't work so well was the vegan 1000 Island dressing. It was a bit on the thin side and just didn't pair as well with the sandwich as the real deal. The potato chips were salty and crunchy and tasted like, well, potato chips.

Lest you think the cafe doesn't have anything for your sweet tooth, I took a taste of two of their desserts. On my first visit, I tried the Warm Chocolate Chip Sundae:

Warm Chocolate Chip Sundae

The dish consisted of a scoop of vanilla ice cream that had two warm chocolate chip cookies pressed up against it, topped with whipped cream, sliced strawberries strewn among the plate and drizzled heavily with chocolate sauce. I'm not going to lie; this was good. But it was good in the way you'd expect a quality vanilla ice cream to taste. And homemade chocolate chip cookies to taste. In other words, the individual components were tasty, but put together, it wasn't really breaking any culinary ground.

The Knock Out Cake, however,

Knock Out Cake

elicited several moans of culinary ecstasy. With the cake layers and the mousse layers and the fresh raspberries and the generous chocolate ganache coating, it was all I could do to restrain myself from licking the plate clean. My server didn't indicate whether or not this cake was vegan. If it was, my hat is off to the baker who came up with this recipe. Even if this was a traditional cake, my hat still goes off. If you are in the mood for something sweet at the end of your meal, this is definitely the route to go.

I should also say a little bit about service. During all of my visits except one, service was prompt and efficient. The kitchen definitely wasn't cranking out dishes quickly, so I wouldn't advise the cafe for lunch if you have less than forty-five minutes available. The one service issue was the day when I ordered the Chicken Florentine Soup and the Black Pearl Grilled Salmon. After what seemed to be an enormously long time to get my soup, thirty seconds or so after receiving my soup, my server returned to my table to deliver the salmon. As he was setting the plate on the table, I was finishing my first spoonful of soup. He helpfully offered to put the salmon under a warming lamp, but realizing that would kill the dish, I moved the soup aside (I had tasted it after all) and accepted the salmon. I'm glad I did.

Overall, I think the cafe did a pretty good job. While there were a few nitpicks with the food here and there, (just like most restaurants), there were dishes that could've been improved upon (or simply renamed) and others that were utterly perfect just as they came out of the kitchen. While Lanny Chin has moved on, I'll be curious to see which executive chef they bring in next and the changes (or not) that get implemented. I recommend that you give Mustard Seed Market Cafe a chance the next time you are in Montrose and looking for a restaurant that can serve up food to folks with dietary restrictions and for folks who are just looking for something tasty.

Mustard Seed Market and Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Around The World And Back Again

The first time I met Brian Okin was at the very first Dinner In The Dark several years ago. It was actually hosted at his restaurant, Verve, in downtown Cleveland. I had never been to Verve before, but was impressed by the space as well as the dinner. Sadly, that first charity dinner was the swan's song for Verve and within a month or so, the restaurant had shuttered its doors.

Since then, Brian has gone on to work at both Fountain and then Luxe Kitchen, both of which benefited from his wonderful palate and attention to detail, but sadly, were owned and run by other people and in the end, things just didn't work out.

So when I heard that Brian would be partnering with Adam Bostwick (co-chef of the old Melange restaurant in La Place at Beachwood Mall) at a new restaurant in Broadview Heights called Cork & Cleaver Social Kitchen, I was definitely intrigued. In an ironic twist, the location for the new restaurant was in the exact same space that he left, Benvenuti, several years before to start Verve. Apparently, when it was Benvenuti, there were only about thirty-five seats in the small restaurant. After Brian left, the new owners of Benvenuti bought the space next to the restaurant, opened up a wall between the two and essentially doubled the capacity.

Cork & Cleaver resides in a small plaza on the west side of Broadview Road, just south of Wallings. Once inside the main door, you are greeted by the hostess stand with tables to your right and a walkthrough to the bar area on your left. My first (of many visits) to Cork & Cleaver was for opening night and I was so impressed that I went back the next night, too. Truth be told, I've pretty much eaten my way through the entire menu by now.


Every meal starts out with a basket of bread and compound butter:

Bread Service

The pumpernickel bread has always been fresh and the compound butter is a combination of butter, garlic, spinach, and Parmesan cheese. Served soft, this complemented the bread well.

Now that the bread service is out of the way, let's focus our attention on starters and salads. First up is the Caesar Salad:

Caesar Salad

I never had the pleasure of dining on Chef Bostwick's food at Melange, but I am told that he has a playful side when it comes to interpreting the classics. The romaine hearts had been replaced with Mizuna and in place of the standard bread croutons were breaded and fried chicken "croutons." While the dish was clearly a bit unusual, it delivered in the flavor department. The dark meat chicken croutons reminded me of the chicken nuggets from my childhood and the creamy caesar dressing was enough to coat the greens without overpowering them.

If you are looking for a more refreshing, crisp salad, try the C&C Salad instead:

C & C Salad

Combining Bibb lettuce, house-pickled rhubarb, shaved fennel, and a raisin vinaigrette, this salad danced on my tongue with its balance of sweetness and acidity. I was expecting extreme sourness from the rhubarb, but the pickling process completely mellowed it out. The fennel added a nice, anise undercurrent to the dish.

Moving on to the appetizer portion of the menu, the Fried Tomatillos with Spicy Aioli did not disappoint:

Fried Tomatillos

As with anything spicy, balance is the key. The aioli added a definite zip to the experience without overpowering the delicate sour flavor of the tomatillo. Additionally, the tomatillos weren't fried to the point where they became mushy, and retained that wonderful meatiness.

Continuing on the successful frying theme, we move on to the Fried Chicken and Waffles:

Chicken and Waffles

There are many people out there who just don't understand how combining these seemingly incongruous foods would be desirable. They balk at the notion of combining breakfast with dinner. Cork & Cleaver's version, a thyme-scented waffle topped with expertly-fried and juicy chicken drizzled in warm syrup, was a real winner. My own preference would've been to splash a bit of Frank's Red Hot Sauce on top, but my mouth was happy enough.

Our final trip in the appetizer section of the menu would not be complete without talking about The Board:

The Board

The Board is a cardiologist's worst nightmare, a trio of artery clogging delights. Combining roasted bone marrow, long-braised pork belly, and quick-seared foie gras, this is a dish to be shared. Fortunately, there were five of us at the table when this was ordered, so I managed to only snag a bite of each item on the board. But, oh my, what a bite! Each of the fatty meats was delicious in its own way and each had an accompaniment designed to help cut through the fattiness. I've been told that people order The Board for themselves, but that seems a bit decadent for one.

Having walked our way through five of the appetizers and salads at Cork & Cleaver, it is now time to move on to the main event.

First on the entree docket is the Walleye with Himalayan Red Rice:


The twin fillets of walleye were seasoned and seared perfectly. One of my pet peeves is overcooked fish; fortunately, moist and juicy was the way it came out of the kitchen. Walleye can have a slightly fishy flavor and while this walleye did, it didn't detract from the flavor of the overall dish. The red rice was cooked, yet still toothsome, and the mushroom vinaigrette added a rich earthy flavor I enjoyed very much.

Flat Iron

You haven't heard me say much that has been negatively critical of the food so far in all of my visits. That's because for the most part, the food has been very well-seasoned, perfectly cooked, and plated with precision. Sadly, the Flat Iron steak, of all the dishes I've tried at Cork & Cleaver, didn't live up to the other dishes. The potato and mushroom hash the steak rested on was delicious. And the steak itself was also delicious (although a bit on the rarer side of the medium-rare I ordered it).

The problem was two fold. First, while I LOVE goat cheese, the large scoop of chevre sitting on the plate next to the steak felt out of place. While a lovely example of this tart fromage, it didn't integrate well into the overall dish. The other problem was the ramp pesto underneath the fanned steak slices. While an interesting idea to bring a herbaceousness to the dish, the incredibly strong garlic flavor from the ramps more or less killed the flavor of anything else paired with it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Flat Iron steak were the Seared Scallops:


This quartet of bivalves was seasoned beautifully and seared until the outside was a lovely shade of brown leaving the inside still translucent and tender. The scallops alone were enough to knock this one out of the ballpark. What really surprised me, however, was the braised fennel that adorned the dish. Braised first in chicken stock until tender and then quickly pan-seared in butter for service, I don't know that I've loved a vegetable as much as this one. Combined with the white bean salad and haricot vert, this was a substantial amount of food.

Of course, being both a fried chicken fanatic and macaroni and cheese lover, this next dish, Fried Chicken with Macaroni and Cheese, lit up all the gastronomic lights in my brain:

Fried Chicken

Let's talk about the macaroni and cheese first. To date, my favorite macaroni and cheese has been Kim White's from Flury's Cafe. Finished to order, the stuff is perfectly cooked, creamy, cheese, and wonderfully dreamy. Kim now has some serious competition from Cork & Cleaver. The pasta was cooked but still had texture. The cheese sauce was creamy without being too thin or too thick. And most importantly, the cheesiness was right on the money.

The fried chicken was equally delicious. The two "must haves" for fried chicken are a crispy coating on the outside and juicy, tender meat on the inside. Cork & Cleaver scored a 100% on both accounts. It's probably a good thing I don't live closer to the restaurant; I'd be driving up there three nights a week for this dish alone.

The final entree I'd like to talk about is the Gnocchi:


I'm incredibly picky about gnocchi. Made the right way, they are ethereal little clouds of potato-based pasta. In fact, when I first moved to Akron and couldn't find any good examples of gnocchi, I decided to teach myself how to make it. Cork & Cleaver's gnocchi not only met my standard, it exceeded it. The gnocchi in this case were nestled among other delicious ingredients as well: braised lamb, tzatziki, and a cucumber slaw. When eaten together, it almost felt like I was eating a deconstructed gyro.

A meal would not be complete without sampling one of the restaurant's few desserts. On my first visit to the restaurant, one of the desserts sent out to our table (compliments of the kitchen) was this Pear Tart:

Pear Tart

Combined with fresh caramel corn and a scoop of real vanilla ice cream, this was a dessert that was well-balanced in the sweetness department. With five of us at the table, I only managed to snag a bite of this one, but it was well worth the effort.

Of all the desserts on the menu, the Root Beer and Malt was clearly the most unusual:

Root Beer and Malt

The root beer refers to the enormous meringue sitting on top of two scoops of chocolate malted ice cream. Chocolate-dipped and crushed pretzels adorn both the plate and the meringue. Having never thought about pairing root beer and chocolate malted together, I fearlessly dug in, cracking the meringue into more manageable sized pieces. It was, in a word, delicious. The meringue really did taste like root beer. And while the malt was somewhat subtle, everything worked beautifully on my tongue.

Another complimentary dessert that was sent out during my initial visit to the restaurant was the Country Fried Brownie:

Country Fried Brownie

This, to me, is akin to deep-frying candy bars and Oreo cookies. It occurred to me that this technique seemed a bit too decadent and ostentatious, but again, one bite and you'll be in chocolate heaven. The brownie came atop a rich caramel "Red Eye Gravy". The sour cherries served as a lovely counterpoint to all of the richness in the brownie and the sweetness of the sauce.

Of the four desserts currently being offered at Cork & Cleaver, my favorite is the Lemon and Coconut:

Lemon and Coconut

This dish is comprised of a coconut milk panna cotta topped with lemon curd, toasted homemade marshmallow, and crumbled shortbread cookies. Of course, these three components have been disassembled on the plate, allowing you, the diner, to assemble them at your pleasure. While the shortbread cookies are a bit rich, this dessert comes off as neither too sweet or too tart. The coconut panna cotta is soft and silky and the bite from the lemon curd helps to tie all of the ingredients together.

Exhausted yet, gentle reader? That or really hungry, I'm sure.

The bottom line is that over a half-dozen visits, Cork & Cleaver Social Kitchen scores nearly perfectly in my book. With the exception of one dish, everything else has been spot on. The service has consistently been good. And honestly, the prices on the menu are entirely reasonable for the quality and quantity of food you are getting. Chefs/Co-owners Brian and Adam have put a lot of work into the entire dining experience and it really shows. I wish them much luck in their new (or old?) space and I plan on returning again very soon. I highly suggest that you do the same.

Cork & Cleaver Social Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Scooby Doo, Where The Hell Were You?

I can hear the question that everyone who followed my ramblings on this blog are thinking right now: What the hell happened to you? Here you were, posting three or four times a week for years and then suddenly BLAM-O! Nothing. For an entire year, no less.

While I might be tempted to blame the terrible house fire I suffered back in February 2011 where I essentially lost the entire contents of my house, if I were to be truly honest, that was probably just the final tipping point to me realizing that I was tired and needed a change. Not necessarily tired of going out to eat. Or even interacting with my wonderful gentle readers out there in Internet-land.

It was more that I had and was continuing to have a lot of changes happen in my personal life. I just didn't have the time or energy to write as much as I used to. The interesting thing to note was that I had such a huge backlog of entries already written that I continued to post three times a week for many months before I simply ran out. Without me constantly filling the coffer, the grand machine suddenly just ground to a half.

The changes started when I realized that I could improve the quality of my blog posts if my pictures were better. For most of the history of this blog, a large majority of the pictures were taken with the camera of whatever cellphone I had at the time of my visit to the restaurant. There had always been a handful of restaurants where getting a decent photograph was challenging. And, in fact, there were about three or four where the lighting was so poor that even with the flash on my cellphone, I couldn't get a photograph because there wasn't even enough light for the camera to focus the lens.

Around October 2010, I decided to step up my game and bought a really nice point and shoot camera (Canon G12). Thinking that a dedicated camera would solve all of my woes, I went to Momocho Mod Mex about a week after its purchase and captured some of the most horrific images I had posted to date. I quickly realized that just because I bought a better camera, without proper instruction, it wasn't any better than my silly cellphone camera. This, gentle reader, is how I fell down the rabbit hole and into the massive (and wonderful) sinkhole that is photography.

One class led into another, and another, and another. I began to network. I joined a local photography club and upgraded my point and shoot to my first DSLR (Canon t3i). I used to think that owning a boat was the only unquenchable hobby when it came to squandering money. I now realize that photography can easily be lumped into that category, too. As I was sucked more and more into the photography world, I became less inclined to keep my stockpile of blog posts full and ready to go. And so, by July 2012, I would post the last one on Dante Boccuzzi's DBA.

Since then, I've done a few semi-professional food shoots, had several food articles published in a local rag, and generally just enjoyed my time away, often wondering if I would return. I continue to post to my social media accounts and my Flickr page continues to show the fruits of my labor over the last two years. Learning how to get not just usable, but really great images from ANY restaurant, no matter how brightly or darkly lit it is, has been my personal goal and I think I am finally there, although I am always pushing myself to learn more.

I would be remiss if I were to assert to you that I was taking up my previous schedule of three to four posts per week. Realistically with everything else going on in my life, that just isn't possible. That being said, I will commit to one posting per week, with the hope that I might get a second if time permits. Given this limitation, I intend to change a few of the parameters regarding restaurant visits. With the DBA post, I changed from doing a single visit/single post model to a multi-visit model and then one overall post. I think this makes more sense and gives you a more well-rounded view of what you can expect should you go.

One of the benefits of using a cellphone to capture images was that I was nearly completely incognito. With my current rig, even though it isn't huge, it would be hard not to spot the gear I am using. It doesn't happen all that often, but I've been asked by servers, managers, owners, and other patrons about my intentions. While I had once presumed that knowing I was a food blogger would change my dining experience, sadly, that doesn't happen often and when it does, I take that into account in my review.

When I first began this blog back in December 2008, I truly was an anonymous "everyman." After writing about the restaurant scene in northeast Ohio for four years and continuing to make connections over the course of the last year, I now know quite a bit about the dining scene and those involved in making it happen. Conversely, people also occasionally recognize me, too. I was at lunch just yesterday when a man who turned out to be the restaurant's manager walked up to my table and out of the blue introduced himself to me. After he walked away, my lunch companion was taken aback and asked, "Does that happen often?" 

More often than you'd think.
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