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.

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