Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Gruesome Grotto

Until recently, The Grotto called Merriman Road in The Valley (Akron, not Cleveland) home. I've had numerous people ask me about it, but I never got around to eating there, so I never knew what to say. Then, a few months ago, an announcement was made in the Akron Beacon Journal that The Grotto had now moved into a larger, more modern facility on the southeast side of Tallmadge Circle in Tallmadge, OH. The new facility could accommodate more diners and had banquet rooms capable of seating hundreds more. The address listed on the website linked to earlier lists the OLD address. The correct address is 360 West Ave, Tallmadge, OH 44278 and their phone number is (330) 633-5656.

The crowds were horrendous on opening week and continued that way for about a month. I noticed about a week ago as I was driving home from a friend's house on a weeknight that the parking lot seemed much more manageable now. Thus, it was without a reservation that I showed up on a Thursday night at 6:30 PM and asked for a table for 1. I needn't have worried I wouldn't get a seat. While I didn't check the bar side, the dining room had perhaps 20-25 diners in the midst of eating dinner. Thinking that this must be because of the downturn in the economy, I proceeded to start looking through the menu.

I asked my server, Brandye (nope, not a spelling mistake), to make some recommendations as I was a first time visitor. She quickly confessed that she was a vegetarian and really hadn't tried a lot of the dishes, but based on what people ordered, she suggested a few items. Most of the meat dishes didn't list sides and the sides that were listed were under the "A la carte" section of the menu. Noticing that "risotto" was listed as one of the sides and that Brandye may have in fact tried it since it probably didn't contain meat, I asked her about it. Sadly, she hadn't tried it, but suggested that she could bring me a small sample and I could decide for myself.

Not realizing that all the entrees come with a salad, your choice of side and the garlic mashers, I went ahead and ordered a soup and an appetizer. That way, when the risotto came out, I could decide if I liked it and would then order my entree and side. She also mentioned that fresh bread was about five minutes from coming out and I said that I had no problem waiting for fresh bread.

I went to the restroom to freshen up and when I returned, this was waiting for me:

This was not listed as any particular kind of risotto, but it had small pieces of what I originally thought were crab, but in fact turned out to be roasted red peppers. It was okay, a little too cheesy for my taste. It didn't really have a distinct flavor of its own. Is it the worst risotto I've ever had? No, but it was less than average, too.

It was at this point that the bread and butter were brought to the table. It looked decent enough sitting in the basket. I went ahead and placed my entree and side order and decided to dive into the hot bread.

Unforuntately, when I pulled off a quarter (it was pre-cut), I discovered that this loaf was undercooked and completely gummy in the middle:

This just wasn't very good at all. This wasn't even the case of cutting into hot bread after baking the loaf. This would've been undercooked and gummy hot or cold. After having to take out most of the center, you were left with little else.

For my soup, I ordered a cup of the French Onion soup, which is a standard on the menu (i.e. not the soup du jour). It had a nice caramelized cheesy crust on top:

Oddly enough, my server didn't bring me a soup spoon to eat this with. Ah well, I just used my dinner spoon. There wasn't a single crouton on top of the soup, but smaller croutons both on top (under the cheese) and distributed through the soup. The soup was intense, but I think it needed a bit of acid to liven it up a bit. Maybe some sherry vinegar. This was also the first place I noticed the minced garlic. Turns out that The Grotto tends to use a lot of minced garlic in their dishes. Unfortunately, even though I don't object to the garlic in the soup, shouldn't the soup have been cooked long enough to basically break down the little chunks?

After the soup came my unexpected salad. I had asked for the house dressing which is a homemade red wine vinaigrette. The salad? Plain and boring. The dressing? Interesting, but lacked appropriate seasoning and any kind of punch to make it effective.

This course was forgettable.

I have to tell you that I stared at the Appetizer list for a good while trying to find something that sounded good. I'm sorry, but when did a place supposedly known for its seafood and steaks put Buffalo wings on their appetizer menu? Honestly. I wound up selecting the mussels cooked in a white wine and garlic broth.

The mussels were cooked well and texturally they were fine. Unfortunately I noticed some of the mussels hadn't been cleaned properly as a bit of their beard were still on the outside of the shell. There was a ton of that same minced garlic through the mussels as well as a surprising amount of shredded cheese. Yes, you heard me, cheese. And beyond just the problem of pairing cheese with mussels was that some of the cheese had melted and some had not. The broth did nothing for this dish. Normally the broth is the best part. Unfortunately, the kitchen had coated the grilled bread with a, you guessed it, garlic butter, so they were completely ineffective at soaking up any of the broth. Not that I really wanted all that much of the broth.

By the way, the appetizer portion was enough for an entire meal. I don't know why restaurant put these enormous appetizers on the menu and then charge twice the price of what it should have been. I'm glad I didn't go with my first instinct and order two appetizers instead of a soup and an appetizer.

Finally, my entree arrived. Pork medallions with a mushroom and Marsala wine sauce and asparagus with hollandaise.

My server, the self-avowed vegetarian, actually said, "Wow, this really looks good!" Foreshadowing at its best.

I assure you, that plate is untouched. This is how I received it from the kitchen. This cost $26. Clearly whomever was running the pass in the kitchen tonight skipped the day in culinary school where they talk about good presentation. On the left side of the plate are the pork medallions. In the middle of the plate was another representation of garlic, the garlic mashers (as they call them). And of course, on the middle/right is the asparagus.

But wait, I hear you saying ... wasn't the side supposed to be asparagus with hollandaise? Why, yes, yes it is. A closer inspection of the asparagus ...

As soon as my server set down the plate I mentioned the missing hollandaise and she assured me that yes, it was definitely on there. I said, "Ummm ... are you sure?" She offered to get me a side of hollandaise from the kitchen and I agreed. If you also look closely below the asparagus, you can see the not-so-wonderfully broken Marsala wine sauce. Clearly they mounted the butter into the sauce and then boiled it. Harumph.

While waiting for my side of hollandaise I started tasting various things on the plate. Marsala wine sauce? Broken, but otherwise okay. The garlic mashers? Nice pepper flavor, but underseasoned and honestly they were the consistency of glue. Almost no integrity. The pork? Ah, the pork. Once again covered in the minced garlic, the seasoning was fine but they were beyond well done. I had ordered the dish with the pork cooked to medium. Medium this was not. Again, clearly they had presliced the medallions and cooked them individually in the saute pan instead of cooking a nice piece of tenderloin and then slicing the medallions.

By this point I had come to the conclusion that this was just one culinary disaster after another. Had the rest of the meal been up to snuff, I might have sent it back to the kitchen and had them re-fire the dish, but I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was how the pork came out however one ordered it.

Finally, my server returned with a small ramekin of hollandaise. It looked okay, but then I took my spoon and began to play with it a bit.

The consistency was very thin. The taste was mostly egg yolk. Not nearly enough butter. And it lacked seasoning and brightness that a squeeze of lemon could've brought out. And it was room temperature. This surprised me more than anything else. I spooned some over the asparagus. Initially you could see it, but sure enough, within about 10 seconds, it all but disappeared into the nether regions of the plate. Strangely enough, the asparagus were pretty decent, even though the hollandaise was literally non-existent.

Finally, I had to try and get a shot of the well done pork. This thing was dry as a bone. No amount of sauce could help this.

With that, I said enough is enough and asked for the check. With one glass of red wine, my bill with tax came to $50. Now, I know that when I go out to eat and post on my blog, I am being hypercritical. I have to be, that's how I discern myself from the average eater out there. But I have to say that for $50 (and only $6 of that was for a glass of wine), people deserve a LOT more.

To revisit an earlier thought in this posting - I originally thought the restaurant was dead because of the economy. Now I realize it's because of the food.

My server, however, was professional and helpful. Well, as helpful as she could be having not tasted 3/4 of the menu.

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