- Walter Novak
- Sauted whitefish with gulf shrimp and those killer sauerkraut balls are among the offerings at Crocker's.
Buffalo has its red hots, Charleston its she-crab soup. In Louisville, it's hot browns, and in New Orleans. . . . well, that food city has a host of regional specialties, ranging from oyster po' boys to warm beignets. But in Akron, the signature dish is sauerkraut balls, those tangy, deep-fried nuggets -- fine with a cold Pabst, of dubious value with a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé.
You won't find the recipe for these little tidbits in Joy of Cooking, but the Beacon Journal runs it every now and then. Ground ham, flour, eggs, and, of course, minced sauerkraut are kneaded into a thick paste, rolled into bite-sized balls, dusted in breadcrumbs, frozen, and then sent for a closely supervised dip in the hot-oil Jacuzzi.
Gotta say, though, making them from scratch strikes us as a considerable amount of effort to expend for what is essentially a snack -- especially when we could just as easily drop by Crocker's for some of the best balls in town. Crisp and golden outside, soft but firm within, with just the right balance of smoke, salt, and sour, these little guys are a cabbage's dream destiny. Better still, their simple flavors fit right into the warm, retro setting that anchors this West Akron restaurant.
An area restaurateur for the past 32 years, the peripatetic Crocker opened this, his fourth spot, in July of last year, on the edge of Good Park's 18-hole municipal golf course. Today, the former clubhouse is a cozy neighborhood retreat, enlivened by a wraparound porch overlooking the greens, a large, dimly lit lounge, and decorating touches that hark back to the 1950s. Dig those sleek Danish-modern lamps, for instance, spreading their soft, buttery light across the wooden bar top. Or how about that taupe-and-camel-colored vinyl upholstery, like something out of Grandpa's '54 Studebaker? Add some short, stocky martini glasses; lots of blond woodwork; and a collection of potted palms, and the interior could practically double as a set from a mid-century Cary Grant flick.
But while the setting is stylish and comfortable, don't come here searching for a fine-dining, white-tablecloth experience. "Affordable" and "casual" are the words that Crocker uses to describe his eatery. And although his large menu -- a dozen starters, three soups, five salads, eight steaks and chops, seven fish and seafood dishes, half a dozen chicken and pasta entrées, and a similar number of sandwiches, augmented by a full-page listing of daily specials -- takes a stab at keeping up with the times (with ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, and the like), offerings are mostly familiar, comforting, and unchallenging.
Which would be just fine, of course, if preparation and presentation were consistently up to par. But too often, chef John Heising's kitchen let us down. Take the disappointing grilled salmon, for instance, wherein even a thick blanket of brown sugar wasn't enough to disguise the strong taste and watery texture of the farm-raised filet. (Never mind asking whether it really makes sense to slap a layer of brown sugar on salmon in the first place.) Or consider the side dish of alleged risotto, which turned out to be nothing more than salty, soy-scented rice pilaf. Dry chicken strips and slices of still-crunchy pepper added little appeal to a special of spicy but one-dimensional Chicken Creole. And the "sweet brandy peppercorn sauce" on a thin, chewy, chargrilled steak (Homer's Filet) tasted more like gravy doctored with fresh rosemary than a freshly made reduction.
Of course, kitchens like Crocker's, which try to offer something for everybody, often end up doing nothing very well. And menus of such size and diversity often run into inventory problems, too. Sure enough, several specials were unavailable during a Thursday-night visit: a steak dish, because the kitchen was out of portobellos; and the Seafood Combo, because, our waitress said, the cooks had just opened a new box of clams and declared them to be "no good." (For better or worse, we did manage to snare the clams on the following Saturday, when they were served with good-tasting clam chowder, a limp tossed salad, a grilled filet of flavorless cod, and frozen French fries; and while they were obviously fresh this night, they were also gritty and overcooked.)
Among the appetizers, Tavern-Battered Shrimp, a 10-piece serving of medium-sized shrimp in a heavy, fritter-style coating, caught our eye. But although the commercial product turned out to be pleasantly crisp and greaseless, it was also dull and bland. Either the promised lemon or "remulade" (sic) could have lent the dish some much-needed zip, but alas -- bottled cocktail sauce had been substituted for the first, and the second was MIA. Meantime, a garnish of wilted leaf lettuces added nothing to the plate but a vague air of sadness. (That same tired-looking garnish showed up on many other dishes, too, but was of any real utility only on the brown-sugared salmon, where it came in handy to hide the unfinished fish from our motherly, small-town-friendly server.)
Despite the unimpressive victuals, Crocker's short international wine list is full of relatively inexpensive, worthwhile choices, including affordable workhorses like Ravenswood Zin ($20), Hess Select Cabernet ($26), and Fat Bastard Chardonnay ($18). And a juicy, grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Giesen winery, recently spotted on an upscale Cleveland wine list for $28 a bottle, was a steal here at $18. Cocktails, too, seemed priced to sell: Although such house specialty drinks as the Citron Flirtini (with Absolut Citron, cointreau, and dry vermouth) and the White Cosmopolitan (Absolut Citron, cointreau, and white cranberry juice) were on the small side and not quite cold enough, they were plenty strong; at only $4.50, they were an honest pour for the price.
Most of the restaurant's desserts are from an out-of-house bakery and include the ubiquitous cheesecakes and tall, multilayered tortes. A generous slab of commercially prepared cherry strudel, reheated in the microwave, had the delicacy and nuance of a Pop Tart. But an equally ample serving of homemade bread pudding, slathered with caramel sauce and topped with whipped cream and, yes, a cherry, brought the evening to a soft and sweet ending, and sent us home with our sweet tooth, at least, well-satisfied.
If Crocker's culinary shortcomings are enough to raise critical eyebrows, they seem of little importance to the multigenerational crowds that fill the lounge and the dining room nightly. For instance, it was SRO at the bar on a Thursday evening, and on the following Saturday, the dining room was packed with throngs of high-school homecoming attendees, families with small children, and thirtysomething couples out for a night on the town. Familiar-sounding foods, big portions, and moderate prices (most dinners check in at less than $20 and include bread, butter, salad, and a starch) are undoubtedly the draw, along with the cozy setting, the restaurant's well-known name, and, of course, those stand-up sauerkraut balls. But for neighborhood diners who prefer quality to quantity and who appreciate consistently well-prepared food, Crocker's seems like a long shot.