Don't come whining to J. Scot Jones with sad stories about your extended daily commute. The Akron native -- a graduate of Hoban High School and the University of Akron, as well as the Hyde Park, New York installation of the Culinary Institute of America -- spent nearly a decade motoring between his central Summit County home and his job as chef at Johnny's Bar on the west side of Cleveland.
It's a long drive, all right, but it apparently gave Jones plenty of time to dream about putting his top-notch training and experience to work in his own little spot, a hometown place where local diners could get the kind of sophisticated, upscale meals that generally meant a trip Up North. The dream finally became a reality in December 1998, when Jones first fired up the ovens at Grappa's, his lovely restaurant on West Market Street in Fairlawn. Since then, there is no doubt that Grappa's has also been a dream come true for devoted diners from Akron, Canton, and the surrounding suburbs, with its large menu of urbane and well-conceived Mediterranean fare, classy atmosphere, and polished service: To wit, nearly every one of the restaurant's 140 seats are cheerfully occupied on most Saturday nights.
It is unfair to suggest that Grappa's is a miniature replica of Johnny's Bar, Joe Santosuosso's Fulton Road restaurant, but some similarities are undeniable, from the kitchen's spectacular emphasis on veal to the menu's inclusion of Bananas Foster, a sublime, if completely un-Italian, dessert item that the kitchen staff at both restaurants have absolutely mastered. The lush decor, too, with its alabaster hanging lamps, rich upholstery, antique sideboards, and darling little "moderne"-style bar, seems at least to have taken a page from the stylebook of its bigger Cleveland cousin. The other side of the coin here is that Grappa's prices -- while still likely to put a dent in that bulging wallet of yours -- don't quite reach the heights sometimes scaled by equivalent Cle-town hotspots.
Luxuriant preparations of veal are clearly the stars of the show on Jones's dinner menu. (A smaller lunch menu replaces most of the veal entrées with gourmet pizzas and sandwiches.) It is therefore essential that you do not, under any circumstances, miss the thick, peppery Blackened Veal T-Bone chop: seared to perfection, then topped with slabs of melting Brie, a grilled portobello mushroom cap, and a silken truffled brandy cream sauce, served on one weekday evening with perfect garlic mashed potatoes and slender spears of juicy asparagus. But despite their penchant for veal, the exec chef and his second in command, Warren Dolata, also do a fine job with alternatives like lamb, risotto, and homemade pasta.
Lamb Satay, for example, which our well-informed server said is one of the most popular non-veal dishes on the menu, was to-curl-up-and-die-for delicious, with four dainty marinated and grilled Australian lamb chops resting on a coarse "hash" of roasted red-skinned potatoes, caramelized onion, and a few savory slices of wild mushrooms, all lightly glazed with a mouthwatering sweet-and-tart balsamic reduction sauce. Likewise, a signature dish of Lobster Risotto was perfection on a plate: an ample serving of creamy arborio rice studded with chunks of succulent claw meat and subtly flavored with puréed pumpkin, exotic black truffle peelings, and a drizzle of aromatic truffle oil.
Four homemade pasta dishes are available daily; on weekdays, another 11 pastas, relative bargains at $10.95 to $14.95 each, are on a separate menu. We loved a satisfying serving of plump potato gnocchi, tossed with a handful of roasted pearl onions, a few big leaves of satiny spinach, wedges of roasted Roma tomato, and a half-dozen juicy shrimp, which -- three cheers for Jones -- had had their little tail-shells meticulously removed before being added to the rich, smoky pesto sauce.
Entrées come with a modest house salad of fresh leaf lettuces, dressed in a crisp Chardonnay vinaigrette, and slices of warm, homemade sourdough bread with a wonderfully crunchy crust that inevitably left a substantial mess on our table linens. While we wished the team of servers and attendants would have thought to crumb our table at some point during our meal, we were continually impressed at their diligence in unobtrusively removing and replacing soiled flatware and dinnerware, and keeping our water glasses full to the brim.
One of the few disappointments that the kitchen served up arrived at our table in the form of a Belgian endive and watercress salad that we had substituted, at an additional cost, for the simple house salad. The core of the salad was five long spears of buttery, slightly bitter endive, arranged like the spokes of a wheel extending out from an equally bitter tangle of watercress and finely sliced endive. The sharp greens demanded something sweet to balance them, but the stingy amount of citrusy blood-orange vinaigrette that dressed them just wasn't up to the challenge. Several thin slices of pear garnished the salad and could have added the necessary notes of sweetness, except that they turned out to be absolutely tasteless. Big crumbles of rich Spanish blue cheese and bits of toasted walnut added some dimension, but still, without a fruity counterpoint, they didn't seem to help much: Ultimately, the salad was a bore.
Something similar was going on with a spiritless appetizer of arborio-crusted scallops on top of a crisp slaw of red cabbage, shredded pumpkin, acorn squash, and carrots, on a plate drizzled with a bit of green pumpkin-seed vinaigrette. The hard, crisp breading, made with finely ground, roasted arborio rice, was dull and unseasoned; even more disappointing, the tender scallops themselves were underflavored and flat-footed. And neither the bland vinaigrette nor the vaguely tart slaw was enough to give the dish any soul.
Ever so much better was a rich appetizer of earthy chopped wild mushrooms embraced in a thin, buttery phyllo crust and finished with a satiny mushroom-infused cream sauce. Also on the mark was an order of two long, cheese-and-risotto-stuffed banana peppers (one mild and the other fiery -- talk about your counterpoints!) gently stroked with a fragrant, buttery white-wine-and-lime-juice beurre blanc.
Speaking of delights, Jones has assembled a solid collection of mostly late-vintage white and red Italian and domestic wines (with a few French sparklers thrown in for good measure) to complement his menu, including lots of Zins, Chardonnays, and Merlots that harmonize well with veal. While, as is the case in most restaurants, the prices on the "by the glass" selections are no bargain, we spotted a number of bottled wines priced at least a few dollars below the going rate.
The only less-than-rave review in the dessert department goes to a Thursday night special -- a modest scoop of dreamy cinnamon ice cream sandwiched between two massive honey-cinnamon cookies and coated in chocolate cookie crumbs. Too much cookie and not enough ice cream, we decided, although the drizzles of espresso-flavored crème Anglaise and raspberry coulis on the side helped sweeten up our attitude considerably.
But then, at the other end of the sweetie spectrum, there was that serving of Bananas Foster: big slabs of warm, buttery sautéed banana surrounding a wonderfully rich housemade vanilla bean ice cream, slathered with freshly made caramel sauce. The generous portion, piled into a voluminous cappuccino mug, was the stuff of which late-night dreams are made. Also good enough to shout about was a slice of sprightly Blood-Orange Tart, made with thin slices of fruit and bits of zippy zest, judiciously sweetened and baked in a pastry shell. The tart was another evening's dessert special -- and "special" it was indeed, with each fragrant, chewy bite enhanced by a nibble of the accompanying light and lemony mascarpone sorbet, which had been drizzled with a bit of semisweet chocolate ganache.
No matter where you live, the Grappa's experience is enough to make you wish that Jones had brought his talents back to your hometown.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at email@example.com.