- Walter Novak
- The seafood appetizer plate is stunning in more ways than one.
Oh, all right. So the song was really soft jazz, and the firelight arose not from a crude fire pit, but from a little tabletop hibachi, where we were toasting marshmallows for our s'mores. Still, snuggled down inside a wood-paneled booth in Ken Stewart's Lodge, one can be forgiven an occasional flight of fancy. And besides, if ol' Grizzly did manage to track down this rustically chic retreat, I'm guessing that he wouldn't feel entirely out of place.
Stretched out on a piece of property on historic Route 21, in the rural yet decidedly upscale Akron suburb of Bath, the log-built Lodge has the understated panache of a cashmere barn jacket. Pines and rhododendron, tastefully draped in twinkling white lights, embrace it. A rough-hewn wooden bench beckons from its long, covered porch. In fact, if you can ignore the little drugstore attached to the north end of the lodge and the tiny barbershop capping the south, you could be convinced that you've taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at an Adirondack hunting camp.
The fantasy continues inside, where visitors encounter flagstone floors, paneled walls, and an impressive hostess stand, hewn from a giant tree trunk. In the lounge, an enormous split log forms the bar top. In the three cozy dining rooms, wall sconces take the shape of trout, chandeliers are made from antlers, and oil lamps and well-stoked fireplaces cast shadows on the walls.
Still, one look at the long, sophisticated menu, and it's obvious that this isn't some backwoods watering hole. Nearly two dozen appetizers -- everything from sashimi-grade tuna tartare to grilled thin-crusted pizzas -- lead the way. More than a dozen salads and side dishes follow. Main events include upscale standards such as long-boned veal chops, filet mignon, and panko-crusted diver's scallops. And while the kitchen's focus is clearly on seafood, steaks, and chops, there's a double handful of pastas and chicken preparations to boot.
But here's a word of advice: Don't invest all that much time in perusing the written menu. In short order, a server will be by to recite literally dozens of nightly specials, and any decisions you made prior to that time will no doubt seem irrelevant.
But while servers go on at some length about the minutiae of preparation, they rarely take the time to mention prices. Yet, when a number of the specials are in the rather stunning range of $55 to $75 (including a seafood appetizer platter, a Kobe steak, and several lobster specials), you'd better believe that's something you'll want to inquire about.
Indeed, frugal diners probably will do best to confine themselves to items offered on the printed page, where most entrées check in at $25 or less and include a substantial and well-appointed house salad (baby greens, crumbs of feta, toasted pine nuts, and dried cranberries, lightly dressed in an adroitly balanced balsamic vinaigrette); a bread basket filled with warm, yeasty breads from Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery and crusty baguettes from the Breadsmith; and a choice of unglamorous but properly prepared sides, such as baked potatoes, rice pilaf, or green beans "almondine" [sic].
Sexier substitutions abound, however, and are mostly good enough to justify the splurge. For instance, swapping the standard-issue house salad for the menu's ample Roasted Beet & Belgian Endive Salad certainly cost us a few bucks more; but the complex flavor-and-textural interplay of sweet red beets, buttery endive, crisp candied walnuts, and a light, infinitely mellow blue cheese dressing was entirely too good to regret.
We also couldn't help but succumb to some of the alternate sides. A modern version of mac 'n' cheese, for example -- here, firm penne tossed with an earthy but not too pungent sauce of goat cheese, piqued with sun-dried tomato, and sprinkled with toasty bread crumbs -- was sleek and indulgent, but not too heavy. And the ample portion not only provided a side dish for two; it served for lunch the next day.
Skinny rosemary frites tasted fabulous, too, deep-fried to a golden brown, tossed in a bowl with sea salt and rosemary, then swaddled in a cloth napkin and rushed to the table sizzling hot. Yes, they were greasier than they should have been; and yes, the portion size -- almost as big as a bed pillow -- was ridiculously large. But that didn't stop us from scarfing them down.
The only dud among the side dishes was a more modestly sized portion of truffle fries, with white truffle oil and broad shavings of Parmesan cheese. Thickly cut, mealy, and surprisingly bland, the spuds were more pedestrian than their $7.95 price tag had led us to expect.
If salads, sides, and starters hinted at the kitchen's predilection for tossing on the high-test taste enhancers -- such goodies as dried fruits, infused oils, nuts, herbs, and cheese -- that tendency became even more pronounced in several of the entrées, with unfortunate results. For instance, the subtlety and nuance of a moist, tender veal chop was greatly attenuated by a too-thick blanket of herbed Boursin, in one evening's special; and a sticky, sweet-and-sour balsamic glaze did little to complement a plump portion of grilled swordfish. (Factor in this dish's other components -- a flaky turnover filled with Boursin, crabmeat, and mushrooms; and more sautéed mushrooms ranging freely across the plate -- and this particular main course struck us as neither particularly coherent nor especially interesting.)
Better choices (from the written menu) included lush, peppercorn-crusted prime rib, simply paired with a head of roasted garlic; and those panko-crusted diver's scallops, briefly pan-seared, without extra oil or fat, and served on a pleasantly restrained drizzle of Chardonnay cream. And from among the unwritten specials, a pearly halibut filet, sprinkled with salt and pepper, tickled with rosemary butter, and tweaked with a few kalamata olives and well-trimmed artichoke hearts, half a roasted Roma tomato, and a spoonful of juicy, chopped tomatoes, was a delight -- spare, streamlined, and full of pure, discernible flavors.
While restaurateur Stewart (who also owns the venerable Ken Stewart's Grille, in Fairlawn) is Summit County's undisputed king of putting on the dog, a few other details of our high-priced evening could have used more refinement. To wit, although the night was frosty and our outerwear was bulky, no one bothered to mention the presence of a coatroom, let alone offer to check our coats. Then, as we took our seats, we noticed that the carpet around our table was already covered with crumbs; later in the meal, we understood how this had happened, when we watched in amazement as our server crumbed the table directly onto the floor! And finally, while most of the restaurant's appointments appeared elegant and artful, we couldn't help puzzling over the flimsy flatware, which felt light and insubstantial in our hand. (Perhaps, as a companion suggested, the decorator depleted her budget on trout lamps.)
But if we've had more flawless meals for the money, we've rarely enjoyed them in a more cozy setting, and certainly not in one where we could camp 'round the hibachi, build ourselves some s'mores, and picture ourselves at one with the piney woods -- all without having to trade in our Blahniks for trail boots.
Mrs. Grizzly should have had it so good.