- Walter Novak
- Meeker inherits the girth: The boisterous chef and his less-animated likeness.
Johnson & Wales-trained chef Brendan Meeker is clearly having fun on this crisp Saturday evening, posing for pictures beside a rotund (but still smaller-than-life-sized) carving of himself on the sidewalk in front of his Akron restaurant. The jokes and laughter gradually give way to handshakes and goodbyes, and Meeker's admiring guests pile into a white stretch limousine and cruise off into the night. Still beaming, the jovial young chef then turns his attention to the newest group of arrivals making their way up the sidewalk. With all the panache of a born showman, he flings wide the doors and ushers them into his realm.
Even if Meeker's Kitchen weren't so small -- a long, narrow space chockablock with tables, booths, and a bustling but completely unglamorous open kitchen -- one suspects the native Akronite would still dominate it like a size-12 foot in a size-7 slipper. His personal stamp is everywhere. In addition to his wooden likeness stationed outside the door, there is his own little Wall of Fame in the rear of the room, with a collection of culinary awards, school mementos, and testimonials from earlier phases in his career. Another section of wall pays homage to seminal Akron restaurants like Anthe's, Jack Horner's, and the Diamond Grille, which, a sign informs us, inspired Meeker's own current endeavor. A nearby alcove is plastered with newspaper clippings about the restaurant and its owner. And the man himself makes frequent forays among the tables to offer mock apologies for the "small" portions the kitchen serves up on jumbo platters, possibly with the aid of snow shovels.
Clearly, Meeker is no shrinking violet. He's more of, say, an overblown rambling rose: pleasing to the senses, if not without a thorn or two. Likewise, his menu -- a comprehensive, moderately priced collection reflecting a veritable United Nations of culinary influences, with an emphasis on homey dishes -- contains plenty of solid constructions as well as a few exuberant miscalculations and an occasional dish marred by less-than-prime ingredients.
In general, the kitchen does well when it keeps things simple. An entr´e of grilled pork loin, for instance, simply seasoned and brushed with a thin, mild barbecue sauce, was an unadulterated pleasure, although it could have profited from a moment's less time on the grill. A tidy little puff pastry, cradling tender grilled chicken breast, tomato, and onion in a rich Alfredo sauce, made a fine entr´e. And three succulent beef tenderloin filets, with caramelized onion and sliced portobello, were good, although the heavy-handed application of a blue cheese topping tended to drown out any subtleties. But then there were the shrimp gnocchi -- a wild and crazy ride of bacon, scarcely cooked onion, fresh tomato, peppers, tomato sauce, garlic, basil, and past-their-prime tail-on shrimp, all smothered beneath a blanket of pungent blue cheese.
Besides the fishy-tasting shrimp, we also had bad luck with the kitchen's Asian-influenced Rising Sun Grilled Tuna, a handsome filet marinated in soy sauce and served with wasabi cream and seaweed salad. We weren't asked how we wanted the tuna prepared, so we weren't particularly surprised when it showed up overcooked and dry. But even worse than the tuna's mealy texture was its unpleasantly strong flavor -- a problem that also extended to the chewy wakame salad and made us suspect neither item had enjoyed an ocean breeze in a very long time.
The tuna was especially disappointing in light of our meal's pleasant beginning. Thick slabs of The Breadsmith's hearty country-French bread, along with a complimentary platter of savory roasted peppers in an herby olive-oil marinade, had arrived nearly as soon as we were seated, and we followed them up with some excellent homemade potato chips -- crisp along the edges, slightly soft and chewy in the center -- and an appetizer of baby mozzarella and prosciutto, wrapped together jelly-roll fashion, sliced into creamy spirals, and layered on a bed of tomato and chopped romaine, sided by tongue-tingling feta-cheese-stuffed green olives.
But the best of the starters was undoubtedly Meeker's fried pepperoni bread, a delightfully wicked creation of yeasty dough, provolone, aged mozzarella, and layer upon zesty layer of pepperoni, all bundled together and sent off to the deep fryer until hot and crisp. Even without the creamy four-cheese Alfredo sauce on the side, the appetizer was wonderfully rich, with a satisfying crunch and the substantial mouth feel of a first-rate pizza.
Meeker's Kitchen is located in what was formerly Niam's, a popular Akron diner that flourished here for nearly a half-century. Even now, the dining room has the slightly down-at-the-heels feel of an old-style lunch counter, with utilitarian lighting, bare tabletops (with cloth napkins), and kitchen utensils pressed into service as wall art. Happily, a repair shop that had operated immediately next door to the restaurant recently moved out, and Meeker, along with partner Jim Finnerty, acted quickly to turn the prime space into an airy little attached pub. The barroom opened in February and comes complete with raised booths, a contemporary three-dimensional mural by Akron sculptor Don Drumm, and a selection of Irish brews on draft. Besides providing more seating, the room adds some much-needed sizzle to the rest of the space.
Other than noting the availability of beers on draft, we can't say too much about the selection of spirits: Meeker was apparently revising the beer and wine lists on the nights we visited, and we never actually saw them. However, we did play a brief game of 20 questions with our Saturday-night server in the hopes of securing a bottled beer: "Do you have Molson Ice?" "No." "Do you have Dortmunder Gold?" "No." "Do you have Corona?" "Yes."
Which brings us to our final lament: the service. Granted, the Saturday night was busy, and our server was relatively new. But there is no excuse for some of the gaffes we experienced, including never receiving our salads (which are included with entr´es, along with yummy mashed-potato pancakes and the vegetable du jour) and having to beg repeatedly for a glass to go with that hard-won Corona. In fact, it took 40 minutes and four increasingly incredulous requests before our server finally strolled over to the bar and snagged us a tumbler.
Less focused souls would surely have bolted before risking another long wait for dessert. We, however, persevered, sticking around to explore the menu's interesting-sounding selection of cakes, pastries, and ice creams. For the most part, the desserts are freshly made especially for Meeker's by a handful of home bakers. But despite their mouthwatering descriptions, they proved to be fairly mundane, ranging from a still-chilly "warm peach dumpling," straining beneath a surfeit of nutmeg, to the moist raisin-and-walnut-studded apple cake, which would have been better had the baker gone easier on the sugar in the achingly sweet cream cheese filling. The dessert most worth its calories turned out to be the Chocolate Ecstasy, a fudgy brick of fine chocolate mousse sandwiched between layers of chocolate cake and finished with a shiny ganache frosting. But while the cake was supposed to be accompanied by vanilla ice cream from Mary Coyle's (an Akron institution justly famous for its delicious homemade pleasures), the icy scoops that came with it tasted more like low-fat ice milk than Mary's creamy confections.
Meeker's career has already taken him from one coast to the other, but he claims he has yet to find a place that he loves as much as Akron. In fact, with his fondness for kidney-bean salad, sauerkraut balls, and greasy Galley Boy burgers from Swenson's Drive-In, he could easily pose as poster boy for the city's more idiosyncratic culinary pleasures. And who knows? As he continues his growth as a chef, developing more culinary refinement and restraint, and increasing his commitment to working with the freshest ingredients, maybe he'll find himself on another young restaurateur's wall of inspiration someday.