We were merrily working our way through before-dinner drinks at DBA, Dante Boccuzzi's whimsical new restaurant in the heavily remodeled former VegiTerranean space in Akron, when the bread service appeared in a black vinyl basket. Our companion couldn't resist tipping over the repurposed LP to read its label.
"Now appearing on your tabletop as a breadbasket," she intoned, "Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders!"
The sly poke at VegiTerranean's former owner is vintage Dante: Not only did the guitar-playing chef introduce the region to his LP-cum-breadbasket conceit way back in 2007, at the original Dante in Valley View, but he's never been above using it as musical commentary.
These days, the Michelin-starred chef makes his best music in the kitchen. His mentor, acclaimed NYC chef Charlie Palmer, picked him as one of the nation's next top chefs in the October issue of the Robb Report, an ultra-luxury lifestyle mag out of California. And as owner-operator of a trio of successful restaurant concepts — the casual DC Pasta Company in Strongsville, the modern-Japanese Ginko in Tremont, and the modern-American Dante, also in Tremont — Boccuzzi is always stretching his time and talents.
The recently opened DBA (short for Dante Boccuzzi Akron) is a lively extension of its more sedate Tremont namesake, filled with carefully orchestrated touches: a high-octane palette of red, silver, and black, a loud rock 'n' roll soundtrack, menus printed on album covers, and a series of favorite musical quotes scrawled on the walls.
Unwinding at the bar provides pretty views through the restaurant's tall windows of the Cuyahoga Valley unfolding to the north, as well as a chance to check out the list of 50 wines by the bottle priced at $50 or less. (Robb Report types can also spend much, much more on an international selection of notable labels.) Or get the full fresh-air experience by grabbing a seat on the lovely three-season patio, where a long, sleek fire pit and towering stainless-steel heaters keep imbibers (and even a few brave diners) feeling cozy and warm.
Interior dining spaces are cozy, too, broken into a series of nooks and crannies meant to accommodate groups both large and small. Despite the apparently tight quarters, bustling, black-garbed waiters had little trouble delivering artfully plated dishes to our table with relentless efficiency.
In both concept and content, the DBA menu is what Dante calls "a good collaboration" between himself and his chef de cuisine (and longtime colleague) Torsten Schulz. As a result, much of the lineup will seem enticingly familiar to fans of the Tremont mother ship. House-cured meats, Hawaiian tuna tartare, and Hong Kong-style mussels all put in an appearance, along with indulgent favorites like homemade pastas, cloudlike risottos, and what may be the best polenta west of Rome, currently served with sweet Italian sausage and fried peppers on a bamboo platter. Pastas and many of the salads, soups, and starters come in a choice of portion sizes, encouraging diners to mix and match.
Among the starters, the butternut squash soup is an autumnal homage, smooth as silk and wafting evocative aromas from beneath its crown of cinnamon-scented foam; the addition of pureed banana adds sweetness and heft to what is one of the restaurant's best sellers. Equally delightful in its full, rich flavors is the homemade ricotta cavatelli, the ripple-edged shells shellacked with a sweet Gorgonzola cream sauce and topped with toasted walnuts, and the pancetta-flecked risotto alla carbonara, dressed up with a soft poached egg and a hint of truffle.
Like most of the menu offerings, salads change with the seasons and reflect a variety of cultural influences. A sheer walnut vinaigrette dressed a vertical arrangement of meltingly tender braised leeks, young arugula, toasted walnuts, and bites of creamy bocconcini in the Italian-accented Mozzarella Salad. A similar vertical composition of frisée, shaved hearts of palm, an assortment of deeply flavored roasted mushrooms, and a wisp of ginger vinaigrette seemed vaguely Asian in its sensibilities. Regardless of their ethnicity, both salads were flawlessly fresh and bursting with delicate, well-balanced flavors.
"Well balanced" describes most entrées as well, where the precise vertical plating lends a deconstructed sensibility to the subtly seasoned compositions. A sesame-crusted wild salmon filet, for instance, finds its rhythm when nibbled in combination with a mound of citrusy shredded veggies; on the other side of the plate, a pan-seared sticky rice croquette contributes additional dimensions of nutty crunch. Or consider the Surf and Turf: an impeccably sweet trio of golden sautéed scallops, enhanced by a broad ribbon of fork-tender braised beef short rib, and variations on celery that include braised ribs, puréed root, and celery micro greens. The only misstep came with the miso-glazed pork tenderloin, thick slices of stunningly tender meat topped with a scattering of crisp rock shrimp and arranged on a platter with a deep-fried shrimp crouton, shiitake mushroom caps, and braised mustard greens. Several dark disks of miso-braised daikon were inedible in their paralyzing salinity, adding nothing to the party on the plate.
Desserts, on the other hand, are worthy of a celebration. Printed on a CD liner and presented in a jewel case, the lineup of sweet endings pushes nearly every flavor button associated with the season. A warm, buttery financier (a pastry, not a banker) arrives stuffed with sweet-tart cranberries, accompanied by a tiny scoop of housemade cinnamon sorbet. A coffee cup filled with an ephemeral chocolate pot de crème, topped with espresso foam, offers sweet companionship to a warm powdered-sugar doughnut perched on a bed of honey-roasted figs. And served up in a tall parfait glass wrapped in a delicate graham-cracker tuile, a reimagined s'mores — rocky road ice cream, marshmallow pastry cream, Valhrona chocolate ganache, and crushed graham crackers — could be the best thing to happen to camping since the invention of 800-thread count sheets.