Dining » Dining Lead

The Lowdown on High Hopes

Midday delight in Canton leads to dinner disappointment.

BY ELAINE T. CICORA

Jicama slaw and aoli crab cakes: A tasty wedding of earth and sea. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Jicama slaw and aoli crab cakes: A tasty wedding of earth and sea.

Our road trips to new restaurants are fueled with the anticipation of nifty things to eat and drink. But there are other considerations -- namely, the way we're greeted, seated, and treated -- that can take the glow off an otherwise pleasant time.

So it was with recent visits to Fedeli, Daniel Duplain's nearly one-year-old establishment in downtown Canton. Until a series of oddball flubs dampened our enthusiasm, we were digging nearly everything about this Italian-American restaurant. Located in the circa-1900 Northmark Office Building, the place is deliciously handsome. Its main dining area boasts impeccable appointments and a contemporary Cal-Med sensibility -- think high ceilings, exposed brick, and rustic pottery offsetting white tablecloths, flowers, and cool jazz -- that had us reminiscing about West Coast wine country.

A flight of steps leads down to another, much smaller dining area, overlooking the restaurant's long, granite-topped bar, where youthful mixologists whip up fierce cocktails, like our potent $9 Bombay Sapphire martinis. (There's also a well-organized, fairly priced wine list, heavy on West Coast and Italian reds and whites.)

Despite the fact that it is a cellar, the downstairs space oozes earthy charm. So when staffers suggested we wait there for our table, we were happy to oblige. On the other hand, when they forgot about us -- and left us lingering nearly half an hour beyond our 7 p.m. reservation time -- the charm felt a trifle tarnished.

Such things happen, of course, and we tried to take it with a grain of salt. But the next snag came as soon as the hostess brought us back upstairs. Instead of taking us into the beautiful, bustling dining room, she herded us into a viewless, three-table alcove, far from the action. We politely asked whether we could be seated at one of the more desirable -- and unoccupied -- tables in the main area. Imagine our surprise when the request was denied, with the comment that those tables were "reserved." Not having the leeway to walk out in a huff -- this was a business trip, after all -- we settled; but for the rest of the evening, we couldn't shake the ugly feeling that we'd been stuffed into the time-out closet while the rest of the class was having a party.

Still, we might have recovered even from that, if not for what the kitchen dished up next: an unfortunate starter of odoriferous, past-their-prime mussels. Our server apologized and took them off our bill without a fuss; by that point, though, our enthusiasm for this field trip had pretty much evaporated.

Which is a shame, since my perceptions of Fedeli had been exceptionally positive during an earlier midweek lunch, when I dropped in solo and sans reservation. Seated at a piece of prime real estate and tucking into some fine examples of the skills of co-owner/executive chef Scott Jones, I could scarcely have been more delighted.

A Culinary Institute of America grad and former chef-owner of Grappa's in Fairlawn, Jones has assembled an expansive menu that ranges from bruschetta and calamari to pasta, chicken, steak, and veal. Fresh seafood, raw bar, and antipasti selections are offered daily, most dinner entrées are moderately priced in the $18 to $24 range, and an ample house salad and sturdy Italian bread come with.

While the dinner mussels were an obvious exception, Jones' creations are generally smart and stylish. No complaints about a pair of golf-ball-sized Maryland crab cakes, seasoned with finely diced peppers and fines herbs, and served on a crisp, juicy slaw of jicama and citrus aïoli. An à la carte Caesar salad was on target too, with crisp romaine, homemade ciabatta croutons, and a garnish of crunchy fried anchovies. On the other hand, an à la carte caprese salad (a stackup of tomato and fresh mozzarella) was a letdown. Though our server had promised that the tomato would be sweet and ripe, the truth was in the tasting.

Among entrées, a free-range chicken breast had been pan-seared to a juicy turn, and veal scaloppine with artichokes and oven-roasted tomato offered plenty of deep, entrancing flavors -- even if the artichokes were in surprisingly short supply. From the evening's seafood specials, we picked the lean and mild cobia, an often-overlooked saltwater fish. Highlighting its natural flavors was a stuffing of rock shrimp, caramelized onion, and Asiago.

At midday, a few panini and meal-sized salads replace some of the heavier dishes, and prices go down considerably. Our lunch began with an extraordinary tomato bisque, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and garnished with fresh chives and a buttery Parmesan crostini. Next up was rigatoni, in a delicate yet indulgent ground-veal and pancetta Bolognese, topped with fragrant, imported Asiago, then baked to bubbly perfection. A good cup of coffee and an impeccable Tahitian vanilla bean crème brûlée made for a tasty conclusion and sent us back up north chanting the restaurant's praises.

Just 48 hours later, of course, we were singing a different tune -- call it "Ballad of the Bad Table." Here's hoping that you never have to sing it.

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