- Walter Novak
- Trust us: Order the chicken-salad croissant.
"Down by the station, early in the morning," 19th-century train travelers passing through Kent probably could indeed have seen "the little pufferbellies all in a row." Today, though, the double set of tracks that runs within spitting distance of the city's circa-1875 Great Atlantic and Western Depot are mostly abandoned. Instead, rail fans and nostalgia buffs inside the station's Pufferbelly Restaurant & Bar must settle for the occasional throaty roar of a modern freight train as it speeds by on the lower tracks, out of sight beside the Cuyahoga River. Despite the passage of time, the primal vibrations still seem to send a shiver of delight through the station's venerable brickwork, even as they make the ice cubes dance inside our iced tea glasses.
At the ripe old age of 129, the landmark station remains a towering, two-story Victorian beauty, garbed in time-softened brick and accessorized by arched Palladian windows and ornately carved corbels that support the roof of the wraparound portico. During a midday lunch, we find the memorabilia-filled interior to be bright and airy. And on a stormy evening, as the old-fashioned street lamps turn the rain into shellac on Franklin Avenue's brick pavement, the station's sheltering walls feel as strong and secure as the embrace of a six-gun-totin' grandma.
If the station building has weathered the test of time, the restaurant that occupies its ground floor can make much the same claim. It was in 1981 that partners Tom Roehl and George Lewis decided to turn the high-ceilinged space beside the tracks into a casual, family-friendly restaurant; 23 years later, Pufferbelly still provides simple but generally satisfactory lunches and dinners in an atmospheric setting. (A sister Pufferbelly, inside the old Berea train depot, was sold to its former executive chef about three years ago.)
The rambling, all-day menu, overseen by GM and kitchen manager Kevin Long, is the very model of nonparochialism, with options that range from nachos, buffalo burgers, and "loaded fries" (topped with bacon, cheese, and scallions), to baked brie, salmon with fruit salsa, and steak Diane. Along the way, tabletop travelers also will encounter meal-sized salads, quiche, thin-crusted pizzas (including Hawaiian, Mexican, and vegetarian versions), eggs Benedict (at lunchtime only) and pierogi (really). Soups, several of the salad dressings, sauces, and most desserts are made in-house; prices are moderate; and service, if not flawless, is surprisingly friendly and efficient.
However, despite the presence of some relatively sophisticated-sounding menu items, Pufferbelly's vibe much better befits a casual neighborhood eatery than a white-tablecloth restaurant. In fact, there are no tablecloths at all on the sturdy oak tabletops. Neither are there flowers, candles, or coy little oil lamps. Background music consists of tired pop oldies. The after-dark lighting, at least in the main dining room, is just a few watts shy of harsh. Cloth napkins do contribute a grace note, but like the carpet that covers most of the floors, they look a little tattered. And the sturdy white stoneware plates, rimmed with a line of brown, would seem right at home on the counter of your favorite diner.
That utterly unpretentious attitude apparently extends to Long's kitchen, with varying degrees of success. Flavors tend to be mellow and underplayed -- which worked just fine for a bowl of cool, coarsely diced gazpacho, say, where the pure, wholesome flavors of tomato, cucumber, and olive oil were pleasure enough, even without a hint of the promised garlic and Tabasco. And it did no disservice to a big Raspberry Chicken Salad, loaded with mandarin oranges, strawberries, grapes, and walnuts, served with mild raspberry vinaigrette on the side. But the kitchen's penchant for subdued flavors was less suited to an entrée of pork tenderloin Montreal, fork-tender medallions of sautéed pork, with a scattering of chopped mushrooms, tomatoes, and scallions, and a tsunami of "Madeira and cracked-spice demi-glace," which looked like gravy and tasted like . . . well, nothing in particular. We unintentionally completed the "blue-plate special" look of this particular dish by choosing a heap of brassy, freshly cut French fries as our accompanying side. The long, limp wands of country-fair-style goodness tasted great, but beneath that wave of "demi-glace," they looked for all the world like the "French fries and gravy" featured at a midtown hash house.
If the pork tenderloin was mundane, a starter of "stuffed portobello caps" was an outright disappointment. Served in an oval ramekin, the caps -- one large and one small -- weren't so much stuffed as blanketed beneath a layer of oily melted mozzarella. A dab of marinara sauce in the center serving added color, but little flavor; and the mushrooms themselves, while still plump and tender, had released enough of their juices to make the cheese-and-marinara sauce turn watery and gray. As for the promised "focaccia toast" accompaniment, it was nothing more than Italian-bread garlic toast; for better or worse, though, it was also the tastiest part of the dish.
Ah, but then there was the out-of-the ordinary chicken-salad sandwich, for which many other menu missteps shall (almost) be forgiven. The surprising contrast of tender white meat and crunchy toasted cashews, all wrapped up in a gently honeyed mayonnaise and piled on a flaky, buttery croissant (the real thing, yo, not just a crescent-shaped yeast roll), was a delight, and an accompanying garnish of sweet, ripe cantaloupe and a thick slice of orange made this as refreshing a late-summer luncheon as a traveler could desire.
However, that same sliced orange garnish seemed a little less appealing when it appeared on top of a slab of prime rib during a Saturday-night dinner. In this case, a savory tidbit -- a pinch of rosemary? a sprig of thyme? -- would have seemed more appropriate. Still, the beef itself was clearly on the right track: thick, tender, and cooked to order, although barely seasoned. A dollop of horseradish cream on the side would have been super.
As befitting the unfancy eats, Pufferbelly's small wine list is made up mostly of inexpensive but drinkable grocery-store wines like Forest Glen Merlot ($18 on the wine menu; $7.99 at the local chain grocer), Château St. Michelle Riesling ($17 versus $7.99), and Jacob's Creek Shiraz ($20 versus $7.99). This being Kent and all, we weren't surprised to find that the beer selection was slightly more sassy, with Bass, Guinness, and Harp on tap, and a list of microbrews and imports that includes Beck's Dark and Sierra Nevada.
Despite our server's assurances that Pufferbelly's desserts are mostly made in-house, we immediately had reservations about one night's slice of caramel apple torte, a tall, heavily frosted three-layer stackup that looked like any other flavorless bakery confection. After digging in, though, we weren't so sure. Turns out that the moist, delicate apple spice cake, with fresh-tasting whipped cream frosting and a drizzle of homemade caramel, was not made in-house; but with its tender crumb and nongreasy frosting, it was one of the best-tasting cakes we've had since we misplaced the map to our own little kitchen.
Our Pufferbelly excursion took place just before the fall semester at nearby KSU commenced, and a number of the surrounding tables were occupied by moms, dads, and their college-bound scholars. Despite the presence of a dim and cozy bar, we suspect many of the young people won't be back here until the next time the parental units make a trip to campus and want a family-friendly spot to sit, chew, and chat. And that's OK. Pufferbelly doesn't claim to offer destination dining. But as an occasional layover on life's travels, it generally fills the bill.