Sometimes, you want to love a restaurant before you even peek at the menu: for its setting, its vibe or its charm.
That was certainly the case with The Smith, the Geauga County barbecue spot that opened last October on Burton's town square. Home to an annual maple-sugar festival, the state's oldest county fair, and a number of Amish households, Burton seems nearly synonymous with a down-home lifestyle. And The Smith, with its gray clapboard exterior, wrap-around porch and charming farmhouse-chic decor, fits right in to its countrified setting, visually signaling the culinary comfort the kitchen hopes to provide.
But, as we all know, it takes more than just a pretty face to keep the spark alive. That, too, was the case with The Smith, where amateurish service and inconsistent preparations put the brakes on our romance.
Executive chef, and general manager, William Burke hails from Georgia and appears to know his way around The Smith's hickory-fired Southern Pride smoker: His pulled pork and brisket are among the menu's best bets. Rubbed, smoked and served "sauce on the side," the 'cue gets punched up by three tabletop condiments: a sweet Kansas City-style maple-molasses sauce; a tangy yellow sauce amped up with beer-fermented mustard seeds; and a classic Eastern Carolina-style vinegar-pepper sauce.
On the mid-day menu, a "signature" pulled pork sandwich ($11) featured a hearty pile-up of lean, coarsely chopped, slightly dry meat on a toasted brioche roll. We're charter members of the sauce-on-the-side club, but in this case, an application of the maple-molasses sauce was a brilliant move, both to compensate for the meat's dry-ish texture and to perk up flavors that, despite Burke's obvious care, were sort of sleepy. Served in a darling little half-pint canning jar, a side of chunky cole slaw in a light, mayo-based dressing also helped balance the taste.
A Buffalo-born companion couldn't wait to wrap his mitts around the Burton-on-Weck ($12), inspired by Western New York's beloved beef-on-weck sandwich. And he wasn't disappointed. Slightly fatty — and therefore more tender and flavorful — brisket, piled high on a toasted roll topped with the requisite coarse salt and caraway seeds, made an engaging stand-in for the traditional rare roast beef; served on the side, the prescribed au jus was smoky, dark and savory; and the mustard sauce ably filled in for the classic horseradish.
Both sandwiches came with Smith Fries, thick wedges of just-right french-fried spuds with fluffy interiors and salty, crisp exteriors.
Lunch-time starters were also well-executed: meltingly tender, pleasantly tart slices of fried green tomatoes ($8) in a crisp, sumac-spiked breading, topped with a drizzle of buttermilk dressing; and the sweet-and-salty fried molasses bacon ($7), lean strips of smoked bacon, dredged in cracker crumbs and then deep fried for a marvelous, delicate crunch. Plated with the bacon were refreshing slices of earthy pickled beets and a homemade dill pickle spear.
Execution was a different story on our next visit, the following Saturday night for dinner, when the restaurant was only about one-third full. The kitchen seemed to repeatedly drop the ball. Take the starter of CSA Gnocchi ($7). While the menu used the word "pesto," what was actually ladled on the pasta was a definitely non-pesto-like melange of chopped kale; finely diced zucchini, green pepper and tomato; and so much oil the gnocchi were dog-paddling for dear life.
Also not quite right: the underwhelming watermelon and goat cheese salad ($7), with perhaps six small cubes of watermelon on a thin layer of lettuce, along with a few goat cheese crumbs, some crescents of pickled fennel, and a flat, oily dressing.
Unlike the pulled pork and brisket, a half-rack of St. Louis ribs ($18) proved disappointing, so tough and dry on one end we could hardly pierce it with a knife. A side of undercooked pinto beans ($3.50) had the tooth-breaking texture of tiny rocks.
While we've rarely met a biscuit we didn't like, this night's version of The Smith's buttermilk biscuits, delivered gratis after the starters, was also a headscratcher. Enormous, yellow-tinged, and dense as doorstops, these were biscuits in name only — unless, of course, your idea of biscuits is as damp, oily, coarse-crumbed paperweights. Accompanying the biscuits was a selection of slathers, including sweet-and-smoky whipped butter, clear apple-cider jelly with the bouncy texture of jello, and a peculiar blueberry-cabernet "jam" composed of four or five ice-cold blueberries in thin juices.
The jam, incidentally, seemed very much like the blueberry cobbler ($5) filling in a lunchtime dessert. While the cobbler was warm, its watery filling suggested the dish had not been baked long enough for it to thicken.
Maybe we should just have been thankful to get any dessert on that lunch visit, when we shared the space with just seven other customers. While our server was not unfriendly, we got the distinct impression that she wasn't really into us. For instance, the only beverages she offered were water and iced tea; if we hadn't heard our neighbors ask for the beer and wine list, we would have never known there was one. Likewise, she dropped off our check as she cleared our entrees, never suggesting we stick around for coffee or dessert. (We asked for the dessert menu.)
And possibly, too, we should have been thankful that she even cleared those plates. During our dinner visit, dishes piled up to the sky before our sincere but slipshod server thought to clear them. Then again, he forgot to mention the dinner special (sous vide short ribs), forgot to supply the trio of table sauces (we asked, again), never questioned why the gnocchi, the rock-hard pinto beans and the ribs remained mostly untouched and — as a final flub — charged us extra for a side dish that was included in the price of the meal.
We know The Smith has plenty of fans, so we want to think our experience was a fluke, perhaps related to the significant demands of the dual roles Burke fills. Still, consistency is one of the core values of functional restaurants. Until The Smith can deliver consistently well-prepared food and polished service, our heart will be elsewhere.