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Homeward Bounds 

Jeff McKenna's culinary odyssey leads to big portions in a little roadside restaurant.

Pork chops don't get much better -- or bigger -- than - the honey-bourbon version at McKenna's. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Pork chops don't get much better -- or bigger -- than the honey-bourbon version at McKenna's.
Proud waitresses at McKenna's are happy to tell the restaurant's story, one that has reached near-mythic proportions: In 1990, young Jeff McKenna left his home outside Akron to seek fame and fortune in the larger world. His first stop was Johnson & Wales University in South Carolina, where he earned a degree in foodservice management and his culinary credentials. Then followed stints at fine restaurants in Key West, Vail, and Atlanta. Last spring, the chef, now at the peak of his prowess, decided to bring his own young family home to the Ohio heartland and, with his father's assistance, completely overhauled an old roadside bar. A handful of faux-marble Formica-topped tables and a large contemporary menu later, Brimfield's best restaurant was born.

The story certainly explains how up-to-date dishes like brie fritters, blackened chicken spring rolls, and pan-seared diver's scallops found their way into this little 50-seat establishment in the middle of nowhere. If not at all glamorous, the dining room is at least a model of tidiness, anchored by a sturdy oak bar and ringed with large windows overlooking a nearby golf course. Hand-painted slate tiles hang on crisp white walls, price tags still attached in case you care to buy one. Another droll touch is the opening in the tiny kitchen's wall that provides a glimpse of nothing more fascinating than a metal shelf holding industrial-sized spice tins. Sure, it would be nice if the lighting were more fetching, the carpeting more plush, and the restrooms weren't the first thing diners encounter when stepping in the front door. But eccentric as the decor may seem, the overall effect is surprisingly attractive and inviting.

The spartan room forms a suitable backdrop for McKenna's food: big portions of simple but generally deftly performed riffs on hearty American staples like pork chops, steaks, and chicken. And when we say "big," it's not just hyperbole. One of the kitchen's appetizers will feed two, a single à la carte salad is enough for four, and there are sure to be leftover entrées. So pace yourself and be willing to share: Most of the food is too good to miss.

Yet the restaurant has lapses that a formally trained culinarian could be expected to avoid. Take the poorly organized, amateurish wine list as a prime example. The one-page document does a disservice both to diners and the kitchen's good works by making it a chore to choose an appropriate wine. Bottles are thrown together without any apparent schema -- reds with whites, foreign with domestic, and distinguished wines with mediocre ones -- and, in some cases, the list doesn't even identify the wine by type. Producer names are mangled (J. Lore for J. Lohr, for instance), vintage years and places of origin generally are omitted, and tasting notes or suggested wine pairings, which could help guide purchases, are almost entirely absent. Knowledgeable imbibers will see that many of the wines are bargain-priced; this is certainly a plus. However, listing some prices "by the glass" and others "by the bottle" is confusing. Surely, a better system can be found for a place where some servers are too young to pour the wine, let alone intelligently discuss it.

We also can't understand why trash is allowed to pile up outside the back door, bordering an otherwise handsome deck and immediately adjacent to a clearly marked entrance from the rear parking lot. We were appalled, on a breezy spring evening, for example, to find empty cardboard boxes from SYSCO food distributors and Uncle Ben's spilling out of the open trash heap and blowing across the gravel parking lot. Not only does this raise some concerns about cleanliness, but it also detracts from the kitchen's mystique.

It's fortunate for diners that both the free-range trash and the addled wine list can be easily remedied, because McKenna's food is usually quite fine. (During our visits, the notable exceptions were the flat-tasting bread: a warm, housemade "loaf" resembling a large sandwich bun, but not nearly as tasty; and a side dish of portobello risotto: bland, mushy, and clearly the reason for the Uncle Ben's cartons scattered around the back door.)

Among the starters, Creamy Brie Fritters were irresistible, both for their inventive composition and their scrumptious blend of sweet and pungent flavors. Like archetypal county-fair food, the fragrant, deep-fried batter was crisp-crusted, meltingly tender, and subtly sweet; but unlike anything served on a midway, it was cosseting nuggets of sleek, melting Brie. A bit of thick cinnamon-peach sauce, like homey fruit butter, rested beneath the fritters; beside them was a tall salad of perfect baby greens in a delicate champagne-dill vinaigrette. The resulting interplay of taste and texture was unusual and surprising, yet entirely and deliciously right.

Mountains of pristine greens tossed in mellow, homemade dressings are also the building blocks of McKenna's à la carte salads. Baby spinach glistened in warm apple-bacon vinaigrette, piqued with crumbs of Gorgonzola, splinters of julienned apple, and fat walnut halves. Delicate mesclun greens sparkled in raspberry-champagne vinaigrette, with toasted pine nuts, plumped cranberries, and two large croutons topped with creamy chèvre. "Some people are shocked that we charge for a salad," volunteered one night's server, as we gaped at our portions, "so we see to it that you get your money's worth."

Although the list of entrées includes a meat-free pasta dish and several fish and seafood options, it seems mainly designed to make carnivores roar with delight. An enormous honey-and-bourbon-cured pork chop, with corn-studded mashed potatoes, was unbelievably tender and juicy. A giant buttermilk-soaked, pan-fried chicken breast, in fragrant rosemary jus, could not have been more succulent and attentively handled. And a boneless strip steak, the size of a modest pot roast, was grilled to a perfect medium-rare, and if the promised garlic flavoring was undetectable, its beefy richness was unmistakable. A generous and well-prepared portion of seared diver's scallops was settled on what seemed like a pound of al dente fettuccine, coated with creamy brandy-tomato sauce and dotted with lobster meat. And an ample filet of Atlantic salmon was also well seasoned and properly done, even if the accompanying portobello risotto and dull mélange of summer vegetables left us unimpressed.

In the realm of desserts, however, the news was less upbeat. While diners might reasonably be expected to crave a small bite of something sweet and light after such enormous meals, the kitchen continues to go all-out with portions that, at this point, seemed overwhelming and treatments that were both heavy and heavy-handed. For example, cored halves of a large, deep-fried Granny Smith apple, crusted in cinnamon and sugar, were vertically layered with vanilla ice cream and surrounded by gooey, caramel-enrobed walnuts, yielding a dish that seemed unfocused and uninteresting. Two massive wedges of bread pudding, drizzled with a neon-pink sauce, were nearly as thick as bricks and unappealingly dense. Even a serving of what we hoped would be relatively straightforward cheesecake -- two large slices, each a dessert in its own right -- was a disappointment, with its greasy filling and bitter walnut crust. Happily for our insistent sweet teeth, lighter and more appealing endings were supplied by the bar: a smallish Godiva Chocolate Martini, with Absolut, Bailey's, and Godiva chocolate liqueur, blended with ice cream and poured over a fat chocolate truffle; and hot coffee spiked with white crème de cacao and Godiva white chocolate liqueur, wearing a topknot of whipped cream.

Despite McKenna's handful of shortcomings, it's clear from our visits that the restaurant is doing more right than wrong. We're guessing that most of the gaffes can be chalked up to inexperience and that somewhere beyond the back-door trash heap, the clumsy wine list, and the tiresome desserts, a restaurant of quality and sophistication is taking shape. Here's hoping Jeff McKenna finds his way there as easily as he found his way back home.

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