Chef-restaurateur Maureen "Moe" Schneider loves food. That much is clear from the menus she creates for her eponymous Cuyahoga Falls restaurant -- lengthy listings of ambitious delights, heavy on big-gun ingredients like foie gras, black truffles, lobster, and goat cheese. With all that ammo, it's no wonder that Schneider and her culinary team, including executive chef Marc Simak and sous chef Tim Rees, often score big. What is surprising is the number of times they miss the mark with exotic-sounding dishes, filled with fanciful ingredients, that somehow manage to sidestep greatness.
Schneider, 44, opened her restaurant and tavern a little more than four years ago, in a vintage brick building near the banks of the Cuyahoga River, just north of the city's namesake falls. Of course, the environs have changed considerably since 1916, when the structure first went up, and the building now finds itself at the top of a truncated one-way street, jammed between the expressway, a couple of gun shops, and acres of brightly lit car dealerships. It's an odd setting for an upscale restaurant -- one that, among other things, makes finding the place a challenge and parking the car a chore. Then again, there isn't much about this artful spot that doesn't challenge expectations, starting with the hip, youthful ambiance that makes Moe's seem more suited to Cleveland's Warehouse District than to this conservative Akron suburb.
High pressed-tin ceilings, exposed ductwork, walls washed by tightly focused spotlights, and a moody color scheme of copper and metallic green give the layout big-city verve and vivacity. The energetic service cadre is garbed in black; tables are double-draped in white with crisp paper toppers, black cloth napkins, fresh flowers, and black-and-white globular oil lamps, which shimmer like a panoply of pint-sized moons. On the north end of the space, the nonsmoking dining room is dim, noisy, and crowded, with about a dozen tables, a couple of antique washstands, and six framed photos of eggs (first a photo of one egg, then a photo of two eggs, then three . . . you get the picture).
On the south end of the space, and connected by an arched passageway, the smoking-permitted tavern is even dimmer, noisier, and more crowded, with a long, gently curved bar, three booths, five tables, several televisions, and a steady back beat of thumping rock and roll, somehow inaudible from the nearby dining room.
Behind the bar, you may spot a kohl-eyed staffer -- dark lipstick, sultry blond bed-head 'do -- blending designer "Moetinis": boozy bombshells like the Angel Food Cake, with Stoli vanilla, pineapple juice, and Sprite; or the Blue Meanietini, with Stoli raspberry and blue curaçao.
Meanwhile, in the next-door dining room, guests are likely to be hoisting capacious goblets, generously filled with selections from the small, well-chosen wine list, while they wait for the menu -- written on a small, movable blackboard -- to be rolled their way. This is another of Moe's signature eccentricities: While the kitchen's collection of apps, salads, and sandwiches are put down on paper and handed out in the conventional fashion, the list of complex, multi-ingredient entrées is written on blackboards -- a massive wall-mounted model and the smaller portable unit, rolled tableside -- for guests' perusal.
Charmingly whimsical in theory, the reality turns out to be somewhat less adorable. While the mobile menu is a concession to the fact that the stationary version is illegible from many parts of the dining room, reading the rolling unit in the room's dim light ain't no piece of cake either. In fact, servers sometimes have to hoist the rolling blackboard onto dining chairs, surround it with candles -- even read it aloud -- just so diners can decipher their alternatives. Our friendly server tried to downplay the inconvenience this causes by explaining that a traditional menu would be impractical, since Moe's kitchen repertoire changes frequently.
"Have you never heard of word processors?" a frustrated companion finally blurted out, after squinting long and hard at the listings. "I can't believe that typing up a new menu every 10 days would be any more inconvenient for the chef than trying to read this blackboard is for the guests." (Although our server never let on, Schneider says a conventional written menu is available upon request.)
But regardless of the form it takes, Moe's culinary collection is a mouthwatering read. The long list of starters, in fact, is one of the most enticing around, jammed with one sensational-sounding option after another.
There are savory tarts . . . a roasted vegetable cheesecake . . . duck confit . . . and a collection of dumplings, potstickers, and spring rolls, served in a traditional bamboo steamer basket. Golden triangles of deep-fried polenta, topped with a disk of warm, pecan-crusted goat cheese and served on a bed of baby greens, lightly dressed in a fruity lemon-mustard vinaigrette, made us whimper with appreciation. Succulent shrimp, dipped in beer batter and coconut, fried to crisp perfection, and served on a thick orange-and-mustard compote, were savory-sweet and tantalizingly crunchy. And fat homemade pierogi, stuffed with chèvre-laced mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and buried beneath a buttery avalanche of lobster and sautéed shiitakes, were devilishly delicious, even if the dish was marred by bits of crunchy lobster shell that had found their way into the meat-and-mushroom mixture.
However, an appetizer special of phyllo-wrapped, double-cream Brie, sided by a compote of apricots, caramelized shallots, ginger, and basil, somehow never caught fire. Despite the abundance of seductive ingredients, the flavors seemed muted and dull. More Brie might have helped; but as it was, the textures of both the phyllo purse and the compote seemed dry, and the flavors were flat, rather than fresh and interesting.
The same flaw -- flavors that never seemed to live up to their potential -- surfaced again in several of the entrées. There was nothing wrong or unappealing about twin veal medallions and fritter-like "crispy sweetbreads," for example, settled on a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes (allegedly flecked with Parmesan) and drizzled with a scant amount of peppercorn-Dijon demi-glace. It's just that the flavors never took flight, lumbering awkwardly down the runway instead of soaring into the stratosphere, where they rightly belonged.
Likewise, both grilled rack of lamb (one two-bone and one three-bone chop) on dully seasoned walnut-basmati rice and a thick filet mignon, with three lobster-and-Fontinella-spiked croquettes, were merely average, when they could have been (and for the price, should have been) outstanding. Happily, the kitchen hit the bull's-eye with a thick, luscious filet of turbot, topped with a slim slice of seared foie gras, stroked with an aromatic black-truffle compound butter, and served with an apple-onion-and-potato "hash": moist, rich, and indulgent, the dish is what angels must eat at heaven's diners.
Meals begin with warm slices of delicate, homemade white bread and mildly seasoned paprika-and-garlic butter; entrées come with a very good house salad of pristine greens in a subtly sweet vinaigrette, finished with two savory crostini -- one slathered with oven-dried tomato pesto, the other with a creamy blue cheese spread. Diners have the option of substituting a fancier salad for a $4 surcharge, although this hardly seems necessary. During one visit, however, we upgraded to a wedge salad: iceberg lettuce topped with shredded cheddar, crisp pancetta cubes, hard-boiled egg, and a tangy white French dressing. A smart interplay of the rich, the tart, and the savory, it was a tasty, toothsome variation on the theme of greens.
After-dinner alternatives include cups of commendably creamy cappuccino as well as a bracing, orange-flavored chocolate martini. Among sweet endings, though, diners in the know head straight toward the crème brûlée: tremblingly tender, astonishingly light, and with a burnt-sugar crust that shattered like glass beneath a probing spoon. Even in a modern setting like this, it reminded us, there's always room for a classic.
Now, if someone would just talk to Moe about that blackboard.
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