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Rookie of the Year 

Growing pains aside, Kent's Bistro on Main is ready for the big leagues.

Blue-cheese-encrusted strip steak: Sexy as hell. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Blue-cheese-encrusted strip steak: Sexy as hell.
Psst -- hey, you . . . Wanna own a restaurant? C'mon, there's nothin' to it. All you need is Alain Ducasse's artistry, the promotional savvy of Emeril Lagasse, and Thomas Keller's deep pockets. Degrees in psychology, business management, and interior design are preferred, but not mandatory, along with five years' experience as a general contractor. And, oh yeah, the ability to forecast the future will also be a help.

Alternatively, you could settle for doing what most first-timers do: Work like hell, learn from your mistakes, and try to get the most possible mileage out of whatever resources you have at your disposal.

All of which is our way of saying that we won't fret over the unpaved parking lot at Kent's eight-month-old Bistro on Main or despair over the gloomy view of a nearby auto dealership from its unshuttered dining-room windows. Instead, we'll appreciate the fact that chef and first-time restaurant owner Aaron Ruggles and his family (including wife and general manager Jeniffer, brother and sous-chef Jason, and other brother and floor manager Nathan) are still on their learning curve, and that improvements will come in due time.

It's not as if they don't merit props already for turning the musty old Missimi's (a barracks-like pizza-and-pasta palace for at least five decades) into a welcoming, upscale salon. From its new brick facade and smart black awnings to the Pottery Barn-style painted walls, white moldings, and black-framed mirrors, the restaurant's new vibe is tidy, youthful, and relaxed. Crisply framed nature photos accent the dining room's ochre walls, cobalt-blue oil lamps twinkle on the white-paper-topped tables, and spare fabric swags stretch across the window frames. The long rectangular room could use more flattering lighting, more comfortable chairs, and a few potted palms in the corners to soften the hard edges, but we can understand why such grace notes might have to wait. And anyway, the stemware is light and capacious, the hefty flatware feels important, and salt and pepper sit at the ready in trendy little brushed-aluminum shakers.

(It's worth noting that the adjacent lounge, with a handful of tables tucked into a cozy, dimly lit nook, feels significantly more intimate than the open dining room. But if you plan to while away some time there with a stiff pre-dinner martini, heads up: A Chippewa Lake basement is probably drier than was our up-with-olives Bombay Sapphire version, on a recent Saturday night.)

While this is their first go-round as principals, the brothers have chalked up plenty of relevant experience. Aaron Ruggles, the bistro's founder and executive chef, worked in the kitchen at the Inn at Turner's Mill under talented chef Tom Ward and then assisted Ward with several subsequent projects before heading off to the West Coast, where he worked his way up to GM in a corporate restaurant chain. And sous-chef Jason Ruggles is a veteran of the kitchens at Akron's Piatto and Moreland Hills' Ward's Inn. Together, family members did everything from laying tile to creating the wine list, while Aaron concentrated on his ambitious menu of hearty Mediterranean and American fare, with dishes ranging from frito misto and black-pepper fettuccine to zesty N'Awlins-spiced shrimp and blue-cheese-crusted New York strip steak.

Presentation is handsome, with fresh herbs and naturally colorful veggies lending plenty of eye appeal. Portions are generous: Count on taking home a doggie bag. And entrées are full-meal deals, served with thick slices of tender herbed ciabatta from California's La Brea Bakery; a juicy, coarsely chopped tomato-and-olive "Tuscan tapenade" (really more like bruschetta topping); and a choice of either a mixed-greens salad, topped with candied pecan bits (the Bistro Salad), or torn hearts of romaine, garnished with shredded parmesan, toasted bread crumbs, and creamy homemade dressing (the not-entirely-accurately-named Classic Caesar).

At its best, the kitchen produces masculine dishes that fairly erupt with potent flavors. Consider the lush, peppery starter of five spicy, N'Awlins-style shrimp, for instance, slathered with a mahogany-colored Anchor Steam-and-butter sauce and served with a squeezable, char-grilled lemon half for contrapuntal piquancy; still-moist spears of gently grilled ciabatta helped us sop up every saucy drop. Team Ruggles also pulled out all the stops for an entrée of firm, flavorful New York strip steak, layered with fat crumbles of blue cheese, ringed with sweet-smoky oven-roasted Roma-tomato halves, and anchored by a deliciously in-your-face assault of buttery garlic mashed potatoes dotted with melting chunks of chèvre and sided with crunchy lengths of scallions. Zen-like and refined? Hardly. Sexy as hell? You betcha.

While menu prices reach levels seldom found in Portage County (with entrées roaming the $14-to-$29 range), high-end ingredients and painstaking preparation help justify the cost. Fish and seafood (other than shrimp) are fresh, not frozen; sauces and dressings are prepared in-house; and meats and fresh veggies are fired à la minute. Throw in a bottle of wine from the moderately priced international wine list (an ever-changing amalgam of fairly priced workhorses like Ravenswood's Vintner's Blend and obscure bargains from Chile, Spain, and South Africa), and a couple of penny-pinchers can get by for $60 or so; on the other hand, for high rollers with a taste for beef tenderloin and sea bass, the check could easily top the $100 mark. (At lunch, entrée prices drop to $10 to $14, and a dozen or so salads and sandwiches, most priced at less than $10, join the lineup.)

Despite its considerable energy and verve, though, the kitchen seemed to encounter some technical difficulties on the nights that we dined there. Take a starter of three bite-sized day-boat scallops, for example, pan-seared and settled around a slender slice of portobello-and-Brie strudel, in a dollop of mushroom cream sauce. Slightly overdone and fiercely salty, they were a major disappointment; even the crisp-edged strudel, full of earthy, well-balanced flavors, and the mushroom sauce, which was delicate and light, couldn't quite save this dish. (Ruggles says he is trying to find a cure for the scallops' salinity problem.)

The spice rub on a pair of thick Tuscan pork chops was also overly salty, making the chops taste almost as if they had been cured in brine; here, well-prepared accompaniments of creamy mushroom risotto and tart shallot "marmalade" helped offset the burn. Off-kilter seasonings surfaced yet again in an entrée of gently seared sea bass on a queen-sized mattress of shrimp risotto, all in a pool of satiny shrimp-and-chive bisque. This time, all the seasonings seemed concentrated in the risotto and bisque, while the naturally subtle sea bass just sort of faded into the background. And finally, there was the special -- bland "herb-encrusted" halibut (scarcely roused by some finely diced herbs and a hint of smoked-salmon butter). Instead of being the star of the show, the ho-hum halibut played second fiddle to well-seasoned, roasted fingerling potatoes, colorful Asian long beans, and jade-green artichoke hearts so precisely trimmed they looked as if they had just come off a lathe.

Diners who wisely decide to stick around for dessert will be sweetly rewarded. Pastry chef Jill Ramseier turns out some first-rate goodies, including an exemplary whipped-cream-topped double-chocolate pot de crème -- sleek and substantial, its pure semi-sweet-chocolate buzz unadulterated by too much sugar -- and a bittersweet Saturday-night special of ultra-moist chocolate stout cake, layered in a broad-bottomed cappuccino cup with rich vanilla gelato, then splashed with espresso. We spooned, sipped, and repeated, until every bit of it was safely tucked away beneath our waistbands.

So yeah, the young Bistro on Main still has room for improvement -- both in the physical space and on the culinary front. But beneath the occasional omissions and oversights, diners can clearly discern the outlines of a satisfying upscale bistro. Now, it's up to the owners to continue shaping and polishing their little restaurant into the gem it wants to be.

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