If the notion of dinner in downtown Akron leaves you shaking in your Choos, your palate pummeled by dark recollections of paprikash, sauerkraut balls, and kidney-bean salad consumed amid a crowd of brawny tire-makers, take heart: There's a smart new player in town by the name of Crave. And if its youthful ambiance, artful decor, and ambitious menu aren't enough to erase the painful memories, then therapy would seem your only recourse.
Of course, dining at Crave would be a lot easier on the wallet than a series of psych sessions. It's also considerably more entertaining, what with the lively vibe, busy bar scene, and lengthy menu of reasonably priced, globally accented fare. In fact, since Crave's opening last September, food fans of every feather have been taking the cure: Recent sightings, for instance, have included clean-cut teens in formal attire, bearded laborers in plaid flannel shirts, and miniskirted bachelorettes wobbling around the dining room on mile-high stilettos, among other less spectacular species.
The "come as you are" mentality is entirely intentional, it turns out, and hosting a wildly eclectic clientele is just what chef-owners Deanna Akers and Aaron Hervey had in mind when they launched their 200-seat spot inside the historic Castle Hall building, near the Akron Art Museum. Want to chill at their granite-topped bar with a midday Bud and a BLT? They'll be happy to have you. Feel like snuggling with your honey over duck confit and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot? The pleasure is all theirs.
Of course, a menu this diverse presents its share of technical challenges, and not surprisingly, not every dish hits the mark. (More about that later.) But if the food doesn't always deliver the expected punch, the decor is an unqualified knockout, as urbane as any in the region. Blond wood floors, black tabletops, gauzy curtains, and bold modern art stand out against walls painted in tasty shades of mango, mushroom, pumpkin, and paprika. And for the pièce de resistance, clusters of mouth-blown glass pendant lamps imported from Crete dapple the rooms with a golden glow, making everyone -- even the guy in the flannel -- look at least a little cool and mysterious.
Akers and Hervey's expansive menu -- 13 starters and noshes, five oversized salads, nine sandwiches, nine entrées, and eight desserts -- likewise serves up a heaping helping of whimsy, in the form of exotic flavor possibilities, creative couplings, and unexpected seasonings and garnishes. They set the bar high, and not every dish clears it. But when one does -- like the internationally minded fried Sicilian olives, for example, stuffed with chorizo and goat cheese, and served on a pool of thick, spicy tomato sauce, with a side of saffron aïoli -- the results are a delight.
Still, a diner can't entirely escape the sense that sometimes the chefs are more about selling the sizzle than serving the steak; and it's an impression fostered primarily by their lengthy, detailed menu descriptions, containing laundry lists of savory-sounding seasonings that often escape detection.
Take the crab-cake starter, for instance, with what the menu describes as garnishes of "tequila and cilantro aïoli" and "gazpacho relish." The wow! factor should be through the roof, but sadly, the reality was considerably more mundane. While the Jonah-crab cakes themselves were crisp-edged and golden, the aïoli flavors were subtle to a fault, with no discernible hint of either tequila or cilantro; and as for the toss of chopped onion, cucumber, and tomato on top, calling it "gazpacho relish" seemed vaguely hyperbolic. "Needs a squirt of lemon" was a companion's telling summation.
Similarly, the kitchen's pimped-out version of the classic BLT made for better reading than eating. Nothing wrong with the B, the L, or the T; and while the Texas toast that held them all together was notably dry, a sheer slice of housemade mozzarella made for a creamy addendum. But the promised fried onions seemed MIA, and a niggardly amount of what should have been sassy "tapenade aïoli" proved utterly indistinguishable. The result was an OK sandwich, but a far cry from the sexy little palate-pleaser we had been primed to devour.
A modest-sized filet of char-grilled halibut, glazed with an ultralight combo of vanilla and rum, came closer to scoring. On the downside, the fish was slightly overcooked; on the upside, the slight sweetness of the glaze provided a tasty distraction. And while an accompanying "mango-jalapeño salsa" was all fruit and no fire, its juicy essence contributed a big hit of necessary moisture.
In fact, the slippage between expectations and reality showed up in nearly every dish we sampled. This doesn't mean the creations weren't good; they just never quite seemed to live up to their billing. (Of course, the simple cure for all this would be to edit the menu descriptions, so only the most obvious seasonings are touted.) Among starters, for instance, an ample slab of creamy goat cheese, baked in smoked tomato sauce and served with tender triangles of warm ciabatta bread, made for a hearty, satisfying first course, even if we couldn't taste the bread's promised garlic. A huge Caesar salad, with shaved Asiago, crunchy fried anchovies, and buttery croutons, was a hit, even if we couldn't detect the promised drizzle of Italian white truffle oil. And an equally enormous salad of baby greens, piqued with generous amounts of duck confit, sun-dried cherries, toasted pine nuts, and peppered goat cheese, burst with rich, harmonious flavors, even if we never would have guessed that, per its description, the mild, well-balanced vinaigrette contained either honey or thyme. (FYI, unless you're ordering a salad as an entrée, plan on sharing. But do note: While it isn't mentioned on the menu, there's a $2 plate fee for splitting.)
Then there was the smoked-Gouda mac and cheese, which arrived at the table so soupy that we had to ask for a spoon. The boneless, skinless chicken filet on top was tender and toothsome, although it seemed merely pan-seared, not "blackened," and we can't vow that the promised "roasted garlic butter" was actually present. The single element that finally brought the dish to its feet, though, was a drizzle of fiery sriracha sauce ringing the plate rim: Mixed into the pasta, it released a flash of high-voltage flavor that seemed to illuminate the whole table. The delicious irony? The vibrant chile sauce was the one seasoning not listed on the menu!
Crave's hospitality, too, could use some finessing. For one thing, the presence of a coatroom seemed to be a closely guarded secret: Only after we asked -- twice -- was a hostess willing to check our heavy winter outerwear. And once we were seated, pacing proved unpredictable: On a Thursday, for instance, there was a 15-minute lag between starters and salads; the following Saturday, courses tumbled onto the table one atop the other, even before the previous ones had been cleared away.
But service may have reached its nadir when our waitress, in describing the evening's specials, cautioned us that the soup du jour's sour-cream garnish would be green -- because of herbs, of course, not mold. "Do you really have to tell diners that?" we asked incredulously. "Oh, I'm just trying to head off trouble" was her nonchalant reply.
Gripes aside, Crave remains a worthwhile addition to the often-sleepy Rubber City dining scene; with its urbane environs, modest prices, and occasion-spanning menu, it deserves to keep drawing a crowd. Just take the sassy-sounding menu with, ahem, a grain of salt. And if you order the soup, don't go looking for trouble.
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