The space is urbane, the service attentive at Akron's Big City Chophouse — the newest entry in downtown's "casually upscale" dining scene. And when the day finally arrives when the food is as polished as the vibe, the spot is apt to be a knockout.
For now, though, visitors will have to make do with a handsome room and a team of youthful staffers whose eagerness to please is palpable.
John Kouvas originally launched the chophouse concept in his hometown of Warren in 2004, branching next out to Canton, and finally expanding into Akron in late 2006. Comfortable and classy, the space features soaring ceilings, warm lighting, and an eclectic, contemporary soundtrack. The lovin' begins the moment we pull up to the valet station, where parking is a reasonable $3 at lunch and $4 at dinner. Within seconds, car doors are opened, welcoming words are spoken, and a staffer rushes ahead of us to fling wide the restaurant doors.
Once inside, we are again warmly greeted, this time by a charming hostess, who leads us to a black-linen-draped table, and spirits away our wraps to an unseen coatroom while we peruse the rambling menu.
"Great Steaks, Authentic Italian" is the kitchen's motto, although the influences hardly stop there. At lunch, for instance, there's everything from veal cannelloni to all-American meatloaf and burgers. And while it's true — not to mention surprising — that there are no actual steaks on the midday menu, there are plenty of Asian accents, including a seared-tuna salad, vegetable spring rolls, and this head-scratcher: a "crispy Thai chicken sandwich," stuffed with goat cheese. ("It's amazing!" the menu gushes.)
A twosome of roasted banana peppers, hiding a mother lode of fennel-rich Italian sausage that's smothered beneath a blanket of melted mozzarella, makes a zesty but not-too-fiery stepping-off point. To wipe up every drop of the smooth, mellow marinara, slices of warm, sesame-seeded Italian bread make perfect mops.
Salads, though, are problematic. Heavy on the chopped iceberg and mushy, diced tomatoes, the Chophouse Salad seems too stingy with the gorgonzola and frankly bereft of the promised candied almonds. Worse, while the signature creamy balsamic dressing offers a nicely balanced tang, its brownish cast makes the pale lettuce look tired and unappealing, proving the truth of the old adage, "You eat first with your eyes."
Neither is the "classic" Caesar salad much of a showstopper. Cheers to the big, buttery homemade croutons; jeers to the cheesy, one-note dressing, lacking the punch of lemon or anchovies.
Among the mains, a towering stack of thickly sliced meatloaf (beef, pork, and too many breadcrumbs), with mashed potatoes, mushrooms, and braised escarole, tastes savory but salty. Also oversalted is the shrimp diavolo, a toss of angel-hair pasta, fiery marinara, and a skimpy trio of shrimp; adding to the misery, a pool of pasta water accumulates at the bottom of the dish, and the promised chopped clams, if present, are indiscernible.
But the real crime comes in the guise of the cheeseburger, a potentially delicious Black Angus patty on a deeply grilled bun, piled practically to the rafters with dill pickle slabs, American cheese, lemon-aioli-dressed coleslaw, and skinny hand-cut fries. Its infraction? Ordered medium, it arrives almost mooingly rare.
Our apologetic server is quick to whisk away the offender, returning in relatively short order with an entirely new substitute and confident assurances that this one is done right. Unfortunately, it's also raw in spots. Also heartbreaking: The irresistibly fragrant French fries prove relentlessly greasy.
Those fries hold so much promise, though, that we order them again when we return for dinner, this time as a side for a tender, juicy, 14-ounce New York strip steak — grilled tonight, as ordered, to a perfect medium rare. Unfortunately, the fries are still too greasy. Plus, while we typically adore a well-marbled, medium-rare rib-eye, tonight's pick is so fatty, working through it is like negotiating a minefield: Each forkful must be intently examined before we dare to make a move.
Better bets this evening include a starter of four nicely seasoned, medium-rare lamb chops, and a side of penne bolognese, featuring a bright, well-balanced meat sauce.
Food issues aside, though, the service shines: Tabletops get crumbed regularly, water glasses refilled frequently, and emptied plates cleared quickly by polite and friendly servers. Maybe best of all is our waiter's arrival with our slab of first-rate banana cream pie — its indecently silken custard, beneath a froth of real whipped cream, shot through with planks of perfectly ripe banana. Yum.
It doesn't quite put the kitchen on even footing. But it's a start.