Pretty little Sarafina doesn't know what she wants to be.

Tipping the Upscale 

Pretty little Sarafina doesn't know what she wants to be.

If you don't tell the kids what "calamari" means, they - may just go for it hook, line, and sinker. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • If you don't tell the kids what "calamari" means, they may just go for it hook, line, and sinker.
The human mind seeks congruence between appearance and reality. That is, if an object looks like a ball, we expect it to bounce; if it looks like a fish, we'll assume it can swim. Our tendency to make judgment calls based on appearance extends to restaurants too. Sit us down in a renovated fast-food joint, hand us a pile of paper napkins, and toss us plastic tubs of creamer for our coffee, and we automatically think "cheap eats." On the other hand, show us a menu with $10 appetizers and $20 entrées, and we inevitably anticipate some sizzle.

So what, then, are we to make of Sarafina's in Medina, a pretty little Italian restaurant that can't quite seem to decide whether it's upscale or down-home? Owned and operated by Mario's International Spas & Hotels (the Medina spa is located next door), this "casual fine dining" spot seems to be of two minds in too many ways.

The duality begins at Sarafina's front door: Trimmed in latticework and edged in a double row of twinkling white mini-lights, the serene white exterior looks upscale and inviting -- especially when viewed from a car passing by at 35 miles an hour. Pull into the parking lot, though, and the first words out of your passengers' mouths may well be: "Hey! This used to be a Red Barn!" Nothing wrong with that. But like discovering Paris Hilton pawing through the racks at Wal-Mart, it is sort of incongruous.

(Note to younger readers: Known for their Barn Buster burgers and fried chicken, Red Barns once dotted the countryside. Now, all that remains of this almost-forgotten chain is their sturdy, barn-like edifices, which survive mainly as Chinese restaurants, dry cleaners, and transmission shops. Alter them as you will; the characteristic shape of the underlying Red Barn can never be entirely disguised.)

Step inside, and Sarafina's tidy interior makes a similarly smart first impression, with its white stucco walls, crocheted café curtains, and tiny halogen pendant lights suspended over the cloth-draped, paper-topped tables. An innocuous blend of Sinatra, Italian opera, and big-band music plays softly in the background; a sleek, well-stocked bar snuggles into one corner; and oil lamps, crafted from straw-covered Chianti bottles, make clever props for the small wine lists waiting at each table. It all seems so classy -- at least, until you notice the paper napkins! Then, your increasingly jaundiced eye is apt to turn to the dangling bunches of plastic grapes and the Lillian Vernonesque wall art; meanwhile, your hindquarters will be noting the uncomfortable faux-bentwood chairs, with tiny seats more suited to a 10-minute stay at an ice-cream parlor than a gracious two-hour dinner. Oh, and about those sweet little oil lamps? Don't expect any actual light: Their wicks stop well short of the oil, and a Saturday-night waiter actually laughed when we asked him to light ours.

Still, Executive Chef Mark Hoover's dinner menu of mostly Northern Italian standards contains a tasty-sounding assortment of salads, pastas, pizzas, and entrées such as chicken Parmesan, veal saltimbocca, and grilled salmon. Hoover, whose résumé includes stints at Bucci's in Berea, the Medina Country Club, and Westlake's M Bistro, is clearly not looking to break new culinary ground; still, he adds gastronomic breadth to the menu with frequent specials starring lamb, duck, and seafood. After all, with entrée prices reaching $21, and a simple side salad tacking on an additional three bucks, diners aren't out of line in expecting a little sensory pizzazz.

Often, that's what they get. Consider, for instance, a large, luscious soft-shelled crab -- a Thursday-night special -- rubbed with a cayenne "breading" and served on buttery mashed potatoes, ringed with a savory, pancetta-spiked Chardonnay reduction. Delicious! Then there was the fine, firm ravioli, stuffed almost to bursting with ricotta cheese and bits of lobster, slicked with a refreshingly refined lobster cream sauce, and finished with three large pieces of succulent claw meat. Also delightful, although not without a soupçon of irony: While the menu calls the pasta "our chef's special creation," Hoover cheerfully admits that the ravioli is purchased from Gallucci's!

Three pan-seared scallops topped with a bright red-pepper coulis -- a starter -- had been done up right too, so they were moist, sweet, and barely opaque, although a topknot of not-so-crispy onion straws didn't add much in the way of zip. And side salads -- a fairly routine mixed-greens salad, tossed in a bit too much balsamic vinaigrette, and a decent rendition of Caesar salad, elevated by cayenne-piqued croutons -- seemed crisp and fresh, if fairly routine; meantime, thick, warm slabs of Orlando's Italian bread, with piped florets of seasoned butter (garlic and roasted red pepper), made tasteful accompaniments.

But that was Thursday. Three days later, on a stormy Saturday night when Hoover was reportedly alone in the kitchen, careless preparation marred several of the dishes. For instance, Pasta Mario (a toss of thin spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, shrimp, spinach, and roasted tomato) lost points for both its overdone pasta and its overcooked shrimp; equally annoying, the pasta hadn't been thoroughly drained, and the excess water made the dish taste bland and, well, watery. Similarly, the breading on an otherwise tasty portion of chicken Parmesan was partially scorched; and again, the side serving of fettuccine was disappointingly flaccid.

A thin-crusted pizza, topped with mushrooms and a tri-colored toss of chopped peppers, had been handled more thoughtfully, arriving at the table mildly seasoned, completely greaseless, and fragrant with the sweet aroma of fresh vegetables. And a starter of exceptionally tender deep-fried calamari, with homemade marinara for dipping, was a knockout: Barely embraced in a frangible breading, the pearly white rings had a superbly sweet, almost-nutty flavor. (Hoover says that his secret is soaking the freshly cut squid in soda water prior to cooking.) Points off, though, for the withered, wilting leaf lettuces piled on the side of the plate as decoration.

Freshly brewed after-dinner coffee arrived in glass mugs; unfortunately, the half-and-half was unceremoniously pitched onto the table in little plastic tubs. And how's this for a final head-scratcher? On each visit, dinner for two (two cocktails, a shared app, two salads, two entrées, and a shared dessert) added up to around 70 bucks, not including the tip. At those prices, don't you think the restaurant could afford cloth napkins?

So once more, we wonder what to make of Sarafina's. Is it a laid-back, paper-napkin sort of place with overpriced food? A casually upscale spot with below-par appointments?

Somewhere between those two images, a worthwhile restaurant exists. Let's hope that management can bring it into focus.

More by Elaine T. Cicora

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