The late-afternoon sunshine was streaming through the tall windows of Akron's DBA on a recent Saturday, bringing no joy to a cranky dining companion. "It's so early," he whined. "Who eats dinner at 5 o'clock?"
That's what happens when you make reservations at this Summit County hot spot less than two weeks in advance: Like us, you'll probably end up dining either early or late.
Such is the draw of Dante Boccuzzi: a Michelin-starred chef, Culinary Institute of America grad, two-time James Beard Foundation Rising Star nominee, and former top toque at New York's award-winning Aureole. Since returning to Northeast Ohio in 2007, the Parma native's string of culinary hits has included the eponymous Dante (originally in Valley View, now in Tremont), the modern-Japanese Ginko (also in Tremont), and the D.C. Pasta Co. in Strongsville.
The nearly one-year-old DBA — short for Dante Boccuzzi Akron — is the most recent addition to the chef's playlist; similar in concept to his Tremont spot, the focus here is on modern-American cuisine.
Accolades aside, ask Boccuzzi for the secret to his success and he'll tell you it's a profound commitment to customer service. "We're very detail-oriented," the chef says. "Our business is based on providing our guests not just great food, but a memorable dining experience. It's something I learned in New York; it's something I think about every step of the way."
That commitment is apparent in everything from the gracious, knowledgeable service to the after-dinner comment cards, which the chef reads daily. He even responds to each one with a personal note.
If delivering an experience is the goal, DBA does the chef proud. While the menu — with its fusion of Asian and Mediterranean influences — is similar to Tremont's Dante, the vibe is far more rollicking.
Settled in the former VegiTerranean space in Akron's stylish Northside Lofts, a sleek condo complex that anchors the city's nascent arts and entertainment district, the intensively remodeled space is a contemporary showpiece, done up in silver, red and black, and boasts extravagant views across the Cuyahoga Valley.
In a nod to Boccuzzi's rock 'n' roll cred (the guitar-playing chef has two CDs to his credit), DBA's menus are printed on album covers, the breadbaskets are made from LPs, and the dimly lit restrooms make you feel like you've wandered backstage at a rock concert. Meanwhile, a moderately loud soundtrack of blues and classic rock thrums in the background.
But if whimsy reigns in design and decor, DBA's food is entirely serious: smartly conceived, uniquely composed and bursting with big flavors.
Broken into three broad categories — starters, pastas and mains — DBA's seasonal dinner menu is a harmonious collaboration between Boccuzzi and his chef de cuisine Torsten Schulz. Ingredients are chosen from a pantry that includes purple potatoes, black garlic, quinoa, faro and Schulz's own microgreens, which he grows in an Akron warehouse.
Many dishes come in two sizes to encourage exploration. But even those that don't — like the signature 21 Vegetable Salad ($10), a labor-intensive tangle of baby greens, microherbs and shaved bits of red cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and more — are generally ample enough to share.
That includes an appetizer portion of buttery Hong Kong-style mussels ($12), a Boccuzzi menu staple since the original Dante. Almost shockingly plump, the melt-in-your-mouth mollusks are bathed in a zesty broth piqued with chile pepper, cilantro, soy and lime. A few flakes of crabmeat make a pretty, if superfluous, garnish.
The kitchen's skill at coaxing out big flavors was spotlighted in a tasting portion of green spaghetti ($6), a handmade pasta tinted with pureed spinach. Tossed with bits of garlic-braised shrimp so sweet we could have sworn it was lobster, the buttery pasta was light yet vibrant. A topping of seasoned panko added an addictively crunchy grace note.
In fact, a serving of organic polenta — usually a showstopper in Boccuzzi's hands — seemed dull in comparison. Even bits of braised veal shank, roasted Brussels sprouts and a rich demi-glace couldn't overcome the polenta's starchy texture.
Assertively flavored yet harmoniously balanced, main courses often get a boost from unique seasonings and creative pairings. Grilled Amish chicken ($24) was probably the best treatment of the ubiquitous barnyard bird we've ever tasted. Fork-tender and supremely juicy, the boneless, crisp-skinned thigh and half breast were accompanied by turmeric-braised cabbage and a portion of mildly sweet "white rice" beans, a high-protein legume related to lentils. Similarly crisp-skinned, white-fleshed grilled branzino ($28) got a flavor infusion from accompaniments of roasted shallots and cremini mushrooms, and bits of fermented black garlic.
Best of all was the succulent Two Preparations of Lamb ($34), a modern update of classic Middle Eastern flavors. Two painstakingly trimmed, double-boned chops were accompanied by three pillowy sun-dried tomato gnocchi; a mound of sturdy braised kale; tender flageolet beans dotted with sliced black olives, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh herbs; and a crisp feuilles de brick "cigar" filled with leg of lamb confit. As a song is more than the sum of its notes, this dish was a synergistic anthem.
And one that we're willing to dine early to enjoy.