On the way to dinner in Akron, I passed the facades of Main Street buildings, carefully camouflaged for the movie production to start shooting the next day.
Pulling up in front of Bistro 93, I wondered if the set dressers had been here. What I saw was a spot-on facsimile of weathered, brick-faced neighborhood tavern, cracked steps and a balky front door.
The menus I had been reading were from a restaurant that fit a different profile. Instead of fish fries and beef on weck, they were replete with fresh seafood lavished with tropical accoutrements, like a special of pan-seared mako shark over jicama and Granny Smith slaw with mango vinaigrette, and flat-out esoteric experiments like hibiscus flowers filled with chèvre and basil chiffonade.
Then I saw the flag flying out front, next to the stars and stripes. Its pina colada clued me in that it was a Margaritaville ensign. I was in the right place after all.
Bistro 93 is a mom-and-pop shop run by veteran restaurant workers Jennifer Carlsen and William Smith. In three decades of life together, they have worked at Alex’s Place in Batavia, and Orazio’s in Clarence. The Akron restaurant, near the eastern terminus of the Clarence bicycle path, is their first chance to make a restaurant according to their own style.
The building is an aging tavern. Front and side doors don’t shut easily, but the bathrooms are new and clean. The television over the bar was tuned to food shows. The patio was fetching. Abundant fresh flowers kept the tropical vibe going, along with basil plants Smith pinches off fresh to order.
When the food started arriving, my décor quibbles were swept away by a tsunami of flavor. Hibiscus flowers ($10/4) have a sweet-sour soul, reminding me of lemon-cranberry, and these one-bite treats added salty umami from goat cheese and the herbal perfume of just-picked basil.
Duck wontons ($12/5) were a luscious treat, stuffed with duck bacon, corn, bell pepper and cream cheese, enhanced with a sauce of orange juice and nutty toasted sesame oil. Scallops on corn ($12 small) offered plump seared mollusks on gently truffled creamed corn, finished with pistachio-sage butter. It was a pleasant dish that could be remarkable with fresh local corn, later in the season.
“Island sauce” on chicken wings ($10) means a generously applied spicy-sweet glaze shot through with diced mango. The wings were coated for extra crunch and held the sauce well, for a diverting, rousingly fruity wing spin that would’ve been even better if the mango were fully ripe. The same holds for mango aioli under fried crab-stuffed shrimp ($12/4), which ended too sweet for me.
Salads, sandwiches and burgers round out the menu, including a vegetarian burger ($10). A toasted cheese sandwich of roasted red peppers, olive tapenade, goat cheese, provolone and sliced tomato ($10) provided a well-grounded Mediterranean flavor profile. It came with more fries, and a crimson pickle – a housemade Hawaiian Punch pickle, intriguingly straddling sweet and sour, salty and fruity.
Agreeable soups included a soothingly creamy red pepper smoked Gouda bisque, and a peppery seafood bisque loaded with potatoes, corn, clams and baby shrimpettes.
Prime rib ($20, “junior”), ordered medium rare, came out more like medium, but the beef was still tender enough to cut with a butter knife. House-cut fries were well-executed and dusted with pink Himalayan salt.
More middle-of the-road fare included baby back ribs ($12/$20), whose preparation style Smith credited to the original Alex’s owner, for whom he worked decades ago. Of four sauces I chose strawberry barbecue, and was delighted by the contrast of crunchy caramelized exterior to supple pork, tender but not falling apart, with a berry-backed, slightly spicy glaze. Coleslaw had pineapple kick.
Another hit reminded me of Smith’s decade at Orazio’s, the summer seafood pasta ($25). This Italianesque saute, served over angel hair pasta, is the most expensive dish on the menu except twin lobster tails ($30). But for your money you get a boatload of fat scallops, thumb-sized shrimp, mussels and clams. They’re all simmered briefly in garlicky wine with fresh chopped tomatoes and more of that patio basil, for an intensely aromatic song of the sea.
[Look back: Last week's review on Villa Coffee House in Lewiston]
Carlsen makes the pies ($6), including a pina colada number with pineapple and coconut in a Cool Whip-like matrix. Elderberry pie, using East Pembroke elderberries, was coming, she said.
This is one of those places where the owners’ personalities are ingredients in their success. Watch Carlsen work the room, banter, pitch dishes, hustle plates and stop to tell stories, and her personality might remind you of a cruise director. Guess what: she actually is one – and her next Carnival cruise group sets sail in February.
Take one part tropical flavors with a Jimmy Buffet swagger, one part home-cooking specialties and family restaurant best-hits, and shake. Bistro 93’s owners are proudly sailing under their own ensign. The next time you’re near Akron, consider joining them for an island getaway.
Bistro 93 – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 15 Cedar St., Akron, 442-5363
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Prices: appetizers $8-$12
Atmosphere: buzzy tavern, gusts of laughter
Parking: lot behind building
Wheelchair accessible: from rear lot
Gluten-free: pasta, and many other choices