To whatever degree these food columns have talked about restaurants, they generally have focused on reviewing local restaurants. There is no doubt about it - Lakewood has some very good restaurants, which run the gamut from bar burger joints and family friendly kids' menus to carriage trade white table cloths. As much as I love Lakewood and as much as I love the dining possibilities in Lakewood, sometimes, there is a requirement or a desire to travel. When wanderlust hits, it’s time for a culinary field trip.
There are a number of wonderful restaurants, an hour’s drive or so from our home court, in which getting there can be literally half the fun, but upon arrival the food makes it clear that the trip was with a purpose. I’m not abandoning my Lakewood-centric focus, but as a realist, I must admit that a world exists beyond our boundaries. A restaurant which merits a trip for the dining experience is frequently referred to in terms of “destination dining”. These are places where the meal is the centerpiece rather than an afterthought and an activity is sought that fits within the travel parameters of enjoying that restaurant. We all have favorite restaurants which might be a trek, but there is something about them which draws us back and makes the trip worthwhile.
During this time of year, a drive can be a wonderful diversion, as we enjoy all the colors of fall. There's nothing like a trip out to the country in search of Halloween Jack-o-lanterns, late fall apples, or the harvest of fall root vegetables and squash. So get in that Izetta, and head out to enjoy some fall festival, football or other frivolity. While you’re out, plan on including a destination restaurant as part of the experience.
Heading west on Route Two, before getting to the Cedar Point exits, we find Chez Francois in Vermillion (http://www.chezfrancois.com; 440-967- 0630). Chez Francois is a superb continental French restaurant housed in an old brick sail loft on the banks of the Vermillion river. Its wide veranda offers wonderful views of the boats, river and lagoons and on an Indian Summer evening, an excellent chance for some al fresco dinning. The century building, with its huge rough-hewn timbers and warm brick, adds a wonderful atmosphere to those who dine inside. And the food is exquisite, coupled with impeccable service. Reservations are a must, especially on weekends. One can expect classic French cuisine that incorporates the seasonal offerings from local producers. Not surprisingly, many times a diner will find country French ingredients, such as rabbit or game, a part of the offerings. Chef John D’Amico puts together some wonderful wine and food pairing events, my favorite being the Nouveau Beaujolais release dinner in mid-November, though other special wine events are offered throughout the year. Chez Francoise has recently expanded into the second floor of its century building and now provides private event space. The restaurant typically is closed from New Year’s Day until March.
Once you get past the big box retail outlets that have sprung up like toadstools on Route 83 a few miles from I-71 outside of Wooster, you enter a quiet college town (College of Wooster) which is home to the South Market Bistro (http://www.southmarketbistro.com; 330-264-3663). The Bistro makes a wonderful ending for a day of driving through Amish Country, antiquing, or just taking in the dazzling fall colors. Being located in a college town, there is also ample opportunity to enjoy what the College of Wooster has to offer, perhaps a football game, a soccer match, or a concert by one of the many groups that use the College’s facilities. The Bistro menu demonstrates a commitment to sustainable agriculture, echoing the training that Chefs Michael Mariola and Michael Ollier received while working with Parker Bosley in his New American Bistro in Ohio City. The menu changes as the availablity of produce goes through its seasonal cycles. Local farmers provide much of the produce served in the restored century-old building that the restaurant shares with a pottery studio that, by coincidence, makes the hand-crafted tableware used at South Market. The ingredients used in the kitchen’s inventive and excellent preparations are frequently from neighboring producers, such as the Killbuck Mushroom Farm. Organic and natural ingredients are the order of the day, with freshness being the key. The restaurant offers very attentive sevice, coupled with an American Bistro menu, in a casual setting.
Neither Chez Francoise nor South Market Bistro are inexpensive. Chez Francoise’s appetizers generally are generally in the $7-12 range, with entrees ranging from the mid 20’s to 30’s. The Bistro is somewhat less expensive, with appetizers under $10.00 and entrees under $30.00. They are both what should be considered “special occasion” restaurants, but that is the case with most destination dining establishments. Both are more than worth the drive from our normal boundaries and when coupled with a fall field trip, make for a very delightful culinary excursion.