On the (sad) state of Cincinnati dining

I once “reviewed” restaurants for an ad-heavy publication that encouraged us to play nice with potential sources of revenue. And so I found ways to side-step undercooked fish and foul pieces of meat (“The fries were incredible!”). If the place was a rancid sty, I’d play up its cozy charm. If the service was lousy, I’d remark that the eatery was “still finding its legs.” If it was really bad, we’d just scrap the review.

This is all to say: I ate a lot of mediocre food in a lot of mediocre restaurants. And I think Cincinnati can do better.

Last night, after months of anticipation, my boyfriend and I ate at the much-hyped Jean-Robert’s Table. It was the final straw. Oh, fancy French restaurant with your wooden French menus and your quirky French bird artwork and your four French stars on Yelp, oh how I wanted to love you. But now that I don’t have to pretend, I’ll say it.

You were just OK.

The escargot lacked the buttery pop I expect from snails, and while the sole was fine, cloaked in a rich truffle beurre blanc and served atop some undercooked carrots and potatoes, it was completely boring. Same goes for the “3 Little Cochon,” pork belly, ribs and tenderloin, all of which tasted vaguely of pig and nothing else. The only standout parts of the meal were the blue cheese mashed potatoes that came with the pork and the bread and butter that came as a reward for sitting down.

Our server seemed disappointed that we didn’t order more, but why spend our savings on blah food? As it was, the bill came in just shy of $100.

When I got paid to review restaurants, people frequently asked me for dining recommendations. They’d seem a little offended when I couldn’t generate a list, as though I was hiding the city’s culinary secrets from them. Truth is, I couldn’t recommend anything, unless they were that rare creature who’d jump at the chance to drop three figures on subpar cuisine. I’ve eaten in other cities, other states, other countries. The food is better there.

Let me interrupt my rant for a minute to contradict myself. There is one place I’d recommend to anyone who isn’t a vegetarian — Jeff Ruby’s. Any of his restaurants, in fact. Sure, there’s a cheesy where-to-take-your-prostitute vibe at the Senor Ruby steakhouses, but the service is impeccable and the filets heavenly. The guy knows meat. While I’m being nice, I’ll also recommend the fat club sandwiches at O’Malley’s in the Alley, the smoked wings at Knockback Nat’s, the cheese plate at Bouquet and the eggs benedict at Virgil’s. Oh, and the sliders at the Palm Court in the Hilton. Those bites are damn good.

But that’s what, six recommendations — and most of it bar food? In a city of hundreds of restaurants, the majority of which have served me a meal, I can only point people to six places to blow their cash?

Not acceptable.

Cincinnati seems to celebrate its mediocrity, and it claps really hard when someone — say a Frenchman with a good reputation — inches just above the midline. But that can’t be enough. We can’t say, well, at least I didn’t get food poisoning, hand over our credit card and write some online review raving about a bowl of soup. I think we’ve got to raise our expectations. Be honest when the food sucks. Feel comfortable critiquing a restaurant everyone else raves about. If we just accept what’s in front of us — and yes, I’m speaking metaphorically, because (hint, hint) I’m talking about the whole city now — how can we expect it to improve?

Now that I no longer need to play nice, I’m not going to. Will you join me?

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15 thoughts on “On the (sad) state of Cincinnati dining

  1. The funny thing no one ever talks about Jean-Robert’s Table. The day after their grand opening that everyone was at, no one talked about it. I took that as a sign and haven’t gone. That and the fact I only ever see fossils going in and out of there.
    What is your take on Senate? I’d rather go there twice than the table once.

  2. We were pretty surprised by how old the JR clientele was. Like, there were old people at the table next to us. And they were eating with their parents.
    I’m conflicted about Senate. The first time I went there was the first night it opened — and it was absolutely delicious. Been back a bunch of times, and I just feel like I’m paying 10 bucks for a hot dog with a bunch of random things on it. Plus, everyone’s doing the duck fat/truffle fries thing these days…

  3. We ate at Boca in September and the meal was Phfffft But $$$$$. You are right. I eat at home most nights. There is one thing you will get from dining out in Cincinnati: fat.

  4. Inspired post, Kurtzman. As a former “reviewer” myself for that same ad-heavy pub, I couldn’t find more delight in this. Folks ‘want’ to be impressed, feel they should be impressed, and therefore are. It’s hilarious really.

    And Bouquet, eh. Drinks and cheese was indeed the best part. But I will freakin’ stab someone for a Ruby’s fillet, including those underage hostesses that get in my gd way in their skank shoes.

  5. Nothing better than snails and pig parts. You should audio embed “closing time” and rewrite your urls to hit your french targets on the sub-par quality.

    Yelp reviews can be the boss saying to his employee, “Go home and get on the computer and write a good review” design.

  6. My wife is a vegetarian and if you ask her what the best vegetarian restaurant in Cincinnati is she will tell you Jeff Ruby’s. We’ve eaten at the precint three times and the downtown Ruby’s a half dozen times and they go out of their way to provide a vegetarian with a great meal. In fact, the last time we ate at the Precinct the manager asked me to give him a caller earlier and said they’d be happy to do even more.
    Ruby’s still a class place, but Cincinnati still not A-list for noshing.

  7. I couldn’t agree more since we no longer have the Maisonette to hold the bar high for other restaurants. But I would add the cioppino at Via Vite to your list of recommendations.

  8. I’m a real rice & beans, patty melt guy so the whole haute cuisine thing kinda leaves me reeling. After Ruby proclaimed that his job wasn’t to serve good food but to bring together beautiful women & rich men, I vowed to never set foot in one of his establishments. If he wants to be a pimp, let him.

  9. I would agree that Ruby’s steaks are primo, but the Precinct’s tables are too close together. His restaurant at Belterra was outstanding, both food and service.
    In 21 years living here, I’ve never had a bad meal at The Golden Lamb. Yeh, I know, it’s not in Cincinnati, but I’m just sayin’.
    Ditto for Prima Vista, a real gem in Price Hill. East-siders, if ever you needed an excuse to visit the West Side, this place should be your destination. You want to impress a date, take him or her there. Go after dark, though; the view is more impressive when the city’s lights are up.

  10. Ruby’s is pretty much always on the top of my list for recommendations. Yes, I briefly worked for him. Yeah, he’s kind of a loudmouth (remember the no french wines thing?). His steaks are still amazing.

    I am not blown away by Table. At all. Particularly after I was told the chef wouldn’t be happy that I didn’t eat my 3 Cochons. Their burger is good.

    I do like Senate, but I rarely get the hot dogs. I get the burger. Cincinnati’s sweet spot seem to be the burger.

    And your point about kissing advertisers’ butts– that’s why I don’t take local advertising. Awesome post, as usual.

  11. “… I’ve eaten in other cities, other states, other countries. The food is better there.”

    I disagree. I’ve also eaten at other cities, states and countries and it’s pretty much the same all around –you’ve got your really good places, you’ve got your ok places, you’ve got the so-so and then you’ve got the seriously shitty.

    To suggest that the only decent offerings in Cincinnati consist mostly of bar food is quite an overstatement. It sweepingly discounts the cultural diversity of the area and the many cuisines we have available. And I’ve never had to pay anywhere near three figures for any of them.

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