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?
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?