Surely you’ve noticed the changes in Cincinnati’s culinary landscape, not the least of which is an influx of new eateries in the urban core. Along with them come new culinary heroes to worship and admire. But before Daniel Wright (chef/owner of Senate and Abigail Street) was hot doggin’ it, before the boys at A Tavola were wood-firing it up, before a real Belgian turned us on to a real Belgian waffle—heck, even before Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel helped drive the local restaurant scene back into the public discourse—there was Jimmy Gibson.
Longevity isn’t a friend of the restaurant industry. Kitchen work is physically demanding: long hours standing over a flattop grill, hauling 30-gallon stockpots from the stove to the walk-in (and back), forearms tattooed with scars from burns and knives. Check off mentally and emotionally demanding as well. You and your underpaid cooks need to get each and every one of the 400 plates you’ll serve from a 12-foot line perfectly executed and out in a timely manner to a house full of Saturday night diners; if you don’t, you’re going to hear about it from them and your staff (and the online community wastes no time in spreading the news). Add to this the easily distracted and fickle dining community and...Oooh look! A kimchee and offal bar!
Jimmy Gibson has been here, done this. For 23 years in these parts, and even longer when you factor in Life Before Cincinnati. And with the exception of added wear on his 54-year-old body, he is perhaps better than he’s ever been.
For a portion of those 23 years, Jimmy (because “Jimmy” is what everyone calls him) and I frequently crossed paths. As a former pastry wench, I’ve worked in many restaurant kitchens (though never with him), and there’s some hazy memory of knocking back a few late-night whiskeys at The Cincinnatian’s bar years ago. More recently, Jimmy has done some freelance food styling for this magazine. I know him to be a hard worker and straight up, and I’m sure he expects no less from me. In other words, the relationship is no cause for a big sweaty love letter.
But since we’re talking about his new restaurant—the one with his name above the door (a career first for him)—I’ll jump right in and say this: Nearly all of the dishes to come out of Jimmy Gibson’s kitchen will have you reaching for your camera phone. Many have the ability to render you oblivious to your dinner companions, or inspire you to hijack a forkful from their plate without permission. Then there are those dishes that make you wonder if he is trying too hard. Of the latter, the carpaccio appetizer is a good example.
The thinly sliced and pounded prime beef is over-accessorized with a poached duck egg, mushroom pickles, lardo (cured fatback), and toast. Restraint is a much better friend. The raw meat is delicate, subtly flavored, and sweet with the slightest mineral tang. It’s easy to overpower and best balanced with a little fat, a little punch of acidity, and some textural crunch as a counterpoint to the richness.
Another questionable moment popped up in a selection from the Hot Bowls and Cold Plates portion of the menu. I’m still surprised when local chefs put a tomato salad on a winter menu, even more so now that cooking seasonally has practically become the equivalent of a merit badge. Gibson offers a salad composed of winter fruits and “summer dried tomatoes,” the concentrated flavor of which would be ideal partnered with the salad’s excellent hand-pulled fresh mozzarella. Only the tomatoes weren’t summer or dried. Running out of ingredients happens, and chefs make changes with the result rarely worse for the wear. But a dish like this is only going to be as good as the quality of its parts, and bland cherry tomatoes should be motivation enough not to serve it. That said, I could easily weather the disappointment of these and a couple of other dishes on the menu, because what Jimmy does well, he does really well.
I think it’s safe to say that Jimmy Gibson has opened and/or run more restaurant kitchens than any other local chef currently commanding a stove. He landed here in 1989, hired by Carl Bruggemeier at The Restaurant at The Phoenix. Gibson has since left his mark on approximately 16 restaurants, here (Ciao Baby Cucina, Plaza 600, and Red Steakhouse among them); in Florida; in Washington, D.C.; and in Manhattan. However, it’s his long on-again, off-again relationship with restaurateur Jeff Ruby that has shaped Gibson’s skillset and identity within the local restaurant community. The abbreviated timeline of their 18-year history goes something like this: Spazzi, Ruby’s Italian restaurant in the now beached Waterfront complex; Jeff Ruby’s, both downtown and Louisville; Carlo and Johnny; Tropicana; South Beach Grill; Bootsy’s; and his initial work on the concept of Walnut Street Grill (Gibson parted ways with Ruby right before WSG opened). It was while working at the Waterfront that Gibson met Scott Sheridan, a partner in the Orange Cardinal Group that built and designed JimmyG’s.
It seems instinctive to design a subterranean bar and restaurant to have the aesthetics of a mid-century modern basement, and Sheridan almost pulls off the look with an LED-lit bar and polished black granite floors against redwood paneling, an unfinished cement wall, ball chain curtains, steel arc lamps, and several pieces of Eames-style furniture. Chandeliers, art nouveau finishes, and a handsome contemporary wine room keep the design from being too precious, but there’s a disconnect in flow between the warren of dark rooms, especially upon entering the main dining room. Outfitted in white lacquered bamboo chairs with yellow cushions left over from the establishment’s former life as Wah Mee Chinese restaurant, the effect is jarring, like stepping from Don Draper’s bar into the dining room of your father’s Boca Raton golf club.
Gibson is only mildly concerned about decor and chairs for now, and seems to be pouring his heart and soul into tweaking the menu’s personality. Wood and char-grilled drives it; French, Asian, and Mediterranean flavor it; and humor tells you the kitchen takes itself seriously. (Ingredients for the Yukon gold mashed potatoes are listed as “milk, butter, butter, & butter.”)
Standouts include octopus and chorizo in a sherry reduction, a tiradito (Peruvian-style ceviche) of yellowtail and Bluefin tuna wearing a crown of dried red chili threads, braised Moroccan lamb shank, a gorgeous rose-hued tuna steak with red miso wasabi, and a deconstructed key lime pie with pistachio graham biscotti.
Gibson is adventurous. I know nowhere else in the city that serves raclette, the French cousin to fondue traditionally served with boiled potatoes and a lot of pepper. Gibson allows his to melt over fingerlings and caramelized onions until the edges bubble and crisp, then tops it with a sunny side up egg. Nor have I ever seen a local restaurant wrap a six-ounce filet of rib eye in a seasoned pork fatcap, and crown it with blistered spring onions and shishito peppers. Wow. Wow. Wow. As great as that steak is, his 14-ounce dry aged strip is even better. Rubbed, char-grilled, basted in a combination of clarified butter and duck fat, then fairy dusted with Murray River pink salt—it isn’t just a steak, it’s a way of understanding the world.
To have longevity in the restaurant business is a wonder in of itself. To be able to still passionately claim, as Jimmy Gibson does, that it’s “the closest thing to sex,” is, like Jimmy’s steaks, nothing short of amazing.
JimmyG’s, 435 Elm St., downtown, (513) 621-8555, jimmy-gs.com
Hellishly good steaks and adventurous dishes amid some subterranean swank.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue.