Round and Round

Can a staid hotel restaurant reinvent itself? Only if its corporate masters buy in.

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There is no local restaurant that commands a better view of Cincinnati than the 360. It is so named because the entire restaurant—atop the 18-floor Radisson Hotel Cincinnati Riverfront in Covington—makes a complete 360-degree rotation every 65 minutes. It is one of many revolving restaurants that were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and one of two in the Cincinnati area (the other, on the 32nd floor of The Millennium Hotel, operates as a reception venue). The view sweeps over the Northern Kentucky hills, the river, and the downtown skyline. It is impressive in the daylight; it is spectacular at night. The 40-year-old building has housed three hotels—Quality Inn and Clarion before the Radisson—and it looks dated in comparison to the evolving riverfront. Like so many Cincinnati residents, I’ve spent years driving by it or gazing at it through the haze of Labor Day fireworks with barely a consideration. But lately, I’ve become obsessed with it. Perhaps, then, this is not so much a review of what the restaurant is as a consideration of what it could be.

It was during research for another article that I discovered that the kitchen of 360 (the restaurant answers to several iterations of its name including “the revolving restaurant”) has been quietly run for the past year by Chef Josh Munchel. Munchel spent nearly eight years under the auspices of Chef David Cook at Daveed’s (until recently, a fixture on Hatch Street in Mt. Adams), where he worked his way up to sous chef. In 2006 he partnered with Chef Yajan Upadhyaya to expand Cumin Modern Indian Café into its current location and new menu as Cumin Indian Fusion. Another gig followed as sous chef at Via Vite until Munchel’s friend—and 360’s manager—Gabriel Deutsch offered him the sous chef position in the revolving restaurant’s kitchen (Deutsch has since relocated to the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza).

Therein lay the primary element that fueled my curiosity. What was a chef with as much street cred as Josh Munchel doing in a kitschy hotel dining room whose reputation for lackluster food outshined its unique perch? Was it just a money gig? Or was Radisson making a commitment to step up its game?

We can’t know for sure, since at press time, Munchel announced he’s decamping for the kitchen at 21c Museum Hotel. But by the look of the menu, Munchel was going for it. Gone are chicken fingers and fries, crab-stuffed mushrooms, prime rib, and Snickers cheesecake. In their place are ingredients and dishes that populate contemporary menus—arugula and roasted beets, truffle aioli, sliders, speck, mahi tacos, fried chickpeas, and more. The menu is still largely anchored by the familiar steaks and seared salmon that play nice with business travellers as well as special occasion diners. Munchel punches them up by providing them with interesting partners—Calasparra rice (a short-grained rice used in paella) with sundried tomatoes, artichokes, and basil to accompany a perfectly roasted half chicken; bourbon-glazed carrots and a pear salad with equally pitch perfect bone-in pork chops—but it becomes evident in some inferior cuts and grades of beef that he’s tethered by corporate oversight and a lean budget.

Nowhere is it more glaring than when the server explains that the chef and the front-of-the-house manager are one in the same. Sure enough, one evening Munchel appears tableside in a button-down shirt and tie inquiring about our meal and assisting a server with clearing plates. In a follow-up phone conversation, he explains that after Deutsch left, the budget demanded that the executive chef and general manager jobs be rolled into one.

That decision explains much about the execution of our three dinners: gnocchi coated in sauce the consistency of school paste; unseasoned, bland quinoa; a rib-eye steak ordered medium rare and left to die at well done; a two-course meal for three people that took two hours to execute. A chef needs to be in the kitchen expediting his menu. A front-of-the-house manager needs to be in the dining room with customers and staff. Munchel admitted he couldn’t give 100 percent equally to both roles. I believe him.

Munchel figures that only about 20 percent of hotel guests dine at the restaurant, largely due to the perception that 360 is a fine dining restaurant. (In all fairness, most hotel guests in any city leave their hotel to dine out.) Due to its exclusive view, much of 360’s business has come from rehearsal dinners and large private parties, although the majority comes from local special occasion diners. The audience it’s missing—which it could easily attract and maintain—is the foodiphile destination diner. It depends on whether the corporate management can commit to and weather the value of the investment.

In part, as a means to counter that too-fancy-for-me perception, Munchel developed an inexpensive flights and bites menu with a dozen Spanish-style tapas dishes, such as tortillita de camarones (thin crispy pancake studded with shrimp), potato croquettes, and the bonkers good Spanish roulette with salbitxada (fried Padron peppers and a dipping sauce consisting of almonds, olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and parsley). Housemade duck prosciutto and fig jam on crostini; marinated olives and artichokes; and flights of seasonal boutique wines, beers, and bourbon add to the creativity and casualness. Even the full menu is not out of reach, with courses priced slightly below most similar menus.

One of the primary drawbacks to a 215-seat room is creating both a sense of liveliness and intimacy. All three nights we dined, the room felt empty (including a Saturday), exaggerating the desolation and creating a funereal vibe despite the good food and stunning panorama. Service staff—friendly, fiercely loyal to the dishes they prefer for recommendations, and not entirely sure what some of the ingredients are or how to pronounce them—seem to be assigned to lettered quadrants of the room and are distributed customers by the hostess accordingly. Some of the isolation issues could be solved by seating customers closer together and switching up servers, or by creating intimacy with different table arrangements or even semi-transparent panels that block views into the central service area.   

The dated blue and beige textiles and plant dividers add to the restaurant’s faded glory. Still, 360 has the potential to become a popular destination for locals, as well as a tourist attraction. Why not capture a piece of the tourism industry Cincinnati is building? Two of my guests—one visiting from Chicago—had never been in a restaurant that revolved, and were awed by the illuminated vision of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that encircled us. With the creative small plates and flights menu available, another dinner guest committed to frequent Friday happy hours.

But updated textiles and light fixtures aren’t enough. Whoever replaces Munchel in the kitchen here, I hope the management allows him or her to don a chef coat full time and take complete creative control of the kitchen. Provide quality ingredients—if a steak needs to be on the menu, allow the chef to purchase well-marbled prime instead of choice. Let that chef have a kitchen staff that works as a team to execute a unified vision. Give him a chance to throw it down. And then support him and the rest of the staff by creating a buzz. And we will come. 

360, 668 W. Fifth St., Covington, (859) 491-5300

Prices
Tapas menu $3–$15, full menu $6–$35

Atmosphere
Unparalleled view of the city, a dining room deserving of new threads, and a menu with promise.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue.

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