Call a restaurant a “bar and grill” and people know what to expect: burgers and fries, a good beer list, and maybe a few fancier dishes, like pasta or grilled fish. There will be a big TV in the back to keep track of the game, and from a glance at the exterior, you should be able to guess roughly what’s on the menu and how much the meal will cost. In short, you know what you’re getting before you walk in.
Gaslight, which calls itself a bar and grill, is confusing in this respect. On the one hand, it completely conforms to expectations: You will get your burger and fries (for $12, with a little extra for cheese), your plate of fish and chips, plus a good beer from a carefully curated list featuring mostly locals, including a good Gaslight pilsner made by Karrikin. And the big TV is above the bar in the back, just where it should be.
Mysteriously, though, on the same dinner menu, you will also find entrées hovering around the $30 mark—seared scallops, filet mignon—and terms like fregola (just like couscous, but bigger and pearlier than the ordinary stuff) and Lambrusco (a sparkling Italian red wine) reduction. It’s as if someone smooshed a decent bar and grill menu together with one from a fine-dining restaurant. After eating through both sides of the menu, I think Gaslight is going to need to un-smoosh itself, because only one of these establishments is delivering what it should.
First, diners expect different kinds of service at various price points. Gaslight has just the right kind of service for a bar: friendly, chatty, considerate, and not particularly fast. On the other hand, if you are charging $50 for a bottle of good wine and a chiller is promised, the server needs to actually bring the chiller.
This is just one example of the amiable disarray. Parts of orders were totally forgotten (they realized and apologized near the end of the meal), and there was a weird shortage of menus, regardless of how full or empty the restaurant was. None of this is a big deal at a bar and grill, but it is sort of a big deal when the price of an entrée crosses the $25 mark.
Judged as a bar and grill, Gaslight is largely a success. They have really good hand-cut french fries with a nice peppery seasoning and just the right amount of crispy skin and soft interior. The burger is solid if unremarkable. The beer list is excellent and even has IBUs (International Bitterness Units) listed next to each offering, so you can get a sense of how hoppy or mild each will be. The cocktails are good, as well, and not too elaborate. The Kokoro, for instance, is just ginger beer, whiskey, and cardamom syrup and powder, but is refreshing and satisfying. Each has a literary title, named after an author or a book, as a nod to the location’s previous identity as the Clifton branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Some of the pricier fare, which would not be out of place at a gastropub, is also good. The pappardelle, with shiitake mushrooms, mascarpone, and a duck confit, had a sense of lusciousness without overdoing the richness, with grape tomatoes to add an acidic balance. Crab cakes with lime Sriracha were genuinely full of crab, not extended with too much breading, and a slaw of mango, radish, carrot, and raw zucchini woke up the dish and gave it a hint of tropical interest. Summer fare, like the gazpacho, was also solid, with the right balance of tomato, scallions, and cucumber. These are mostly fastballs down the center of the plate, but Gaslight throws them for strikes.
Gaslight has a good grasp on the basics: dishes were well seasoned and reasonably well executed, but the food tends to make a single, fairly obvious impression, and this becomes a problem as we enter a more elevated realm. The risotto, for example, was overwhelmingly cheesy. Whatever delicate flavor the leeks or the wine might have had was buried under Pecorino. The pork tenderloin was a one-two punch of basic flavors—sweet and smoky—with little else coming through. Some of the scallops were so oversalted that they overwhelm the other elements on the plate: the stripe of wine reduction, and the beet fregola, which mainly tasted like creamy pasta and not enough like beets.
One dish sums up both the virtues and limitations of Gaslight: the bread pudding. Gooey, buttery, and sweet already, the dish is covered with an inch-thick layer of browned, melted marshmallows, then drizzled with a caramel sauce—totally satisfying, of course, but totally one-dimensional.
This is the difference between good bar food and a fine dining meal. Good bar food gives you one very satisfying note, and holds it. When you eat a basket of fries, as good as they might be, there are no new dimensions to discover after the first bite. A fancy meal should be like a conversation with an interesting person. You keep discovering things, and there is a hint of mystery that is fun to chase around the plate.
For me, this experience, along with service, is the only thing that justifies a certain price point. At the moment, Gaslight is charging some of those prices but not really providing the experience. With a focus on the familiar things they do well and some trimming of its prices, Gaslight can become what it really should be, and in its heart already is: a nice but not-too-fancy neighborhood joint.
Gaslight Bar & Grill, 351 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, (513) 861-3663