When I told a few friends about the concept behind Dear Restaurant & Butchery, with its in-house butcher shop, all of them said, “So it’s like ‘Deer,’ the animal?” The actual concept behind the name, as General Manager Cole Liegel explained to me, is that the restaurant is a kind of love letter from the team to the guests, to Hyde Park, and to Cincinnati. Liegel and his partner, Austin Heidt, who is also a sommelier and director of the wine program, are both Cincinnati natives who left the city to work at prominent establishments around the country, including Thomas Keller’s iconic French Laundry. Now, both of them are back home to share some of what they’ve learned.
And they are not the only talent Cincinnati has gained. My wife, who is an enormous Top Chef fan, immediately recognized Dear’s Executive Chef Brian Young. “He’s the meat guy!” she exclaimed and recalled a famous episode in the Louisville season where he served pork while standing in a hot tub. It was on this show that Young met fellow contestant and Cincinnati chef Caitlin Steininger of Cooking With Caitlin fame. Young, who is a New England native, began spending more time in town, and both of them—now married—are working at Dear. (Steininger is the head pastry chef.)
Occupying the old Teller’s spot on Hyde Park Square, Dear is two establishments in one. Off to one side is a full-service butchery that sells housemade sausages, wine, coffee, sandwiches, and take-and-bake offerings. On the other side is a grand two-story restaurant, beautifully tiled and appointed. Animals, from pigs to Wagyu beef, arrive bi-weekly and are broken down in house, and turned into charcuterie and other cuts that make it into most of Dear’s dishes.
Despite the restaurant’s meat focus, it was a small vegetarian dish—a simple preparation of Jerusalem artichokes—that convinced me that we had a special new restaurant to celebrate. Contrary to what the name suggests, Jerusalem artichokes are native to our region, and will rapidly make themselves at home if introduced into a patch of local soil. You would think that ’chokes would be on every local menu; the only problem is that I, like most people, have never been hugely excited to eat them—until this dish. The tubers are served tender but still faintly crisp, with all of their subtle nutty flavor intact, and complemented by a spicy, beautifully textured dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend. A citrusy labneh yogurt with creamy tahini provides the necessary richness and rounds out the entire dish. Perfection.
The preparation is not reinventing the wheel. But to do something properly, with complete respect for an ingredient and its possibilities, and then to edit so only what’s necessary is left on the plate, this is what makes Dear special. Liegel used the word “rusticity” and that aesthetic is everywhere on display. Everything shows careful technique married to a sense of what makes a dish soulful and satisfying. Although the heart of menu is French and Italian, nothing is really off the table. In fact, several of my favorite dishes at Dear, like the Wagyu beef tartare, which also features a lemony labneh with notes of parsley, mint, and olives, hit a Middle Eastern note.
The menu is small and focused, and even within these offerings Liegel says they “normally change two dishes a week,” along with larger seasonal transformations. But this variability gives me confidence that the restaurant is serious about letting the availability of the best ingredients dictate what comes out. And if the dishes turn out to be as good as the sugo, with its tender gnocchi-like dumplings and deliciously crumbly house-made pork sausage, well, frankly they can serve me whatever they want.
There is a mixture of farmhouse and fine dining in everything that Dear does, from service to the food itself. The lovingly roasted short ribs and carrots come with just a mince of fresh fines herbes from the restaurant’s nearby garden; meanwhile, to top off the vol au vent, the puff pastry is adorned with a beautiful braided pattern that I would not even have the courage to attempt. The salmon is simply but flawlessly cooked and accompanied with a kind of chunky tapenade of Castelvetrano olives and pistachios that works so wonderfully because the elements have been chopped to a precisely uniform size, so that none of the flavors predominate. And the radicchio is perfectly charred to soften the bitterness and harmonize with the rest of the dish.
This salmon was so good that I would take a deep breath and pay $42 for it again. Not all of the prices feel quite right, though, and this is my only concern about this excellent restaurant. The sunchokes are a bargain at $9, the Wagyu tartare about right at $16, but why is a shared dish of fried mushrooms an astonishing $58? Or a fairly modest-sized plate of charcuterie with three meats and a few cheeses and pickles priced at $48? Still, Dear is young and they will straighten this stuff out, and the majority of the prices are fair for the care they are putting into what they do. If you’re looking for a new place to try, make it Dear. It’s a keeper.
Dear Restaurant & Butchery, 2710 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, (513) 321-2710