If Cincinnati is to live up to its nickname of “the Paris of the Midwest,” then restaurants like Royce—recently opened in The Foundry development across from Fountain Square—are essential. Does it get any more blissfully Parisian than enjoying a glass of wine and pâté de foie gras while watching the city scurry by from your patio table? Not on this side of the Atlantic.
The restaurant is the latest Cincinnati concept from Terry Raley’s Amaranth Hospitality Group, which also owns PearlStar in Over-the-Rhine. It’s a deeply personal project for Raley, who named the place for his grandfather. According to the restaurant’s website, Royce was a steelworker who used to slurp oysters and whip up “pork rillettes” after a hard day’s work. This marriage of the down to earth and sublime seems to be the restaurant’s raison d’etre and, for the most part, it does provide a humbly exquisite dining experience.
The space is a testament to this. Sleekly minimal, the decor doesn’t shout. Rather, the eye is drawn to the long, open kitchen (helmed by Chef de Cuisine Myles Klapatch) along the rear wall, the massive raw bar at the front of the restaurant, and the city’s spectacle beyond the windows. In keeping with this theme, the dishes (and prices) range from humble to regal. You can get a burger and fries for $18 or a raw seafood tower fit for Versailles for $145.
Royce’s menu delves into the French deep cuts, from sweetbreads to grilled duck hearts to sauteed skate. It starts, though, with a wide selection of pâtés, legumes, cured meats, and cheeses which can be ordered à la carte or as part of a larger charcuterie board. The menu lists sources for the meats and cheeses, most coming from the tri-state. The fatty, silky Tennshootoe ham, for example, hails from Indiana, while the Wagyu Bresaola comes from Ohio. It’s refreshing to see Royce’s commitment to charcuterie, a word that is too often used to gussy up what amounts to a glorified deli tray.
It pairs exceptionally well with Royce’s extensive, heavily French wine list. In fact, most of Royce’s hefty drink menu is also French, loaded with French beers on tap and cocktails with names like the Claude Monet. The knowledgeable service staff, including an in-house sommelier, are happy to help you pick the perfect pairing. One thing to keep in mind as you peruse the menu: diners are encouraged to order all courses at once, with the staff determining the order of the meal. Though with courses this good, I suppose I can sacrifice a little prandial autonomy.
For a classic—though often misunderstood—bite straight out of a French country kitchen, it’s hard to top the sauteed sweetbreads appetizer. Sweetbreads, a euphemism for organ meat from calf or lamb (usually the thymus gland and pancreas), are often seen as the white tablecloth version of Fear Factor fare. Sign me up. Served with mushrooms and a red pepper velouté (a sauce that literally means “velvety” in French), this delicate dish is proof that the restaurant takes French food seriously.
The same can be said of the grilled duck hearts. The olive-sized hearts (slightly gamy, slightly chewy) eat like peppery sausages, with a lemony pesto-like pistou sauce cutting into the fatty flavor. It’s the kind of unique bite this city needs more of. It’s a bold move to lead off with hearts and a pancreas, but it’s one that I hope will pay off.
The produce and fish strike a perfect harmony in the skate wing entrée. With the looks of a small stingray, it doesn’t exactly whet the appetite when seen through a pair of scuba goggles. Fileted and sauteed to a delicate brown, though, it looks and tastes like flaky goodness. The dish is served with a red romesco sauce (a Spanish tomato-based sauce meant to go with seafood), squash, and a rich brown eggplant puree allowing acidic and oily flavors to meld with the buttery taste of the skate.
For a more familiar French dish, you can’t go wrong with the steak frites. The best iteration of the dish I’ve had in Cincinnati, the hangar steak is soft and juicy, so much so that the steak knife is hardly necessary. The topping of tarragon butter only enhances the softness of the steak. Accompanied by soft-on-the-inside-crispy-on-the-outside fries, it’s a simple entrée, which makes its richness all the more surprising. In true French fashion, nearly every dish I ordered came with some vibrant yet restrained sauce, with inspiration taken from seemingly all corners of Europe.
Royce’s desserts—made in-house by Pastry Chef Madelinne Wagner—are as classically French as the rest of the menu. The crème brûlée, for example, is given the classic preparation with a crunchy torched sugar coating and tart berries. It’s the largest crème brûlée I’ve had to date, and one of the best. The opera cake, with its toasted chocolate flavor and hint of coffee, is another winner. Where one expects decadence, Wagner brings finesse.
Continental dining has taken a hit in our city recently, with the closure of restaurants like The Mercer, Table, and Restaurant L. Royce occupies that niche authentically and comfortably. Interestingly, it took a team of outsiders to do it: Raley is based out of Nashville; Klapatch recently moved here from Madison, Wisconsin; and Wagner hails from Charleston, South Carolina. It’s exciting to see Cincinnati’s food scene draw talent from across the country. If it’s to keep doing so, restaurants like Royce will be one of the reasons why.
Royce, 501 Vine St., downtown, (513) 721-0888