The local culinary landscape is littered with Jean-Robert de Cavel’s progeny, begat in the kitchens of Maisonette, Pigall’s, Pho Paris, Greenup Café, Lavomatic, and JeanRo Bistro. Had de Cavel chosen to depart Cincinnati after his public dissolution from former partners Martin and Marilyn Wade, we would have (eventually) been comforted in knowing that his magical synthesis of detailed artistry, practicality, and skill lives on in many of Cincinnati’s best restaurants. That he chose to remain here and open a new spot downtown ensures that another generation of talented cooks and service staff will be nurtured and released into the community. In the meantime, in his new dining room, dressed in its best bistro chic—ivory linen, vintage hardwood flooring, handsome mahogany bar, exposed brick walls lined with Leslie Shiels’s vibrant, quirky “Bird Heads” paintings—we can take a culinary tour de France without going farther than Vine Street.
From most tables, de Cavel and his Chef de Cuisine Robert Collins are visible in the open kitchen, standing shoulder to shoulder over the line, de Cavel’s head bowed in concentration, his face obscured by his distinctive nimbus of hair. A talented corps of kitchen and waitstaff execute and deliver plates of regional French specialties and seasonal features. Sweetbreads seared in duck fat perch atop a round of blue cheese tartlet glazed with an exquisite port sauce. Slices of smoked salmon blanket cold ratatouille (at lunch) or potatoes and goat cheese (at dinner), both anointed with frisée and a poached egg. Hefty, two-fisted burgers layered with blue cheese and caramelized onions and jacketed in brioche are as popular in the consistently crowded dining room as the elegant, perfectly seasoned meats and fish napping in their respective sauces: a light vinegar sauce with skate wing and creamy spinach; cider sage with the chicken breast and tiny French lentils; red wine truffle sauce for scallops and Napa cabbage. But the dish that makes me sing a whole lotta love is the formerly humble croque monsieur: four buttery toasted triangles of the classic ham and cheese sandwich sexed up with chicken confit and vinaigrette dressed frisée, and transcended by sautéed chicken livers and a sunny side up egg. Please save us a seat at this table.
713 Vine St., downtown
Photograph by Ryan Kurtz
Originally published in the March 2011 issue.