Located in a spot in Clifton that had started to feel a little cursed, with a progression of restaurants that didn’t last long, Postmark has settled in like it belongs there. And it does—the food is so good that it’s unlikely to be leaving anytime soon. This is chef/owner Brad Bernstein’s second restaurant, after Red Feather in Oakley, and the years of experience have served him well. Everything at Postmark hums with confidence, no new-restaurant hiccups in sight. Service is friendly and assured, from wine recommendations to the pacing of the meal; one perfectly executed little plate follows another, from spicy-sweet Brussels sprouts roasted with ribbons of pig’s ear to white corn agnolotti surrounded by meaty little fans of maitake mushrooms.
“Farmhouse refined” is how Postmark describes its aesthetic, and there is very little showing off in the cooking—no endless lists of exotic ingredients or wobbly sculptures made out of food—just a focus on seasonal ingredients, proper execution, and depth of flavor. Most meats are cured in-house and vegetables are pickled in season, each with its own distinctive brine or ferment. You can taste this restaurant’s unique virtues in its charcuterie plate. Too often stuffed with every idea the chef could possibly have—good, bad, and not-quite-there—Postmark’s plate knows exactly what it is up to, and each pickle and slice of meat has its own identity and savor.
Bernstein’s menu changes, almost top to bottom, every few months—another sign of the assurance with which everything at this restaurant is done. Almost nothing remains on the menu from our first meal, which means it’s probably time to go back.
3410 Telford St., Clifton, (513) 281-3663, postmark.restaurant
2. Bauer European Farm Kitchen
The downtown basement location isn’t one of the usual dining hot spots, so you need to be intentional about going to Bauer—and you should go, because the food justifies the effort. The restaurant was sparked by a question a visiting food writer asked Chef Jackson Rouse: With its centuries of German immigration and rich brewing heritage, where was the good German food in Cincinnati? Bauer is the answer. The good German food—check that, the great German food—is here.
Specializing in what could be called peasant fare (stews and sausages and spaetzle), Rouse doesn’t attempt to over-elevate his cooking; instead, he embraces the simple and soulful depths. This is the sort of restaurant where you order the same dish again and again—the oxtail stew, for example, or the ratatouille—because it satisfies some very deep need. Even when there’s clearly great skill behind the dishes at Bauer, there is a comforting, grandmotherly quality to the flavors.
For a restaurant specializing in lovingly braised and slow-cooked meats, the vegetarian entrées are, surprisingly, among the most satisfying. The recently added tarte flambée—with the sweetness of delicata squash, smoky roasted goat cheese, and fresh greens—was a lovely winter meal, and a sign that the restaurant continues to grow and evolve. The dessert menu (once not much of a feature) is also coming into its own, with new offerings like the apple and pear galette with crème fraîche ice cream.
Many of Bauer’s best dishes wouldn’t even be offered at other local restaurants, which speaks to the need that it fills. Long may it thrive.
435 Elm St., downtown, (513) 621-8555, bauercincinnati.com
When Please first opened, Chef Ryan Santos was generating new ideas at such speed and in such quantity it was impossible for all of them to hit their target. There was a sense this meteoric talent didn’t always know how to bring itself under control. In recent months, though, the restaurant has hit its stride. Dish after dish comes out fully realized, without sacrificing flavor for originality or presentation.
Old favorites like the enoki mushroom “pasta” with walnut milk and comte cheese are more balanced and assured, and new creations remain innovative but now have focus. Wax beans (featuring briny dulse and oyster leaf mixed with a deliciously nutty romesco) and sweet potato dumplings with baby kale, floating in a tart paprika sauce, both surprise and satisfy. The real revelation, though, is dessert. Once spotty, these are now something special. One particular standout features a pumpkin brittle sitting on a custard-like a sheet of ice. After breaking the brittle into shards, you reach a layer of tart quince preserves under the custard, with rosemary and cedar notes adding a kind of backbone to each crunchy, gooey bite. The dish is both visually stunning and a delight to eat—an indication of the heights that Please can reach at its best.
Santos was a few feet away from us during our meal, bouncing to the music on the stereo without ever losing his concentration. If you want a sense of adventure and jazzy improvisation when you eat, Please is a restaurant you can no longer afford to miss.
1405 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 405-8859, pleasecincinnati.com
This restaurant with a pretentious name has, it turns out, one of the city’s most approachable and varied menus. Those expecting only French flavors will be surprised to find fascinating global touches next to traditional brasserie fare like steak frites. And those expecting a little corner bistro will be stunned at the size of the place. Attached to the Rhinegeist brewery and located in its former bottling room, Sartre can hold 200 diners and has a kind of cavernous, industrial elegance.
Chef/owner Jim Cornwell, formerly of Boca and Maisonette, has partnered with Chef Justin Uchtman to create a menu that skitters all over the world. What it lacks in cohesiveness it replaces with a surfeit of invention and sheer consistency of execution; there wasn’t a dish that was less than very good, and some were truly magical. The charred romanesco, for example, was served with a mysterious black paste made of sesame and some unknown and utterly addictive element that turned out to be black garlic, normally used in Asian cuisine. The yellowfin tuna tartare pointed to France’s colonial past with Vietnam, combining the fish with crepes, a chili aioli, and Thai basil—all in an elegant, painterly composition—to create a fascinating bit of fusion. Our server was excellent, with an extraordinary memory for the elements in the menu’s dozen elaborate cocktails (all very good), and was clearly enjoying working at Sartre. Some of the chicken of the woods mushrooms he had foraged on a hike, he mentioned, had made their way into that night’s excellent farro dish.
There is a palpable sense of excitement at Sartre. It’s definitely worth coming to Over-the-Rhine some evening to share in it.
1910 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 579-1910, sartreotr.com
5. Commonwealth Bistro
Located on thriving MainStrasse in Covington, Commonwealth Bistro has to face tough competition for its diners, but it has earned a spot for itself. Advertising itself as “Historically Inspired, Locally Sourced,” it combines local seasonal cooking with nods to Southern and Appalachian cuisine to create an engaging menu. Chef Chris Burns went through old cookbooks when planning his dishes, but for inspiration rather than emulation—the Appalachian elements are dabs rather than defining characteristics. Unusual ingredients like spicebush create a sense of mystery in dishes like the herbed gnocchi, which might be the most perfectly made version of this dish in the city, pillowy but with just the right firmness and a lovely pan-seared crust.
One of the intriguing things about Commonwealth is how hard it is to pin the flavors down to any particular tradition. The pork loin with its Sea Island red pea ragout, for example, was a mixture of curry and sweet barbecue flavors. Red peas (like the benne seeds used in another dish) were brought to coastal Carolina by slaves, and you can taste the West Indian, American, and African flavors dancing together on the plate. And whoever is making the cocktails deserves a separate round of applause, because Commonwealth has some of the best around, from the Duveneck to the Wendell Berry (a kind of blackberry gin fizz).
The fried rabbit and the gnocchi seem to have become mainstays, but otherwise the menu at Commonwealth turns over every few months—while keeping, of course, its roots in our vibrant and complicated American past.
621 Main St., Covington, (859) 916-6719, commonwealthbistro.com
6. CWC–The Restaurant
The restaurant incarnation of Cooking With Caitlin in Wyoming is lovely and bright, one of those rare restaurants that’s appropriate for a special night out but still enthusiastically accommodating of families with young children. To be fair, they’re enthusiastic about almost everything (“We can’t wait to feed you!” the website pipes) but their graciousness is especially welcome when trying to have an adult meal with kids in tow. The box of toys they produced for our son, which included some nostalgia-inducing action figures, was particularly appreciated. CWC also happens to have a knockout vegetarian dish on the menu: the roasted eggplant, which hints at what the restaurant might be capable of as it matures. Along with the delicate charring on the eggplant, there is a tahini dressing with a spicy cilantro herb sauce, a sweet apricot agrodolce, and little torn leaves of mint, all topped with toasted walnuts. Each bite is magically balanced between heat and fruitiness, melting softness and crunch. Desserts—especially the pecan pie brownie—are first rate as well, and one can only look forward to the future at CWC.
1517 Springfield Pike, Wyoming, (513) 407-3947, cwctherestaurant.com
7. Eighth & English
There are many highlights at Eighth & English—the homemade pasta dishes are particular standouts—but what sets the restaurant apart is its raw bar. Generally, a person either has no interest in eating raw oysters (and is perhaps slightly repulsed) or craves them with such intensity that he or she will pay the price of an entire meal for them. If you are one of the latter, Eighth & English is for you. Oysters aren’t found in our neck of the woods, so you need to trust the establishment that serves them to you, and Eighth & English is trustworthy. Oysters aren’t worth anything if they aren’t fresh (in fact, they’re potentially dangerous) but can be utterly sublime when they are. The fruity Kumamoto and creamy kusshi oysters here are sublime. The oyster selection changes depending on availability, and you can tell from the loving way the servers describe each variety’s qualities that these little bivalves are close to their hearts. If you are one of the oyster tribe, make sure you visit.
2038 Madison Rd., O’Bryonville, (513) 386-7383, 8thandenglish.com
Yes, we have Riverside Korean in Covington and Dolsot Bistro in Blue Ash, but a great cuisine—and Korean food is quickly and deservedly gaining in popularity—deserves more outlets. Haru is a welcome addition to the downtown scene, especially after the closing of Sung Korean Bistro. There are many solid dishes here, served along with the usual Korean accompaniment of pickles, kimchi, fish cakes, and other mysteriously delicious dainties. A favorite discovery is the jap chae. The silky sweet potato noodles in this traditional dish are beautifully prepared, with their sesame-and-garlic sauce, glossy texture, matchsticks of assorted crisp vegetables, and behind it all a wonderful smokiness that pervades the whole dish. The accompanying pot of gochujang, a fermented Korean chili paste that you can even find at Kroger now, adds its own sweet and spicy note. This is the sort of dish that feels homey, soulful, and satisfying, even if you’ve never eaten a bite of Korean food before.
628 Vine St., downtown, (513) 381-0947, harucincy.com
9. Cozy’s Café
Cozy’s virtues can best be seen in its assured versions of comfort-food classics. Sometimes you need fresh ingredients and a dash of creativity to remember how good those dishes can be—and Cozy’s is a good place to rediscover old favorites. Their buttermilk fried chicken, with its light, ungreasy crust, is tasty enough to appear in slightly different forms on both their dinner and brunch menus—with beans and mashed potatoes at dinner, and waffles at brunch. What sets it apart from fast food equivalents is the chile-infused maple dip, which gets repurposed as a glaze at brunch. Wonderfully zippy and flavorful, the glaze wakes up this familiar dish and makes it something to slow down and pay attention to. Located in Liberty Township, with enormous seating capacity and a something-for-everyone menu, Cozy’s is a good sign of how the bar for food is being raised in the suburbs.
6440 Cincinnati Dayton Rd., Liberty Township, (513) 644-9365, cozyscafeandpub.com
10. Chez Renée
For anyone who has ever found French food pretentious or intimidating, Chez Renée is a lovely corrective, and one that perfectly suits its location on Milford’s Main Street. The casual, family vibe is unmistakable, with instructions shouted back and forth between the servers and the kitchen. The chef, Laurent Degois, often comes out to chat with diners. The most truly French part of the meal, though, is the price of the bottles of wine—it’s clearly regarded as a necessary part of life rather than an occasional luxury. We had an excellent bottle of Beaujolais, smooth and light, and a solid if unspectacular Côtes du Rhone for close to what a single bottle costs in other restaurants. Add some hot brie and bread or some chocolate and butter-sugar crepes, and you might be quite content to let your lunch break stretch to several hours, as we did.
233 Main St., Milford, (513) 248-0454, chezreneefrenchbistrot.com