To describe the food that emerges from Chef Jose Salazar’s kitchen as simple is not to suggest that it is insubstantial. Far from it.
Truth be told, Bouquet surprised us all. When I first reviewed it in April 2010, I found the lo-fi vibe of this 42-seat bistro charming, the good heartland cuisine from Chef/Owner Stephen Williams promising, but the service inconsistent. By the time we returned in the fall, things had clearly changed.
Chef Owen Maass creates cover-girl food. His sous vide venison was the prettiest dish placed before me all year, his pecan raisin bread salad the second. Picture this: A white rectangular plate with a rich mahogany stripe of juniper-infused venison reduction. At either end are two blackened poblano peppers onto which are stacked thin juliennes of pale celery root, tiny half rounds of roasted yellow and red baby beets, and plump slices of venison deeply purpled from a current-cumin glaze. In the center are batons of magenta prickly pear. Tiny emerald micro greens are scattered across it all. It’s simply stunning.
As local chefs go, Cristian Pietoso is one of my superheroes. When he arrived in 2004 from Florence, Italy, the conversation changed. After marching Nicola’s Ristorante into the dining Promised Land, he and father Nick turned their attention to building Via Vite into an urban community crossroads with an approachable menu of truly remarkable Italian recipes, both rustic and voluptuous.
You may be fed up to your heirloom tomatoes with the constant chatter about restaurants practicing locavorism and sustainability. But Nectar’s entire identity hinges on the idea that it’s possible to nourish both the diner and the environment. Hormone-free meats and fish and chemical-free produce weave through Chef/Owner Julie Francis’s minimalist but imaginative menu, which lists local farms and growers. In some establishments this comes off as pretentious, but when you consider the unspangled simplicity of the room and the quiet, earthy dishes, it’s evident this is a fiercely personal choice.
James Brown is feelin’ good on the soundtrack that is funking up Chef David Cook’s dining room. And so am I. In fact, I feel better than James Brown after swiping the last remaining evidence from the bowl of fabulous roasted mushroom soup that was delivered as the Godfather declared “So nice! So nice!” The soup’s solid bass line of rich musky earth supports the twangy top notes of crème fraîche and truffle. The seared scallops are another wonder, atop porcelain-crisp bacon, cauliflower, and bok choy; and the beef tenderloin tartare—bounded by caramelized cippolini onions on one side and a delicate stack of toast points on the other—is phenomenal.
Where to Eat Now 2011
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.