Ritual and Revelation at Jean-Robert de Cavel’s Restaurant L


Editor’s Note: This restaurant closed March 15, 2020.

Foie gras, classic terrine, apple, kobacha squash, black quinoa

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

When I was 19, I went with my parents to Charlottesville to visit my father’s former thesis advisor, a Swiss-German man whose wife was a French woman of aristocratic lineage. I remember her regaling us with a hilarious tale about her royalist papa as she dropped artichokes into boiling water.

Madame Attinger then brought out something I had never seen before—artichoke plates—and proceeded to demonstrate how to dip each artichoke petal into the fresh vinaigrette. As we talked (and dipped), the spent petals slowly formed a flower-like shape on the plate. It was during that meal that I first realized the profound richness that ritual can add to life. Not the grand pomp and circumstance of church and state, but the small daily rituals that imbue the necessities of existence—eating, bathing, cooking—with meaning.

I remembered that afternoon with the artichokes, the heightened sense of life, during my first of eight courses at Restaurant L. We had ordered some local paddlefish caviar from Big Fish Farm in Kentucky, and the waiter had gracefully removed the cloche from the caviar service, as well as the individual share plates of champagne-poached eggs and toast. I had eaten caviar a few times before (mostly at fancy weddings) and had never understood why people pay even small sums for this inky black, intensely salty foodstuff, let alone astronomical ones. That is, until this meal. The studied elegance of the service, the practical non-reactive spoon, the pricking of the poached egg, and the blanketing of both ingredients onto rounds of white toast, all setting the stage for that first briny bite. Suddenly, I was back on the Attingers’ porch. It was the exact same sensation—a moment of utter repletion. I was completely satisfied.

Caviar service, featuring local paddlefish caviar, a Champagne-poached egg, onion creme fraîche, toast, and blini

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Restaurant L

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

None of this ritual works its magic, of course, if the food doesn’t honestly merit it. At Restaurant L, it does. Everything works together—the meal, the wine, the surroundings, and the service. Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and maître d’hotel Richard Brown have doubled down on old-school esprit, when eating a meal was neither a precursor nor an afterthought, but the main attraction in and of itself. When I spoke with Brown, he reminisced about a time when Cincinnati was, in its own quiet way, one of the culinary centers of the country, with restaurants like Pigall’s, Maisonette, and the Gourmet Room. Naturally, they were expensive, special-occasion destinations, but diners rarely forgot the intricate details of meals shared there. I suspect that few will forget what they discover at Restaurant L.

Chef/owner Jean-Robert de Cavel.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

While the restaurant is open for lunch, and also offers some dishes à la carte in the lounge, the full experience can only be captured with the set menus. The Prix Fixe ($89) and the Menu Gourmand ($125) are both available with wine pairings for $45 and $65, respectively. The gratuity is included, but there is a supplemental charge for some of the best dishes—$7, for example, for the lobster salad—so plan to pay a little more for the loftiest luxuries. Also worth noting, the wine pours, curated mostly from small French growers, are generous. If you plan to order the seven-course Menu Gourmand, eat a light lunch and arrange for an Uber home, as you will leave blissfully content but also quite inebriated.

It would be folly to go into too much detail about individual dishes as the menu changes often. But it’s hard to resist. As part of the Menu Gourmand, we enjoyed a dish of seared snapper, topped with hearts of palm, that was finished tableside with a textbook beurre blanc. The fish was accompanied by a glass of Chateau Soucherie anjou blanc. The tenderness of the fish, the delicate crunch from the hearts of palm, the tangy smoothness of the sauce, and the almost muted mineral notes in the wine came together with what appeared to be casual serendipity but was actually maniacal precision.

Waloo filet with carrot nage

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

A few days later, this same knockout of a dish—a triumph many chefs would have clung to for years—was replaced by something entirely new. On our second visit, as part of the Prix Fixe, my wife selected the Maine lobster salad, and admired how each bite revealed new dimensions, yet remained strictly in pitch: The richness of the mango was foiled by the earthier note of celery root, followed by the discovery of a crunchy pistachio. The previous lobster iteration featured green beans and nectarine. “We want to work a lot with seasonality,” Brown told me, “and produce is always changing.” An understatement if there ever was one.

Maine lobster, mango, celery root, avocado, pistachio

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Even the few dishes that didn’t quite floor me—the rabbit “ballotine” was grainy and somewhat flavorless, with an apple slaw that lacked brightness—have already changed conception. Although I had favorites—the verdant basil puree with the scallop dish, the tender squab with beurre rouge, the rich brown lentils and Brussels sprouts served with the wild boar—above all, I had the sense of being in very good hands. By the time this review appears, the menu will have undergone more changes, but the knowledge and display of skill from both de Cavel and his chef de cuisine, Brett Crowe, will not.

Wild boar, sweet potatoes, red peas, brussels sprouts, pearl onions, ver jus, pork reduction

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

At the end of the meal, my wife leaned over and said, “Maybe we need to save up and come here again.” Yes, it requires an investment to dine at L—of time, money, and attention—but the experience utterly justifies it. We have a young treasure in our midst, built on Old World rituals of refinement that are, as these meals proved, very much worth preserving.

Restaurant L, 301 E. Fourth St., Suite 450, downtown, (513) 760-5525, lcincinnati.com

$9 (apple rutabaga soup)–$170 (Ossetra caviar, 1 oz.)

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The Takeaway
Sublimely seasonal French-inspired prix fixe tastings from the city’s premiere hospitality team. Save it for a special occasion, but definitely don’t miss it.

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