Of all the restaurants in Over-the-Rhine, Abigail Street probably has the smallest, least conspicuous sign. We are so good, it seems to say, you will eventually find us. The first time I visited, I stumbled by accident into the much noisier and more prominent Senate, also owned by chef Daniel Wright. The hostess directed me next door to Abigail Street, which as usual was packed.
Everything about Abigail Street, from food to service to decor, exudes confidence. And in classic Mediterranean fashion, the menu consists entirely of meze—small plates—rather than conventional, Midwestern-sized entrées. Most diners order about two plates per person and share.
With moderate prices, Abigail Street is a loud, friendly, neighborhood sort of place. Diners chat with nearby tables and exclaim with enthusiasm when favorites appear. (Almost everyone we talked to was a repeat diner, which should tell you something.) In five short years it has become something of an institution. In late 2016, Wright handed over the reins to longtime chef de cuisine Yousef Shtiewi. Shtiewi has kept many of the classic dishes, but has begun taking the menu in new directions. Which means it’s time for another look, and another taste. Is Abigail Street as good as it has always been? And do Shtiewi’s new dishes harmonize with the creative meze the restaurant is known for?
First things first: As for the old favorites—the grilled octopus, the bouillabaisse, the fattoush salad, and the grilled bread with ricotta and honey—I can happily say these items are as good as ever. What impresses me most is the coherence that Abigail Street achieves across its menu. Since guests graze over several plates rather than ordering a single entrée, the dishes need to work together as well as on their own. Even when region-hopping from Provence (the bouillabaisse with its richly satisfying saffron broth) to North Africa (the berbere-dusted broccoli, served with a delicious miso-tahini sauce and finished with chopped scallions), the family resemblance between cuisines shines through. The fire in the kitchen also helps bind dishes together—the smoky char on the octopus and the grilled bread, the crispy edge on the broccoli.
Service is warm and quietly skillful; servers and kitchen staff regulate the pace at which the little plates appear. I typically order a quartino of wine on tap—it’s about two glasses, which makes it a decent fancy-restaurant value at between $16 and $21. From the elegantly color-coded list of bottles to the rotating taps, Abigail Street is a good place to make discoveries. The Baumgartner grüner veltliner, aged in stainless steel, was mine—a light, citrusy wine that complemented my spicier favorites.
Shtiewi has introduced five new meze as well as twists on old recipes—including some nods to seasonality. Although I noted, while tasting their tangy and delicious fattoush salad, that late winter isn’t typically the time for cucumber and tomato, I don’t think it’s fair to demand total devotion to seasonal produce from a Mediterranean wine bar in the Midwest. So I do salute the effort to reformulate certain dishes: their scallop dish, for example, is currently served with peas and mint for the spring. Unfortunately, it was one of the few disappointments—the scallop itself was over-salted, and the surrounding peas and touch of mint were too subtle to make an impression.
This was a recurring issue with some of the newer items. When a dish hits you with an intense flavor—the broccoli, for example—you can’t always adjust yourself to a milder register. The new dishes are all accomplished, bringing in fascinating notes from Asian and Italian cooking, but they sometimes struggle to stand up to the boldness of the rest of the menu. This happened with the carrot ravioli and gnocchi. Although the former was a pasta dish topped with queso fresco, the flavors belonged more to Northern India (or Pakistan), where they tone down the spice and add nuts, sweetness, and creaminess—in this case, raisins, walnuts, and what struck me as an excessive dose of clarified butter. It wasn’t bad, but simply not bright or forceful enough. And the gnocchi, despite a tasty, subdued hash of asparagus and mushrooms, was another miss—tough, doughy, and under-seasoned.
Two of the newer dishes, though, give a sense of what has made Abigail Street so consistently good. In both cases, they reach across the globe into other cuisines and bring back flavors that sit comfortably in the Mediterranean. The tuna tartare takes the omnipresent sesame notes of Middle Eastern cooking and moves them in an Asian direction—there is a nice hint of sweetness from Thai sweet chili sauce, and crunch from the house-made potato chips. Albondigas (meatballs) originate in Mexican cuisine—but resemble Persian koobideh in flavor and texture—and fire is used to wonderful effect with the singed peperonata. The two elements are served on a creamy sweet corn polenta that is nontraditional but works beautifully.
Although I found some of the new dishes less satisfying than the old ones, I am glad that Shtiewi is taking so many chances with his menu, and that the restaurant is growing and changing. It’s better to keep moving and make a few occasional missteps than to become stagnant. Because, as all the regulars at the tables around us knew, Abigail Street is the kind of place you keep going back to.
Abigail Street, 1214 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 421-4040
Hours Dinner, Tues–Sat 5–11 pm
Prices $7 (Warm Marinated Olives)–$17 (Braised Pork Shank with Chick Peas)
Credit Cards All major
One of most reliably good meals in town. Go early or be patient—it’s worth it.