Sometimes after a large dinner it takes a second to regroup, doesn’t it? You start thinking about the drive home, the after-dinner show…anything but what you ate. At Nuvo at Greenup, it doesn’t happen that way. By the time you step outside the 115-year-old brownstone (formerly home to Greenup Café and Wildflour Bakery) and amble the few steps down the block to where the Roebling Bridge is suspended against the Cincinnati skyline, you’re not even noticing the breathtaking view. You’re still grappling with what just happened, trying to wrap your head around the unusually-shaped plates, the laboratory beakers, the Rube Goldberg-esque coffee siphon precariously suspended mid-table, the slabs of pink salt that displayed your final bill. You’ll also be thinking about the food. Whether you enjoyed every bite or not, the experience will force you to pause and consider.
Chef and owner Mark Bodenstein wouldn’t have it any other way. Before recent tenures at the somewhat stodgy Parkers Blue Ash Tavern and comfy-cozy Nicholson’s, he cooked in edgier kitchens, like the short-lived Chalk Food+Wine and his original incarnation of Nuvo, which closed in 2009 in the wake of a business dispute. Nuvo redux, committed to local sourcing wherever possible, is designed around a prix fixe menu: the standard six-to-eight course meal or the grand tasting menu (12 to 13 courses). General manager and wine guru Logan Sowders, like all of Bodenstein’s younger but casually poised staff, brings an infectious generosity to the experience. He compares wine to a long drive in the desert. “While the landscape is beautiful,” he says, he’s always looking for that “curve in the road.” His lust for adventure is well suited to a restaurant like Nuvo, and quirky choices like the 2010 Chevalier du Grand Loc Cotes de Duras, a fruity red blend from a small region outside of Bordeaux, hold their own next to the iconoclastic dishes that populate the menu.
Take the blood orange agnolotti, which may be the most beautiful plating I’ve seen this year: Pillows of dandelion-hued handmade pasta perch atop a layer of deep green pea puree, garnished by red-stemmed microgreens and ruddy flecks of candied blood orange zest. The flavors fluently embody the visual—the eggy richness of the agnolotti pricked by the pitch-perfect acidity of the orange crema, the pureed peas fairly screaming springtime.
Bodenstein is skilled at nudging a few bites of humble comfort food into full-blown dishes that can be both vivid and compelling. The cheddar-orange, impossibly luxe cauliflower porridge, for instance, owed its color to a carrot puree rather than cheese, and took on a zesty crunch from bits of minced radish.
Sussing out the idiosyncrasies of vegetables is a big part of Bodenstein’s ethos. His “Forest Floor” dish has been on and off the menu since the restaurant opened last fall. On our visit—the menu changes weekly if not daily—it arrived tableside with a distinct hiss, faint wisps of smoke wafting up from beneath a large domed plate. Our server lifted the cover to reveal a startling mix of bright green and earth-colored edible ephemera, along with a meaty smoke, courtesy of a chunk of smoldering birch wood. Everything on the plate, save for some truffles, had been gathered from spots in north-central Kentucky. There were whole roasted thumb-size maitake mushrooms, wild morels, and what Bodenstein calls his “Earth puree,” a mahogany-hued sauce of black Oregon truffles and other domestic mushroom stems. Woody spruce tips, mezuna greens, and two or three perfectly coiled ramps—tender and sweet, with a faint oniony crunch—foiled the darkness of the mushrooms.
While vegetables are often the dark horse hero of Nuvo’s small plates, the chicken, from Marksbury Farm Market, was a visual feast with flavor to match. A two-ounce strip of skin-on chicken breast, dotted with edible bluebells and violets, arrived atop a dollop of creamed wheatberries and was finished with a bright chicken jus. For all of Nuvo’s nods to the exotic, this simple piece of chicken, succulent and just a tad salty, was nothing less than a skilled song.
For all of the derring-do, there are brief instances of overreach. A dull-tasting sliver of tri-tip steak was sadly over-the-hill at medium-well. And the pork tenderloin—flanked by pungent hunks of yuzu-braised daikon—was dry and unyielding, a disappointment for what could have been a soaring interplay of textures.
But for each black hole, there are easily two or three supernovas of inspired brilliance, and desserts are where Nuvo shines. The “Root Beer Float” is a classic example of foraged ingredients brought together with experimental verve. A quenelle of barely sweet buttermilk yogurt rests atop a powdered lime and olive oil dust garnished with a birch bark foam that captures the natural flavors of root beer to a T. The complete spoonful hits all the right notes, albeit with an atypical texture and presentation. Nuvo’s grand finale, a mignardise course served in a still-smoldering cigar box, makes for an unforgettable finish. The hint of smoke and tobacco works wonders on the soft, house-made chocolate truffles cloaked in powdered cocoa nib and dried porcini, along with a few piquant yuzu-infused meringues and opera creams from Newport’s Sweet Tooth Candies.
It takes nerve to experiment heavily in a value-conscious community, especially when much of the seasonally-driven menu changes frequently. Bodenstein is quick to praise his staff’s diligence in keeping ideas fresh. When those experiments succeed, as Nuvo’s often do, they’re astonishing. When one goes awry, it’s an awkward moment. Regardless, this is food that you’ll think about for days. Consider it the ultimate cerebral carryout.
Nuvo at Greenup, 308 Greenup St., Covington, (859) 415-1308, nuvoatgreenup.com
Contemporary American cuisine that blends locavore ethics with heavy experimentation and a soupçon of whimsy. Service is poised and knowledgeable, yet friendly.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue.