Within seconds of entering crowded Le Bar A Boeuf, I felt like I’d stumbled into a fabulous party. General Manager Richard Brown spotted me lurking near the entrance, reservation-less and nervously pawing at the bovine-themed knick-knacks, while my companion remained stuck in traffic. His charming command of the room put me instantly at ease, and seconds later, I had a table near the bar, a glass of Beaujolais in my hand. I felt surprisingly at home. Brown’s gracious warmth finally gives the ground floor of the Edgecliff building the treatment it deserves. Having worked in the building 20 years ago, I keenly remember the former restaurant tenant as every bit as dour and mirthless as my entry-level advertising job.
Leave it to owner Jean-Robert de Cavel to infuse plenty of je ne sais qoi into the space. The room reads blithe—you see it in the lighter toned wood floors that amplify the natural light, the playful striped banquettes, and the empty milk bottles behind that bar that redirect the sunlight like an impromptu chandelier. Then there’s that classic Brown choreography—the former Air Force air traffic controller knows how to maximize the view from every seat in the house, in this case toward the breathtaking view of the Ohio River and the stately Mansion Hill homes just east of Newport on the Levee. But a repeat-visit restaurant has to be much more than a room with a view. Chef de cuisine Mirko Ravlic first met de Cavel in 2002 at the annual Sacred Heart ravioli dinner in Camp Washington. Ravlic, who had arrived from Croatia with his family only five years prior, was working at Nicola’s at the time, but remembers being struck with the elder chef’s passion for food and flair for having fun. Fortune smiled a few years later when a position on the line at Jean-Robert at Pigall’s opened. For the last two years, Ravlic has flipped pans at downtown Jean-Robert’s Table in anticipation of his next big break.
De Cavel has a knack for nurturing talent. Table’s Wine Director Evan Abrams grew into the role from his own tenure at Nicola’s. For Le Bar a Boeuf’s space constraints, Abrams chose to highlight uncommon varietals that can multitask. The 2012 Humberto Canale malbec lands the tannic haymaker you expect, but lacks what Abrams calls the “mustiness” of most Mendoza varieties that some drinkers consider off-putting. If malbec’s not your thing, it’s hard to miss with the 2013 Neyers Sage Canyon red blend or the 2010 Domaine de la Feuillarde Saint-Véran, an unoaked white burgundy.
Despite our plans to tuck into a serious supper, we started with the heavy-duty charcuterie platter. Generous slabs of luscious Délice de Bourgogne; nutty P’tit Basque (a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees); and Bûcheron, a tangy goat cheese from the Loire Valley—all pungent and served at precisely room temperature—were paired with slices of saucisson sec, duck proscuitto, and a pale but piquant garlic sausage.
The must-try tartares arrived on small faux-wood paddles, topped with what Ravlic termed an “egg mimosa,” but what the Midwesterner in me recognized as a tricked-out deviled egg. The steak version was silky and seasoned spot-on, with a zing borne of ample minced shallot, while the Atlantic salmon seemed almost Japanese in simplicity, with a slight hit of lemon juice rendering the fish dice soft and zesty. Generously portioned appetizers are a boon here, and it’s easy to turn many of them into dinner. Pro tip: Pair the open-faced beef tongue “French Dip” sandwich with a spinach salad and you’ll have one of the best choices in the house. The mac-and-cheese demands either spirited fork-sparring or dedicated personal commitment. Yes, the lobster mac always sounds lush, but do consider the humble beef cheek version, enlivened by a touch of truffle oil, instead.
Le Bar a Boeuf was originally de Cavel’s upscale alterna-burger-shack. Bifteck haché, or ground beef patties, are mainstay of French family dinners, according to de Cavel. His “Les Ground Meat” is available in beef, Wagyu beef, bison, lamb, and fish (a blend of albacore tuna and salmon). Portions are eight ounces, taller than a typical burger, and seared on the kitchen’s iron griddle. And while the fundamentals are certainly in place—meat is served with a consistent sear, and patties arrive hot and well rested—on multiple occasions they tasted under-seasoned and were cooked considerably more than my requested medium rare. While the array of rich sauces and compound butters (try the anchovy with the Wagyu!) can cover a multitude of sins, the kitchen needs to address serious timing problems, and the patties often felt dense and overhandled.
Assistant pastry chef Amanda Bowman bakes with the masters in mind—Julia would certainly approve. The menu, created by Table’s dessert whiz Melissa Ball for Le Bar a Boeuf, pays homage to bistro classics while still finding fresh perspective. The Beefcake, an individual goat cheese cheesecake with a sturdy graham and ground pretzel crust is easily sharable, but good luck harnessing enough willpower to cede even a spoon of the chocolate pot de crème—its supple texture is genuinely textbook.
Let’s be fair. A young restaurant typically has quirks. Much of Le Bar a Boeuf’s cuisine demonstrates skill, and at times, even vision. Younger servers are still in training, and often seem skittish and without rhythm—a 20-minute appetizer wait was followed by a 20-second follow-up, and menu knowledge can be spotty. If Le Bar a Boeuf is to thrive, the team will have to apply serious determination to mimicking masters de Cavel and Brown. After all, this is a restaurant that should be driven, not merely steered.