Thirty seconds after we arrive at the Red Roost Tavern, longtime bartender Jerry Meyer is already steering us away from the Watermelon Margarita. “Too late in the year,” he says, “watermelons we’re getting now are weak and mealy. I can make you something else, or we have a lot of good local beer…”
We should have listened to Jerry. Should have ordered the maple mint juleps and faded back into a quiet table along the stark perimeter lined with stone paneling and dotted with bright red chairs. The drink was well-composed, the quiet caramel oakiness of Patrón Reposado tequila kissed with citrus. Sadly, the flavors were nearly snuffed out by a wan agua fresca of sweetened watermelon. We had been warned.
These first sips said much about the Red Roost. With cuisine that is often skillfully prepared and service that is as naturally gracious as it is helpful, it’s a higher-than-usual-concept bistro stuck in a chain hotel environment, grappling with its ambitions. As part of a $23 million renovation to the Hyatt Regency downtown, Red Roost now has much improved access to the pedestrian crosscurrent inside the lobby; outside, it should benefit from the reimagining of the block. (Foot traffic will shift dramatically next year with completion of the $125-million Dunnhumby Centre at the corner of Race and Fifth.) But the resulting upsurge could be double-edged, forcing the restaurant to meet two clashing sets of expectations. The previous sports bar contentedly served up kettle chips and chicken tenders; it can be risky for a hotel restaurant to flash too much ambition beyond that. It’s especially daring to build a regionally-focused menu. The Hyatts, Marriotts, and Omnis of this world are set up to avoid such seasonal headaches as how to obtain vibrant watermelon in hoodie weather.
Everything was right about the goetta, though, and the appetizer could be well poised to introduce visitors to Cincinnati’s signature, if oft-maligned, meat product. A seared patty of slightly loose, rich pork captured the earthiness of the steel-cut oats. The seasoning added a restrained, almost mysterious hint of black pepper. Homemade brown mustard and pickles turned up the volume. The butternut squash soup also delivered—the squash roasted to bring out a deep, floral sweetness, and then pureed to such a smooth consistency it didn’t need to be masked by layers of cream. A garnish of minced apple added a surprising crunch.
The spinach and goat cheese salad, however, was so unbalanced as to be confusing. Every verdant piece of spinach and gnarled burr of frisee was trim, crisp, and lightly oiled. But salads are an act of trust, and even with the sapid flecks of goat cheese, I found myself yearning for a dose of acidity that never made itself known. Unfortunately this type of inconsistency was common, and the chef’s obvious talent is too often squandered on sauces that dress up otherwise pedestrian plates: a striking blackberry ketchup that perfectly corrals two dueling layers of sweet comes with institutional fries; honey-ale glaze accompanies dry chicken wings; a gently yielding homemade brioche bun envelops an uninspired burger.
Even the local charcuterie board seems to have been scaled back. The menu invites diners to order from a list of regional meats and cheeses, but our plate arrived with a chef’s choice of two cheeses—one an asiago, which is typically dry and more suited to melting than offhand eating. It was disappointing to not have more options, or at least selections that had been curated with more care.
I had better luck with the hearth flatbreads. Leavened just enough to provide the slightest chew, they come with a faint char along the lower edges and a schmear of either red sauce or olive oil. There are several typical pizza toppings but the adventurous choice—pulled short-rib with horseradish cream—was an unexpected delight. Such delights can underscore the challenges of chef-driven cuisine: Chefs thrive on instincts not covered by the five senses; restaurants thrive by taking careful risks. Red Roost seems to be struggling to find its third eye, and sometimes the entrées don’t live up to their ambitions.
The cedar plank salmon anchors the sustainable seafood selection. Wild-caught Pacific salmon picks up just a hint of wood smoke, adding a rustic counterpoint to the fish’s brininess, and a drizzle of grapefruit butter has a pleasant citrus tone. But the molasses-and-porter-braised short rib roared like a temperamental sportscar in need of fine-tuning. Every element seemed perfectly prepared: the boneless short rib was cooked to eye-rolling, pot-roast tenderness (sous chef Karol Osinski confirmed the cut was, in fact, short rib and not chuck); the mushrooms had endured both sear and braise; and a pillow of cheesy grits was held together by an intensely herbal sauce. Somehow, though, the assembled final product just created noise; the molasses clashed with the porter and the herbal finish went off like a “thyme bomb,” overwhelming the beef. There is a masterful dish in here, somewhere.
While the wine list is limited, there is a strong selection of local craft beers. My friends raved about one tap option, PsycHOPathy, a well-regarded American-style IPA from MadTree Brewing. Mt. Carmel and Christian Moerlein are also on hand.
At its best, Red Roost meets its singular challenge with verve: offering a locally sourced sensibility to an increasingly demanding dining public while introducing out-of-town guests to unique Cincinnati foods. But the kitchen’s talent seems straightjacketed by a need to cut corners, and certain dishes lack a focal point. One can only hope that these growing pains don’t represent a conceptual retreat. It’s worth keeping an eye on the Roost as the block continues to change.
Red Roost Tavern, Hyatt Regency, 151 W. Fifth St., downtown, (513) 354-4025
Originally published in the December 2013 issue.