Photograph by Ryan Kurtz
Sean Daly has a considerable task: breathe new life into someone else’s 30-year-old restaurant, but don’t piss off the regulars—some of whom have been loyal customers for nearly as long. Owning and operating his own place must have been easier.
For five years, from 2007 through early 2012, Daly was owner and executive chef of Hugo, a Southern charmer that largely relied on destination diners to fill its dinner-only, linen-dressed tables five nights a week. Despite steady acclaim and heaps of publicity for soulful food and gracious hospitality, it was a difficult model to sustain. The location—tucked at the back of a small specialty strip mall—wasn’t conducive to neighborhood traffic, the shift toward more casual eateries (and thus lower ticket prices) was accelerating, and the local restaurant scene was exploding. Daly was ready to shake the fine-dining mold and make Hugo’s shrimp-and-grits persona more approachable.
So when the lease was up, he packed up Hugo’s clubby leather chairs and struck out for the walkable community of Mariemont, signing a letter of intent for a 5,400-square-foot space on the village square. It was a deal that ended up being—as Daly describes it—“too rich for [his] blood.” He walked away, but not before Ken Pendery, CEO of the First Watch breakfast-and-lunch empire and principal of The Phoenix Restaurant Group, snagged him to help overhaul the group’s nearby property, The National Exemplar, a restaurant in the Mariemont Inn that had been serving Hungarian mushroom soup and prime rib for most of its three decades.
The half-timbered Mariemont Inn, a Tudor Revival built in the 1920s, is an historic landmark that represents its namesake, one of the earliest planned communities in the United States: a self-sufficient village of tree-canopied streets and grassy medians. The National Exemplar is named for the vision that Mariemont’s founder, Mary Emery, had for her model community as a “national exemplar” of practical urban planning. Nowadays the hotel is a Premier exemplar of the Best Western chain. Still, there’s a museum quality about it. A pair of armor-suited knights standing sentinel on either side of the inn’s entrance wouldn’t look out of place, nor would a tosspot in the dimly lit Southerby’s Pub shouting “Good morrow, wench, fetch me an ale!”
Vintage best describes The National Exemplar’s climate—aged paneling, dated medallion and floral carpeting, timbered ceiling, fireplaces, and a median customer age of 62 (increasing the probability of emptying a full dining room by 9 o’clockish on a Saturday night). At first glance, it seems as if it is sorely out of Daly’s wheelhouse. While he’s not the sort of chef who flirts with unconventional fusion or delves into conceptual productions but rather relies on the simplicity of excellent flavor, a kitchen that has played it safe for years with traditional “classics” hardly seems like the right match. Pendery is banking on the 33-year-old to give the tired restaurant a transfusion, providing Daly with multiple hats: executive chef, operating partner, and general manager. And though he refers to it as a three-meals-a-day-seven-days-a-week “never-ending machine,” Daly seems up for the challenge. And why wouldn’t he? Because it seems to me that the reimaging Daly had in mind for Hugo’s relocation is, in part, playing out right here.
Where Hugo’s dishes sang the gospel of Low Country cuisine laid out with contemporary swank, the new offerings on The National Exemplar’s menu represent a broader reach for Daly and his Chef de Cuisine Brandon Fortener, while still maintaining the Southern drawl he’s known for.
About one-third of the first menu we encountered featured new dishes, including sweetbreads and deeply flavored short ribs, a couple of signature Hugo menu items. A few weeks later, by the time Daly had rolled out the spring menu, slightly more than half of it was fresh and had shape-shifted from its somber book design to a more modern one-pager, printed on glossy card stock. Now small plates, salads, and soups—both new offerings and long-standing—come together in first and second course, but large plates are designated as either “National Exemplar Classics”—prime rib with horseradish and au jus; liver and onions; a seven-ounce tenderloin with béarnaise; garlicky fettuccine with chicken, pepperoni, artichoke, and roasted red pepper; and the NE’s signature Veal Suzanne: crepe battered veal medallions atop angel hair pasta in a shroud of mushroom sauce—or as “Main Fare” to distinguish Daly’s contributions.
Of those, the Duroc pork chop is a beauty: a woolly mammoth of a chop known for its superior marbling, moist texture, and rich flavor. Leeks and spinach give it a hit of bitter to cut through the richness; bacon jam gilds the lily.
Wheatberry risotto is another of Daly’s specialties; here it supports intensely beefy and fork-tender hanger steak, caramelized onions, and a crown of arugula. Fish—salmon poached or grilled, swordfish, and a daily catch—is partnered with seasonal ingredients or, as evidenced by the salmon’s butter beans, broccolini, and bacon, ingredients that begin with the same letter. An otherwise dreamy spring risotto studded with fresh peas, blue crab, parmesan, and herbs required salt and pepper to give it some zing.
We weren’t keen on every dish: the white asparagus salad is too acidic, the scallops too busy, that famous mushroom soup too mediocre, and the long-lived Post Mortem ice cream pie needs to be euthanized. But we could make an evening out of Daly’s small plates and a couple of bangin’ Old Fashioneds from bartender Suzi Mulroy. We did just that one evening on NE’s sidewalk patio. Cheese and charcuterie are the perfect place to start, and Daly has a seductive way with grits (white cheddar, red pepper puree, bacon, and a fried egg) that’s just this side of shameless. But the do-not-pass-go dish is the biscuit sliders: slow roasted pork, vinegary slaw, and smoky barbecue sauce stacked between housemade biscuits that a stick of butter gave its life for. For cryin’ out loud as someone, somewhere, is sure to say.
Daly says that upwards of 2,000 customers dine at The National Exemplar for breakfast and lunch each week, relying on a menu that much of the First Watch model—frittatas, skillet hashes, and the like—was built on, and that continues to be the cash cow. Add another 1,000 weekly for dinner and it doesn’t sound as if this is a restaurant longing for a growth spurt, much less an overhaul. But nowadays, with a crowded and competitive dining market, the most successful establishments must strike a balance between neighborhood support and attracting destination diners. The National Exemplar needs the latter desperately as the older generation, er…ages. Daly was mulling over new carpet and tablecloths when I spoke to him by phone—he’s circling back to some of his ideas for the aborted Hugo reincarnation and trying to create a less stodgy atmosphere.
Even with stodginess subdued, he’s not likely to attract the jam band diners, and he’d have to really throw it down for the gastronomic avant-garde. But those are more fleeting prospects anyway. Right now he’s simply trying to make it a better restaurant every day. Timing is everything—he doesn’t want to lose the loyalty of customers that helped build the National Exemplar into what it is. “Hell,” he says, “30 years of anything is pretty impressive.”
The National Exemplar, 6880 Wooster Pike, Mariemont, (513) 271-2103