Photograph by Anna Jones/OMS
I’m open-minded: I like a menu full of foraged ingredients, meats cooked in defiance of FDA dicta, even a chemically spherified, foam-garnished “deconstruction” or two. I savor derring-do that shoves me out of my comfort zone with fever-dream alignments of flavor visible only through a culinary third eye. But some nights, I really just want dinner.
More to the point, I want the kind of dinner they serve at The Mercer. The recently opened ground floor spot on Vine Street is the brainchild of Jon Zipperstein, owner of neighboring OTR knockout Kaze, as well as the steak and sushi mainstay Embers in Kenwood. Give the guy credit for sticking with what works. And Zipperstein, once again, taps an A-team: Don Beck, the design mind behind Kaze’s interior, proves that he can still conjure up sleek, frenetic spaces using little more than empty bottles and kraft paper. Meanwhile, Chef Dan Stoltz, former executive chef at Nicola’s, again shows his knack for elevating classic comfort fare without a lot of flummery.
There are two seats at the left edge of the bar that curve slightly inward, offering the ideal perch to take in the room’s shotgun interior. Elements that seem incongruous by day—the Scandinavian austerity of the lounge furniture, jet-black lighting fixtures, retro laminate tables, horizontal wood paneling—all manage to come alive by night, when the dark wood softens the already diffused light. The energy is quieter, and more conducive to intimate conversation, while the red accents add both a literal and figurative warmth. Order a Metropolitan—bar manager Greg Wefer’s take on a classic Manhattan that switches bourbon for brandy. Wefer’s drinks are a little less out there than the ones he used to sling at Obscura, but still inventive in their own right.
Zipperstein, a noted cinephile, keeps ’60s action films on loop behind the bar. And as much as I love Barbarella, it’s oddly disconcerting to nibble away at finocchiona and porcini crusted salami with a date while Barbarella offers Mark Hand his carnal reward. I awkwardly fumbled with the pickled vegetables, meaty Castelveltrano olives, and wedges of soft, rosemary-scented focaccia while contemplating my current psychocardiograms. When our table became available, the bartender briefly looked down at what remained of our snacks and with a simple, gracious nod, the platter rematerialized at our table seconds later with a clean bowl for our few remaining olive pits. It’s a delight to see casual and approachable service that never lets the little things slip.
That same ethos marked Stoltz’s take on a bitter green salad. Dandelion greens, baby kale, and plenty of lacy frisee were lashed with just enough Dijon vinaigrette, champagne vinegar–marinated pearl onions, crispy bacon lardons, and a softly poached egg that didn’t so much jiggle as shimmy. The vivid beet salad, an earthy trifecta of beet varieties—red, golden, and Chioggia—bask in the come-hither tang of creamy whipped goat cheese, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as Vine Street’s most dangerous condiment. The hamachi crudo was Stoltz’s only sour note. The slices of too-strongly-flavored hamachi simply felt damp on the palate, lacking both the light freshness present in raw fish and the tenderness of cooked fish. Better to snack on the housemade ricotta, with its form-follows-function plating of savory onion jam atop a round of softly mellow cheese.
Stoltz’s best dishes mirror his modest, thoughtful demeanor, appearing more considered than created. The short ribs were memorable: dutifully seared, braised slow and low until tender, and not overwhelmed by fatty gravy. Many places do a great short rib, but it’s Stoltz’s polenta that really launches this dish into high orbit. I love stumbling upon a peasant-style ingredient prepared with thoughtful grace—in this case a quicksand texture that ever-so-slowly absorbed the braising liquid, still suggestive of root vegetable sweetness. Someone is paying very close attention in that kitchen. And don’t even think about leaving without tasting the house-made pasta. Wide strips of toothy, thick garganelli arrived studded with Swiss chard and caramelized cauliflower. The menu version boasted a bit of salumi, however the restaurant was glad to prepare the pasta without for my vegetarian companion.
Stoltz’s desserts offer him more room to play, but one particularly stands out: the savory cheesecake. It’s criminally rich, and worth saving room for the unique mix of four cheeses: blue, goat, cream, and ricotta. The slice relies on compressed grapes, crumbs of rosemary-infused walnut cookie crust and drops of a port and pear reduction to offer just a hint of sweet. The tiramisu is worth ordering for the quinelle of sensational coffee ice cream, and the whimsical chocolate ganache would have pleased The King as much as it pleased me, with all of our favorite things—crisp, salty bacon adding “uh-huh” to a dense square of fudgy ganache and brûléed banana with a tease of peanut butter crumble.
Not every restaurant needs to reinvent the wheel. The Mercer proves admirably that comforting staples—when prepared with precision and served with warmth—can send even the most curmudgeonly diner off fat and happy. But the Mercer’s menu cries out for a couple more vegetarian, or even lighter options: Stoltz leans a bit too heavily on burly classics that can be prepped well ahead of time. They often succeed, brilliantly. But this is a restaurant with entrée prices well above $20 in a neighborhood full of trendy, low-cost options. The challenge for Stoltz will be maintaining his momentum and establishing The Mercer as a destination, not just another spot.
Hours: Dinner Tues–Thurs 5–10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11 pm, Sun 5-10 pm
Prices : $14 (scallop appetizer)–$25 (rabbit pappardelle entrée); top end: $91 (Porterhouse for two)
The Mercer, 1324 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 421-5111, themercerotr.com
Originally published in the February 2015 issue.
Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS