Photograph by Anna Jones/OMS
Mid-phone-call, Jose Salazar uncorks a chuckle, one of those knowing laughs that sense the direction the conversation is headed. “Yeah,” he drawls, “I had a reputation, and not entirely undeserved. I was a hothead.” The passionate owner of an eponymous restaurant on Republic Street is the first to admit he’s driven. The son of Colombian parents who settled in Queens, New York, he was raised mainly by his mother, a social worker used to seeing humanity’s darker side. Young Salazar quickly realized that idleness was a one-way ticket to nowhere, and his zeal for cooking, not to mention his powerful work ethic, found a natural outlet at The New York Restaurant School. After graduating in 2001, he worked his way through some of Manhattan’s most legendary restaurants, including Jean-Georges, Thomas Keller’s Per Se, and Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town—all chef-owned establishments.
Lured to Cincinnati in 2008 to helm the kitchen at The Palace, Salazar sensed that he might make that same transition. A people’s choice award for best new chef from Food & Wine magazine emboldened him to leave the Palace in 2012. But he took, by some accounts, an unexpected step back, choosing to spend his nights working with friend Dan Wright at Abigail Street for nine months while he slowly put the wheels in motion for his own dream. In that intimate kitchen on Vine Street, Salazar was forced, by necessity, to leave his enfant terrible tendencies behind and channel his passion into becoming a skilled teacher—one who now inspires a fiercely loyal following.
Something else that’s new for Salazar: He doesn’t feel as tethered to delicacy. His current digs—a former butcher shop on Republic Street—utilize an amalgam of classical technique and culinary curiosity. Case in point, the tiny jar of duck rillettes, which hits the table (and the sweet spot) almost as soon as you sit down. An ethereal suggestion of duck fat is just enough to suspend the meat’s richness without coating the palate. The accompanying pickled onion and a kicky jalapeño jam were the sweet and sour foils for my ad hoc bruschetta with Blue Oven’s Bad Boy bread. The mild, seed-crusted sourdough is also the faithful sidekick to Salazar’s littleneck clams. The bivalves arrive piled willy-nilly, bathed in a broth spiked with locally sourced piri-piri peppers and a few shreds of subtly fruity basil, which amplifies their brininess.
If Salazar has a culinary calling card, it’s his little but luxe fried oyster slider. Served on a petite wood slice, one deliciously plump Blue Point oyster is tempura-fried to golden, airy perfection, and layered with kimchi and garlic mayo on a pint-sized brioche bun. Hamachi Crudo—which, like the slider, has been a mainstay on the menu since the restaurant opened—changes seasonally. The current iteration is a playful homage to a New York bagel. Pastrami spices—think coriander, clove, and mustard seed—crust the fish. It’s finished with frisee, pickled fennel, and a delicate pear coulis, with bagel chips served alongside.
For all the assertive flavors, Salazar instinctively understands when to pull back. His panzanella salad certainly has heft. Between bold cuts of cucumber, slivers of fresh tomato, and an enticing tease of bodacious housemade ricotta, the handful of not-too-crunchy sourdough croutons can barely keep up. Satisfying, yes, but the undressed flavors also feel natural and unscripted—a collision between baker, cheese monger, and CSA bin.
But the real star is the redfish. Gulf of Mexico red drum is making a comeback after years of Paul Prudhomme–era overfishing. Salazar’s skin-on filet takes center stage in a stunning plate-up of buttery du Puy lentils with a few roasted chanterelles on a bed of sweet corn puree, ringed with a vivid pimentón-infused olive oil. This dish is what I prize in Salazar’s cooking—not just for my shameless love of smoked paprika, or even the consistent technique needed to prepare such a delicate fish, but the ease with which he can build a plate involving French, Spanish, Cajun, and contemporary American influences without it feeling like a multi-culti train wreck. The cooking is broad, nimble, and unrestrained.
The same could be said of the wine list. Chosen by staff consensus, my redfish was paired with a glass of 2013 Florensac picpoul de pinet, a citrusy, mineral-forward white from France’s Languedoc region. The bracing acidity contrasted nicely with the earthy lentils and the rich fish. Northern Spain is also well represented with several fruity reds from Rioja that punctuate the pimentón—the 2011 Bodegas Canchales tempranillo being my favorite. A small selection of craft beers and several nervy cocktails, including the Bruce Banner—a flavorful bourbon and green apple cocktail named for the Hulk’s alter ego—are creative and refreshing. If you’re driving, or especially thirsty, the seasonal agua fresca is a safe bet, pairing plenty of fruit juice with a splash of prosecco.
Yet for a team performing at such a high level, the desserts can be slightly confounding. The plum and apple cider sorbet has a gripping autumnal pucker; unfortunately, several other iced treats were too gritty. The pistachio and wild cherry buckle sussed out the cheeky tartness of the cherry but had a wildly inconsistent texture—feather light one evening, and downright burly another. The dark chocolate pot de crème topped with candied peanuts and whipped cream, however, soared.
But these are quibbles. Salazar plays these dishes like a virtuoso—knowing precisely when to show restraint and when to give it his all. What’s most impressive is his growth as a chef/owner: He can design a room, motivate talent, and inspire his team to push the envelope. Change is inevitable, but I hope Salazar (the chef and dining spot) stick around for a long time.