If you happen to have leftovers at The Precinct, they will be boxed and returned to you in a handsome cloth tote bag. Like most things in the Ruby restaurant empire, from the steak knives to the bathroom napkins, the bag is carefully branded, and reads “Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment.” Because if there’s one thing that the Rubys know how to capitalize on, it’s the show.
The Precinct, open since 1981, bills itself as the “longest, continuously running white tablecloth restaurant in the city,” according to their website. While the Celestial in Mt. Adams may beg to differ, the Vegas theatricality at The Precinct is rife, from the blue lights illuminating each order of shrimp cocktail to the tableside pyrotechnics of the $18 Bananas Foster to the ultra-attentive staff. The goal here is exactly the same as it is at a casino—to make the customer feel, briefly, like the center of the universe, and to walk out with a spring in his or her step even as one’s pocketbook shrinks to a fraction of its previous size.
Since 2012, The Precinct has been managed by Brandon Ruby. But his father, he says, still comes by four or five times a week, and is constantly noticing little things to fix: crooked pictures, a burned-out lightbulb, a waiter’s appearance. Human capacities being what they are, though, the choice to focus on certain details means that others inevitably get ignored. While every waiter’s collar may be straight and every painting plumb on the wall, little things—especially dishes peripheral to the restaurant’s mainstays—often don’t live up to the same exacting standards.
As every impresario knows, it’s the headliner that puts butts in seats. With the exception of one poor girl a table over who appeared to be a vegetarian, locals patronize The Precinct for the steaks. Once known for dry-aging their own beef, those steaks are now aged off-site by the distributor. The volume, according to Brandon Ruby, was getting too much for the restaurant, and the distributor, with its careful temperature- and humidity-controlled facilities, could do a better job.
I tasted nothing that would make me disagree. The meat in the “Brandon Phillips” steak (as the endless pictures on the wall demonstrate, Ruby is addicted to celebrity shout-outs) was tender with a rich mineral flavor, and the peppercorn crust provided a nice crunch, not to mention blazing heat. We also sprung for the Japanese Wagyu beef special. While there have been widespread reports of fraud in the labeling of types of Wagyu in American restaurants, Brandon Ruby assured me that theirs was flown in from Japan and authentic to the Miyazaki region. The Precinct’s Australian Wagyu is priced at $10 an ounce, and the Japanese beef was $22 for the same weight, a truly astonishing price point. The texture of the beef, though, is a soft, silky delight, with the delicately veined marbling—shimofuri, as they refer to it in Japan—making each bite of Wagyu the carnivorous equivalent of a creamsicle.
These headliners illicit groans of pleasure from patrons around the room as they spear their first bite of steak. Unfortunately, the supporting cast doesn’t always rise to the same level. Part of the appeal of the Ruby restaurants is their studied lack of pretention, and their ability to deliver deep, comfort-food satisfaction. They offset such atavistic yearnings with one of the most extensive—and expensive—wine lists of any restaurant in the area. But for every comfort food success—the basket of warm Sixteen Bricks bread with a mushroom truffle butter, the addictive steakhouse-standard onion straws, or the creamy garlic mashed potatoes—there are also signs of overt sloppiness or indifference. Our Freddie salads came horribly overdressed and were actually difficult to finish (imagine chugging a bottle of buttermilk ranch). The roasted Brussels sprouts were cooked with cherry tomatoes and rendered bacon fat, then dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette; every part of the dish exuded an unappealing sliminess. The asparagus with hazelnut vinaigrette, at least, was perfectly executed—crisp-tender spears topped with a sprinkle of chopped nuts. The baked potato was, well, a baked potato.
The Precinct’s focus on quality appears limited to proteins—oysters, shrimp, steak are all top-notch. But this ethos does not always extend to their produce. The BTO&B salad—that’s bacon, tomato, onion, and burrata cheese—was well put-together, but it was deeply dismaying, particularly at the height of heirloom tomato season, to bite into the pallid, grainy beefsteak tomato at the base of what could have been a phenomenal dish. The non-steak entrées also suffered from the same neglect. The porcini-crusted chicken breast was served with a brown, utterly one-dimensional sauce (I tasted salt, plus bitterness from the over-charred crust). The pork tenderloin was slightly better, but the lemon-basil pesto lacked the herbaceous vividness that a good pesto should possess.
My wife and I happened to order those last two entrées for our anniversary dinner. We might have been disappointed had “the show” not immediately recommenced around us. A manager came to congratulate us and chat (they really do know how to make you feel special) and then brought us a complimentary piece of cheesecake. Apparently an old Ruby family recipe, it was probably the best cheesecake I’ve ever had, neither cloyingly sweet nor overwhelmingly creamy—a lovely slice of restraint in a palace of glaring excess.
The Precinct was full both nights we dined there. While the food should undoubtedly have been more consistent given how much the dinner cost, they have the performance all dialed in.
The Precinct, 311 Delta Ave., Columbia-Tusculum, (513) 321-5454, jeffruby.com
$3.25 each (Virginia Blue Point oysters)–$81.75 (The Tomahawk rib eye), with specials often priced by the ounce.
A pricey Cincinnati institution that nails steaks and service, but stumbles when venturing off the beaten path.