Chef Jeremy Luers insists he isn’t out to compete with Oma’s sauerbraten or Nonna’s Bolognese. But we’re still not convinced. At the Presidents Room, the newest incarnation of the Phoenix event center’s main dining area, Luers takes on homey European classics and adds a soupçon of modern sensibility. The southeast Indiana native, whose culinary passions were first stoked by the Black Forest-themed Sherman House in Batesville, is rekindling his youthful romance with sausage and pickled fish, and folding in a little Batali-inspired bravado to breathe new life into the downtown institution.
Originally constructed in 1893 as the Phoenix Club, Cincinnati’s first Jewish businessmen’s organization, Samuel Hannaford’s Italian Renaissance–style five-story building has been a mainstay on the banquet scene for years. The dining room exudes grandeur and capitalizes on the original (and massive) hand-carved oak mantel. One wonders what the club’s earliest members would have made of the new wheat-colored walls and pale blue carpeting—touches that soften the heavy, masculine woods—not to mention Mr. Buck, a graffiti-style painting of a suit-and-tied stag that graces the fireplace.
While admiring said stag, tipplers can enjoy classic cocktails dating to the 1880s. My Old Fashioned had just enough citrus to tone down the spicy Bulleit rye, a substitution from the menu standard (and more mellow) Eagle Rare. Bar snacks are varied, but flavors can be hit or miss. Thumbnail-sized cheese crisps were mealy and overly salted. Smoked olives also suffered from a little too much of a good thing—the smoke. I much preferred the spicy pistachios, roasted and tossed with a subtle shake of ginger and garlic. The deviled eggs, which were sublimely smooth, came dotted with smoked salmon roe—another nod to the Black Forest.
Having progressed past the initial nibbles, I eagerly tucked into the Wagyu beef tartare. While I still prefer my tartare hand cut (the recent popularity of ground tartare faintly smacks of shortcuts), Luers’s take on the bistro classic is fairly straightforward with a deconstructed presentation of lemon thyme, caper, and plenty of sieved egg. The vegetarian bruschetta (which changes weekly) consisted of thick slices of toasted baguette topped with an earthy layer of truffle-scented chèvre and heaped with roasted corn, zucchini, and asparagus. The roasted sweetness of the peak-ripe produce made all the difference. That focus on ingredients shows up again in the salad selection. While pickled herring may win new converts a few at a time, devotees will enjoy filets of the pungent little fish with a crisp mix of fennel and baby kale. For the less adventurous, a crisp iceberg wedge topped with an ideal ratio of funky lamb bacon, red and yellow cherry tomato halves, and crumbled Gorgonzola fits the bill.
For a chef who draws much inspiration from the beloved German restaurant of his youth, we expect Luers to tarantella as well as polka. But a one-and-a-half-year tenure at Babbo, the backbone of Mario Batali’s mini-empire in New York, followed by local stints at Boca and Enoteca Emilia, also gave him time to refine his noodle. Luers’s menu demonstrates a surprising range of pasta dishes, though several veer toward textural heaviness. The tonarelli is one example that soars; toothy spaghetti-like noodles mingle with cockles—tiny saltwater clams—and salty ham hock. Stuffed pasta enthusiasts will enjoy the raviolo, filled with creamy spinach and egg yolk and garnished with crisp wafers of speck and a tangle of frisee.
An earthy menu such as this begs for acid. Fortunately, sommelier and general manager Daniel Souder’s small, primarily Old World wine list provides it. The 2012 Gustav Adolf Schmitt Riesling, with notes of pear, was a strong foil for the spicier snacks, not to mention the heavier pastas, while the 2013 Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner paired well with the fish. Plenty of pilsners should come as no surprise for a menu heavy on the Hofbrau. Weihenstephaner, an East Coast favorite noted for its sour hoppiness, is a bestseller, as is Newport’s own Wiedemann. My companion, who travels frequently to central Europe, made a beeline for the Stiegl Radler. A Salzburg staple, it’s a fizzy, fermented grapefruit beer with very low alcohol by volume, a good match for the cured meat and cheese boards.
Entrées are formidable and priced to match. A boneless beef short rib is prepared sauerbraten style, braised in red wine thickened with gingersnaps and served atop pureed Yukon Gold potatoes and braised red cabbage. The short ribs carried a pleasant note of spice from the cookies but could have been more tender. And while the black cod was cooked to perfection, the exterior picked up an abundance of char, masking the delicate flavor of the white flesh within. Luers’s piece de resistance is his choucroute garni royale, an Alsatian hot pot studded with pork, potatoes, and kraut. Meant to be split between two to three diners, the dish may require independent arbitration for the pork belly and spare ribs.
When it comes to dessert, Luers knows that Samuel German’s eponymous chocolate creation does not, in fact, hail from the mythical coconut forests of Bavaria. That hasn’t stopped him from whipping up a playful little chocolate cake coated with ganache, topped with coconut icing, and accompanied by coconut gelato. But it’s his pretzel bread pudding that’s the real flavor bomb. Soft bites of custard-soaked, salty pretzel are offset by a barely-bitter dark beer gelato.
It’s been five years since the Phoenix restaurant closed, and it’s wise of Luers and company to make a clean break from the tuxedoed formality of the past. Not everything is in tune just yet, but the Presidents Room harmonizes the graciousness of more formal dining with comforting favorites. It’s not a breakout hit, but it’s worth at least a taste.
The Presidents Room, 812 Race St., downtown, (513) 721-2260, thepresidentsrm.com, Dinner Wed–Sat 5–10
Prices: $3 (cheese crisps) to $36 (choucroute garni royale)
Credit Cards: All major
The Takeaway:Modern European comfort food with plenty of inspired takes on pasta, sausage, and sauerkraut, served with poise in an historic men’s club that was recently refreshed.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue
Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS