Will The Anchor Sink or Swim?

As the pool of OTR restaurants expands, will The Anchor hit a snag?
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West Coast oysters from the raw bar

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Editor’s Note: This restaurant closed in 2019.

In the years since The Anchor opened in fall 2012—part of the restaurant second wave in Over-the-Rhine’s modern renaissance—the essence of the place really hasn’t changed. The concept remains slightly elevated seafood dishes that exist somewhere between you-know-what-you’re-gonna-get national seafood chains and something a little more upscale and experimental.

The Anchor’s exterior at the corner of Race and 12th Streets

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Over the years the menu has subtly shifted. Its seasonal menus tend to revolve around fish and meat paired with in-season produce. A few staples remain constant, like the raw bar menu’s popular East and West Coast oysters and the lobster roll.

New are appetizers like crab beignets and chips and dip with caviar, which were most inventive among the fairly typical list of sea fare starters and a few salads. Three beignets are served cold, assemble-yourself–style, along with a side of mayonnaise-based blue crab salad, pickled watermelon, and wakame (seaweed) salad, and the result is unremarkable. The mayo, crab, and pastry overwhelmed that pickled watermelon, and I wondered how it would have tasted.

A potato chips starter served with bowfin caviar and crème fraîche and chives dip

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

The chips and dip had a budget-fancy feel. Standard thin-cut potato chips accompanied a crème fraîche and chives dip and a generous portion of bowfin caviar (sturgeon caviar’s lower-priced, less flavorful American cousin). The briny saltiness of the roe was well complemented by the tangy dip, but sadly the chips crumbled at any attempt to dunk them into the dense cream, suggesting that lower–fat content sour cream—or a thicker chip—would have been a better pairing.

Seared scallops served with maitake mushrooms, spaghetti squash, and a creamy blue cheese sauce

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

The Anchor takes advantage of the versatility of branzino, offering a whole roasted fish for two year round, with a rotating seasonal side. When we visited, it was served with artichoke hearts and spinach atop pappardelle pasta, dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of grated Parmesan. The lackluster side had no textural variation, and the execution also fell flat with bitter, limp, and overcooked spinach. The branzino was a pleasant contrast, cooked beautifully—moist yet flaky, with a crispy skin.

Deboning a whole fish at the table can be an opportunity for restaurants to showcase the expertise of their waitstaff—or expose shortcomings on what should be a specialty of the house. While our server was friendly, attentive, and abundantly knowledgeable about the menu, there was plenty of room for improvement in deboning technique. After a quick shimmy of a boning knife, swift removal of the spine, and finally a flip of the top-side portion, what remained was, well, everything else, leaving the head, tail, and more pin bone landmines than should be expected and two mangled fillets that even the crispiest skin couldn’t totally make up for.

Venturing into comparatively uncharted waters are entrées like the skate schnitzel and the sweet potato gnocchi. On the face, the latter seemed a safe bet: littleneck clams with gnocchi in an uni butter and cider sauce. But the sogginess of the gnocchi was off-putting, and the combination of ingredients, including julienned jicama and shredded cabbage (both absent from the menu description), was downright confusing, as was the sauce’s too-sour taste.

The skate schnitzel, on the other hand, was superb. The mild-flavored, stingray-like fish is lightly breaded and fried, giving it a crispy crust, and placed over smashed potatoes and capers in a lemon–brown butter sauce. The scallops were another winner, delicately soft and cooked to perfection with a light sear, served with spaghetti squash and maitake mushrooms in a lively blue cheese cream sauce.

Chef Steven Shockley

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Both of those well-executed dishes reminded me of what The Anchor does best when it’s not overthinking it. Fresh seafood from quality suppliers—which it obviously has—sings beautifully with little else needed, but over-conceptualized dishes miss the mark (we’re looking at you, clams).

Unlike the mixed results of the savory items, the desserts consistently surpassed my tempered expectations. A flaky hand pie filled with port-soaked pears, served with fig butter cream and a few pear slices, and a Frangelico chocolate mousse with hazelnut crumble, coffee ice cream, and a citrus gelée palate cleanser ended the meal on a high note—even if the pear slices and gelée were apparently included more for effect than necessity.

In the years since The Anchor’s arrival to OTR, the neighborhood has set the culinary bar extremely high. The effects of a sprawling dining district pushing maximum restaurant density—and becoming a springboard for the city’s top cooking talent—have clearly impacted its menu evolution, forcing (or inspiring) its leadership to think outside the tackle box.

And they’re doing some things right: They’re ticking all the boxes of happy hour–goers with a well-thought-out cocktail, craft beer, and wine menu; an expanded small plates menu (though one that could improve); a strong roster of desserts; and their still-respectable raw bar menu. But the bread-and-butter entrées that were once consistently good and unfussy have been phased out and in some cases replaced by overly ambitious concepts that promise a lot, but don’t always deliver. For these prices, those dishes need to hook us every time.

FYI

The Anchor, 1401 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 421-8111, theanchor-otr.com
Hours: Dinner Tues–Sat 5–11 pm
Prices: $3 (deviled egg)–$110 (Hook, Line, and Sinker; the raw bar tower)
Credit Cards: All major

The Takeaway

Overly ambitious takes on quality seafood lead to muddled, too-complex dishes.

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