If I owned a restaurant in town, I would be a little annoyed about Sartre. Everywhere you look—from the artfully peeling exposed girders to the paintings of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—you can sense the outrageous sums of money that have gone into this space. The staff is so large—and so consistently experienced and competent—that many of Sartre’s servers must have been poached from other establishments. And sitting next to the always-busy Rhinegeist in Over-the-Rhine, it’s apparent that the restaurant could be pretty mediocre and still turn a handsome profit.
So, even before I ate a bite, my head was swarming with cranky phrases to insert into this review. And then the food arrived and I had to put my weapons down. The people behind this restaurant—Chef/Owner Jim Cornwell, formerly of Boca and Maisonette, among others, and Executive Chef Justin Uchtman—simply know what they are doing. Yes, Sartre is just a restaurant, but one that also happens to be excellent.
Despite its somewhat French-inspired ethos, from the servers’ dress to the feel of the menu, Sartre resists any hint of stuffiness. In fact, under an air of Parisian chic, the restaurant often aims for elemental American pleasure centers. The sweet potato “beignets” are soft, doughy fritters that would not be out of place at a fish fry. And Sartre’s take on poutine (I enjoy imagining Jean-Paul puffing on his pipe and tucking into this plate of gravy-laden orange fries) is clearly modeled after the spices in a pack of BBQ potato chips. The dill brined crispy chicken, which is tender and juicy after soaking in buttermilk and herbs for a day, resembles nothing in the culinary universe so much as a fried pickle. And beneath the tender short-rib entrée, the creamed cabbage and celery root puree, like most mashed potatoes, rings with one long, rich note—slightly monotonous but satisfying.
This is the great appeal of Sartre, and clearly the strategy works. The restaurant has been packed every time I’ve gone there. Sometimes, though, this focus on what I would call Easy Delicious—buttery, creamy, comfort flavors—also holds it back. The kitchen succeeds in executing almost everything it attempts, but it also doesn’t take as many chances as a restaurant of this caliber should. Many of the bits of flair in various dishes, from the harissa in the beignet to the “dehydrated lime powder” on the house-made ice cream, are barely noticeable, and do not add significant complexity to the otherwise straight-ahead flavors.
A few favorite exceptions are the black garlic and sesame paste sauce, formerly served with charred romanesco and used again in the charred baby octopus dish. There it was a little overwhelmed by the burnt flavors, but still contributed a delicious and utterly original smear of umami. A dish that has since left the menu, a chicken “porchetta” with a lovely and subtle Parmesan broth, also hints at what the kitchen is capable of beyond well-executed but conventional brasserie fare like steak frites.
The cocktails, many of which are named after Sartre’s books, are another notable triumph (as my friend pointed out, they have avoided naming a drink after Nausea, his most famous novel). Far from making you queasy, the drinks are elaborate, complex, and delicious, while often being anchored in classic combinations. My favorite is That Which We Are, a twist on the classic French crème de cassis cocktail with cognac, with notes of fennel, orange, and cherry from ingredients like luxardo and byrrh. As expected, there are special beers from Rhinegeist, including some—like a fruity, refreshing grisette—that aren’t available in stores yet. On occasion I did miss the true French touch: absinthe (especially when it’s advertised as a “service”) should come with slotted spoon and a slow pour over a melting sugar cube, not just be splashed heedlessly into a glass. Some of the pleasure in dining comes from ritual, and this is one of the things lost when restaurants, even expensive ones, become scared of any kind of formality.
On an early visit, the only undistinguished dishes came during dessert, but the buckwheat clafoutis and a very ordinary pumpkin cake have since been replaced with standouts, including a wonderfully creamy hazelnut and caramel panna cotta. Despite how easily it could sit on the laurels of its prime location, Sartre is clearly still growing and changing. Even as the menu turns over, execution remains rock solid, the mistakes so rare as to be barely worth mentioning (a few undercooked cannellini beans, an oversalted halibut cheek). For the most part, this is a restaurant that, top to bottom, runs like a machine.
Sartre, in fact, basically succeeds at everything it sets out to do. My only wish is that it would occasionally set its sights a little higher. I longed for a few dishes that were weirder, more personal, the kind of food that gives a restaurant a true identity and a place in people’s hearts. On its website, Sartre declares a desire to “break paradigms and create our own interpretation of dining out.” As the restaurant matures and finds itself, I would love if some of this grand ambition left their website text and relocated to their food. Sartre is already very good, and well worth your money—and I mean it only as a compliment when I say there is talent here to do more.
1910 Elm St., OTR, (513) 579-1910, sartreotr.com
Dinner Wed, Thurs, and Sun 5 pm–9 pm, Fri & Sat 5–10. Brunch Sun 10 am–2 pm.
$7 (“Smash Fry” potato with zahtar aioli)–$27 (Red snapper with cannellini beans)
Elegant, satisfying, and smart(re), though it would be nice if some of its more lofty philosophies were given practical application in the kitchen.