The much-ballyhooed replacement restaurant for Jean-Robert at Pigall’s opened Sept. 15. I ended up pushing my reservations out until Friday, Sept. 18. I figured that this was for the best. I really don’t tend to like to go to restaurants on opening night, but with all of the hype and build-up, I wanted to try it.
I have to preface this by stating a few things that regular readers of my blog know: I’m a big fan of Jean-Robert. I loved Pigall’s. I was last in the building (when it was Pigall’s) on closing night. I tried very hard as I walked in to try to forget that this used to be Pigall’s and look at it as something new. I had hope that the experience at Local 127 would win me over, especially since 5chw4r7z liked his drink experience on opening night.
So on Friday evening, after a pretty bad day, I was looking for a little escape. Terry and I walked to Fourth Street and, being familiar with the restaurant, walked in toward where the old reception area had been. I was stopped — rather brusquely — by a man in a suit.
"May I help you?" he asked, in a very unfriendly way as if I were invading his space and somehow offending him. "I, uh, was looking for the hostess. The stand used to be here." He pointed toward the door. "It’s over there. She’ll help you." He spun on his heel and walked off.
That was my first impression.
It wasn’t a very good one.
It turns out that the guy in the suit was Jamie Smith, an adjunct at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and master sommelier brought in for the week from Las Vegas. He later blocked the hostess’s path with his wine preparation as she led us to the table. Although the hostess was nice, this first impression of condescension was disturbing.
Cincinnati is not Las Vegas, and Cincinnatians don’t take very well to anything pretentious or rude. A friend who had been there the night after its opening that she chatted with him, and he was very brusque, standoffish and unfriendly when she was asking him about wine and being a sommelier — and she was drinking wine. This is really not a good practice. I didn’t order wine.
Our reservation was at 8 p.m., and we were one of four tables filled at this point in the evening, which shocked me. There aren’t many tables — maybe 15 to 20 — and the space isn’t used very well and hasn’t been modified much since its Pigall’s days. The chandeliers wrapped in white cloth and string make the space look incomplete. The surroundings are very fine-dining, but the servers are all in Levi’s, Chuck Taylors and button-down shirts. It’s a very odd vibe. I don’t think I liked it.
Our server, Chris, was very knowledgeable and friendly and paced the meal to fit with the restaurant’s standards, which are supposed to be leisurely but end up feeling slow. They want you to linger over small plates and socialize, but it comes off as if you’re forgotten. I like to take my time with a meal, but this pace felt uncomfortable. Terry and I felt as if we were staring at each other with nothing to do except make doe-eyes at each other.
Chris explained the concept of the restaurant, touted both at the restaurant and in their press materials as "revolutionary" in that it is "farm-to-table." This is where that word "condescension" comes in again. The idea that "farm-to-table" cooking is new to Cincinnati and that the Relish Group brought a chef in from Vegas to enlighten Cincinnati is laughable.
Farm-to-table has been done here very well by Slim’s, Honey, Nectar and many other restaurants and chefs in Cincinnati for years. Many chefs have their own gardens, shop at farmer’s markets, or have relationships with farmers. This is nothing new. Do they think that diners in Cincinnati have never had local foods before? More on this later.
As far as the menu, it is separated into several sections. It also lists the farms they use (including favorites like Neltner’s and Snowville Creamery), local purveyors (Colonel DeRay’s and Coffee Break) and their inspirations (James Beard and Grandma). We decided to skip the large plates and instead try a bunch of their smaller plates.
We started out with a charcuterie sampler: Smoked Trout with Pickled Corn, Hot Copa and spiced pears, 127 Terrine with Pickled Green Beans, Aged Mt. Ham with Watermelon Pickles, and two slices of nicely toasted focaccia. The sampler, all of which is house-made, was easily the best part of the meal. This is obviously the kitchen’s specialty and passion. All four selections were superb. I particularly liked the Smoked Trout with Pickled Corn. The corn was sweet and the trout, deliciously smokey, with just a hint of vinegar. The Copa was not hot, but the spiced pears were delicious.
The 127 Terrine with Pickled Green Beans, provided a perfect terrine, unctuous with a hint of nutmeg, tricking the tongue into thinking it was sweet. It could have used more than just a tiny bit of the vinegar-y green beans — and I told the server this, as he said, "The chef wants feedback. That’s why the kitchen is open to the public!" I declined a tour and instead suggested more green beans.
For our next round of dishes, we ordered three dishes off the "Small" and "Small/Large" sections. First, a small order of the "creamy rice." Since everything in the restaurant is supposed to be American (no mind that Levi’s and Chucks are now made off American soil), they can’t call risotto what it is. Creamy rice just sounds off to me, particularly since they referred to another dish as "Prosciutto-style." America is a melting pot, right? It would be nice to reflect that or at least accurately describe dishes. This was a classic risotto with shiitake and cremini mushrooms. It was creamy and very nice but not spectacular.
We also had the much-touted potato skins. Polly Campbell, on her blog, hoped that they were "something different than the descrip," and Chris insisted that they were "out of this world" and "unlike any potato skin you’d ever had." I’m wondering if that was something management told him to say, assuming that everyone around here had only had potato skins at TGI Friday’s.
They were certainly good — small new potatoes, hollowed out and crispy but otherwise exactly as described. I’m not sure what I expected (I mean, they’re potato skins), but I had certainly hoped they’d be more creative. "Crispy pork," mentioned in the description, was just bacon. Good, yes, but not amazing.
The third and final savory dish was a plate of roasted beets, goat cheese, some of the same ham from the charcuterie plate and a wine syrup, which tasted mostly of honey. I love beets, so I enjoyed the dish, and I think its success is due to its simplicity.
We saved room for dessert, passing up the "Kentucky Bourbon Sunday [sic]" and going for the "out-of-this-world" chocolate cake, described as being made with Scharffen Berger. The cake was not nearly as rich and dense as I expected. I loved that it had crispy edges but was disappointed with the chocolate content. The fortified wine was a nice touch, but it needed something to take it to the next level of "amazing" or even "I’d order it again."
The chef, Steven Geddes, walked around and inquired about the food at each table — except for ours. I think he thought we had just arrived instead of just finishing and waiting for our check. Once he saw us signing our checks, he dropped off two tiny chocolate chip cookies — crispy on the outside, warm and melty on the inside — which were a very nice touch and should be on the menu as a dessert in a larger form. What’s more American than chocolate chip cookies and some sort of play on milk? It was far more chocolatey than our dessert.
Overall, the food ranged from really good (charcuterie) to disappointing (potato skins), with the rest being just average. The service ranged from great (our server, Chris) to abysmal (the sommelier). The sum of the experience is awkward, self-congratulating (we’re educating these know-nothing Midwesterners!), but with potential. It’s like it skipped from restaurant infancy right to the awkward teenage years.
I will revisit. Again, I don’t think it’s fair to write off the restaurant on one visit so early in its existence. I do hope that, since they say they really care about what their customers think, they will take the feedback they get into consideration and make improvements.
And skip the Chucks. Cute idea, but those shoes have no arch support. Can you imagine that people actually played basketball in them? I’m sure your servers are suffering!