“Fine” is a funny word. If a chef came to your table at a restaurant and asked you how your dinner was, and you said “It was fine,” that chef would probably worry that you thought your meal was just adequate.
But “fine dining” indicates food of the highest quality; food made with skill and creativity, and served with attention to the details of comfort and style.
This list, of course uses “fine” in that second meaning. The following 10 (plus) restaurants are the best in town, in my opinion. They serve the most interesting, well-cooked food with an atmosphere and service to match it. They aren’t necessarily formal, but these are places worthy of dressing nicely, getting a babysitter.
They are listed here in alphabetical order, because I’m sorry, I can’t commit to a ranking of these. They’re all good in their own unique way.
For now it’s in Oakley, but late in 2012 it will move Downtown to the most storied spot in Cincinnati dining: the address of the former Maisonette. What Boca serves fully illustrates what is often said about Italian food: simple dishes that allow ingredients to shine are more important than elaborate recipes and presentation. The food here is like a well-cut black dress: wood-fired branzino with Swiss chard and grilled lemon, pappardelle with wild boar and porcini, a grilled romaine Caesar salad.
• 3200 Madison Road, Oakley. 513-542-2022, www.boca-restaurant.com.
This restaurant started life as an Indian restaurant; hence the name. But over the years it has evolved into an adventurous and eclectic, even cutting-edge fine-dining restaurant. Owen Maass dreams up things like an appetizer of tastes of five savory custards, or foie gras with blueberry pancakes, braised pork cheek with lavender tofu, fava beans and ras el hanout. The modern food is matched by the sleek, interestingly-lit dining room, and by the gracious front-of-the-house presence of owner Alex Mchaikhi.
• 3520 Erie Ave., Hyde Park. 513-871-8714, www.cuminrestaurant.com.
Cincinnati’s favorite French chef once cooked at The Maisonette, then co-owned a string of restaurants around town. Now it’s just this one, which is all his. It’s charming and gracious but not stiff, the place of a Frenchman at home in the United States. Contemporary French dishes display de Cavel’s flair for composition and flavor match-making. Try foie gras torchon with duck confit roulade, apricot, arugula, pistachio bread and salad, or halibut in clam nage with beet crust, oyster mushroom andVidalia potato galette.
• 713 Vine St., Downtown. 513-621-4777, www.jrtable.com.
Jeff Ruby’s, Carlo and Johnny, The Precinct
It’s always hard to know how to include the Jeff Ruby restaurants in a list like this. These three restaurants, all owned by Ruby, have distinct personalities, but all offer a similar experience at the same high level. They are steakhouses, first and foremost, with awesome steaks, including a bone-in filet and a bone-in ribeye that could scarcely be bettered. You can make it a steakhouse experience by ordering these, potatoes and creamed spinach, but you would be missing some other excellent food: the salads, Carlo and Johnny’s raw bar, seafood, veal chops, steak toppings like a wine-poached egg, and a la carte sides such as truffle creamed corn or roasted wild mushrooms.
• Carlo and Johnny, 9769 Montgomery Road, Montgomery, 513-936-8600.
• Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, 700 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-784-1200.
• The Precinct, 311 Delta Ave., Columbia-Tusculum, 513-321-5454.
• All at www.jeffruby.com
Jimmy Gibson was the executive chef for the Jeff Ruby organization for many years until he got this place with his name. He knows his way around a steak, for sure, but his menu takes off in other directions as well. He offers tiradito of fresh fish, potatoes raclette, brussels sprouts alla plancha, Singaporean Picnic Fried Chick-Hen, salmon on the half-shell with apple-fennel salad and tarragon-honey vinaigrette. It’s served in a subterranean space that’s a fever dream of ’60s cocktail-lounge sophistication.
• 435 Elm St., Downtown. 513-621-8555, www.jimmy-gs.com.
The contemporary American food served here is inspired by farmhouse cooking and grandmothers, but in refined versions. The long dining room has a casual feel and service is friendly, but it’s very correct, too. The menu changes with the seasons but there’s always a selection of pickled and cured courses including a house-smoked golden trout or pork terrine, “faux gras” mousse with corned pig heart and pickled apples. Their “Porkopolis” dish always features Cincinnati’s favorite meat, dressed up in different ways, such as with white bean ragout, wilted cabbage, bacon-tomato jam and red wine reduction.
• 413 Vine St., Downtown. 513-721-1345, www.mylocal127.com.
Owner/chef Julie Francis is well-rooted in the agricultural milieu of the Ohio Valley. But her inspiration is far more global. The Mediterranean, Asia and France all make their way into dishes such as local cornmeal crepes with asparagus, spinach and herbed ricotta, or sweet potato gnocchi with pistachio and preserved lemon or beef sirloin with buckwheat spaetzle, fennel confit and shiitake mushroom. The dining room is simply, almost sparely, decorated.
• 1000 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout. 513-929-0525, www.dineatnectar.com
Italian food at its most refined, a chic dining room, a good selection of Italian wines, and a lovely small garden. For years, Nicola’s has been the only restaurant within blocks of its location – an old car barn on the corner of Liberty and Sycamore. It continues to create a small Italian world unto itself with delicious, full-flavored haute Italian: squid-ink-infused tagliolini with lobster and cauliflower, fresh fava beans with pecorino and croutons, risotto with truffle-infused mascarpone, Berkshire pork belly and grilled ramps. Owner Nicola Pietoso is the owner and host.
• 1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine. 513-721-6200, www.nicolasrestaurant.com.
Orchids at Palm Court
The room is magnificent, and the food lives up to it. The French Art Deco dining room with soaring ceilings, ornate decorations and a grand stairway to get to it is one of Cincinnati’s most precious treasures. The service is first-class, and the food from Chef Todd Kelly is wow! Lobster salad with a deep-fried poached egg, fresh mozzarella blown up into a balloon, local pork with smoked bacon and caramelized onion tart, greens and paprika sauce, salmon crusted with potatoes and served in a deeply-flavored ham hock broth with dried cherries. A tasting menu with wine pairings is available.
• In the Netherland Hilton Hotel, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown. 513-421-9100, www.orchidsatpalmcourt.com
A luxury restaurant in a luxury hotel with modern, creative cuisine. Chef Jose Salazar can take an unexpected turn with traditional fine-dining ingredients, like his beef tenderloin with seared foie gras, spinach puree, grits cake and short rib marmalade. Or make chicken a special meal by cooking it sous-vide and serving it with asparagus, morels, and black truffle-chicken jus. It also has excellent vegetarian options.
• 601 Vine St., Downtown. 513-381-3000, www.palacecincinnati.com