Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jean-Robert's Lavomatic Restaurant

One of the best things about living in Cincinnati is that Jean-Robert de Cavel lives here too. That sounds like I'm some sort of stalker-like freak, but this man is a reknown French chef who is giving Cincinnati what it has been desperate for for years: excellent restaurants in all price ranges. And they are French restaurants to boot, so I can get a regular French cuisine fix. His are not chains restaurants, nor are they all haute cuisine, but unique neighborhood spots. His Jean-Robert at Pigall's was recently named one of the top 11 restaurants in the country, and it is the only 4 Mobil star restaurant in the state of Ohio. I'm sure the 5th star is coming soon. Bravo Jean-Ro!!

His restaurants include: Pigall's for high end French fare, Jean-Ro bistro for typical Parisian bistro food, Greenup Café for French café fare including great breakfast pastries, Chalk (which I still have to go to, it is new) and the newest of the bunch: Lavomatic.

My husband and I went to Lavomatic (the French word for "laundromat", which the restaurant used to be) over the weekend, not knowing what to expect. We had heard the menu included "hearty French fare" and we knew that it was one of the new establishments in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood (which doesn't have a warm and fuzzy reputation) which is being renovated as the Gateway Quarter. Other than that, we went in blind.

Lavomatic, which only opened a few weeks ago, takes reservations from 5 - 6:30 p.m., after that seating is first-come first-served. Since we have to line up babysitting (and the moon and the stars) to get out of the house, we reserved at 6:30. A bit "early bird special", but it worked for us. When we arrived at the restaurant, the downstairs was already full, so they brought us upstairs. Much to our surprise, we the only diners upstairs, so it seemed a bit cold and lonely up there. I guess someone has to arrive first, though! The décor in the entire restaurant was clean yet rather stark: celery colored walls, white chandeliers, bamboo floors and tables, it was very light which was nice but we agreed the place could probably use a splash of color here and there for visual warmth. Another "ambiance" problem: we couldn't hear the music upstairs, and our waiter said they were working that kink out, but we felt a bit like we were placed in the "naughty chair" by Supernanny herself, all alone upstairs with no music.

Our waiter was good, he could explain the menu fairly well. We started with the charcuterie plate, which included saucisson, mousse de foie and country paté as well as a proscuitto-type ham. It was served with toasted baguette slices, country mustard and some pickled vegetables. It was excellent, not at all unlike something I would have at a restaurant in France.

The service became spotty once the dishes started coming out. We had multiple people bringing things up to us, and it seemed as though none were really sure who was supposed to do what. Our appetizer dishes remained on the table while they were trying to give us our first course, which led to a lot of dish-passing between us and them. They left a few dirty appetizer dishes on the table after serving the main course, which wasn't very appetizing. I'm confident this is a kink that will be worked out, because it's oh-so-very not "Jean -Robert".

For our main courses, my husband had the shellfish medley for $17. It was very much like a French bouillabaisse (calamari, shrimp and mussels in a very nicely flavored broth), but on the menu it said it came with "rouille". Rouille, from what I know, is usually a mayonnaise based sauce that they serve in France with bouillabaisse, along with some croutons. Think aioli. But there was no rouille with this medley, so I'm not sure what the rouille was supposed to be. The medley was good, my husband's only problem was getting a good flavor of the broth. The dish wasn't served with a spoon and the seafood wasn't soaking in the broth, so he tried to do it with bread. Next time, we'll ask for a spoon if they don't offer it themselves.

I ordered the Roasted Salmon for $18. It was served over Israeli couscous and covered with preserved lemon and a very light beurre blanc sauce. The mixture of the tart lemon (which also tasted salty) with the sauce was excellent and the salmon was done just perfectly. It literally melted in my mouth. I would definitely order that again. I finished my meal before my husband, and as the waiter was reaching to take my plate away he immediately asked if we wanted dessert. This is one of my restaurant pet peeves, when everyone is not yet finished with their main course and the waiter is already asking for dessert orders. Again, not very Jean-Robert.

Lo and behold, the best part of our meal was in fact the dessert. I truly think that my dessert was the best restaurant dessert I've ever had in Cincinnati, and that includes in the famed Pigall's. I ordered the chocolate torte with laurel creme anglaise for $7. This torte was like none I've ever had: melty and smooth in the middle yet not served warm, and clearly made with a high quality chocolate. There was a dash of fleur de sel on top which was genius, the pastry chef should be paraded about the restaurant for that idea! I devoured it, it was so delicious. My husband had the creme brulée infused with mint and chocolate madeleines on the side. Again, a home run. We kept going between each other's desserts in awe. High-five to the pastry chef at Lavomatic, every restauranteur should wish she was on their team. The only dowside to dessert, the waiter left with our dessert orders without asking if we'd like coffee or tea. And he never did ask, so we never brought it up. There's something about the power of suggestion that really works, especially when it comes to coffee with dessert.

In the end, the bill was moderate. We each had two glasses of wine (wine list is VERY impressive, especially by the glass), we shared a first course, had two main courses and two desserts, and our bill came to $98. We thought that was a very fair price for the wonderful meal we had just had. Hopefully the music will come on upstairs and the service will get a bit more on top of things, but since this is a very new restaurant I can cut them some slack.

I'll definitely be back!

Address: 1211 Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine
Phone: 513-621-1999
Hours: Opens at 11:30 a.m. for lunch Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. for brunch Saturday and Sunday; kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. Sunday though Thursday, 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The kitchen will also serve a limited late-night menu.

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