Years ago, the area near Twelfth and Vine Streets in Over-the-Rhine was a grimy, dangerous scene. At night, the unnerving sound of gunfire often echoed off the Italianate-style buildings like popcorn. By 2006, phase one of the Gateway Quarter redevelopment plan was well underway. Crime quickly gave way to safer, brightly lit streets. Hints of a flourishing arts district soon took root. Emerging from “The Quarter’s” fresh renovation came its first new restaurant, Lavomatic Cafe, a name that pays homage to its predecessor, a laundromat.
The Gateway Quarter is now a bustling, fashionable hot spot, riddled with eclectic shops and high-end eateries. Lavomatic might have been the first restaurant to brave this new frontier, but today it shares the street with the likes of Senate, A Tavola, Bakersfield OTR, Abigail Street and Taste of Belgium. With a new remodel completed in July, the four-year-old cafe is out to prove it’s far from washed up.
This month, Lavomatic was among 20 restaurants taking part in the annual Downtown Restaurant Week, presented by DoDowntownCincinnati.com. Each restaurant offered a $35 dinner deal, giving us the perfect opportunity to explore Lavomatic’s new digs and tweaked menu offerings.
The cafe has cycled through several different décors, menus and chefs in its four years. The latest remodel rinses away once bright-green walls, showcasing a darker, cozier, retro-chic ambiance. The new bar’s combination of decorative tin and orange-hued Rookwood tiles makes it a worthy setting for a Steven Soderbergh film. The popular rooftop terrace still offers coveted Vine Street views.
We were presented with both the Downtown Restaurant Week three-course menu and Lavomatic’s standard, newly revised menu. “Spin Cycle,” “Washboard” and “‘Clothes Line.”
Our three-course journey began with the Goat Cheese Créme Brûlée, a golfball-sized orb of goat cheese infused with roasted garlic and leeks, resting against a smear of bacon jam and mission fig compote. The dish came presented with toasted pita wedges dusted with either savory herbs or cinnamon and sugar. The hand-torched, hard outer shell of the cheese easily gave way under the pressure of the pita bread, its intermittently smooth and crunchy caramelization a delicious, piquant sensation accentuated by a slathering of the salty, addictive bacon jam. The sweeter, less complex fig compote paired especially well with the cinnamon-sugar dusted pita.
For our second course, I challenged my carnivorous ways with a vegan-friendly Vegetable Spaghetti and “Meat Balls,” long, thinly-sliced zucchini, yellow squash and carrots serving as the “spaghetti” topped by two dirty rice-black bean “meat balls” showered in a robust tomato sauce. My girlfriend opted for the Smoked Tomato Salad with Blackened Chicken, featuring romaine and mixed greens, grilled corn and red onions, yellow and red grape tomatoes, chili-lime black beans, cilantro, Cotija cheese and a smoked tomato dressing, all abutting layered slices of chilled chicken breast.
The hearty tomato flavor of my dish was a particular highlight, with bits of sun-dried tomato adding a sharpness reminiscent of the olive tang from a fine puttanesca. The dirty rice and black bean meat balls were crispy on the outside with a soft core, similar to Italian arancini.
My girlfriend’s chicken breast was less successful –— the meat’s chilled preparation lent it a lunchmeat feel, its blackened flavor largely absent. If it had been freshly cooked or had been served at room temperature, the result may have been more appealing. Her salad was a delightful, zesty blend of crisp veggies in a light, smoky dressing.
For dessert, our server presented a single plate with a sampling of Lavomatic’s sweets: a Derby Bourbon Ball with Creme Fraîche, a Chocolate Walnut Coconut Date Bite, a Basil Corn Cookie and a small tuft of Chocolate Mousse. The basil kick and corn grittiness of the crisp sugar cookie made it the surprise favorite.
Lavomatic’s latest makeover boasts a fresh, clean menu that, with a few adjustments, won’t leave patrons hanging out to dry.
Go: 1211 Vine St., Over-the Rhine
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday