Located on a hip and happening block of Covington's Main Street, the Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar is a pleasant surprise. In fact, in the incestuous world of Greater Cincinnati dining, Bouquet is a thriving branch covered with shiny leaves: It sits opposite Dee Felice and right next door to local favorite Otto's.
Stephen Williams, Bouquet's owner and chef, was previously sous chef at Otto's. The owners of Otto's live in the space above the restaurant, and Williams lives in the space above Bouquet. It's a big, happy, well-fed family.
The dining area at Bouquet is a relatively small and intimate space, really just a handful of tables bordered on one side by an attractive curving bar -- brick-walled, comfortable and pleasant. My dining companion and I are offered any table we like, and we make our way to the back of the restaurant, hoping that we feel the sub-zero temperature less the further away from the door we sit.
In its joint venture as both a restaurant and wine bar, Williams has approached both concerns in such a way that they build on and complement one another extremely well. This is obvious from the moment one takes a look at the menu.
(For more on the wine operations, see Michael Schiaparelli's review of his visit here.)
For appetizers, we opt to share a Cheese Plate ($10), which includes a New York cheddar, a sage derby, a smoked mozzarella and a Spanish drunken goat cheese served with crackers, chutney and slices of Granny Smith apple. The complex flavors of the cheeses complement our first glasses of wine perfectly, opening up in the mouth with a sip of a big red.
The Caesar Salad ($5) is fresh and tasty, and the Roasted Red Pepper Soup ($4) is intensely flavorful and satisfying, served with a topping of a pinch of mixed greens and a swirl of pesto oil. The soup had a thinner consistency than I might have hoped for, but somehow the chef managed to thin the soup out without losing any of its serious flavor.
Served with roasted vegetables cooked in a flavorful and herb-filled red wine reduction, the New Zealand Lamb Chops ($25) are sublime. Two generous hand-sized chops, each 1 1/2 inches thick with its own nice slender curved piece of rib attached. The meat is packed with flavor and tastes fresh and healthy. With the arrival of the lamb, I spot perhaps my only complaint of the night. The meat is rare. In the middle of the cut it is bloody and red. Fortunately, I don't mind it served like this, but many people don't.
When I first cut into the lamb, I am reminded that the server never asked how I wanted it cooked. My parents refuse to eat anything that hasn't been cooked for so long that it mostly resembles charcoal. I have seen my father eat meat that I would only consider drawing with. I make a mental note never to bring them here if they visit.
The Pan-Seared Salmon ($21) with roasted fennel and green beans is also wonderful -- bright pink and perfectly cooked, it has lost none of its moisture. With a little pressure from the fork, it falls into meaty pink flakes on the plate. It is served atop mandolin-cut creamy potatoes that wonderfully complement the sweet flesh of the salmon.
The wines keep on coming, and the service is patient and non-intrusive. In fact, aside from some clumsy and unfortunate mispronunciations of grape varietals -- it's cabernet; if I want a "cabaret," I'll go to the theater -- the service really can't be faulted.
For dessert, we enjoy two tall steaming cups of coffee ($2) and an order of the Apple-Cranberry Bread Pudding ($6). Served with a thick butter sauce, it is delicious. If I had ordered my meal in reverse, I might have gone no further than this. In fact, I might have ordered three servings of it.
It's worth a return visit by itself, but the lamb, which is some of the best I've eaten in the city, just might bring me back, too.©
BOUQUET RESTAURANT AND WINE BAR Critic's Pick
Go: 519 Main St., Covington
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Wine bar open until 1 a.m.
Entrée Prices: $10-$25
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Some vegetarian, chicken and seafood options.
Accessibility: Fully accessible.