From our window-side table in Palomino Euro Bistro, my sister and I gaze out at the construction project that once was and will again be Fountain Square. A lone security guard aimlessly makes the rounds, bending over every now and then to pick up a piece of rubble and toss it with the air of a jilted lover.
But then maybe that air is only a projection of my own. It was here I fell in love with mojitos on lazy Sunday afternoons spent in the company of a girlfriend whose husband, then a chef here, would cook elaborate feasts just for us.
The couple has since moved to San Francisco, and I'm just back to Cincinnati after two years on the West Coast. In the spirit of change, I don't order the mojito. Instead, I try the elegant 10 Sage Martini ($7.95): Tanqueray 10 shaken with fresh sage, lime sour and passion fruit alize. My sister sips on a City Sidecar ($7.75) bursting with fresh orange, and we turn our gazes inside to observe Urban Friday Night in full effect.
There's an hour wait for dining room seating, and the lounge is packed. A group of 12 who probably made last-minute reservations are seated out beyond the entrance by the escalator leading up to the entrance of Macy's.
Inside the lounge, warm Tuscan hues, marble tabletops and dark wood keep a straight face beneath oversized pink, blown-glass chandeliers. The white-tablecloth dining room is more serene, tucked between the display kitchen and massive windows and capped by a big Matisse reproduction at the far end.
The Seattle-based franchise describes itself as an "upbeat city restaurant" with "European-inspired regional American cuisine." Besides several West Coast locations, it finds welcome homes in smaller Midwestern cities like Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
In addition to checking out the latest trends in mixology, the wood-fired brick oven and Italian-style rotisserie are the main reasons to visit. Fresh fish, meat and poultry emerge from the flames with delicious smokiness and are served with appropriately rustic flavor combinations.
The recent addition of brunch on weekends is one more reason. Quiche with Wine Salami and Swiss Cheese ($9.95), light and fluffy from top to bottom, is paired with a woodsy salad of gorgonzola-roasted mushrooms and mesculin greens. The current version of French Toast ($8.95) is the essence of fall: thick baguette slices basted with pecan butter and topped with apricot-maple syrup. And the Bloody Marys are sublime.
Servers are generally competent and knowledgeable, although in three visits, someone else's food was twice mistakenly delivered to my table.
Tonight, we start with Baby Field Greens with Chevre and Pumpkin Seeds ($5.95), pleasantly understated, dressed only in extra virgin olive oil. From a selection of Roman-style pizzas cooked in the brick oven, our Four Cheese ($10.50) is great: a thin, golden crust erupting with flavorful char bubbles, topped with fiery basil-roasted garlic and a thin layer of fontina, asiago, mozzarella and parmesan sprinkled with chili flakes.
For entrées, we try the Rotisserie Pork Chop ($18.50) and Prawn Tortellini ($17.50). The chop itself is flavorful and moist, natural juice surfacing with every puncture of the knife. But the other elements of the plate are poorly executed. Tender morsels of braised pork are nestled in a ragout of root vegetables chopped too small and overcooked. And a mound of wilted Swiss chard arrives flavorless and at room temperature.
As for the tortellini, we chose it on the enthusiastic recommendation of our server and wish we'd trusted our intuition that pasta is not Palomino's forte. Four garlicky, seared prawns are delicious, but the cheese inside the tortellini is weirdly starchy and dense, and the tomato cream sauce is as uninteresting as it is rich. We leave too full to try Palomino's signature dessert of Chocolate Tiramisu ($7.50).
I wish I had a more concrete conclusion, but in my experience food can be hit-or-miss, especially when Palomino is busy. I came back for lunch on a weekday, and I'm glad I can leave you with a happy ending. And here it is, from the list of specials that day: Wild Smoked Salmon ($15.95) perfectly seared, served with plump oven-dried tomatoes rolling out of blacked skins, brussel sprouts, marinated mushrooms and spicy rosemary lemon butter. ©
Palomino Euro Bistro
Go: Fountain Place, 505 Vine St., Downtown
Hours: Brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday; Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, with bar hours until 12 m. Sunday-Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, fish, pizza and pasta
Accessibility: Fully accessible