Anyone who's ever battled a revolving door or crammed into a small atrium knows that entrances are difficult. Entering Elliot Jablonski's newest venture, Bistro @ Harper's, is almost comically so. After finding the well hidden front door, we come in through the small entry with an arbitrary fish tank in the wall. Another door is to the right and, as a hostess tries in vain to hold both doors, we sort of pop through, right into the middle of the restaurant. All of this could be awkward, but it isn't. The hostess is smiling and the manager is very pleasant as he asks, "How many?"
The first thing you see is the kitchen line and a small bar over to the right. Servers and bussers bustle by as we wait and stay out of the way. After a few minutes we are ushered down the long corridor of tables, freestanding four-tops along the windows to the left and slightly elevated booths to the right. The elevated tables add variety and perspective. In fact, the whole place has an interesting look to it.
The interior borders on industrial; curves of copper mesh line the ceiling, a very cool twisted aluminum rod holds the spotlights above the window tables, and a length of aviation cable holds more lights above the bar. It's not cold though -- it seems somehow warm and cozy.
We are left alone for a little too long, but a friendly busser (I know they are actually called server assistants, but I'm old school) greets us with three waters. We open our funky, rubber-band-bound, rectangular menus and are all a little confused at first, but we have time to figure it out, as the server seems in no hurry.
If you want you can skip the first two pages of the menu unless, of course, you are counting carbs with Dr. Atkins. Then you should savor these pages.
Our waiter arrives, and we order Iced Tea. He tells about the special Pork Chops and scurries off. When he returns, he seems much more relaxed -- he had food to serve when we arrived, I think. We order "Snackattizers" (I'm not making that up) and decide on dinner.
Elliot's Original Crab Cake ($8.95) is beautifully presented on a bed of mixed greens and chow mein noodles. It is tender and has a lot of crab flavor -- maybe too crabby for some Midwestern palates. But the sweet, spicy Thai chili sauce balances it well.
Speaking of balance, Mama's Mozzarella Cakes ($6.50) are served -- rather spectacularly -- on white ying-yang plates, two cakes on the ying and two dipping sauces in the yang. Skip the ranch and dive into the roasted red pepper sauce, full of flavor and wonderful with the nutty risotto crust on the soft cheese cakes. We also have a cup of the Baked Potato soup ($3.25), which is very well spiced and very cheesy.
We order our dinners and wait a while for them. But I like it here -- it's cozy, the staff is nice and the guests all seem happy. Our wait is worth it. We couldn't pass on the Grilled Pork Chops with Root Beer BBQ sauce ($16.95), and it really is a lot of fun. The sauce is a bit too sweet and definitely saspirilly. Slightly garlic mashers and fresh veggies are all done right and perfectly seasoned.
A most genuine Chicken Marsala and Risotto ($14.95) is perfectly prepared with good marsala flavor, fresh mushrooms and properly chewy risotto. The chicken breast is whole and not pounded, which I think is better. The star at dinner, for me, is the Short Rib Roll ($17.95), braised and roasted beef (think pot roast here). Tender, with a small bone in it, with a sauce that's not quite gravy, not quite bordelaise, not quite demiglaze. Whatever it is, it's shiny and rich, a perfect accompaniment to the beef and the grilled asparagus that garnish the dish. It's fantastic.
We eat everything on the table and gluttonously order dessert. Chef Summer Vigus' Incredible Cheesecake ($5.95) changes daily: Tonight it's Pumpkin. It's good but tastes more to us like a ginger-orange cheesecake. However, the crown of the evening is the Crème Brulée Trio ($6.95). It also changes daily. Served in a wavy white plate with three channels in it, ours is chocolate turtle, vanilla and butterscotch. All three flavors are distinct, and the crust is just right.
As I sit here, full and happy, it occurs to me that this place has just the right balance of elements. Chef Allen Mullins is definitely not afraid of the spice rack. The food is all seasoned just right. And once the waiter relaxed a little, he was quite amiable. I'll be back.
Bistro @ Harper's
Go: 11384 Montgomery Road, Symmes Twp.
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 4-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Prices: Moderate
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Veggie plate