Diner: Frowning Upon Pretension

The Phoenix offers service and civility from another era

I keep thinking about a recent dinner I had at the Phoenix, sifting through what it was that I enjoyed so much about my experience. The attentive, professional service? The comfortable, old-world décor and atmosphere? The expertly prepared and delicious food?

Yes, yes and yes. But there is something else going on at the Phoenix — an agreeable (and increasingly rare) sensation of uniqueness and authenticity, a strong sense of place and history, and a commitment to service and civility that harks back to another era. The Phoenix, open since 1990, is located in a building with a distinguished history. This grand Italian Renaissance structure built in 1893 was designed by Samuel Hannaford, also architect for City Hall and Music Hall; it first housed the Phoenix Club, a Jewish Businessmen's Club, and was later taken over by the nearby Cincinnati Club.

In the wrong hands, this lofty pedigree could have spawned a snobfest of culinary pretension. The Phoenix, however, has done an outstanding job of leveraging this history to deliver a sophisticated yet approachable fine dining experience.

As the menu declares, "We frown upon pretension and try not to take ourselves too seriously. If you wish to speak with a sommelier, or inquire about our Mobil rating, you have arrived at the wrong restaurant, for we have neither." I love this attitude.

We started with the Portobello Mushroom Stuffed with Artichoke Hearts and Parmesan Cheese ($6.95) and the Beef Tenderloin Kebabs with Sesame Dipping Sauce ($7.95). The artichoke hearts paired well with the mushroom. The kebabs were not quite as successful; they arrived at our table lukewarm, and the meat was somewhat tough.

Entrées were outstanding. I enjoyed the Pecan Crusted Trout with Chile-Coriander Butter and Sautéed Mixed Greens ($15.95). I've eaten a lot of something-crusted-whatevers over the years and, more often than not, have judged these bland. The Phoenix's execution set a new standard, with large bits of pecan giving an interesting texture and appearance and the heat from the chilies providing considerable excitement.

My companions devoured their Roasted Salmon with Leek and Lemongrass Cream, Salmon Roe and Asparagus ($16.95), and Rack of Lamb, Dijon-Oregano Rubbed, with Minted Feta Sauce with Sautéed Mixed Greens ($26.95). The salmon was perfectly cooked, fresh tasting and well complemented by the delicate leek and lemongrass cream sauce. The lamb was a quality cut of meat, perfectly cooked and nicely accented by the unusual version of mint sauce.

Desserts ($5.95-$6.95) were equally good. The highlight was Strawberries Flambéed in Gran Marnier, served over pound cake with ice cream (a dusting of cracked pepper gave an unexpected sparkle and snap). The Caramel Apple Cheesecake and Chocolate Hazelnut Torte also disappeared quickly.

Service was very good. A pet peeve of mine is having the pace and timing of a meal driven by the server or the kitchen, not by me (I know I'm not the only one to experience that unpleasant sensation of being pushed — hounded to order as soon as I sit down, of entrées being dumped regardless of salads or appetizers being finished). I did not get even a whiff of this at the Phoenix, with our server instead letting the meal unfold at our pace and overseeing our experience in a friendly, professional and unobtrusive manner. Four of the servers have worked there since 1990 — incredible in the restaurant world where rapid employment churn is the norm. One of the longstanding staff, Chase Mulholland, has a beautiful stentorian voice that he puts to use often, singing obligatory tableside Happy Birthdays, but also crooning sweet requests for anniversary couples, romantics and regulars.

Although many people don't know the Phoenix, some smart people clearly have it figured out. The place has a devoted following who know a good thing when they get it. Eileen Shannon, the Phoenix's restaurant manager and also 14-year veteran, reports it's not uncommon on a typical night to have half of the dining room populated by regulars and familiar faces.

Ensconced comfortably in a lovely turn-of-the-century setting of dark woods and long draperies, a belly full of good food, listening to Mulholland channel Frank Sinatra, it hits me: I love this place. I want to come back. I want to bring friends or a date. The Phoenix often gets named as one of the city's most romantic restaurants and I see why — this place has real feeling and substance. ©

The Phoenix Restaurant
Go: 812 Race St., Downtown

Call: 513-721-8901

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday-Tuesday.

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: Visa, MasterCard and American Express

Red Meat Alternatives: Numerous fish entrées, pasta

Accessibility: Yes, via elevator on Ninth Street side of the building. Valet parking available at same entrance.

Grade: A