The Cincinnati foodie world buzzed this summer in anticipation of the opening of what promised to be an exceptional new venture in OTR. Word first came in August, in the form of a cryptic, free-verse poem delivered by managing partner Jim Cornwell to a handful of media types. Headlined by a chef most recently at a Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant and top staff from our city’s best dining spots, Cornwell soon provided a few more details. The new place would be a brasserie style, French-accented eatery at street level in the Rhinegeist building on Elm Street.
At the end of September, Sartre OTR made its debut. A few weeks later, we managed to score a table for four on a Saturday night — reserved well in advance — to see what all the commotion was about.
Before we took a single sip or bite, and in fact before seeing a menu, I could tell that Sartre could become one of our go-to OTR destinations. The vaulted ceilings, remarkable woodwork and indirect lighting create a feeling both majestic and intimate. To the left of the hosting station you’ll find a large bar with a variety of seating areas; to the right, the main dining room. Overall, you get the impression that you’re entering the grandest place in that part of town — or maybe in all of metro Cincinnati.
A host showed us to our table, where our friends awaited. We noticed the ample space between tables, which made it seem almost as if we had our own private dining area. Even when the room filled up, it never got too loud for civilized conversation.
We turned our thoughts to before-dinner drinks, and here, too, things looked promising. A dozen inventive house cocktails ($11-$12) graced the left column of the dinner menu; on the right side, a similar number of mostly French wine by the glass ($7-$16 for a glass of Champagne) vied for our attention. Our friends went with cocktails — a Negroni for Bob and a Manhattan-like drink called Sore Wounded for Patty. I tasted both and they were very well made.
As a rule, cocktails tempt me, but a mostly French wine list is catnip for this Francophile, especially when even the glass pours go far beyond typical choices. My husband and I therefore started with an Alsatian Riesling and a Loire Valley chenin blanc; later in the meal I had an absolutely lovely gamay from the Jura region, and he enjoyed a cabernet franc from the Loire.
On a subsequent visit for drinks at the bar we had the chance to talk with both the bar/cocktail director Joshua Miller and general manager/wine specialist Randy Diedling. A couple of passes through the drinks list testifies to their experience at many fine area restaurants and bars along with a dedication to finding the best spirits and wines to accompany the menu and the unique setting of Sartre.
After a few sips, we were primed to try the cooking of chef Justin Uchtman, a Cincinnati native who left that Michelin-starred San Francisco gig — the restaurant is called SPQR — to take the helm here. While the name Sartre, from the French playwright and philosopher, might indicate that the menu skews completely Gallic, not all the dishes go that way. In fact, the menu had us scratching our heads a bit, since it’s not organized like most fine-dining menus we’ve run across. And even within the subheadings of Vegetables, Grains, Fish, Meat and French(ish), many dishes may seem unfamiliar.
Our server supplemented the menu descriptions and indicated which ones other diners had especially liked. That was helpful, and you might want to waylay your server for similar guidance.
The four of us each started with something from the Vegetables section ($7-$14). My kabocha squash with pumpkin-seed pesto seemed more like a side than an appetizer, and was a little too filling as a starter. Patty had grilled lettuce with buttermilk dressing and prosciutto crisps and George went with something that went well with our drinks: beet jam with whipped goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts.
The star of this course, however, was Bob’s choice — roasted Brussels sprouts with thick-cut bacon and croutons. I hope this becomes a permanent menu item.
We didn’t quite know what to do for a “main” course, given options that ranged from country pâté, moules frites and steak frites in the French(ish) section to yellowfin tartar, “poisson frit” (quotation marks from the menu) and a $7 lamb poutine. Patty had read online that the poisson (fish) was prepared tempura style and had been a hit with some diners, so she tried it — a deal at $10.
George usually orders fish and, true to form, took the server’s suggestion for the roasted sea bass, the priciest menu item at $27. Bob and I each got something from the Grain section: farro for me and bulgar wheat for him ($13 each).
I thought the grain dishes were the most successful. Along with the Brussels sprouts, my overall favorite was the farro, which came with a large cluster of maitake mushroom resting on warm grains that had been seasoned with lardo and given crunchiness with chopped pistachios. The flavor and texture contrasts melded beautifully and the smallish portion was just right. The bulgar wheat dish was seasoned with pork belly and Green Goddess dressing and got its crunch from walnuts. I’m all about crunch as a flavor component, which these grain dishes delivered.
Both the fish entrées struck me as under-seasoned, with not enough salt on the fried fish and vegetables (and no shaker on the table) and the sea bass and its accompaniments tasted bland.
Dessert turned out fabulous. George and I split the buttermilk panna cotta, while Bob and Patty shared soft serve custard with Luxardo cherries and salted caramel ($7 each). We didn’t even get to try our server’s favorite, apple cake with butterscotch pudding, apple cider caramel and vanilla ice cream. Whatever you do if you eat at Sartre, save room for dessert.
Go: 1910 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine; Call: 513-579-1910; Internet: sartreotr.com; Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.