Diner: Blind Ambition

Café St. George might be trying to do too much too soon

The owners of Café St. George must be filled with blind ambition. In their first run at owning and operating a restaurant (the family business is Thoma Opticians), they have opened with a busy, upscale menu that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. And that might be part of the problem.

Although restaurant dining encompasses an entire experience of service, food and ambience, the menu sets the tone for nearly everything else in the dining room. The menu for Café St. George is so overly eager to please every taste, the result is a chaotic listing of rather pedestrian dishes.

Poorly conceived menus are one of the prime reasons restaurants close. Para-mount to opening a restaurant is a well-defined concept — you can't be all things to all people — and the team to execute it. Secondly, good menu design must be both cost-effective and capable of catching the customer's eye. A menu should sell the dishes rather than merely list them.

My dinner companion and I were under-enthused as we perused the dinner menu at Café St. George, partially due to too many choices (at least 18 entrées).

More importantly, not a single stand-out dish caught our eye.

I love sesame seed encrusted Seared Ahi Tuna ($10.95), but perhaps it's time for Cincinnati diners to say enough is enough. Must it be the poster child for all appetizer menus? Add crab cakes, fried calamari, shrimp cocktail and bruschetta, and I'm ready for a new relationship. Of course, as a reviewer I try to sample a variety of choices, so we did order the Ahi Tuna — and enjoyed it. I wish I could say the same about the Potato Soup ($2.95) that was uninspiring and reminded me of chain-food. I suspect it was a pre-made base with a few chopped potatoes and celery added. If not, the chef should attend Soup 101.

On a Saturday at 8:45 p.m., a casual upscale restaurant — especially in Hyde Park where dining out is customary — is ordinarily at least half full. When we arrived, we were led past 12 people in the front dining room to the back of the restaurant, several feet away from the kitchen door with only two other diners in the large room — Dining Siberia as it were. Although the busser greeted us immediately to fill our water glasses, no server appeared for at least 10 minutes. Positioned at the back of a cavernous empty restaurant with apparently no one interested in us, the evening was not getting off to a good start. Memorable food could save it. It didn't.

We split the most interesting salad on the menu: a Spinach Salad ($7.95) tossed with Gorgonzola, Strawberries, Walnuts and dressed with Raspberry Vinaigrette. (Other standards include Caesar, Greek, house and iceberg wedge.) Spinach leaves with their long stems attached had too little gorgonzola (a few miniscule crumbles) and way too much dressing. Potentially good, but reduced to banquet quality.

If Café St. George has a niche, it's in their proud proclamation that "We feature Stockyard Beef from Chicago," a USDA Prime and Certified Angus beef that is from corn-fed stock and naturally aged to produce particularly flavorful and juicy cuts.

My dinner companion chose a medium-rare Center Cut Filet ($26.95) served with mashed potatoes and vegetables. He thought the filet was quite good and the steamed green beans were adequate, but the mashed potatoes were bland from lack of seasoning, plus thick and dry from lack of cream and/or butter.

Sea Bass ($23.95), poppy seed encrusted over pasta with lobster, asparagus marinated watercress and lemon butter sauce, sounded promising, but shared the same banquet quality. The sea bass itself arrived as a large 6 oz. square of sushi, rolled in the poppy seeds and warmed, but little else. The lobster claw meat was tender and sweet, lemon butter sauce was tasty, but enough to drown the poor bass. I sent the fish back and asked for it to be cooked to medium rare, but it returned only slightly warmer with an additional ladle of sauce and ... the wrong sauce, an obviously different sauce containing yogurt. Shouldn't the server have caught this?

I was convinced the chef was banquet trained and asked the server who the chef was. The server knew his first name, guessed at the last name ("Smith?") adding he thought he came from a restaurant in Covington. A server who doesn't know who is in the kitchen and preparing the food he is selling — oops, I mean serving — should not be on the floor. A follow-up question to the owner revealed the chef came from Michael G's (known for banquets) and was not a Smith.

Dessert — two layers of chocolate mousse on a nut crust — was the one memorable dish, very good and obviously house-made.

We certainly wish for Café St. George to succeed. But to stay competitive, they'll need to kick it up several notches: I'd suggest they train the serving staff adequately, drop the weekday breakfasts and open up some time for the kitchen to breathe and sharpen their skills. ©

Café St. George
Go: 2724 Erie Ave., Hyde Park

Call: 513-321-7100

Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; Closed Monday.

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: All major credit cards accepted.

Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of salads, fish and chicken

Accessibility: Front door and restrooms.

Grade: C-

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