Diner: Dial Down the Horsepower

Parkers' equestrian theme clashes with solid menu

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Restaurants are like relationships — it's all about the right fit. Midway through dinner at Parkers Blue Ash Grill on a recent Friday, I realized that things between Parkers and me really weren't working out: There just wasn't any chemistry.

I know it's shallow — beauty, I'm told, is more than skin deep — but what set me off was the décor. The restaurant has a highly developed equestrian theme throughout, with saddles, stirrups, racing memorabilia and horse racing photos and paintings all over the walls.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against horses. Quite the opposite. I used to ride a lot while living in Vermont a few years back, and I loved absolutely everything about it — the graceful sense of athletic communion, the musky sweat-and-leather smell of the tack room, the headlong excitement of thundering over field and stream...

It's just that the equine theme at Parkers felt forced, like it had been carried a country mile too far. I kept asking myself: What does this horsy get-up have to do with a restaurant anyway? And with this restaurant?

Blue Ash is definitely out in the 'burbs, but it's not as if it's in the middle of hunt country.

As it turns out, there is a connection: Horses were a real passion of the owner, and the restaurant's décor is a nod to this as well as to Cincinnati's proximity to Kentucky Bluegrass Country, a few hours south. Still, it felt like window dressing to me. Except for a few cutesy menu categories — "Out of the Gate" for appetizers, "Photo Finish" for desserts — there wasn't much connecting the stuff hanging on the walls with the food coming out of the kitchen.

When a restaurant adopts a theme, and particularly when it carries it to the degree that Parkers has, I expect it to show up in the menu, creating an integrated and holistic dining experience. Parkers, however, serves up a fairly typical surf-and-turf steakhouse fare, offering a range of salads, steaks, chops, fish and seafood.

But when it comes to restaurants, just as in life, there's someone for everyone, and there are clearly lots of folks who enjoy and keep coming back to Parkers. That Friday night found the place fairly busy — particularly the restaurant's several banquet rooms.

Parkers does a brisk business in business dinners during the week, while cranking out birthdays, anniversaries and bar mitzvahs on the weekends. The restaurant is owned by a Cleveland group that has 20 different properties across the U.S. It's been open in Blue Ash since 2000, when it took over the site of the former James Tavern.

When it came time to eat, I did my best to put aside my equine issues and focus on the food. I was pleasantly surprised. We started with the energetically named Parkers Dynamite Sticks ($7.95). This different and tasty appetizer was made with rolled flat bread that had been stuffed with a mix of shrimp, smoked bacon, andouille sausage, red peppers and four cheeses. The long, skinny rolls had been deep fried and came with a spicy tomato cheese dipping sauce. They were cheesy and hot, with a nice amount of spice.

We also had the tasty Crab Cakes ($9.25), which came with a spicy remoulade sauce and a small serving of field greens. Quite good, they had been fried until crispy on the outside and were nicely moist on the inside.

For my entrée, I had the Parkers Tuscan Chicken ($16.95). This pan-roasted chicken breast was served on a decadently rich bed of creamed spinach made with parmesan and mascarpone cheeses. The chicken, although delicious, was a little dry. It came with an ample side of flavorful redskin smashed potatoes.

My companion ordered the 6-ounce Filet Mignon ($22.95). Although excellent, the temperature was a little off; ordered medium rare, it came out more rare than medium. If you're hungry, I'd go for the 10-ounce, a better value for only $7 more.

Desserts are a definitely a strong suit. I ordered the Parkers Brûlée Cheesecake ($5.95), a New York-style cheesecake with a crunchy brûlée coating on top. Made on the premises, it has a very light, almost whipped texture. It was flavorful, not overly sweet and very fresh — truly an exceptional dessert. The Godiva Chocolate Ganache Cake ($5.95), was also good and very chocolatey, but it didn't achieve the same lofty heights.

Service was a little rocky at first (our server was juggling our table and a 10-top that had arrived at the same time) but quickly smoothed out to an appropriate level.

Parkers certainly has succeeded in creating a comfortable and welcoming environment. There's a big fireplace in the dining room and a roomy bar with live Jazz on weekends. Outside is a pleasant patio under the trees.

In the end, however, I think Parkers is somewhat constrained by the herd of horses inhabiting the place. To me, its décor limits its appeal, distracts attention from the quality of its food and could be preventing it from developing a broader and perhaps younger following. ©

Parkers Blue Ash Grill
Go: 4200 Cooper Road, Blue Ash

Call: 513-891-8300

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday; Dinner: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Salads, chicken, seafood

Accessibility: Yes

Grade: B

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