Some money clichés are patently false. For instance, "Early to bed and early to rise ..." Do you know anyone who attributes his health, wealth or wisdom to such a dull practice? Or "Money makes the world go around." Absolute poppycock. But there is one financial adage I swear by now: "You get what you pay for." At Brown Dog Café, you certainly get what you pay for. It's the brainchild of Mary Swortwood, who also created Tink's in Clifton, then sold it to return her focus to Brown Dog.
Don't be put off by the surrealistic location of this toney boîte: It's tucked into an otherwise banal strip mall, behind a Bob Evans, right off I-71 — in other words, the last place you'd expect to find a nice restaurant. But all you have to do is step inside, and you might as well be in Boston or Vancouver.
The cosmopolitan atmosphere comes from the muted colors and especially the lighting — funky but charming hand-blown multicolored fixtures rim the bar, while rice-paper lanterns the shape of inverted Sydney Opera Houses festoon the dining area. The "abstract" paintings on the walls seemed to have been created just to match the furnishings; they aren't really art. My brother said they should have been playing cool Jazz guitar in the background by the upscale looks of the place. Instead, they had a low-level canned Pop music piped in. No matter. We didn't come for the art or the tunes.
I'll say right off the bat that everything we ate tasted delicious. We had Holiday Gnocchi ($8) and Brown Dog Fries ($4) for starters: The fries arrived in a tall, paper-wrapped glass with a trio of condiments, including the most heavenly cumin-laced mayonnaise. The gnocchi came with Portobello mushrooms and Fontina cheese and miraculously avoided that treacherous pitfall — stickiness. These delightful dumplings melted in the mouth.
The entrées continued the scrumptious pleasure parade. My older nephew ordered the African-style lamb ($23), which arrived in a lovely stack, underpinned with lentil confit, chutney and the de rigueur mint. He pronounced it yummy. My brother chose the menu's only veggie entrée, the Farfalle Pasta ($15). It, too, tasted great — topped by Gorgonzola cream sauce with a powerful red-pepper flavor. My younger nephew boldly opted for the Steak au Poivre ($24), waiting till after the waitress left to ask what "poivre" meant. It did come bathed in pepper, and, cooked to perfection, elicited a rave from that picky diner. I got the Pecan-Coated Chicken Breast ($16) with chèvre mashed potatoes and tender baby green beans: AbFab. Desserts proved no disappointment, either: We had a pecan pie ($7.50) and the Turtle Sundae ($8.95), both heart-stopping, in every way. We all judged the presentation of every dish to be elegant but not showy or self-conscious.
The mutating menu also features a wide variety of seafood and salads, many of which have a Moroccan-ish cast, with ingredients like squash and chilies and grapes. The cuisine is, however, resolutely meat-based. The wine list's size and range left us speechless.
I cannot praise too much the warmth and skill of the service. My first inkling of the friendliness of the place came when I called for reservations, and the hostess proceeded to chat merrily on the phone for a minute. Judging by her personable demeanor, I expected a more modest place, but the down-to-earth amiability of the staff belied the upscale decor.
High-quality service; high-caliber cuisine ... yes, it's true; for this kind of evening, you gotta pay the piper. The place is pricey. So what? So, don't go eat there every night. But by all means, do go there and enjoy a restaurant experience that proves that good planning and investment in the right places pays off. They have fantastic chefs, excellent staff and an attractive dining room that makes you forget that Office Max is right next door. For that kind of enchantment you can expect to outlay a little green. ©
Go: 5893 Pfeiffer Road, Blue Ash
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Limited to pasta, and a few salads and appetizers.
Other: Reservations recommended.