The arrival of Executive Chef Clinton Jones this spring was heralded as the beginning of a new culinary day at The Palace. In recent years, The Palace had lost some of its sizzle, suffering from high turnover in the kitchen and a seeming loss of focus.
The good news is that Jones' presence has definitely brought new creativity and excitement to the kitchen. The menu is full of unique ingredients and eclectic combinations, from the Trilogy of Chilled Soups (Golden Gazpacho with Grilled Tiger Prawn, Asian Pear with Coconut and Cumin Carrot) to the Michigan Lamb Rack (served with Eggplant Cannolis, Aubergine Mashed Potatoes, Candied Eggplant and Mint Sorbet).
Yet, there are some gaps in execution. On a recent weekend dinner, my experience was somewhat uneven; although the appetizers were excellent, the entrées fell short of greatness. Given The Palace's high prices, I certainly expected more.
As a critic, I am particularly unforgiving at higher-end restaurants. If an entrée costs almost $40 — and on top of that the server really talks it up — it had better knock my socks completely off.
We started with the alluringly exotic Coffee Rubbed Elk Carpaccio.
Definitely not something you see every day on a menu, this was, quite simply, exquisite ($14.95). The small, thin slices of elk meat were lean, tender and meltingly soft, with the coffee providing deep, mellow accents.
Our second appetizer, Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Roasted Kabocha Puree and Tahitian Vanilla Bean Basil Sauce ($16.95), was also excellent. The lobster claw was fresh tasting and perfectly cooked, nicely accented by the delicate melding of basil and vanilla (talk about unusual combinations) in the accompanying sauce.
On to the entrées. I let our cheery, polished server guide me toward the chef's signature dish: Whole Fried Yellowtail Snapper, with Chinese Longbeans, Shiitake Mushrooms, Cashews and Black Bean Sauce ($39.50). They really mean what they say here: I ended up with an entire fish on the plate, impressively frozen into an arched shape by the blast of the deep fryer.
I'm glad I tried it — I always like to sample a chef's signature dish as a way of penetrating his or her culinary point of view — but I wouldn't order this again. Unfortunately, the frying toughened up the snapper, robbing it of the delicacy and tenderness I expect from seafood. It also made it challenging to eat. I found myself picking away at the carcass for bits of dry, crunchy fish (it reminded me of eating a Cornish game hen — an awful lot of work for a meager payout). The accompanying Asian-inspired vegetables were richly flavored and delicious.
We also tried the Hanger Steak ($38.95), again enthusiastically recommended by our server. The portion was large, and the accompanying heirloom tomatoes and bleu cheese fritter were excellent, but my companion, a beef-loving Anglo who knows his way around a cow, pronounced the steak merely adequate. (Steak-and-kidney pie, blood sausage — you name it, if it once sported hooves, he'll eat it). He aptly noted that for the same money or less he could get a steak a few blocks away at Jeff Ruby's that would blow this one off the plate.
For dessert, I ordered the Mille Feuille ($8.50) with pistachio mascarpone cream, fresh strawberries, aged balsamic vinegar and lavender honey, served with vanilla ice cream. This attractively-stacked dessert was tongue-scrapingly rich. However, the density of the mascarpone combined with the dryness of the pistachios made it too dense and dry for me to really enjoy. Our second dessert, the Crème Brulée ($8.50), was excellent.
The setting at The Palace is one of restrained elegance, with the restaurant effectively split into two parts. The low-ceilinged area closer to Vine Street has a clubbier, more intimate feel than the part that's open to the soaring hotel atrium. Service was professional and attentive.
The Palace draws a moneyed, older crowd. A telltale sign of the clientele is found at the entrance, where a small tray is spread with an array of reading glasses for those who left theirs at home. (My prediction: Expect to see more of this in restaurants as legions of Baby Boomers simultaneously lose their memory and eyesight.)
Overall, the meal was not a bad experience, but it certainly wasn't an unforgettable one either. Dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, came to nearly $200.
There are certainly restaurants out there (some of them in Cincinnati) where I'd gladly pay this for a meal. The restaurant has to keep its end of the bargain, though, offering a palate-exploding, mind-expanding culinary experience. The Palace has some room to go before achieving this lofty goal. ©
Go: Cincinnatian Hotel, 601 Vine St., Downtown
Hours: 6-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Poultry, seafood