Diner: Newport Off the Levee

York Street Café has home-style food with plenty of charm

My favorite Newport destination is the cultural equivalent of the food pyramid, with actual food at the bottom, music and performance art in the middle and visual art at the top. You can juggle the nutritional value according to your preferences.

I'm not talking about Newport on the Levee, but York Street Café, eight blocks away. Emphasizing Middle Eastern, Asian and vegetarian cuisine, it offers home-style food with plenty of charm. There's no Game Works, but you will find miniature bowling in the loft. And you can rest assured you won't be admonished by lawsuit-weary security guards if your boyfriend gives you a piggy-back ride, an actual experience on the Levee's stairs.

In the first-floor dining room, owners Betsy and Terry Cunningham's collections of everything from Buddha heads to Pez dispensers to kitschy ceramic panthers are whimsically displayed in cabinets from the pharmacy that once occupied the 1880 building. Any flea market junkie will find something to drool over and, for everyone else, there's a display of decadent desserts reminding you to "save room."

Upstairs is a lounge that once housed headquarters of the Newport Fraternal Order of Eagles. Here, you can sit on wooden pews and listen to original music or retreat for some quality time in the unisex restroom. Scale yet another flight of stairs to check out the current show in the third-floor gallery.

Besides pastry chef Anabel Stolley's famed finales, I love York Street's "Conversation Platters," best shared with friends and wine, and especially nice when the garden patio opens up in the spring. These include two awesome cheese platters ($16) — Brie Encroute and Swiss Fondue — with assorted fruits, nuts and breads, and a delicious Mediterranean Board ($18).

On a recent weeknight, I introduced the café to an old friend who's new to Cincinnati. We caught up over a leisurely dinner — fast is one thing York Street ain't — then headed upstairs to check out an improv comedy troupe, Wit's End. They had their moments, but my friend and I were more entertained by our somewhat hyperactive server, who welcomed us by asking whether we wanted "comfortable" or "uncomfortable" seats.

When we started to order, he began to jump around nervously. I assumed he'd forgotten his notepad or something. But he proudly informed us that he never writes anything down. Rather, he thought we'd noticed shards of espresso embedded in his shirt from a mishap with an explosive espresso machine. When he walked away, I commented that perhaps he'd had more than his allotment of employee espressos that night.

We started with creamy Baba Gannouj ($5) and warm pita triangles, followed by specialty salads, included with entrées for an extra $2.50. The Spinach Salad is a classic mix of applewood smoked bacon, hard boiled eggs, mushrooms and warm bacon vinaigrette. The Greek Salad, with kalamata olives, red onions, peppers, pepperoncinis, feta cheese and balsamic dressing, is equally delightful. So much so that it took me a while to realize I'd never gotten a Heineken ($3.50) ordered 10 minutes prior. When I asked our server if he remembered, he replied with a sheepish smile and unabashed "No," and quickly retrieved it. (So much for not writing anything down).

Entrée prices — $13 to $25 — seemed steeper than I remembered. I went with Sea Scallops ($24) and was impressed. Seared medium-rare, six scallops were served with some of my favorite things: butternut squash, wilted spinach, chanterelle mushrooms and porcini truffle butter. I wasn't surprised when Chef Kathryn Bishop later told me the dish is her favorite recent addition to the menu. It's one of those creative assemblages of flavors — sweet, musky, earthy and bitter — that reaffirms the "art" in "culinary art."

My friend tried a York Street mainstay: seared, Asian marinated Pork Tenderloin ($19) with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables. Her comments: perfectly cooked, good sauce, nice sides.

Our entrées were interrupted by our server tripping on a nearby chair and nearly toppling into our table, followed by his profuse apology. (A personal note to the server: And as much as I've picked on you, I much prefer being waited on by someone who forgets a beer here and trips on a chair there to someone who puts on a plastic smile and looks bored out of his mind.)

After our table was cleared, he recited the evening's desserts ($4.95), recommending everything but the Flourless Chocolate Torte — "too dry," he said. I'm a fan of the torte, but to avoid insulting him, we went with Tiramisu, which he said was "usually pretty good," although a heart condition prevented him from trying the caffeinated espresso version being served that night. (So much for employee espresso theory). The Tiramisu was lovely, light and fluffy, with hints of rum and rich espresso flavors. Yet another memorable night at York Street Café, in the heart of Newport off the levee, where you don't have to pay to park and the piggy-back rides are free. ©

York Street Cafe
Go: 738 York St., Newport

Call: 859-261-9675

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Prices: Moderate

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: All "conversation platters" and appetizers, salads; and chicken, seafood and vegetarian entrées

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