Don't let the name fool you: You'll find absolutely nothing pretentious or hoity-toity about Covington's Chez Nora. It's a place I've recommended to others many times, and those who don't know the name immediately think: "French. Expensive. Fancy-schmancy." The reality is that those in-the-know share a well-kept secret: Chez Nora is as comfortable as a neighborhood bar, with a reasonably-priced menu that appeals to a variety of tastes.
Think "lazy French Quarter," not "snobby Parisian" when you hear the name. Even though the only Creole item on the menu is the Chicken & Sausage Jambalaya, it's the eclectic clientele (and servers), the laid-back atmosphere and the occasional Jazz that'll make you think you've landed in a New Orleans bar.
I recently waited for my husband to join me there on a Monday after work. Sitting at the restored, hand-crafted mahogany bar, I found myself listening to Sarah Vaughn on the jukebox, among old, young, black, white, shaved, tattooed, suits and coveralls — most of whom appeared to be regulars. Picture Cheers meets Andy Griffith and the Addams Family all at once.
But it was the friendliest crowd, intermingling with one another just like a post-Cincinnati riot public relations campaign TV commercial.
The renovation earlier this summer has transformed the place and brought it to a new level, while still retaining its original charm. The one-room bar/dining area (which only holds about a dozen tables) remains intact, as does the bar and smoking section. The addition moved the restaurant into what was an adjacent building, allowing a significant expansion of the seating area, opening up a light-filled, non-smoking dining room seating just over 60. The second floor houses a new private party room. But the coup de grace is the third floor piano bar and outdoor patio with a view of neighboring rooftops and the Cincinnati skyline. Although there's no dining on the patio, folks can sip drinks and enjoy the view while listening to the live piano music and Jazz coming from the next room.
The extensive menu appeals to a variety of tastes and moods. Casual and reasonably priced "Sammichez" range from Beer-Battered Cod on Rye ($5.95), to Smoked Turkey and Brie on Grilled Sourdough ($5.95), to burgers (beef, $5.25, and garden, $5.50). Appetizers include several versions of nachos, or Sombreros, and include Beef & Bean ($6.50), Vegetarian ($4.95) or Chicken ($8.95). But the hands-down winner is the Crab Cake Appetizer ($8.95). Served with a tangy remoulade, these cakes are the real thing — full of fresh, moist crab meat with only enough breading to hold them together, then skillet-cooked (not deep fried) until slightly brown. They're also available as an entrée ($15.95) with a salad and side dish.
Other casual choices include Quesadillas ($5.50-6.50) filled with cheese and bacon, chicken and mushroom or veggies, and Nora's ZQs ($5.50 and up) which are pizza quesadillas: tortillas covered in marinara, provolone and mozzarella with choice of fillings. These are a tasty twist on a bar favorite, and enough to make a hearty meal.
Salads include classics, like the Blackened Chicken Caesar ($5.95), as well as less standard choices, such as the Honey Pecan Chicken Salad ($8.95), with romaine, toasted pecans, dried cherries, brie and honey chicken.
The entrées bring the dining level (and prices) slightly up a notch. Korean Style Tuna ($16.95) is a medium rare, pan-seared tuna steak with a ginger soy sauce. The Cherry Pork ($12.95) is a creative pork tenderloin topped with a cherry glaze and a bourbon cream sauce. All entrées are served with a side salad that is a fresh mix of baby greens, served with delicious multi-grain rolls. We tried one of the evening's specials, the Au Gratin Crusted Red Snapper ($15.95) , served over rice and with steamed summer squash and peppers. The snapper was a good piece of fish — fresh and moist, and the light au gratin breading added subtle flavor. I added a little of the leftover crab cake remoulade for an extra boost.
The Sunday brunch menu offers only the heartiest selections, including the diet buster, Eggs Noraleans ($11.95), two poached eggs atop Chez Nora crab cakes with Béarnaise sauce on English muffins and served with home fries or grits. Breakfast Quesadillas, omelets and quiches round out the choices.
Desserts typically include several cheesecake selections (from a local baker) and a few homemade choices. We sampled the homemade Key Lime Pie ($3.95) and fought for the last bite. It was creamy and slightly tart, hitting the spot on a hot summer evening.
Go: 530 Main St., Covington
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (brunch until 3 p.m.). Bar open until 1 a.m. daily.
Prices: Reasonable to Moderate
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Several salads (with or without chicken) and fish and chicken selections, garden burger, ZQs (pizza quesadillas)
Other: New, third floor outdoor patio with a view of the rooftops open for drinks only; private party room; new, non-smoking dining room. Outdoor, street-side seating in cooperative weather. Carryout available.