Going to One Restaurant and Lounge in Mason is like entering a wrinkle in time. To get there from I-71 means traversing miles of sprawling new development — past strip malls, myriad chain restaurants, a gigantic Wal-Wart supercenter under construction and burgeoning housing developments going up in all directions.
I met an old-timer once who grew up in Mason and remembered it from his childhood as a dusty little town where farmers used to tie up their horses in front of the stores. Although you don't see much equine traffic anymore, it doesn't feel like things have changed that much. Despite a rush of economic growth consuming every square inch of nearby land, development hasn't quite caught up yet with old Mason.
This could change now that One has opened up in the former Mason municipal building. The restaurant has a strong pedigree (the chef-owner is Sean Kagy, a New England Culinary Institute grad who was formerly executive chef at The Palace in downtown Cincinnati) and has been attracting critical attention and an upscale crowd since opening in the fall.
On a recent weekend night, the parking lot was full of luxury cars and the dining room alive with a moneyed, well-manicured, exurban crowd. For appetizers, we started out with Crab Cakes ($11.90). These were well executed: loosely assembled clumps of moist, fresh-tasting crab meat served with flavorful artichoke hearts, red peppers and olives.
The Butternut Squash Ravioli ($8.90) were less successful; although there was a nice contrast between the chewy pasta and the smooth and creamy filling, they were somewhat bland.
The Niman Ranch Pork Chop ($25.90) was excellent, accompanied by an interesting medley of sweet potato purée, fruit chutney and homemade sauerkraut. My dining companions opted for the Ahi Tuna ($28.90) and the Rack of Lamb special ($34.90). The large portion of very fresh tuna came with a piece of foie gras on top. The lamb was quite flavorful and inventively prepared, encrusted with crunchy pecans and flavored with a delicate, tangy barbecue sauce.
Unfortunately, service did not keep up. We sat for too long before our waiter arrived and then had another wait before menus actually were delivered. When entrées came out, they were barely warm. After we finished, our plates sat empty on the table for far too long. In the evening's standout (not in a good way) moment, I watched our waiter awkwardly place a plate in front of a female companion, forcing her to lean back to avoid body contact.
I know One is capable of doing much better than this because, on a return visit, it did. Service was much improved — attentive and professional and more akin to what I would expect from a restaurant of this caliber and price tier.
On my second visit, I tried the Risotto appetizer ($8.90). It was perfectly flavored and made with fresh spinach, slices of red pepper and mushrooms. The Salad of Maine Lobster, Crab and Rock Shrimp ($13.90) was a tasty assemblage nicely accented by a truffle vinaigrette.
The Grilled Portobello Stack ($18.90) was a vegetarian's delight. Vegetable entrées often get short shrift in fancy restaurants, but this inventive combination of mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, squash and baby carrots in a pool of red pepper sauce was flavorful and satisfying. My companion's Filet ($32.90) was good but not melt-in-your-mouth remarkable.
During my two visits, I sampled nearly the entire dessert menu. The Chocolate Mousse Crunch, Crème Brulée, Lemon Crush, Macadamia Nut Tart and Pecan Chocolate Bourbon Tart ($5.90) scored high marks for presentation but fell well short of bliss. For me the clearest way to judge desserts is to assess consumption: When desserts are picked at and go unfinished, as they mostly were here, there's definitely room for improvement.
A lot of attention was given to designing One, and the restaurant deserves kudos for creating a setting that harmonizes so sensitively with its historic Art Deco building. The main dining room is a neutral expanse of bare yellow brick walls and light-colored woods and carpets.
Some of my companions didn't warm to this decor, and they had a point: It has an almost austere formality to it. A second dining room and the bar area are much more colorful and welcoming. The bar is a great little hideaway worth checking out, with a less pricey menu and live Jazz on weekends.
One is clearly a wonderful new addition to Greater Cincinnati's local restaurant scene. However, I did not experience the obsessive attention to detail, the fanatical focus on service and the tireless quest to deliver a consistently flawless experience that sets great restaurants apart.
Open only since the late fall, I suspect they might still be working out some of the kinks. As time passes and One gets more solidly on its feet, I fully expect it to mature into the world-class restaurant that it clearly aspires to be. ©
One Restaurant and Lounge
Go: 202 W. Main St., Mason
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Payment: All major cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Many seafood and vegetable choices