When Chanaka Delanerolle opens a new restaurant, people in Cincinnati tend to take notice. A native of Sri Lanka, Delanerolle already owns three stalwarts of the local dining scene: The Celestial, Teak and Mount Adams Fish House.
Located in Blue Ash, Apsara is Delanerolle's latest venture and is housed in the space once occupied by the Watson Bros. brewhouse. The restaurant includes a circular bar area, a spacious and uncluttered dining area and a beautiful, sweeping wooden sushi bar, which sits in front of a wall decorated with dancing Buddhist figures, water features and orchids. One of the most striking things about the dining area is the amount of natural light streaming in through skylights over the sushi bar. It is a refreshing change from the usual dimly lit atmosphere of so many restaurants. Another thing that I notice immediately is that, apart from one of the wait staff and two of the three sushi chefs, the only other Asian in the restaurant is the one I'm eating dinner with.
We decide to try a couple of cocktails from the extensive drink menu. My dining companion orders an Apsara martini ($10), which combines raspberry and peach with jackfruit and Stoli Elite vodka. I try a plum martini ($8); its complex flavors and sweet fruitiness provide an interesting and enjoyable new interpretation of a standard martini.
For appetizers, we order Lumpia ($6) and Crab Puffs ($7). The extensive menu includes other items I am eager to try another time, including Frog Legs stir fried with jalapeno and green onion ($9) and Sautéed Mussels in a red chili and tamarind sauce ($10). The lumpia are a type of Filipino egg roll, generously stuffed with pork and vegetables and fried until crispy, served with a sweet soy sauce. They arrive quickly and are hot, fresh and very tasty. The crab puffs are not so good, with very little filling inside. They are served with sweet and sour sauce, which more closely resembles a pudding: It arrives at the table in a large bowl and seems to have set. I'm tempted to turn the bowl upside down to see if any sauce comes out. Instead we opt to scoop some out in clumps and smear it on our crab puffs, which is about as good as it sounds.
From the sushi menu, we order a Spider Roll ($12.95), which is generously, or perhaps even over generously, stuffed with asparagus and tempura crab. I argue with friends and co-workers about Teak sushi: I don't like it very much. The sushi chef at Apsara used to work at Teak and so, predictably enough, I don't like this sushi too much here either. The rice is still warm and the roll is too fat and loosely packed. I strain to insert a piece into my mouth. My jaw hurts. I feel like I'm trying to put a whole apple in my mouth. It falls apart as I try to eat it.
For entrées, we select the Crispy Duck, served with vegetables and basil sauce ($19), and a Red Curry with Chicken ($15). The crispy duck is wonderful: strips of duck, fried until the skin is browned and filled with the mildly sweet and oily flavor of the duck meat. It is intensely flavorful, and it might be the best duck I've eaten in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, it comes with the most unpleasant sauce I've ever eaten anywhere. Served on the side, the sauce is so salty that it actually hurts my tongue when I taste it. I am relieved I didn't pour it all over the duck and decided instead to sample a spoonful first. The red curry is very good and has an enjoyable level of heat to it. It's served with jasmine coconut-ginger rice, which is fluffy and fragrant and wonderfully complements the sweetness of the curry.
For dessert, we order a Ginger Crème Brulee ($7) and Sweet Rice with Pumpkin Custard ($5). Both are delicious treats, and both manage to combine easily recognizable flavors with less familiar ones. The ginger crème brulee has a satisfying, gingery snap to it. The sticky rice with pumpkin custard manages to combine sweetness with a mild saltiness and it is a wonderful dessert.
I was glad the desserts were so good. Overall, I expected more from Apsara and was disappointed with what I found. Generally, my standard for dining excellence is simply whether a restaurant provides something that no one else in town does. Apsara does not. In fact, I can find everything I ate at Apsara elsewhere, at some of my favorite dining spots in town, and it will be better made, more affordable and closer to home. ©
Go: 4785 East Lake Forest Drive, Blue Ash
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m. Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday
Entrée Prices: $10-$32
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of salads and seafood dishes
Accessibility: Fully accessible