How do you make dirty laundry hip and trendy? I guess one way would be to sell it on eBay, but the Jean-Robert de Cavel family found a tastier approach with its latest venture, Lavomatic Cafe, a wine bar and restaurant.
Lavomatic is one of the crown jewels in the up-and-coming area in Over-the-Rhine known as the Gateway Quarter. The restaurant is a unique blend of the good things from our past and future. Housed in what was most likely a neighborhood laundromat (hence the name, Lavomatic, which is French for Laundromat), the staff at 1211 Vine St. hopes to keep the spirit of the laundromat as the social center of a neighborhood alive. The space also embraces an environmentally sound future in its design, which features bamboo floors and tables, a bar made of cork and table bases that are recycled from Grammer's.
The space also features exposed ductwork and brick, including a large hole in the plaster that gives the building an unfinished look, almost like they decided to open before they were finished remodeling. (The kitchen and bathrooms, the places I really want remodeled, are spotless.) While I described it to my husband as some kind of shabby chic, I like the unfinished look. It makes me feel like Lavomatic is open to change and in constant motion.
It makes it exciting — this suggests I'm going to be surprised and kept on my toes over the long-term.
The neighborhood that Lavomatic hopes to anchor includes Music Hall as well as the Aronoff Center further Downtown, so if you go for a bite from about 5:30 p.m. until show time, the pace is pretty lively, but when the theater bell chimes things settle down into a much slower, regular sort of neighborhood pace.
The night we dined was sold out, so we hopped up to the bar to enjoy our dinner served by a very busy but friendly and competent bartender.
Lavomatic's menu plays on the laundry theme with offerings from the Washboard Menu, First Cycle, Second Cycle and Delicates (dessert). The chef, Joanne Drilling, describes the food as rustic, full-flavored French fare, and they use local ingredients as much as possible: the buffalo, rabbit and chicken are all farmed locally, the Rabbit ($17) entrée is braised in Christian Moerlein's O.T.R. Ale and the Delicates menu includes Madisono's gelato and sorbets.
I figure no one else in the city could get away with the meat selections Jean-Robert offers on a menu. Check these out: a Charcuterie ($8.50) with a cured meat assortment that includes saucisson, mousse, pate and homemade pickled vegetable; Snail Skewers ($6.50) with Provencal vegetables and a Dijon-red wine sauce; and a Citrus-Braised Pork Belly entrée ($16) with beet, potato, Swiss Chard and a fried egg.
If you had told me this kind of menu would work in our little Midwestern burg I would have laughed my ass off, but my husband shut me up pretty quickly by ordering the Charcuterie. Of course, there are options for the less adventurous as well, such as the Tarte Flambé ($7) — an Alsatian flatbread pizza with bacon, onion and Gruyere — and the Grilled Cheese du Jour ($4.50), which was brie and berries on this night.
My husband's meat pate reminded me of braunschweiger (goose liver with a German lilt), and the mousse was like eating chocolate meat if you can imagine such a thing. My favorite part was the pickled brussel sprouts — they put the pickled buds sold at Klein's Market in Amish country to shame.
While my husband feasted on his array of meats products, I had the special appetizer: a salmon cake with herbed aioli, arugula and pickled red onion. I'm not sure what possessed me to order it — I'm not a big salmon fan, but I think this patty made a convert out of me. It had a very delicate, herb flavor.
We moved on to the Second Cycle and ordered the Chicken Breast ($18) with mushroom farce and a wild rice pilaf with dried apricot and the Buffalo Meatballs ($17) with salsa verde, cherry tomatoes and buccatini pasta. Something happened in the kitchen that night and our order was forgotten or delayed for a good 20 minutes — long enough for a customer to build up a good head of steam, but our bartender apologized and offered free dessert, so there were no hard feelings and we certainly won't hesitate to return.
As I dug into my buffalo balls I watched the woman seated next to us and her daughter, whom we dubbed Cindy Lou-Who, dip Roasted Cauliflower Soup with saffron ($8) from the shiny stainless steel pot they were sharing. I regretted skipping the first cycle — it looked fabulous.
But, my dish was no sloucher: The sauce was very light and the meatballs lean. There was just a subtle hint of cumin, one of my favorite spices. My husband's chicken was succulent and sweet, the crispy exterior to the bird hiding moist meat that was well complemented by the slightly sweet flavor of its rice bed.
For desert I picked the Baba au Rhum ($7) — a brioche with rum, dulce de leche and Madisono's hazelnut gelato. It was perfect with a cup of strong coffee, and the leftovers made a sweet little breakfast the next day.
LAVOMATIC CAFE Critic's Pick
Go: 1211 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday; 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Salads, soups, chicken, seafood, pasta
Accessibility: First floor fully accessible