Diner: Simple Elegance

Greenup Cafe is a stellar addition to Jean-Robert de Cavel's roster of restaurants

Greenup Café
Go: 308 Greenup St., Covington

Call: 859-261-3663

Hours: Pastries/coffee: 6:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Sunday; breakfast: 7:30 a.m.-10 a.m. Monday-Saturday; lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; brunch: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Inexpensive to moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, seafood and vegetarian dishes.

Accessibility: The café was unable to add a wheelchair ramp due to the nature of the building, so there are a few steps up to the entrance. The patio is fully accessible.

Grade: A-

No local chef personifies postmodern dining culture more fully than Jean-Robert de Cavel. It's not that he heads up his own small empire of restaurants, now numbering four, that makes him stand out from other restaurateurs. Nor is it that he co-hosts a cooking show on Channel 12 — although it has helped to attract a loyal flock of foodie groupies following his every step.

It's his community-minded business sense, along with his creativity in the kitchen, that makes Jean-Robert Cincinnati's most talked-about chef.

Amid skepticism about the ability of downtown businesses to survive, he opened Pigall's, a five-star example of how far a little optimistic thinking can go. But rather than simply rest on the success of Pigall's — or try to duplicate it by opening restaurants with scaled-down adaptations of the haute cuisine he serves there — his successive restaurants each reveal another side of the chef's personality.

In Oakley, Pho Paris introduces diners to a sophisticated fusion of Vietnamese and French cuisine, and JeanRo Bistro downtown celebrates the unpretentious side of the chef's homeland with classics like frog legs and coq au vin.

Billed as a "French bohemian gathering place," his latest endeavor, Greenup Café, is Jean-Robert at his most casual and accessible.

French and American pastries by Jean-Phillipe Solnom (most recently of La Cézanne) are available throughout the day, along with coffee and espresso drinks. Breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch and dinners (coming soon) feature seasonal, quality ingredients prepared simply without fancy garnishes or fussy plating. It's traditional French café-style food but with American touches, like local goetta at breakfast.

The café resides in a rehabbed Covington brownstone on Greenup Street that formerly housed the Wildflour Bakery and Restaurant. Wildflour sold fresh loaves of bread and hosted popular weekend brunches and tapas-style dinners. Jean-Robert and his wife, Annette, numbered among Wildflour's many fans, and they even held their wedding reception there.

When the place closed down, Jean-Robert wanted to ensure that its new inhabitant would be as good for the neighborhood as its old one, so he and his co-investors bought the building.

Visiting for lunch in its first month of business, the café was already bustling. As the lunch hour peaked, so did the din of voices bouncing off the walls and hardwood floors of the small dining rooms.

Bright tangelo walls and whimsical decor, such as French circus posters, intensify the mood in the first-floor dining room. Upstairs, sunflower yellow walls seem to encourage the sunlight filtering through the windows, attracting a quieter crowd. Behind the building there's seating in the newly landscaped garden patio that exudes a European sort of charm.

On one visit, I enjoyed the cooling effect of Greenup's Vichyssoise ($2.50/cup), a buttery soup of puréed potatoes and leeks served chilled. Then I lingered over a healthy but satisfying salad of poached chicken nestled in field greens with crunchy asparagus and hazelnuts in vinaigrette ($9).

The Omelette du Jour ($8.50) — smoked salmon, wild mushrooms and gruyère that day — was served with red potatoes and field greens with slivered radishes, dried cherries and whole grain mustard vinaigrette. My guest happily devoured it, turning his attention to the café's copy of The New York Times.

On another day, we shared Seafood Crepes ($9.50), a musky medley of scallops, shrimp and tiny flakes of salmon along with mushrooms and spinach. The crepes were delicate but not spongy beneath the weight of a creamy, gruyère béchamel. A Tarte Fine ($9.50) consisted of layered puff pastry sheets topped with duck leg confit, shiitake mushrooms, field greens and a dollop of herbed goat cheese. The earthy flavors were delicious, although the duck was a little dry. We also shared a croissant sandwich ($6.50) with smooth avocado, plump tomato and a generous slab of brie.

Beware of the seductive pastry counter. Tarts ($4.25) filled with cream and topped with glistening berries are so pretty you won't want to eat them. The scones ($1.25) have the perfect consistency, and Greenup's sticky buns ($1.25) are phenomenal, a moist coil of chewy dough with hints of cinnamon, a sprinkling of pecans and an ever-so-thin glaze. Still, a few items could stand improvement.

The croissants lacked that light, buttery flakiness you expect, and a friend just back from France told me he was disappointed in both the stiffness of the dough and quality of chocolate in the éclair he tried.

The service staff ranges from novice to veteran, the more experienced members of the team filling in the gaps. There are minor kinks, such as a cold cup of coffee being delivered to our table, but, more importantly for a little café, everyone I encountered was friendly and eager to please.

Jean-Robert has chosen to open Greenup Café in phases to give the staff time to adapt to the special challenges presented by the old building and its small kitchens. Beginning in a few weeks, dinner will feature a few appetizers and four or five entrées, changing weekly but always including one chicken, one fish, one roasted meat and one vegetarian choice. ©

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