Diner: Suburban Gem

Roberto's belies its strip-mall location with an adventurous menu and elegant ambiance

Mar 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

At the end of a modest strip mall in Loveland —which also houses a brightly lit Subway franchise, an unoccupied storefront, a weight-loss center and a Chinese restaurant — sits Roberto's International and American Cuisine. Roberto Villalba and his wife, Bunny, opened their restaurant in September 2006.

Originally from Colombia, Villalba previously worked as a Cincinnati-based engineer and salesman. This is his first attempt at the restaurant business.

For such an inauspicious spot, the Villalbas have made every effort to give Roberto's an elegant ambiance. The walls are painted a relaxing coral, the bar is well-stocked, non-intrusive music plays in the background and the tables are not placed too closely to each other. Glass partitions between the bar and the dining area are decorated with silhouettes of continental landmasses. I think I am seated opposite South America, but from this angle it could easily be central Asia.

Villalba's menu states: "We searched the world over (and lived in a few spots ourselves) to bring you one-of-a-kind dishes and tapas from Spain, Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern and Western Europe, the Mediterranean and America."

Mission statements like these always unnerve me a little.

When restaurants try to offer everything, they often succeed in doing nothing well. Only Africa, Asia, the Antarctic and outer space aren't covered by this extensive menu. I'm expecting it to weigh at least 30 pounds and be wheeled to our table on a motorized cart, but I'm surprised and relieved to find that Roberto's represents all of these countries and regions with a small and manageable menu. Included are South American items, steaks, paellas and fish and pasta dishes.

For appetizers, we select Empanadas ($6.50) and a Sampler Plate ($6.99) that combines fried green plantain, or patacones, fried ripe plantains, or maduros, and yucca fries, served with homemade salsa.

The empanadas are deliciously flavorful, tightly packed with ground beef and pork seasoned and mixed with vegetables. The salsa is light and tastes fresh, perfectly complementing the flaky-crisp dough of the empanadas. The patacones are an unfamiliar savory treat, and they arrive at the table as flattened and battered disc-shaped patties of seasoned plantain. The maduros taste like sweetened pieces of gently cooked banana, coated in a simple light syrup. The yucca fries are satisfyingly chunky, like thickly cut steak fries.

For entrées, we select the Paella Valenciana ($19.99), the Cioppino ($17.95) and the Beef Stroganoff ($17.99), sharing a side order of Asparagus ($4), which is served with Dijon mustard citrus vinaigrette. Here, the results are a little more mixed. The paella is delicious and flavorful, a heaped and generous order of slow-cooked rice filled with roasted red peppers, pork, chicken, spicy pieces of chorizo sausage, shrimp and clams served in their shells.

The beef stroganoff is served with a thick Portobello and shiitake mushroom gravy and a portion of shoestring potatoes heaped in the middle. It is a wonderful dish, but my dining companion finds the mushroom flavor of the gravy a little overpowering after a while. The few spoonfuls I sample are definitely worthy of another visit to Roberto's.

The cioppino, however, is disappointing. Instead of a rich Italian fish stew, the cioppino here is served as a pasta dish, and the penne pasta sits in a thin watery broth that doesn't carry much flavor to it. There are clams, mussels, and shrimp but little character, and it goes mostly untouched. The asparagus side dish is wilted and sad-looking, and we regret not ordering another portion of the delicious yucca fries.

An hour or so later, we order a serving of Tres Leches ($4.99) and a serving of Double Chocolate Cheesecake ($4.99) for dessert, along with a cup of coffee each. Tres leches is a traditional Spanish dessert of three-layered white cake and peaches, and it is a delicious and light treat. The cheesecake is not remarkable and is almost certainly store-bought.

Overall, the food at Roberto's is not overwhelming, but the menu is adventurous and unusual, which is all too rare in Cincinnati, especially the northern suburbs. More importantly, the atmosphere is comfortable, intimate and cozy, and this is perhaps the most rewarding and unexpected part of dining at Roberto's.

As I turn into the parking lot from Loveland-Miami Road and drive past the neon strip mall displays of Timmy's Wok and the bustling Subway, it's hard to imagine that my dining experience will feel like anything other than dining in an anonymous restaurant located at the poorly lit end of a strip mall somewhere, roughly, in the middle of nowhere.

Somehow, once you've walked through the door, Roberto and Bunny Villalba manage to make their dining space seem like much more than that, and for that it is worth a visit. ©

Go: 784 Loveland-Miami Road, Miami Township

Call: 513-683-9882

Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: MasterCard and Visa

Red Meat Alternatives: Salads and seafood dishes

Accessibility: Fully accessible

Grade: B