Diner: Testing, 1-2-3

Aioli, downtown's newest eatery, handles a challenge with style

Want a good test for a new restaurant? How about seven women having lunch, arriving one-by-one over an hour and lingering for a total of three-and-a-half hours? On the last Friday of the year. A month after the official opening. On the former site of a successful family-owned restaurant that was a familiar and favored site to the women.

Aioli, named for the famous Provençal garlic mayonnaise and dubbed "a saucy bistro," gave good indications of living up to its name during my visit. Owner Julie Francis has mixed classic French offerings with a creative use of herbs and spices and a Southwestern kick. For one who enjoys perusing cookbooks, the lunch menu was an intriguing read, and the dinner menu was enticing enough to encourage a return visit.

For starters, the Roasted Pumpkin Bisque ($3 cup, $4 bowl) was a very popular option among my friends. Spiked with a spiral of thinned sour cream and dotted with chopped chives, the potage was a warm, earthy, peppered pleasure.

The contrast between the sharp sour cream and the sweet flavors of the pumpkin was nicely done. One diner felt it could have been served hotter, but I was well pleased with my cup. The Warm, Wild Mushrooms with Truffled Polenta and Tomato Basil Sauce ($6) was an unexpected treat. The polenta was moist and rich, a perfect presentation topped with dark succulent mushrooms in an impressive tomato sauce with balsamic undercurrents.

We were there long enough to see the lunch crowd leisurely come and go, filling to capacity with some tables turning over. Light Jazz played in the background, never overpowering the table chatter. The wall colors of purple, lavender and gold were scaled up to match the vibrancy of Merle Rosen's murals of the Peterson family. The décor and music seemed a good match to the inspired cuisine.

The luncheon special was a Flank Steak Sandwich with Gruyère ($9), a satisfying selection on a frigid winter day. The medium rare steak was thinly sliced and flared on a large roll with cheese melted over and a tomato remoulade on the bottom that was a pleasing complement to the tender meat. There was more bread than needed, but it was a winning combination. Nicely spiced, herb-roasted rosemary red potatoes were quartered and a great accompaniment to the sandwich.

As an East coast native, I'm very particular about crabmeat. The smooth, almost creamy texture of the Crabcake Sandwich with Asian Slaw ($9) was very mild and had too much breading for my taste. The blend of crab flavors and the saffron aioli was subtle and pleasant, but not as dynamic as the other fare I'd tasted. Paired with an orzo salad in a light vinaigrette, the pasta was al dente and a good option as a sandwich side.

The Capacola sandwich ($7 for full sandwich or $6 for a half-sandwich and a cup of soup) was a classic with Italian meat, slices of provolone and tomatoes, smeared with an olive and caper tapenade. Again, the roll was a bit more than most might desire, but all the breads were very good with great crusts. The spicy blend of meat and tapenade was gratifying and nicely updated the familiar sandwich.

Service was a bit uneven, but so were our orders. The wait staff were cheerful and relatively efficient in spite of our orders of coffee, herbed teas, more water, and "Oh, yes, maybe I'll have a glass of champagne also!" One tablemate ordered the half-sandwich and cup of soup, but received a whole sandwich with the bisque (for the lower price), while another got her bowl of soup several minutes after I had my cup of bisque.

We were having a great time and so desserts beckoned to my long-time eating buddy and me. She chose Expresso Profiteroles ($5), with the delectable and surprisingly light pastry wrapped around cinnamon ice cream balls and topped with hot fudge sauce. Profiteroles are a rare offering on any menu: These were done quite well and somehow didn't feel decadent, even at the end of the overeating holiday season. The Crème Caramel ($4) was a lovely mini flan with a beautiful texture and a gorgeous golden orange sauce. Dusted with cinnamon and strewn with raspberries, it was a great finish to the meal.

Is it fair to unleash seven women with a reviewer in their midst on an unsuspecting new bistro during the holiday season? Maybe not, but Aioli fared well. Amidst the champagne and chuckles, stories and statements, there were approving comments on the zippier color scheme and the innovative flavor twists. We'll likely be back, individually and collectively, and I'll likely sip a glass of champagne. ©

Aioli

Go: 700 Elm St., Cincinnati

Call: 513-929-0525

Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.

Prices: Reasonable to moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Vegetarian Friendliness: Several options in all categories

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