J-Ro’s Big Year

Cincinnati’s favorite French chef opened restaurants for everyone in 2016

click to enlarge J-Ro’s Big Year
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
C’est l’amour. Everything chef Jean-Robert de Cavel does is executed with purposeful, energetic passion, whether he’s perfecting a dish in the kitchen, organizing his annual de Cavel Family SIDS Foundation Friends & Family SIDS Brunch — one of the country’s largest Sudden Infant Death Syndrome fundraisers — or showing off the dozens of eclectic saltshakers he’s collected over the years. His relationship with Cincinnati is an expanding and ardent love letter — but one he never expected to pen. 

When de Cavel moved to the Queen City from New York in 1993, he never expected to fall in love; at first, he couldn’t even pinpoint Cincinnati on a map. But he was drawn to the position of chef de cuisine at the Maisonette, the city’s lucrative Mobil five-star restaurant — a position he ended up holding until 2002. 

Twenty-three years after arriving, de Cavel is one of the foremost chefs in the city, as well as a familiar face easily distinguishable by his characteristically unruly salt-and-pepper hair. And his passion for Cincinnati and the opportunities it bears is only burning hotter. 

Two-thousand-sixteen was one of his biggest years to date, seeing him open three restaurants — L, an expanded French Crust Café and Frenchie Fresh — that have already become staples of Cincinnati’s dining scene. Each offers a unique experience, covering the spectrum all the way from fine dining to grab-and-go.

“It wasn’t planned; it just happened,” de Cavel says of the confluence of the three new openings. “This was meant to be.”

“The restaurant business is a lifestyle — customers are friends,” he continues. “I’ve gotten so much support from people in Cincinnati, it made me want to do more for the city.” 

A Recipe for Success

For the past several years, de Cavel’s focus has primarily been on his Vine Street flagship, the elegant French favorite Jean-Robert’s Table. But around 18 months ago, he started to think about expanding. 

Although he initially looked at a few spaces downtown, he decided against developing anything in the neighborhood that might conflict with Table. But when a space in Findlay Market began undergoing renovations, de Cavel got the chance to tour the gutted shell of the old building, and inspiration struck. 

“When I see a space, right away I get a vision of what it could become,” he says. 

That vision would become the home of a new, larger French Crust Café, his already established bistro and bakery that had felt cramped in its small former home on Vine Street. 

Around the same time, financial group Western & Southern approached him about developing a restaurant on the lobby level of the new Great American Tower skyscraper at Queen City Square. Once again, he immediately saw potential in the space, which became the home of Restaurant L.

Things weren’t slowing down. Not long afterward, a Mexican restaurant at the Rookwood development in Hyde Park closed its doors, freeing up a spot that seemed ideal for an upscale-casual concept that the chef had been mulling over with colleagues. This idea later became Frenchie Fresh.

Restaurant L

Helmed by de Cavel and longtime friend and maître d’hôtel Richard Brown, L is a Parisian-style restaurant with “a little New York attitude and an abundance of Cincinnati charm.” 

The name comes from the fact that both de Cavel and Brown’s daughters’ names — Laeticia (de Cavel) and Lauren (Brown) — begin with the letter L. 

Of the three new establishments, L required the largest investment and the longest time to bring to fruition; the process started more than three years ago when de Cavel and Brown first looked at the Western & Southern location on Fourth Street. They spent 2015 in design and much of 2016 in construction, Brown says, before the restaurant opened in August.  

Investing in an establishment at the very highest level of luxury might seem risky, but David Anthony, L’s manager and sommelier who previously served as wine director at Table, says, “I was 100 percent sure that if Jean-Robert thought it would work, that’s all I needed to know.”  

What’s on the plate springs from the culinary virtuosity of de Cavel, while everything that surrounds it has been meticulously selected by Brown. This is special-occasion dining, the kind of evening most of us aspire to once or twice a year. Yet with a four-course meal served for $89 per person ($125 for the Menu Gourmand), L is more than fairly priced — the only significant addition to your bill is likely to come from alcohol. 

L is the culmination of the already distinguished careers of de Cavel and Brown, and it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with top restaurants in New York and California. It offers the only traditional caviar service in the region, serving either locally farmed paddlefish eggs or luxurious Osetra sturgeon eggs with blini, poached egg and other classic trimmings. 

Elsewhere on the dinner menu, you’ll find a delicate lobster salad with mango and avocado; savory roasted quail sweetened with golden raisins and spiced with bits of chorizo sausage; two different preparations of rich foie gras; and fish varieties you won’t see even in the best of local seafood shops.

French Crust Café 

Although L is where de Cavel spends most of his evenings these days — “chef coat on, knife in hand,” according to manager and sommelier Anthony — the chef seemed particularly excited about the opening of French Crust Café, a cozy “petit Paris” that seats just 26 people.  

“Everything here is a reflection of (de Cavel’s) personality,” says French Crust co-manager Megan Kelly of the breakfast, lunch and brunch spot, whose prices fall somewhere between L and Frenchie Fresh.

The bistro occupies a corner building with expansive windows that let in plenty of light, illuminating warm yellow walls and colorful posters, figurines, sculptures and artworks, all from the chef’s personal collection. 

De Cavel often drops in during Sunday brunch, and if you catch him out of the kitchen, he’ll probably be happy to show you his collection of a couple hundred salt and pepper shakers that encompass an entire wall or to tell you the provenance of some of his striking wall hangings.

Co-manager Dave Kunkemoeller remembers de Cavel once saying that if he hadn’t been a chef, he would have been an interior decorator; you can see how lovingly he has put everything together here. It’s as if a Parisian bistro was transported right onto the streetcar line, facing the entrance to Findlay Market.

The food is just as classically Parisian — several varieties of quiche, savory and very rich crepes, sandwiches made on perfect croissants — with an emphasis on delectable French pastries and custards created by pastry chef/chocolatier Jean-Philippe Solnom.

Frenchie Fresh

On the far end of the spectrum from L, closer in price point to French Crust, is the fast-casual Frenchie Fresh. 

Brown describes the eatery as a fast-food version of Le Bar a Boeuf, the Walnut Hills upscale burger parlor de Cavel opened in 2014. 

Emblazoned with a sketch of a panting French bulldog, Frenchie puts a French twist on American classics that can be enjoyed on-site or on the go. “Fast casual” eateries allow patrons to sit and eat at a table, not in a car, but they’re still quick enough to accommodate a busy family looking for a quality meal minus the time commitment of a waitstaffed restaurant because, as de Cavel says, “you shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality or taste because you are short on time.”  

He has made an addendum to the fast casual term and refers to Frenchie Fresh as “fine, fast casual cuisine.” That’s a fair assessment, and the location in the Rookwood Exchange perfectly caters to families looking for quality and brevity in the same spot. 

It has two dining rooms and an outdoor patio in fair weather and is one of a very few independent eateries in a strip-center sea of chain restaurants.

Inside, you can choose from among five meats and a vegan option for the middle of the sandwich — everything from Kansas City beef to bison, lamb or ground turkey — and select from more than a dozen toppings. There are other sandwiches, soups, salads and a selection of creative mac & chez — seafood medley & truffle, roasted chicken or simply plain, creamy mac — topped off by a couple of rich desserts sent over from French Crust.  

“With Frenchie Fresh, it was all about the location,” de Cavel says. “I couldn’t pass up that opportunity in Hyde Park. You also have to find the right people — it’s all about the team.” 

It’s that mindset that keeps de Cavel going like a lithium battery, leaving the future wide open for anything he dreams up in his mind. 

“He’s such an encouragement to everyone else that if he’s willing to do it, people will follow,” says Brown.

“I don’t see myself as being successful,” de Cavel adds. “I try my best and do what I love. I see myself as a coach, urging on my people. If the team wins, everyone wins.” 

The new eateries offer up a little slice of France for all manner of cravings, price points and dining experiences, whether you’re grabbing a sandwich to go on your lunch break or planning a lingering evening with friends complete with the chef’s meticulous concoctions.

“Food is important, but how you feel in a place is even more important,” de Cavel says. “To see the joy that people experience in one of my dining rooms, that is the best.”

RESTAURANT L: 301 E. Fourth St., Down-town, 513-760-5525, lcincinnati.com. FRENCHIE FRESH: 3831 Edwards Road, Hyde Park, 513-366-3960, frenchiefresh.com. FRENCH CRUST CAFÉ: 1801 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-455-3720, jrcincy.com/french-crust-café.

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