Madisonville’s Alara Offers Unforgettable Fine Dining Experience

You don’t want to skip dessert here.

Jul 10, 2024 at 5:02 am
Alara executive chef Mark Bodenstein presents the dishes.
Alara executive chef Mark Bodenstein presents the dishes. Photo: Lydia Schembre

Over the past six months or so, more than a few new restaurants have opened in the city and nearby suburbs. Some have been instant hits. Try getting a table at Colette near Washington Park on less than two weeks’ notice, or finding seats at Safi, Jose Salazar’s wine bar-style lounge, where they don’t take reservations. Aperture in Walnut Hills and Over-the-Rhine’s Atwood dish out wonderful meals, with creative Mediterranean fare at Aperture and surprisingly varied approaches to seafood at Atwood. Despite the ongoing challenges of the post-Covid restaurant business, I can’t help but regard this year as a boon to Cincinnati diners. 

It’s an embarrassment of riches, made even more astonishing by the fantastic quality of meals coming from my favorite newbie, Madisonville’s Alara. When I heard the name Mark Bodenstein attached to this restaurant, my mouth immediately started to water. Ten years ago or so, he was chef at an out-of-the-way place in Newport called NuVo. It went through various transformations, including an interval when there wasn’t really a menu. Instead, small, inventive courses appeared on your table throughout the evening. I loved it, although it was clear to me that there probably wasn’t a sustainable market for the place in Greater Cincinnati.

Bodenstein says as much today, calling NuVo “ahead of its time.” I never forgot it even as I lost track of the chef in ensuing years, only to see his name associated with Alara. Only then did I learn that he has been employed since 2017 as the corporate development chef for the restaurant group Looking Glass Hospitality (LGH). LGH owns restaurants in near and far suburban locations, from Mariemont and Blue Ash to Hamilton and Mason. Bodenstein helped open many of them, including Emery (Mariemont) and Clyborne’s (Mason). During those years, he developed menus, hired executive chefs and focused on “the nuts and bolts of kitchen operations,” Bodenstein says.

Then LGH upped the ante when they moved into Madison Square in Madisonville, their nearest location to the city center and their first foray into truly fine dining.

Situated on the ground floor of a multi-story, brand-new office building, Alara has a distinctly suburban vibe. The bar and dining areas seem vast compared to the other newly opened restaurants I referred to above, most of them in historic buildings on city blocks where space is at a premium. As a host led our party of four to a table at Alara, I couldn’t help but notice that it had the familiar feel of a standard steakhouse.

It is nothing of the sort. 

That’s not to say you won’t find top-notch meats on this menu, including ribeye, New York strip and filet mignon, as well as exceptional lamb chops and even a rack of pork. But Alara has a wider array of delights for those who don’t necessarily want big pieces of animal proteins.

Bodenstein, 43, told me later that when he and the LGH team started planning Alara in 2019, they imagined it as a riff on an upscale steakhouse, but with a lot more flexibility. A group of LGH staffers dined at top spots in Los Angeles and Las Vegas to find inspiration and came up with a menu for their most upscale restaurant that is seasonal, the dishes sharable and the ambitions sky-high. “I want this to be a destination restaurant drawing from the region and beyond,” he said. “I hope people will fly in to eat here.”

If that sounds a little unreasonable, I think you should have a meal at Alara before you pass judgment. 

After we had ordered drinks and a round of starters, Bodenstein came by our table, and we questioned him about what he especially liked on the menu. Naturally, we took those comments to heart and adjusted our choices accordingly. Among many wonderful dishes, we ordered one of his recommendations and it became a consensus favorite: Chicken Milanese. With all the fancy meat and seafood, who would have guessed we’d go gaga over a chicken prep? Perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, a generous portion to satisfy four of us, thin slices of breast meat breaded and flash-fried were dressed with a light, lemon-truffle vinaigrette and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. Add to that roasted shiitake mushrooms, spring asparagus and charred lemon. Lick-the-plate deliciousness.

I could go into minute detail about most of the savory dishes we sampled, but that would take up too much of our time. Highlights included a couple of shareable appetizers, including spicy smoked carrot hummus and a refreshing tuna crudo. If it’s still on the menu, don’t miss the hearts of palm salad dotted with orange and grapefruit morsels and toasted sunflower seeds. Based on advice from Bodenstein, we shared two pasta preps: you-won’t-believe-it’s meatless Vegetarian Bolognese on gnocchi and deliriously rich Lobster and Pea Carbonara. Those dishes plus the Chicken Milanese and a couple of veggie sides brought us to dessert.

You don’t want to skip dessert here. They brought in a pastry chef most recently from Disney in Orlando, Lisa Hood, whose fanciful, eye-catching preparations somehow manage to be both indulgent and relatively light. From among the four offerings that evening, we shared Midnight Chocolate Profiteroles and Creamsicle Cloud, the latter made with passionfruit curd, orange and vanilla mousse and something called “color-shifting glaze.” 

If you want to check out this place before committing to the whole nine yards, drop in on Happy Hour every Monday-Friday from 4-6 p.m. in the roomy bar. It’s not elaborate, and I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m willing to bet they’ll make the experience a good one. The menu consists of four snacks — not items from the dinner menu, but beef or crispy chicken sliders and a couple of other items — and some drink specials. You might decide to get a table and dive into a few of Bodenstein’s (or Hood’s) creations.

And tell your out-of-town friends and relatives to book a flight. 

Alara, 5410 Medpace Way, Madisonville. More info:

This story is featured in CityBeat's July 10 print edition.

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