This story is featured in CityBeat's May 17 print edition.
I’m not much of a gamer, but if you tell me there’s an interesting restaurant inside Cincinnati’s downtown casino, that catches my attention. Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, a steakhouse, is the featured dining facility along with the more casual food choices at Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati.
There’s a story behind the name. Since 2007, the Hard Rock company — 18 casinos and 26 hotels nationwide — has been owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, a federally recognized Indian tribe and the only tribe in America that never signed a peace treaty, according to its website.
Council Oak is a species of oak, and the tribe conducts meetings and other events around a historic specimen of the tree on their reservation in Hollywood, Florida.
The rebranding of JACK Casino took place in 2019, but it endured slow times during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Over the past year, the Hard Rock management team has rebranded and revised the casino’s food service, according to vice president of food and beverage Morgan Rhule. Thanks to these revisions, all their food is now “from scratch,” he said, made fresh daily. They recently opened a unique coffee shop, Constant Grind, with coffee sourced from Italy and fresh, in-house pastries made daily. The casual eatery, Brick’d Pizza, was doing brisk business on the Saturday night we visited.
We made our way past the bells and whistles of the gaming machines to Council Oak for an elegant, complete meal with attentive service that almost rises to the level of pampering. The quality of service we received at dinner was remarkable — an impression I’ve also heard from friends who have dined there. While so many establishments are struggling post-pandemic to put together the kind of seamless service patrons used to expect in fine-dining environments, the team at Council Oak has managed to assemble a top-notch dining room staff.
When it was JACK Casino, its fancy restaurant was Prism, a small steakhouse chain out of Detroit. Late in 2019, Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati transformed the restaurant into the casino chain’s ninth Council Oak and instituted a number of changes. There’s now a more open kitchen, a feature I’ve always appreciated — it’s so much fun to watch what goes into producing dinner for the multitudes. Two new wood-burning ovens supplement the grills to add different flavors to many dishes, especially fish entrees and sides.
As Council Oak, they’ve instituted an in-house dry-aging program. The meat receives 21-120 days of aging, which concentrates the flavor of the high-quality beef. The meat is then butchered in-house, and steaks are cut to order.
There’s also a renewed emphasis on wine, with over 250 labels — strong on big reds to accompany the steaks, of course. Council Oak received its first Wine Spectator Award this year, according to Rhule.
The dinner menu resembles the offerings at many other steakhouses. I’ve wondered why they’re all so similar, and assume it’s because that’s what patrons expect from a steakhouse. They want the wedge salads; expensive cuts of prime beef; large, rich, shareable sides; cabernet sauvignon at all price points; and a couple of over-the-top dessert choices. Council Oak checks all those boxes, plus a crab cake appetizer, Caesar salad, oysters Rockefeller and lobster bisque.
The only notable addition I could discern came from Rhule, who said they’ve recently focused on adding vegetarian dishes. “We’re not just catering to our carnivore-loving friends,” he said, and listed such vegetarian items as polenta and cauliflower steak. I told him that I didn’t see those dishes on the menu, but he said that they have been off-menu specials. Our server didn’t mention any vegetarian specials, so I have to conclude that they are not reliably available, at least not as of yet.
But you might ask, who goes to a steakhouse expecting vegetarian entrees? Not many, I would concede, but it still strikes me as a good move to improve on such offerings, since not everyone in a group of diners will want meat or seafood.
Our party of four was fine with the beef and seafood dishes. We started with a couple of salads. Both the iceberg wedge and panzanella salads were large enough to split. Of those, I preferred the panzanella, with olives, pickled fennel, plenty of croutons and roasted garlic vinaigrette. When the kitchen split the iceberg salad, it came out chopped rather than as a wedge but still was layered instead of tossed.
We did love the yeasty rolls topped with sea salt our server brought as soon as we were seated. They went great with our cocktails. I would almost say those rolls were my favorite thing all night.
My companion’s filet mignon obviously benefited from dry aging and was delicious, as was another friend’s braised beef short rib. Two fish entrees, roasted Chilean sea bass and Faroe Island salmon, were nicely sauced and not overcooked, as happens all too often with fish dishes. The only side dish we tried was fried Brussels sprouts, which seems to have supplanted such old standbys as creamed spinach on steakhouse menus. These sprouts were a little undercooked and therefore not as tender as I prefer.
The star of the dessert menu is black raspberry baked Alaska, created with the folks at Graeter’s. So, yes, it’s that black raspberry. We were hoping to dig in to what sounded like a winner, but our server gave us the sad news that they were out of that dessert. Apparently, they want to be sure of its freshness and make only a set number each day. Grumpily, I thought it was too early in the evening to run out of the house’s signature dessert. The sweets we settled for included a variation on cheesecake that didn’t resemble any cheesecake we could recall.
We made our way to the parking garage through acres of flashing lights and the beeps, chimes and jangly music of the gaming machines. I still wanted that baked Alaska, which of course I didn’t really need after such a rich and satisfying meal. One day, maybe I’ll return, sit at the bar, and tuck into the elusive dessert treat.
Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, 1000 Broadway St., Downtown. Info: hardrockcasinocincinnati.com.
Subscribe to CityBeat newsletters.
Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter