The downtown restaurant simply known as “L,” the latest endeavor by two local creative geniuses, has elevated Cincinnati’s dining landscape almost immeasurably. What’s on the plate springs from the culinary virtuosity of chef/owner Jean-Robert de Cavel, while everything that surrounds it has been meticulously selected by de Cavel’s partner, hospitality and design expert Richard Brown.
I recently enjoyed a magical evening at L — the name derives from the first names of the partners’ daughters — within a fortnight of the restaurant’s debut, a period when most new restaurants operate on training wheels.
But if a trial run is what they were doing, then I can hardly imagine what improvements could be down the road. Culinary Institute of America graduate and chef de cuisine Brett Crowe has collaborated with de Cavel to produce a couple dozen brilliant dishes topped off by pastry chef Katie Lopez’s equally fine desserts.
This is special-occasion dining, the kind of evening most of us aspire to once or twice a year. And yet the $89 per person, four-course meal is more than fairly priced considering it includes tax, tip and validated parking. There are tempting menu supplements — such as $7 for lobster salad or $12 for the lamb entrée — but plenty to choose from without any extras. The only significant addition to your bill is likely to come from alcohol.
But first you have to find your way to L, which can be challenging. It’s on the lobby level of the Great American building, but a sign visible from the street has yet to be installed. Once we made our way from the underground garage and walked through the front door of the restaurant, we took in the magnificent scale of the 23-foot ceiling, lovely color schemes in the bar and dining room and the feeling that we’d stepped into some other part of the universe than downtown Cincinnati.
After being seated at a comfortable table near the center of the dining room, my friend Joyce marveled at the quality table linens, flatware and Limoges china while I enjoyed a glass of pink bubbly (Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace brut rosé, $15) and she sipped a Grey Goose martini ($22).
Once we got our dinner menus, Joyce’s husband, Jeff, suggested we try the wine pairings ($45) selected for each course by sommeliers David Anthony and Vince Vassil, which we all thought a splendid idea. Since the pairing included five different glasses of wine, I probably could have foregone the brut rosé, but, oops, too late.
Wine No. 1 came with our amuse-bouche, a two-bite palate teaser based on variations of cucumber, and turned out to be the same brut rosé, which was delicious.
For the first course, I chose cured salmon with beets, onion cream and potato horseradish croquette, paired with a Stoller pinot noir rosé: a still (not sparkling) wine from Oregon, another excellent match. Other first courses at our table included tuna tartar and my favorite, a “tomatoes composition” of heirlooms in both a cold soup and salad with cucumbers and goat cheese.
The food got serious with the second course. Among us, we tried four of the five offerings and loved every dish. The irresistible best, I thought, was Joyce’s choice of foie gras with figs, eggplant, duck confit and caramel flan ($9 supplement), although a bite or two of the rich dish was sufficient. My husband, George, enjoyed the tender sea scallop enhanced with pork belly, and Jeff’s sheep milk cheese, cauliflower and chard ravioli hit all the right notes.
My quail course achieved perfection, with bits of chorizo and golden raisins dotting the red corn grits under the bird. The server poured a Côtes-du-Rhône — a blend dominated by grenache — with cherry and licorice notes that paired beautifully with the savory flavors of my dish.
For course three, we selected two fish entrées, one fowl and a steak. I thought the least successful was George’s halibut ($9 supplement), which despite the array of ingredients — lobster broth, corn, chanterelle mushrooms and purple potatoes — came out bland and slightly overcooked. Jeff’s arctic char “Viennoise,” prepared sous-vide, was much better, served atop a fondue of spinach, carrots and beech mushrooms with beurre blanc and jasmine rice.
Joyce’s filet mignon with a bordelaise sauce managed to be both melt-in-the-mouth tender and flavorful. My duck breast over wheat grain seasoned with shallots and honey lemon peppercorn was plate-licking good and once again paired well with a glass of Chateau la Peyre Bordeaux — my favorite wine of the night.
One doesn’t choose dessert; it just appears at the appropriate time. Arrayed on a rectangular white plate, five delectable morsels on the night we dined included everything from roasted strawberries to blueberry corn cake and a chocolate/peanut/caramel crunch bar. But my favorite dessert was the raspberry bavarois — sort of like a panna cotta. A late-harvest riesling accompanied these treats.
Diners also have the option of a “menu gourmand” — seven courses selected by the chef ranging from Jonah crab and the foie gras dish to cheeses and a plate of sweets ($125; $65 wine pairings). Or you can eat in the bar, ordering à la carte from about a dozen hot or cold appetizers ($18-$31) and a handful of main courses ($36-$48). The spacious lounge makes an inviting space for lunch or just a drink after work.
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. I could see it on short lists for best new restaurant in the nation this year.
GO: 301 E. Fourth St., Downtown; CALL: 513-760-5525; INTERNET: lcincinnati.com; HOURS: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday.