Do you remember how Over-the-Rhine felt like a post-apocalyptic ghost town throughout 2020 and well into 2021? Back then, I’d occasionally visit a friend who lives near Washington Park and take a walk to enjoy the area within and around the park. Music Hall, Memorial Hall and the brand-new Otto M. Budig Theater — a state-of-the-art home for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company — were as beautiful as ever. And absolutely deserted. It looked like the aftermath of a neutron bomb strike: most of the living creatures vanished while the infrastructure stood undamaged.
The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic devastated many of the businesses in what had become the city’s hub for nightlife and, to a lesser extent, shopping. But the neighborhood now seems to be back close to its 2019 vibrancy, and it’s a little surprising while also encouraging that most of the places I used to patronize on and near Vine Street made it through okay. It’s also remarkable that the steakhouse Losanti has emerged as one of the hottest destinations in OTR.
I base that assessment on how easy or hard it is to reserve a table at a particular restaurant. Losanti serves dinner Wednesday through Sunday with a seating capacity of about 115. When we decided to go there, we discovered it would take weeks to secure a table for four — let alone six — on Friday or Saturday. We settled for an early seating for four on a Sunday.
Losanti brought a new chef onboard a few months ago. Kevin Ashworth impressed many of us with his cooking at Khora before that restaurant closed during the pandemic (it reopened in September under new management). Losanti’s parent company, Crown Restaurant Group (CRG), added a glassed-in, heated enclosure to the restaurant’s patio space last year, giving it a year-round addition of more than 40 seats. As far as we could tell at our Sunday dinner, those seats plus every one in the interior dining rooms stayed full.
Ashworth hasn’t been onboard long enough to affect the menu offerings. In fact, Losanti’s menu seemed quite similar to the one it opened with. Looking back at my 2019 review, I found references to many of the same dishes, from appetizers to desserts, though I’m sure there are differences that I missed.
On this recent visit, the last since 2019, my meal started with a bang. The French onion soup elicited oohs and ahs from my companions. While they each began with virtuous salads, my appetizer arrived in a warm crock crowned with a towering, cheesy puff pastry. The rich onion broth was piping hot and delicious.
The salads were somewhat disappointing, primarily because the kitchen didn’t have the gem lettuce that was listed as prime ingredients on the two salads we tried. Apparently, that tender, buttery green has been almost impossible to find this fall. The substitute of an escarole blend didn’t do justice to the delicate chunks of avocado and slender bits of pink grapefruit in the Little Gem salad, although the substitution worked okay in the house salad with heartier ingredients including salami, pepperoncini and olives.
A couple sitting next to us ordered the slow-roasted giant meatballs with roasted tomato sauce and toasted ciabatta bread, another starter. We all stared hungrily at them — the meatballs, not the couple — and tried not to drool. The two diners smiled and gestured a thumbs-up, and we vowed to try the meatballs next time.
We all went with steak entrées this time. Almost everything in the entrées menu section is beef, from the steak and frites to the petite filet au poivre and the Losanti Burger, and rounded out with Amish chicken Marsala, Faroe Island salmon and Frenched pork parmesan. But the temptation to order steak by the ounce was irresistible, with one couple splitting a New York strip and the other a filet mignon. I almost went for the poivre but was craving béarnaise sauce. Thus, my choice was made: filet mignon with béarnaise sauce. As is common in many steakhouses, there’s a choice of seasonings and sauces with steak, which ranged from $3 for a hit of port butter to $15 for the Oscar preparation, spears of asparagus and hollandaise sauce atop the meat.
As is also standard in steak-oriented restaurants, all sides are à la carte and many are quite rich and filling. Sides such as the truffle mac & cheese or the three-cheese creamed kale were hefty enough to share even among four diners, but the small portion of perfectly cooked grilled asparagus barely sufficed for two.
None of us paid much attention to the pasta section of the menu, caught up as we were in our red meat-craving fever. But the orecchiette with lamb sausage, saffron cream and roasted tomatoes sounds insanely good, and I won’t pass it up next time.
We split two desserts, the butter cake and an à la mode brownie. One of my companions arrived very hungry after a workout and was still hungry when dessert came, but the cake finally did the trick for him.
A few days after we dined there, I asked CRG corporate chef David Bever to speculate on the restaurant’s post-COVID success. Referring to Losanti as an Italian-themed steakhouse, he said that unlike other steak places in Cincinnati, Losanti has invested in an extensive in-house butchery program.
“A lot of other steakhouses get vacuum sealed pieces of meat, but we get in whole rib loins, whole strip loins, cases of tenderloins, that are broken down by hand every single day,” Bever said. This allows the restaurant to offer steaks by the ounce, he noted.
“You can tailor your meal,” Bever added. Scraps from the in-house butchery go into Losanti’s meatballs or Bolognese sauce, and some even is used by other CRG restaurants for their ground beef dishes.
During our recent meal, the quality of service was outstanding. Not only was our server, Becca, there exactly when we needed her, but other staffers I interacted with were equally attentive and helpful.
Regarding the staff, Bever said, “We are getting a reputation around town that we treat our employees well.”
All CRG restaurants (which includes Crown Republic Gastropub, Rosie’s Italian and La Cantina) are closed Monday and Tuesday, so everyone gets two days off in a row. Bever added that after 60 days with the company, employees become eligible for full benefits.
“Our human resources-positive model will pay off in the long run,” he said.
Losanti, 1401 Race St., Over-the-Rhine. Info: losantiotr.com.
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