Review: Royce Offers an Impressive French-Forward Menu and Wine List

Royce has the pedigree, location and energy to be a worthy addition to the heart of downtown Cincinnati.

click to enlarge French brasserie Royce, located at The Foundry. - Photo: Catie Viox
Photo: Catie Viox
French brasserie Royce, located at The Foundry.

As a lifelong Francophile, I am intrigued whenever our city welcomes a French restaurant. Hand me a menu written in French along with a wine list of carefully chosen champagnes, burgundies, Bordeaux and Loire Valley whites, and we are off to a good start.

My love affair with France started with a crush on my high school French teacher and then was seared into my heart forever when I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in Paris at the impressionable age of 17. I’ve been back many times to that city and other regions of the country, enjoying every visit and have even been able to get by with passable French.

Accordingly, I bid welcome to Royce, a beautifully designed restaurant that opened this summer across from Fountain Square in the new Foundry development. Calling itself a French brasserie, Royce’s menu and wine list are indeed mostly in French, and you’ll find plenty of enticing frites, pâtés, and fruits de mer. They nabbed an excellent chef, Jared Bennett, who had made his former kitchen at Branch one of my favorites. He also helmed Metropole and Khora. In other words, he’s bona fide, and I look forward to seeing what he does here.

Royce is owned by a highly successful Nashville restaurateur, Terry Raley, who already has one Cincinnati winner with Pearlstar Oyster Camp + Bar in Over-the-Rhine. Even considering the formidable challenges of today’s restaurant business, Royce has the pedigree, location and energy to be a worthy addition to the heart of downtown Cincinnati. If it is missing something for this Francophile — like, actual French people anywhere in evidence — that probably won’t affect its long-term success. I doubt that the well-heeled clientele enjoying the restaurant’s seafood towers and fancy cocktails will be troubled by the formulaic, bistro-by-numbers vibe it gave me. Shaking that thought from my head, I found plenty to like, and many reasons to return.

Bennett wasn’t cooking the night I went for dinner with five friends. My seat faced the open kitchen with its crew of five, minus the head chef, and it was fun to have that activity as a backdrop. Colorful surfaces of copper and brass, bright red seat cushions against stark white walls, and the house’s penchant for show-stopping presentations of food and drink add to the theatricality. Staffers delivered raw bar offerings on the impressive, multi-layered ceramic tower, eliciting excited reactions at each table. Some of the elaborate cocktails were so beautiful that we felt almost sorry to disturb them. Luckily, we got over that, and the drinks tasted as good as they looked.

click to enlarge A selection of dishes available at French brasserie Royce. - Photo: Catie Viox
Photo: Catie Viox
A selection of dishes available at French brasserie Royce.

My favorite was their gussied-up Old Fashioned (called Bugatti Chiron here), made with Old Forester 86, Grand Marnier, two kinds of bitters and “coated in Applewood smoke.” If you’re looking for something with more visual flair, try the Dreyfus Affair (based on tequila) or Carry the One (an interesting combination of Hennessey and Cointreau) to get the full wow factor, presentation-wise.

Cocktail prices are on the high side ($14-$16), as are the glass pours of wine ($14-$25), but at least you’re getting high-quality libations. There’s not a weak link in the wine pours, and I could imagine stopping by to work my way through those glasses along with a bit of charcuterie or something from the raw bar. Glass pours are not listed as also available by the bottle, however, which is a courtesy I hope will be extended in the future.

The place wasn’t packed when we went on a Wednesday evening. Empty tables kept the noise down, though I still couldn’t hear the folks at the other end of our table for much of the evening. Our servers were attentive but not pushy, and gave us time to relax with drinks before ordering food. All evening, the pace of service went well.

You might need a minute to become oriented to Royce’s menu, whether or not deciphering the French slows you down. You won’t see a familiar snacks/appetizers/entrees menu organization. Instead, the four menu sections list Charcuterie, Fruits de Mer (seafood, or raw bar), Les Plats (entreés, but also salads and bread service) and Côtés (sides).

We arranged our meal into a traditional three-course sequence. For starters, we skipped charcuterie and selected items from the seafood bar, sharing oysters, pickled mussels and rillettes of smoked trout with a baguette. The seafood was fresh and fragrant, but someone in the kitchen ramped up the salt a bit too much with the rillettes (a creamy trout spread to put on crackers or baguette slices). I noticed a couple of other over-salted dishes later, triggering one of my dining-out pet peeves (go easy on the salt and let me add more at the table, if I want to).

If you like French fries (frites), you’re in luck, as many of the plats come with them. Two at our table had a frites dish – one with mussels, the other duck breast. I thought the fries themselves were comme ci, comme ça — okay, not great — but the protein that accompanied them were excellent. Perhaps the best bite I had all night was a taste of my friend’s duck breast, a tender piece of meat that was expertly seasoned and perfectly cooked.

I also recommend the entrée-sized plat called Quark Boulette, dumplings made with quark cheese. Tender, round puffs of cheesy dough sat in a warm bed of grilled corn kernels, sauteed mushrooms and pecorino cheese, the savory flavors melting into a sort of late summer stew. This excellent dish would go well with almost any of the wines by the glass, even one of the hearty reds.

We tried two fish entrees, trout amandine and skate wing with romesco sauce. The lemony sauce on the trout helped elevate a traditional but bland dish, but both fish portions were small for the price, especially $34 for the skate.

At present, Royce offers three desserts: crème brulee plus versions of opera crème cake and lemon tart. I love crème brulee, but we decided to try the less-common offerings. Both the tart and cake were lovely, but go with the cake if you need to pick one. The almond-chocolate sponge cake enrobed in chocolate ganache frosting and laced with espresso crème can’t be beat.

Royce serves dinner seven days a week and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. It will add lunch service soon.

Royce is located at 501 Vine St., Downtown. Find more information at royce-cincy.com.


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