As a restaurant reviewer, it's hard to be unbiased. Some places I'm just predisposed to like. So I'll admit this upfront: I've looked forward to dining at Rue Dumaine with the eagerness of a kid at Christmastime.
After all, chef/owner Anne Kearney's story is truly compelling.
Local Ohio girl makes good working with celeb-chef Emeril Legasse in New Orleans. Eventually, she takes over her own place and builds it into a top dining attraction in a city known for great eating. The James Beard Foundation recognizes her work — for all you non-foodies, that's the culinary equivalent to being a Heisman Trophy finalist — but she suffers a debilitating setback.
An aneurysm convinces her to take a break from cooking. She rests for several years, helping grow and sell organic produce from her parents' Middletown farm.
Eventually, she feels the urge to get back in the kitchen and creates a place named for the street on which her Louisiana restaurant, Peristyle, stood.
All the while, her supportive husband, wine-guy Tom Sands, is by her side.
It sounds like the hokey plot of a Lifetime channel made-for-TV movie starring Meredith Baxter-Birney. Except it's not. It's Kearney's life, which makes it even harder to remain objective. But I try, because inflated expectations often lead to little disappointments.
We find Rue Dumaine conveniently located a mile off I-675 in a strip mall shared with Sam's Club and SuperCuts. Despite these down-market surroundings, they offer valet parking. And the restaurant design is lovely — soaring, open ceilings; a spacious bar; a curved banquette that separates the dining room and open kitchen where Kearney coolly, professionally marshals her staff and works her culinary voodoo.
The French-inspired bistro menu is tightly focused, with just nine starters and six main courses. Weekly and daily specials round out these selections with dishes made from seasonal, local ingredients.
We begin by sharing appetizers. Frog Legs ($8.75) are terrific, crispy and greaseless and served with irresistibly herbaceous parsley sauce. Pissaladi#233re ($7.50) is excellent, a buttery tart piled high with sweet, nutty caramelized onions, dots of creamy goat cheese and two glistening white anchovy filets.
The perfectly serviceable Sea Scallops ($9), pan-seared and finished with a "blood orange buerre noisette," are a slight letdown. They taste fine but lack the inspirational twist that could elevate the dish to greatness.
The wine list is outstanding, with terrific choices by the glass and bottle. Our 2003 August Briggs Syrah ($40/$30 retail) is impressive — and a great value, too. Big and dark, it balances its 15 percent alcohol with tiers of blackberry and blueberry fruit and a welcome hint of black licorice.
The most perfectly conceived and executed of our grands plats (main courses) is a humble bowl of Mussels Bourride ($13) served with irresistibly crunchy, delicious pommes frites. Its broth is wonderfully redolent of garlic, saffron and fennel. Long after the mussels are gone, we're still happily slurping spoonfuls of broth.
But some other choices fail to excite in quite the same way. For instance, a nightly special of Stuffed Quail ($22) served on a white-corn grit cake is quite good, but the rillette stuffing (a pork meat paste) is surprisingly dry. Likewise, Braised Short Ribs ($21) are rich and ultimately satisfying but would have been better if more meltingly tender served on the bone in a more complex sauce.
Cassoulet ($20) includes a deliciously garlicky Toulouse-style sausage and a tender chicken leg confit. The dish seems slightly deconstructed, however, with each element cooked separately then plated together. I wish it had been simmered in a single pot, allowing the flavors to marry.
House-made desserts are also quite good, especially a warm Lemon Almond Cake ($5.50) with its puddle of lemon curd and sprinkling of dried cherries. A homey Apple-Walnut Galette ($6) looks pretty, but the slightly dry filling calls out for something more than the dollop of whipped cream perched on top.
Clearly, most of these complaints are quibbles. The total dining experience — attentive, professional service; fair pricing; interesting dishes — far surpasses what most restaurants offer. But, perhaps unfairly, I was expecting transcendence.
As the folks at the next table remind us, it's rumored that Rue Dumaine's opening was delayed because Kearney refused delivery of some china that didn't meet her exacting standards. True or not, with that kind of reputation, how could I not anticipate perfection? And when I "merely" got a terrific meal in a beautiful setting, I felt a twinge of disappointment.
It's the subtle prejudice of high expectations. Like a kid on Christmas morning who receives an Xbox when he really wants a Wii, I should be thrilled with what I got.
But deep inside, I'm left wanting ... still yearning for an experience that exceeds my inflated expectations. And maybe I'll find it on my next visit to Rue Dumaine. �
RUE DUMAINE Critics Pick
Go: 1061 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, Centerville
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; bar opens at 4 p.m.
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty of fish and fowl
Accessibility: Fully accessible, including convenient valet parking