Ghostly snow devils swirl around the darkness of Loveland Avenue West, but a steamy window with “Tano” scrawled across it glows with a homey, diffuse light, beckoning us out of the cold.
Inside, we find a warm space filled with convivial guests for whom the holiday season is still in full swing. But while the room is inviting, a lot of bare surfaces (a high, tin ceiling; bare wood floors; walls of antiqued Venetian plaster) make for a lot of noise. Our seating situation doesn’t help: Though we see several empty “tables for two,” we’re given one closest to the kitchen. We politely ask to be moved, but the hostess tells us … no.
Our helpful server mentions that chef/owner Gaetano Williams was executive chef at McCormick & Schmick's on Fountain Square, so we expect he will have a particular flare for things that swim. We order a cocktail. “It might take a few minutes,” we’re warned. “The bartender also makes the salads.”
Expecting a wait, we open our menus and indeed find a nice mix of options from land and sea, including several vegetarian choices.
Well, the cocktail comes fairly quickly and so does our fried Calamari ($12), which in other hands can be too bready, greasy and chewy. But Tano’s plate is spot on: crispy and light with the subtle tang of the sea emanating from the squid’s tender flesh. Moreover, he personalizes this ubiquitous dish by tossing in crisp-fried baby spinach leaves and providing a selection of sauces, including delicious creamy mustard.
The Mexican-inspired Croquette de Pollo ($8) is hearty and soul-satisfying. Fashioned from pulled chicken, chorizo and poblano corn masa, it sits in a pool of deliciously sour salsa verde. Garnished with what looks and tastes like crushed Spicy Nacho Doritos, it packs a pop of pleasing heat.
A Spinach Salad ($5) makes it clear why that bartender is busy. The beguiling warm shallot dressing (“The best thing I ate tonight,” my wife later remarks) is made to order and its smoky pungency lifts the salad far above ordinary. Unfortunately, a daily special Clam Chowder ($3) is less successful. It arrives hot, but has the gloppy consistency of cornstarch thickening, which throws the dish off kilter.
Our cocktail long gone, we order glasses of Oberon Sauvignon Blanc and Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon ($9), which will pair well with our entreés. As my beautiful wife regales me with a fascinating anecdote, my attention wanders to the next table’s wine bottles — none of which are on the bistro’s compact list of familiar labels. Noticing the shopping bag beneath their table, I inquire if there’s a corkage policy.
While our server investigates, I return my focus to my date. But, alas, it’s too late: She’s clearly annoyed. I apologize, but I can see in her face that it’s too little; a pit of regret gnaws at my gut. My mood is only slightly lifted later, upon learning that Tano will allow parties to bring in wine (a relative rarity in Cincinnati, though not in the rest of the country) for a very reasonable $15 corkage fee.
Sea Scallops ($26) arrive, served over a bed of chorizo, black bean and spinach risotto and dressed with basil-cilantro oil. Our hopes are high for this beautifully presented dish, topped with delicately julienned fried leeks. The five plump, fresh scallops are perfectly seared and the risotto shows just the right textural crunch. But there’s been an unfortunate lapse: The shellfish were imperfectly rinsed and each mouthful contains the unpleasant gnashing of microscopic grains of sand.
Beef Boscaiolo ($16) is much more successful: Earthy wild mushrooms, colorful and bittersweet chard and tender slices of tenderloin all cling to a tangle of thick pappardelle. A dollop of herbaceous crme sage blends silkily into the other ingredients, forming a complex dish that achieves greatness through the marriage of humble flavors.
We end with a dense flourless chocolate torte. Served upright, it looks like a rocket pointed toward the stars, its base engulfed in a cloud of fresh whipped cream.
Now, as this dish amply demonstrates, Tano clearly has an eye for detail, which made its few lapses surprising. And here, at the end of the meal, is another: Though Tano shares the building with a specialty tea shop, their unremarkable tea selection is crammed haphazardly into a small bowl and the hot water is indifferently served in a cup rather than a small pot.
In short, Tano Bistro is a wonderful addition to the suburban dining scene, and Chef’s creative touches prove he’s too meticulous not to work out the kinks. His pricing, too, is well-calibrated to these parlous economic times.
It will be fun to see how it evolves as the seasons change, but for now it’s a great place to shelter from the cold.
Go: 204 Loveland Ave. West, Loveland
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Entrée Prices: $14-$27
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty
Accessibility: One step up from street level to vestibule