t’s tempting to think that Over-the-Rhine’s restaurant scene has reached a saturation point, but there are niches to be filled. Many of the newest places appeal to a scenester crowd, happy to hang out and wait for a table in the crunch of friends. But there wasn’t a restaurant for the diners who wanted a reservation, indoor garage parking and a sense of space and ease — until now. The Mercer OTR fills the niche for those diners with delicious flavor and gracious service.
When my friend booked our table at Mercer, she got an immediate email confirmation. We liked that we could make a reservation, even though it meant we had to go a little earlier than we’d hoped. Knowing we had a spot made the half-hour difference worthwhile. We also got a parking spot in the Mercer garage — the restaurant is on the ground floor of the Mercer Commons apartment complex. The restaurant spans the front of the building, and you can get a sneak peek into the kitchen through the large windows as you pass by.
The space is cleverly designed with a glass-block foyer that prevents the dining room temp from bottoming out every time the door opens. We were surprised at the laminate-topped tables with metal edges, and the rattan chairs were a little porch furniture-ish. But our server couldn’t have been more informative and helpful. She rightfully guessed we were there for a leisurely evening and said, “I love it when guests want to explore the menu. Take your time!”
She encouraged us to start with the housemade ricotta ($9), topped with onion compote. Its aroma was mouth-watering and a nice accompaniment to the cocktails we selected. I gave myself over to the Blood Orange Sazerac ($8). It’s not the New Orleans version made with an absinthe rinse, but this one, with Solerno, is warming and delicious. My guest tried the Metropolitan ($8), a brandy-based cocktail that our server cautioned was the sweetest on the list. I thought it was well balanced and not too sweet at all.
Our second course was my favorite. We shared the scallops ($14), which, though plural, is indeed just two scallops. But wow, were they amazing. They were perfectly seared with brown butter and served over parsnip puree flavored with shiitake mushrooms — one of those dishes where you have to close your eyes when you take a bite to allay the sensory overload.
For the salad course, I chose arugula with beets and goat cheese ($9). Yes, everyone has a variation on this combination, but that’s because they’re so good together. Mercer’s version featured an apple mostarda — a condiment, like a chutney, with finely diced candied apples gently seasoned with mustard oil. My friend loved her mix of wild bitter greens ($9) with crispy lardons and a poached egg — “the breakfast salad,” we were advised.
The manager stopped by as we were ordering our entrées. He helped us choose glasses of wine to go with our selections, even opening a bottle and bringing me a taste of one I hadn’t tried before. The Godello ($11 glass), a Spanish white, was delicious, and I’ll definitely keep it on my favorites list.
After the scallops, I knew the chef excelled in seafood and mushrooms in combination. That led me to select the branzino ($28) from the short, tempting list of main dishes. The two crisp filets were perched on fregola sarda — a couscous-like pasta that was new to me — and maitake mushrooms. Pancetta gave it a salty richness.
My friend had a glass of cabernet ($13) with her short ribs ($29). They were almost crisp outside, boneless and fork-tender, and served over creamy polenta. Our server gossiped that a Famous Local Person had been in to eat them two days in a row. I now respect that person more than I did in the past.
It was crazy to eat dessert after that, but we had to try the cheesecake ($10) because it sounded so unique. It’s a savory version, made with mascarpone and blue cheese. The crust was a crisp rosemary shortbread, and it was garnished with candied grapes. It’s probably the most un-sweet dessert I’ve ever had and would also be appropriate for a starter or even a main — perfect with a tiny glass of port ($8).
The Mercer is impressive. It was so nice to be in OTR, watching the passersby, and yet able to relax and enjoy our meal without feeling like people were hovering, coveting our seats. The service was friendly, consultative and yet fun. Pricey, maybe a little, but I’ll go back. They’ll save us a spot.
The Mercer OTR
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.