Wright On a Roll

Best new chef in the Midwest dicusses his food, the local dining scene and the future

May 31, 2012 at 11:25 am
click to enlarge Daniel Wright
Daniel Wright

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Poutine from Senate Restaurant in Over-the-Rhine is my Green Mile death row last request meal. Hey, not that I’m planning to start a life of crime, but if I do, I want to be sure you get this right. Give me those truffle fries, the slow-braised beef short ribs, the Blue Jacket Dairy cheese curds. I’m gone to glory.

Chef Daniel Wright, who owns Senate with his wife, Lana, is the creator of my aforementioned Final Feast. He’s one of the few people who does not know of my last wish. He is on a roll, and I can’t risk jinxing him with any negativity. This man is Food & Wine’s People’s Choice for the Best New Chef in the Midwest. He has two hit restaurants in the hottest neighborhood in town. He is days away from becoming the father of twins. His mojo is working overtime.

I recently asked Wright if it was embarrassing to get exposure in a national magazine with a caption under his photo that reads “Why He’s Amazing.” He chuckles and pretty much dismisses the question. His buddy, Chef Jose Salazar of The Palace, won last year. He hopes another buddy, Owen Maass from Cumin, wins next year. This year was his year — he’s cool with that.

“Tons of customers have said they voted for me,” Wright says. “So that’s good.” 

His attention is divided during our interview, talking to a contractor who’s working on Senate’s front stoop, answering an employee who asks a question. I get the feeling that he rarely sits still. He tells me he’s also authoring a book — a hot dog cookbook. 

Senate opened in February of 2010, about 27 months ago. At six days a week, four weeks a month, that’s about 648 Dogs of the Day that Wright and staff have featured. Wright says that no one else has done a hot dog cookbook, so he and local writer Courtney Tsitouris are planning one, with about 500 favorite dogs and descriptions: an approachable chef’s cookbook.  

Who wouldn’t want hundreds of ideas for how to top a fabulous hot dog? Kick your guests’ asses with the Chuck Norris, a wood-grilled pork sausage, barbecued pork belly, tempura fried avocado, onion and tomato. Woo tender hearts with the Justin Bieber, topped with a country ham, sweet corn relish, red pepper coulis and a poached egg. Dazzle them with the Frieda Pinto, an all beef dog with curried short ribs, mango-jalapeno relish and cool cilantro-lime yogurt. I get it. Beats French’s mustard and pickle relish from a squeeze jar, doesn’t it?

If Senate’s street food is something you can imagine creating at home, sister restaurant Abigail Street’s more refined cuisine might not be — at least not with the ingredients and spices most home cooks grab out of the pantry. Abigail Street’s menu was inspired in part by Lana Wright’s Middle Eastern heritage, so there’s a lamb tagine, fattoush and grilled octopus. Their new summer menu lightens things up a little, with dishes like ricotta gnocchi with morels, peas, asparagus, maitake mushrooms and brown butter. As Wright says, it “uses beautiful ingredients.” 

I ask him to pretend that someone pulls up with a truckload of a surprise ingredient. What would he love to work with? I’m completely surprised when he doesn’t give the answer I expected — a pig.

“Produce — really nice baby lettuces and baby vegetables — there’s so much you can do with it. Chive blossoms. The heirlooms. Sure, we do lamb, but right now produce is making us happy.”  

I mention a video that went viral among foodies recently, during which an economist talks about what to order in a restaurant. The guy says you should order the ugliest sounding dish on the menu, since the chef wouldn’t put something that sounds ugly on there unless it was really incredibly delicious.

“I can believe that,” he says. “Like the bone marrow at Senate. We wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t the best version of that dish. It doesn’t sound good, but when it walks through the dining room, everybody smells it and then they order it. It happens all the time.” 

How does he suggest that a diner approach a restaurant?

“When I go out to eat, I sit at the bar. I like to watch bartenders work, and I like to ask them questions. I’ll order four or five appetizers and see what the chef is trying to do. That way you get to try his work without getting weighed down.”

That explains a lot about the philosophy behind both Senate and Abigail Street. Neither one is a “weighty” restaurant. Their menus are geared toward grazing. The best meals I’ve had in both places have been with bunches of friends who aren’t afraid to share forks.

We talked about the Gateway District. Senate opened shortly after Lavomatic, and now with Abigail Street, Bakersfield, A Tavola, Taste of Belgium and more, it’s hard for diners to think of going anywhere else. Is this permanent?

“Definitely permanent,” he says. “The scene is great. The bar’s been set really high. I hope we get more retail to support it.”

He goes on to talk about the synergy with stores like Sloane Boutique and MiCA/12v. It’s great for people to be able to wander around and shop while they wait for a table or after they’ve eaten. Having retail shops open later makes sense. And nearby performing arts venues — Ensemble Theatre, Know Theatre, Music Hall and the Emery Theatre — will help keep the bars and restaurants alive. 

“Cincinnati’s culinary scene is so strong,” he says. “Jean Robert [de Cavel] is a legend. This city attracts talent. We’ve got great restaurants. I love Enoteca Emilia, and Nada for brunch. AmerAsia, that’s my new favorite right now. We went to The Palace for our anniversary, and Jose [Salazar] made sushi — that’s a side of him that people just don’t see. Cumin — I absolutely love them. Alex [Mchaikhi] is the best front-of-the-house guy in the city. And Owen [Maass], his geeky-techy side brings out the best in food. We have great Indian and Mexican food here, and that’s what Lana wants to eat now. That and Putz’s Creamy Whip. It’s a pregnant lady thing. If the woman wants it, she gets it.”

I ask him if he sees a change in Senate’s direction at any point. Will he get tired of hot dogs?

“That’s a very good question,” he says, then pauses. “What are people going to want to eat in eight or 10 years? I think high-end pub food will always be good, whether trends change or not. I think Abigail Street will evolve and change much more than Senate.”

So who would he like to see walk in the door to eat his food? 

“Anthony Bourdain with a camera crew! I’d love to cook for him. No, I’d really love to just hang out with him and pick his brain. And the president. Everybody wants to cook for the president, right? And George Clooney. He hasn’t been in, and I’d love to shoot the shit with him. David Beckham, he’s Lana’s crush, so that one’s for her. And Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, and the entire cast of Saturday Night Live. Basically, I love to have people around when I’m cooking. That’s what makes it fun.”

Then it will be fun cooking at home for Lana and the twins, right? He laughs. “I never do. That’s the deceiving thing. Lana cooks at home. She’s a really good cook. I grill. And luckily we have aunts and moms to bring us food when the babies are born.”

Are they ready for that? “We have read every book. One of our bartenders has twins, and he’s coaching me. We’ve been married for three years. I feel like this is the perfect time.” 

Daniel Wright is on a roll — it’s his time to shine. He’s got a cookbook to do, food to cook and babies to raise. I better not get my criminal career started any time soon. Better just head up to Senate and get my plateful of Poutine while I sit on a barstool, instead of Old Sparky.