Restaurants & Reservations: Dining in Cincinnati

What happens when a rabbi and a lawyer walk into a bar? We'll let you know in a few years, but until then we'll do our best to share with you our favorite (and not-so-favorite) Cincinnati restaurants and hope you'll share some with us, too!

Brown Dog: Worth the Wait!

Brown Dog Cafe4893 Pfeiffer Road • Blue Ash, OH 45242 • (513) 794-1610
His Take

The title says it all. We took a lot of flak from our readers when we left Brown Dog before being seated on Valentine’s day because of the long wait (even with a reservation), unannounced special menu, and no-gift-certificates policy. But as promised, we returned to see if the food was really as good as everyone had said it was.

Brown Dog Café is a tiny, tiny, one-room restaurant in a very non-descript shopping plaza right near I-71 at Pfeiffer. This is not a venue you are likely to accidentally walk past. But no worries, because there are clearly a group of local patrons who rely on the restaurant for a top notch meal whenever they fancy one. Having only seen the restaurant at capacity (and then some) on Valentine’s Day, we were surprised to find it only a little more than half full when we arrived on a Saturday evening for our second attempt. We were even more surprised at how small the restaurant is, with a capacity probably near 50. Naturally, we were seated quickly and politely without any wait.

Brown Dog’s service quickly proved to be the opposite at our experience at Bangkok Bistro (when they forgot to tell our server we existed for 15 minutes). Apparently, our server was busy when we arrived, so another server offered to take care of us. In the end, they both thought they were responsible, so we heard the specials twice (usually a good thing) and almost enjoyed our amuse twice (until they figured out what was happening). Our server(s) were friendly and knowledgeable, which always makes the night more enjoyable.

OK, on to the food...

Aside from the whitefish amuse and delicious bread (note for every other restaurant: warm break + olive oil = mmmmmm), our meal really started with the Mediterranean sampler maza. We’ve been to other places that served this kind of sampler, which usually includes hummus, olives, pita, roasted red peppers, etc. What struck me about Brown Dog’s rendition of the dish was that everything was piled together in a large boat. I suppose this presentation gives you a hint that it’s worth trying bits of each component with the others — and they couldn’t be more right! From the amazing olive tapenade and delicious peppers to the pita and artichokes, everything was so flavorful, I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about a Mediterranean sampler. What a great start to our meal.

Next up was a simple Bibb lettuce salad with candied walnuts. It’s hard to go wrong with candied nuts, and the presentation was impressive, despite the relatively small portion size. Note: one salad per person, two people per appetizer.

For the main course, I decided to go with the evening’s special: a grilled swordfish with a spicy, brown mustard sauce and asparagus. The dish usually comes with garlic mashed potatoes. I’m not a huge mashed potatoes fan, and the kitchen was kind enough to swap them for “Brown Dog Fries.” The swordfish was a nice large portion cooked appropriately, and the mustard sauce was a terrific complement. Sadly, the “Brown Dog Fries” were a little disappointing for a restaurant-named dish. They weren’t bad, but we’ve grown to expect amazing things when a restaurant names a dish after itself — Honey with its Honey Fries is the perfect example. Brown Dog Fries were home-cut fries served with plain ketchup, nothing too exciting here.

Lest you think the meal ended on a down note, there is always dessert. And Brown Dog passed our dessert test with flying colors. I chose the Chocolate Banana Bread, largely because I wasn’t enticed by the espresso or ice cream in the Chocolate Tasting. The Chocolate Banana Bread has a liquid chocolate center that is sweet, rich, and satisfying. The caramelized bananas are a nice touch, too. This is one of the top desserts I’ve had anywhere in the area, so golf-clap for a perfect way to cap a fantastic meal.

We’ll be back, but most likely when we find someone else to pay :-)
Her Take

We went into Brown Dog on a recent Saturday night with a strike against it because of our experience there on Valentine’s Day, when we left before actually eating. Based on everything we had heard (and read here in the comments), we really still wanted to try it, so we made another reservation and headed in. It was the complete opposite from last time.

We were seated immediately, and there were a small handful of open tables. Our waitress came to greet us quickly to take drink orders and tell us about the specials. Shortly thereafter, a different waitress came over and repeated the specials. The first one came back a few minutes later with bread and a “gift from the chef,” a plate of two fancy spoons with a type of whitefish and a citrus sauce to cleanse our palettes before the meal. It had some kick and did its job! We also gave our orders to waitress-1.

As we were enjoying our first slices of warm bread with olive oil and roasted garlic (YUM!), waitress-2 came back, saw that we already had food, and handed off her plate of chef-gift to the hostess. She came over anyway to make sure we had given our orders to the other waitress as well. Apparently both said they would take our table, but then both took our table. Once they realized it, we were back to just one waitress.

A little while after enjoying some bread, our shared appetizer appeared. We ordered the Maza, a mix of olives, artichoke hearts, hummus, smoked peppers, olive tapenade, tomato salad, cucumber relish, feta, haloumi cheese, and pita with zaatar. Everything was delicious!! The olive tapenade was by far our favorite part. The haloumi didn’t have too much taste, and the “tomato salad” was more a pile of cherry tomatoes, but mixed with the other stuff, it didn’t matter. We could have used another couple of pieces of pita, but we managed to finish the whole plate anyway. This appetizer comes in a for-one size and a for-two size. We shared the for-one, because we wanted to have room to try more dishes!

Our (shared) salad was the Waldorf Bibb, which also came with granny smith apples, candied walnuts, celery, dried cherries, and a sweet onion dressing with chunks of swiss cheese. Unlike the appetizer, this one was a little smaller than expected, but still enough, especially with everything else we ate. It was an interesting mix of things I wouldn’t normally put together—especially the celery! It worked well. I thought I tasted pear in the salad, too, though, so I have a suspicion of pear in place of granny smith apples, but I’m not entirely positive.

My main course was Eggplant Bruschetta, slices of fried eggplant covered with roasted veggies and fresh mozzarella, and the whole thing on top of a parmesan risotto. Wow. It was fantastic. In spite of all the moisture, the outside of the eggplant was crispy. The risotto was creamy but not overly rich and heavy. There was more than enough mozzarella (and I seldom say that). The veggies on top helped the whole thing feel a little lighter. I couldn’t quite finish it (although I got close), and I was disappointed both that there wasn’t enough to take home, and with the knowledge that it wouldn’t be as good reheated anyway. Yum.

Even though we weren’t entirely hungry by the end of all that, we agreed to take a look at the dessert menu. We almost always share a dessert if we’re going to get one, but the one I wanted was really creamy, and he tries to stay away from those. So of course, we each ordered a dessert. I got a Chocolate Tasting. It was beautifully presented! There was homemade bittersweet chocolate chocolate chip ice cream, which was fantastic, even if the chips were smaller than the ones at Graeter’s. There was a white chocolate fondue with a sliced strawberry. I am the first to argue that white chocolate isn’t really chocolate, but the fondue was delicious anyway. And there was an espresso pot de crème, which turns out to be served in a kind of shot glass, sort of a cross between fudge and mousse, more the consistency of cream cheese. Thick chocolate-espresso with a spoon! What could be bad?! Nothing. It was fantastic.

We both commented that one of the great things about this meal was that it was fantastically paced. We were there for about an hour and a half, far longer than most restaurants, and they let us finish each course, and talk for a few minutes, before the next one arrived. It was comfortable and relaxed, the magical place between rushed and slow, and we enjoyed every bite. I hope I get to go back eventually!

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