Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Senate Restaurant: Cincinnati, OH

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I may live in Columbus, but I graduated from the University of Cincinnati. It's funny how young professionals are always assumed to be OSU grads in this town. I'm a Bearcat through and through, and proud of my 5 years in "The 'Nati" (My degree—graphic design—is a 5 year program, like many majors at UC). I don't hang out in Cincy that much anymore, but every now and then I miss the energetic areas around campus, Clifton, Hyde Park, Mt. Adams... but Over-the-Rhine? Scary, dude. It's the kind of place you maybe have to drive through once in awhile, but you don't really make a habit of staying. For those of you unfamiliar, OTR is a historic neighborhood in central Cincinnati. According to Wikipedia, "It is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States…Its architectural significance has been compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans, the historic districts of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, and Greenwich Village in New York City. Besides being a historic district, the neighborhood has an arts community that is unparalleled within Cincinnati." Impressive, right? It's the kind of thing that would make a native proud. Unfortunately, it's also—literally—one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

I found out a few months ago that Over-the-Rhine (or OTR for short) has been turning over a new leaf for quite awhile now. The entire neighborhood isn't completely reformed, but there's a newly rebranded strip near downtown, OTR Gateway, that's revitalizing the area. It's a little bit like the Short North in Columbus—a series of boutiques, businesses, cafes, restaurants and bars that breathe new life into both OTR and downtown. My interest was piqued when I saw a friend "like" a certain restaurant on Facebook. "What is this Senate place she likes?? Hmmm…" Senate. A little restaurant located at 1212 Vine St. that has a creative, intriguing menu, and had me tugging my boyfriend's arm saying "Can we go? Can we? Pleeeeeease?????" I've been dreaming of this for months. Like six months, at least. Luckily, we were able to make a visit during the holidays. Hallelujiah!

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First, take a look at this menu. Are you into food? Do you consider yourself kind of a "foodie?" I thought so. Seriously—truffle fries? Duck fat fries?? I'm dying here. Those hot dogs? We have Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace here in Cbus, but I will take these gourmet versions over anything on that menu any day. And warm pretzel beignets?! I don't know how beignets and pretzels can be combined in one bite but I am more than willing to give it a whirl.

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Upon arrival, I will honestly say that this strip of OTR was not sketchy. That was the question of the night—will we be safe? Is it shady? While I won't guarantee it (I know better than that), I will say that the Gateway strip seemed pretty solid. Just make sure you're not alone, okay? And bonus—there's a public parking lot located next to the restaurant so you don't have to walk several blocks into the "bad parts" of the neighborhood. We got there at 6 pm since they don't take reservations, and the place became packed while we were there.

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I started with the Lucy Lou cocktail (limoncello, St. Germaine, lemon juice, and cremant) and George (the BF) had something called "Applecrack," I think. It's not on the menu online, but I do remember it contained rum and… other liquor. Both were excellent. The Lucy Lou was a perfect balance of sweet and sour—not the kind that makes your face twitch and teeth curl.

Narrowing down our choices was painful. Time to strategize! First thing's first. We ordered the Poutine for our appetizer. The Poutine is a plate of truffle fries topped with local cheese curds, braised short ribs, and a light gravy. Holy mother of pearl, they were awesome! The braised short rib shredded on top was AMAZING. So flavorful and tender. I have my weird taste aversion to cheese, so I took the melty cheese curds off my share (I know, I know) but I assure you, George (who loves his cheese) and I were both thoroughly in love. If they had just a plate of plain ol' braised short ribs, I would order it. Multiple times.

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The main course took a little more consideration. The Poutine was an easy choice, but our dinner?? Oy. Did you notice the Lobster BLT or the McBelly? Or the Wood-Grilled Sirloin that has MARROW BUTTER??? My God, why don't these people create a tasting menu so we don't have to make all these decisions??? We had to do it up right though. We had to get a hot dog. George ordered the special dog of the day, the Tijuana, which comprised of wood-grilled pork sausage topped with mole-braised pork belly, avocado & queso fresco.

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I opted for the Croque Madame: a beef hot dog topped with black forest ham, béchamel sauce, and a poached egg on a brioche bun. That's right—ooey gooey eggy deliciousness oozing all over one salty, tasty beef hot dog. Do I really need to tell you how splendid they both were? Or will you just assume they were delicious? Let's go with the latter.

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George ordered the Lobster Mac & Cheese as a side, but we didn't quite realize how full we'd be. But like I said—it's our maiden Senate voyage! It's time to go all out! The side is plenty to share, and it had huge chunks of lobster. They don't skimp. It's worth it. We ended up taking it home with us though. We had to save room for dessert!

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Unlike dinner, dessert took no deliberation. One order of Warm Pretzel Beignets, please! They came with a Caramel Marscapone dipping sauce, which had me curious. I like caramel, but honestly I would prefer a warm chocolate ganache. This was perfect though. It was light, fluffy, and just a weeny bit sweet. And what exactly do they mean by "pretzel beignets?" A beignet (ben-YAY) in the US is basically fried dough (of the choux variety) sprinkled with sugar. Simple, but effective. And 100% delightful. The beignets came to us fresh from the kitchen in a paper bag, shaken by the chef. The little fried blobs are shaken in cinnamon, sugar, and crushed pretzel pieces. A-HA! So that's what they mean by "pretzel beignets." Fork, beignet, marscapone, dip in pretzel remnants, devour. Perfection.

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Have I talked your ear off enough? Are you tired of me? Probably. But take my word—Senate is worth a visit. And so is Cincinnati and the little strip of OTR Gateway, for that matter. And Senate, if you hear me, I want to give you a high-five. Your offering is creative and lived up to my high expectations. Now, will you open a location in Columbus, please? You'd have a strong following—now that I will guarantee!


Julie said...

The OTR as "most dangerous neighborhood" was some really bad statistics applied to a part of the neighborhood that is nowhere near where people actually live. Don't get me started. Please brave the rest of OTR the next time you're down here.

Signed, a foodie who lives in OTR

Claire said...

I ate at Senate last month, on a trip over from Scotland - oh, man, it was awesome!

I missed out on the beignets for dessert though, as I was full - glad to see your photos of them so I could see what I missed out on. Next trip!

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