Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

A Tale of Two Dinners

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I have avoided Jeff Ruby’s steak houses in my 20 years in Cincinnati. I have my reasons. He only hires attractive, young, slim women. He is personally cantankerous. He has taken a number of political positions that I don’t agree with. And I was personally too broke to drop one hundred bucks on a meal until the last several years.

On the other hand, I am a foodie. This omnivore skews to the vegetarian side. I consume beef rarely; however, I love to have a spectacular steak once or twice a year.It was only time that stood between my ethical concerns and the siren’s steak call.

My date with Jeff Ruby was set at The Precinct for Sunday night. Incidentally, I found myself at Crave at The Banks on the Saturday night prior for a friend’s birthday. This is where my dining contrast starts.

I should disclose my feelings about The Banks. If you aren’t from Cincinnati, The Banks are an urban equivalent of a strip mall. In a city that is over-flowing with history, architecture, and unique local business, they are architecturally non-descript, uninspired chain bars and restaurants that are trolled by unsavory downtown interlopers-read suburbanites who view downtown solely as their personal party spot. The interlopers stick to Applebee’s and McDonalds when they pull off the highway on a road trip. They are comforted by Olive Garden on Times Square. These are the people that enjoy The Banks. They buy many over-priced, poorly-mixed shots, and puke them up outside the Reds stadium and go home satisfied with their “downtown” experience.

Due to The Banks proximity to Great American Ballpark (home of The Cincinnati Reds), I have occasionally patroned The Banks. The overpriced Bud Lights at The Banks are palatable when one considers how much more that exact product will be inside the stadium gates. However for my preferences, this is the only acceptable reason to visit The Banks. There is nothing wrong with craving comfort. But that scene just isn’t for me.

Ironically, I live within easy walking distance of The Banks. At 4 blocks away, it’s a more geographically logical destination than Over The Rhine is at 12 blocks away. And yet, I am in OTR (Over The Rhine) all the time. Just this morning, I bundled up and biked up to Coffee Emporium in OTR, carefully avoiding the icy spots left from our early morning snow.

Circumstances have conspired to put me at Crave at least four times. Typically, a friend has suggested it, and I have declined to suggest otherwise. I don’t want to be that butthole friend who pedantically insists on controlling where the group goes. The beer selection, service, and food quality was solidly mediocre; at dinner prices ranging from fifteen to thirty-five bucks a plate I expect better than mediocre.

I found myself at Crave with a party of 15. As an ex-server, I confess that we did many things that prove difficult for wait staff. Our party trickled in over the course of 60 minutes as opposed to being present at the reservation time. This is a problem for wait staff, because timely diners understandably start to feel uncomfortable by hour 2 in their chair. This discomfort often leads them to blame the server for slow service, when in reality, their late comers drove their meal to be served more than 90 minutes after their arrival. However, this also presents an opportunity for a savvy server. It’s an excellent time to get your table liquored up.

Our server missed this opportunity. She took a very long time getting drinks. Because I couldn’t see the bar from my vantage point, I don’t know if this was due to the server’s or the bar’s slow service.

Once the party was finally assembled, our food order took an exceptionally long time. I ordered a thirty-five dollar ribeye with a side of pureed potatoes and caramelized Brussels sprouts. I knew this was a poor choice when I made it, but that’s what I felt like eating. The food took about an hour to come out, and when it did, several of our orders were wrong. I ordered a medium rare steak, but the shoe leather they brought was medium well if not well. The cherry on top, was that most of our meals weren’t warm. The potatoes and Brussels were at room temperature and had unexceptional flavor.

I don’t send food back. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did it. I sent this steak back. After another 30 minutes, the waitress returned to tell me that they ran out of potatoes and ribeye. When she asked if I wanted to order something else, most of the table was finishing their meals. It was nearly 11, and I was antsy to change scenery.

I didn’t have to pay for anything at Crave. I was satisfied to walk around the corner to Jimmy John’s and grab a sandwich. But as an ex-server, I felt bad for the server. It made for an uncomfortable four hours.

This is the context for my visit to The Precinct. I turned up a bit early. When I hit the door, the hostesses did the following three things within seconds. They made eye contract, smiled, and greeted me. This will be a different customer service experience.

After they confirmed my reservation, they asked if I would like to relax with a drink while they got my table ready. At my assent, they gave me directions to the bar and said that they would direct my guest to the bar as well.

The bartender displayed ample knowledge of the wine list. She was happy to provide input on the three wines that caught my interest. At her suggestion, I ordered a Meritage. And it was delicious. When our table was ready, one of the hosts asked us to come to the host stand when we were ready to be seated. She saved us that awkward moment when you’re trying to pay out the bar as quickly as possible so the person waiting to seat you is standing there staring at you for the least amount of time possible.

Our table was roomy, and adequately set. Our server came to us within seconds of us settling in to check on our drinks and introduce himself. The service went as expected, but there was something strange happening at the table next to us. The cougars to our left were interested in something off the menu. Judging by how they interacted with the young men that attended to them and the little amount of food they actually consumed, I concluded that they were there specifically for the flirting, and food was incidental. It’s unusual to see the power dynamics that women are most often subjected to reversed. The men appeared to enjoy the attention, but as I recall from my service industry days, it’s in their professional interests to do so.

The menu was overwhelming, and I think I made my decision quickly simply to avoid decision fatigue. I got a medium rare 14oz NY Strip with lump crab meat, béarnaise, and mushroom reduction sauce. The steak came with a potato, but the spud was beside the point. All the food that I had was delicious, but the steak had the starring role in my meal. Every morsel of the steak was perfectly cooked. Because steaks are unsymmetrical hunks of flesh, they often don’t cook evenly, leaving some bites over-cooked and others under-cooked. The crab and béarnaise combined with the salty rub that encrusted the steak to make each bite a cascade of salty, tangy, sweet, and rich. It was outstanding.

The moral of the story? Friends don’t let friends go to The Banks. And Jeff Ruby is still a jerk, but wow does he run great eateries.

One thought on “A Tale of Two Dinners

  1. I have never been to Jeff Ruby’s downtown but, yeah, the precinct had good steak for those rare occasions when you just want a good steak and do someone to wait on your table like they know what good table service is. Which is not a thing the Midwest is terribly good at, though obviously we excel in many other things.

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