Thursday, January 10, 2002

The Maisonette

Who is really the star?

        Janet Block, who was a vice president long before women were supposed to have such titles, introduced me to the Maisonette. She was a top-ranking executive at Shillito's, which was a top-ranking department store in downtown Cincinnati, which was a top-ranking city.

        She told me I would love this restaurant because “the food is very, very good and you'll be treated like royalty.”

        Because I'm with you, I said.

        “No, because that's the way they treat everybody,” she said.

        Janet has retired. Shillito's is an apartment building. As for Cincinnati, well, we don't seem to be at the top of anybody's list these days.

Founding family

        The Maisonette, however, remains the same: very, very good. The founding family continues to ply its trade in the heart of a city deserted by retailers and disdained by sports fiefdoms who demanded public money to continue to serve up an inferior product.

        When Janet and I sat down to lunch at the Maisonette, it was one of three five-star Cincinnati restaurants in the Mobil Travel Guide. There were only 13 nationwide. The other two here — Pigall's on Fourth Street and the Gourmet Room in what was then the Terrace Hilton on Sixth — lost their stars in the mid-1970s. This year, 14 restaurants have been anointed and the Maisonette held its five stars for the 38th consecutive year, more than any place else in the country.

        Criteria, according to the Mobil Web site, are “flexible,” depending on the region and the restaurant's style. “For example, if a fine French restaurant covers the tables with tableclothes, those cloths should be of the finest quality with a high thread count and perhaps some custom damask detailing.”

        The restaurants are rated by “a national network of independent experts” who make anonymous visits. But I suppose if an alert proprietor sees a stranger counting the threads in the tablecloth, he might make sure the water glasses are always filled and the silverware clean at that table.

Wretched excess

        “Our notable newcomer is New York's restaurant Alain Ducasse, which enters the rating program as a five-star recipient,” a Mobil spokesman said Tuesday. This “notable newcomer” is the place in the Essex House hotel where you can get a fixed-price meal for $280 per person. The wine list is sealed in wax, and the person who signs for the tab is presented a dozen fountain pens from which to choose.

        I haven't been there for a while, but I am assured that there is no wax-encrusted menu or wretched excess of fountain pens at the Maisonette. This is probably a good idea, because the sensible people of Cincinnati would probably laugh so heartily at these pretensions that it would be distracting to somebody trying to count threads.

        But what, I wondered, is the secret of their success? How have they managed to survive the riots, not to mention the demise of the three-martini lunch?

        Managing partner Michael E. Comisar says he's proud of the new chef, Bertrand Bouquin, and “everybody else who works so hard here. But we really owe a lot to the community. It's more than the Comisars and the food. People in Cincinnati have made this a special place.”

        In other words, after all these years and 190 stars, the people who run the Maisonette still think the customer is important.

        Maybe that's the secret.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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