Thursday, August 28, 2003

Attention to detail elevates Pigall's to truly fine dining

Dining Review

By Polly Campbell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Opening a French restaurant in the same location - and with the same name - of a beloved French classic seemed a nostalgic choice for Jean-Robert at Pigall's a year ago.

But in other ways, Pigall's was a radical concept. Investing in a fine-dining restaurant in struggling downtown did not appear an obvious business choice. Then there was the decision to offer only a prix-fixe menu: three courses for $65. More unusual yet was including the tip and valet parking in the price.

Fine dining at this level required high-level staffing, including a full-time sommelier. And chef/owner Jean-Robert de Cavel's menu had few fail-safe dishes on it - no beef filet or sole meuniere.

If these were calculated risks, they have proven to be good ones. The prix-fixe menu has been well received, de Cavel says. The fact that it's "service compris" has been harder to explain, but it's hard to imagine anyone complaining that they don't have to leave a tip.

The chef feels safe raising that price to $75 starting Tuesday. In my opinion, still a bargain.

Though there has not yet been a review of Jean-Robert at Pigall's in a national publication, it has begun to attract some national attention. Chef de Cavel cooked at a James Beard House dinner in New York in July. In August, the restaurant's wine list earned the only local Best of Award of Excellence from The Wine Spectator.

The restaurant was included in an article in Conde Nast Traveler called "75 Hot Tables," and was mentioned in Bon Appetit's Restaurant Reporter "Where to go now."

In Diversion magazine John Mariani said in an article about the Midwest: "The entire region is welcoming the kind of first-class restaurants the East and West Coasts have long enjoyed. Start with Cincinnati's Jean-Robert at Pigall's ..."

But the most obvious measure of the restaurant's success is that it's been booked solid during the entire year. When I wanted to pop in to write an anniversary review last week, I couldn't get a table for Saturday night. I settled for an 8:45 p.m. reservation midweek.

I thought Pigall's was a four-star restaurant from the first night, but after a year, things are going even more flowingly. With a good staff and a full house, de Cavel is able to do more of what he loves: cook.

There are specials using seasonal items such as king salmon, squash blossoms and oysters, and extra dishes have a way of showing up throughout the evening.

I ordered one of the specials, zucchini blossoms (locally grown and just off the vine) stuffed with minced seafood in a basil cream sauce. They were beautiful on the plate and delicately flavored. I made sure my friend, on her first visit to the restaurant, had the Jonah crab salad with melon. Like several other dishes, it's been on the menu, in basic concept, since the beginning. But it's evolved from season to season.

She had it enrobed with cr╦me fraiche and with caviar, giving it a little of an old-fashioned high-classic French look, but still with the same startlingly fresh and summery flavor of melon.

The kitchen sent out a wonderful soup in addition to what we ordered, cauliflower vichyssoise with cherries and truffles, a combination that seems to make no sense, until you taste it.

I had guinea hen for the first time. Wrapped in bacon, it was moist and whiter than I expected, served with a dark vegetable risotto. It was a fall-like dish, especially with a glass of earthy Burgundy. Sommelier Gary Boswell remembered the wine I'd liked a year ago, and gave me a variation.

The wine service is one of the pleasures of dinner here. I love having wine chosen for me. For those with more sophistication and money, the selections are extensive.

To end the meal, apricot tart paired with a sweet German riesling was heaven. I'm thinking about a visit to this restaurant to make all three of my courses dessert, a different dessert wine with each.

I should explain that I am known at Pigall's, so I am treated well. But, while there are places where that would be awkward, here it's a guilty pleasure. I'd rather be anonymous, but the way they treat me tells me exactly how they treat others. Not fawning, not overly correct, just natural and friendly but with great attention to detail.

Everyone on the wait staff seems comfortable in his or her role. Our server knew how to pronounce mille-feuille, the runners knew every ingredient in the amuse-bouche. Maitre d' Richard Brown is his usual generously hospitable self.

The service is just right for Cincinnati in all the good ways: friendly, unpretentious, low key.

But Jean-Robert at Pigall's isn't just good for Cincinnati, it would be a wonderful restaurant anywhere.


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