Senate is the new place where the cool kids go, and I know why: It's fun, the menu doesn't take itself too seriously, and its location is red hot.
The Gateway Quarter, the southern edge of Over-the-Rhine surrounding Ensemble Theatre and invigorated with new businesses, is the destination du jour. If you haven't been to the area in a while, throw out every negative notion you have and go. You'll be delighted by the shops during the day — businesses like Park and Vine with "green" answers to all your household needs, Metronation, Mica, CityRoots, Little Mahatma and Eden — plus the emerging dining scene with Lavomatic and now Senate. It's top notch.
My first visit to Senate was for cocktails, and I was impressed that when I ordered a Sazerac the bartender didn't give me a weird look but served up a very respectable version of the classic cocktail, made correctly with rye whiskey and a touch of absinthe. When we returned to eat, we stuck with beers and wine from their carefully selected — and not overwhelming — list. The beers are craft brews, including the Flower Power IPA from Ithaca Beer Company, and my companion and I shared a nice white torrantes wine from Argentina.
Senate's mission is to present upscale street food, and they've done a terrific job of planning a menu that's varied enough to suit most appetites but taken up a few notches so no one is disappointed. Our curiosity got us into a french fry comparison right away. Senate offers Duck Fat Fries ($6), Truffle Fries ($4) and Poutine ($10), a signature dish of Montreal. The fries all start from the same firm, hand-sliced potatoes, then the duck fat fries are fried in, well, duck fat, seasoned with salt and served with garlic aioli.
I thought they'd be my favorite, since duck is one of my addictions. They were delicious but were eclipsed by the truffle fries — fried in vegetable oil but seasoned with a tiny bit of truffle oil. They were perfectly crisp and had a delicious earthy undertone.
The truffle fries were also featured in the poutine.
I've witnessed online wars over poutine — “the food of the gods.” Very fat gods with heart trouble, but gods nonetheless — and what defines it, who created it, who makes it the best. I’ve never paid that much attention since Cincinnatians have not had troops in the poutine battle. Now we do, and what an entry they've made. My friend promptly proclaimed the poutine "one of the best things I've ever eaten."
Poutine, according to my research, is a post-night-of-drinking food favored by cold weather natives in Canada and Wisconsin and other places not known for their habitable winters. It starts with a plate of french fries, topped with cheese curds — Calvin Trillin maligns them as “cheddar cheese before the flavor is added in” — and then dark gravy. Senate's poutine begins with those excellent truffle fries, topped with fresh cheese curds from the excellent Blue Jacket Dairy and rich, delectable shredded beef short ribs. Every element is super tasty, and the sum of those tastes is incredibly rich and decadent.
Senate's menu plays heavily on hot dogs, so we tried two. The classic Chicago dog ($9) is an all beef dog topped with relish, sport peppers and celery salt. They added green bell pepper (chopped fine as part of the relish) and tangy hot peppers as a garnish. I went for the dog of the day, the Monterrey ($10) — again, an all-beef dog topped with guacamole, queso fresco, a little bit of beef short rib and tortilla strips. It was an odd combo that didn't really add up, but since each element was so good I was perfectly happy to eat the whole thing in bits.
My vegetarian guest was well pleased with her Eggplant sandwich ($9) served on a big soft brioche bun. The eggplant was sautéed in olive oil but assertive enough to hold its own flavor. We also went for the LBLT ($14), a lobster, bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich that was a little overwhelmed by the smokiness of the bacon. It was served on that same soft bun — not too heavy, so you could still appreciate the lobster.
We couldn't have been more content, but of course we had to be able to report on the desserts, so we ordered the Pretzel Beignets ($7.50). They were so much better than their name implied! Served in a paper bag, three delectable doughnut holes came with luscious creme anglais.
Don't throw away the bag until you've poured out some of the pretzel crumb/sugar mix that's collected in the bottom onto your plate. Here's the process: Dip first in the sauce, then in the pretzel/sugar crumbs, then bite. That way, you'll get the rich dough, the vanilla creaminess and the slightly salty sugar. Amazing.
Senate's space is sparely decorated, with long, exposed brick walls and a formed concrete bar that's really handsome. The restrooms are very nice, behind paneled doors that can scarcely be discerned from the wall.
A note about accessibility: Senate is fully accessible, with just one small step up to the front that could be easily negotiated in a wheelchair. The space, though, is narrow. I saw a pregnant guest awkwardly try to wedge her way between the bar seating and the table seats, and she was clearly uncomfortable. During crowded hours, be advised.
I will leave you with this: A man walks into a bar and sees that their french fries are fried in duck fat. "You know why those are so expensive?" he asks. "Because of the bill!"
Go: 1212 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-11-p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday
Entrée Prices: $9-$18
Red Meat Alternatives: Some
Accessibility: Fully accessible but skinny