On a drizzly Thursday evening, there’s a 40-minute wait at Monroe’s Red Onion Café. Stuffed cheek-by-jowl into a tiny vestibule are well-dressed couples (including a vivacious 93-year-old and her affable husband) sipping Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
A specials chalkboard mentions Shrimp Scampi, Lake Perch and Boeuf Bourguignon. A veritable mission statement is on the menu cover: “Food is what we are all about … we cook from scratch … we take pride in our craft.”
Craft? We can’t wait to get seated.
But squeezing forward to procure drinks, we find an awkwardly shaped dining room in a barely finished stone basement dominated by a Lucite bar-top showcasing a few thousand pennies. (Later, we’ll find Lucite table-tops that encase yellowed newspaper clippings.) We notice the odd flooring beneath the half-dozen raised booths is stamped sheet metal and a CD jukebox is mounted in a blocked-off doorway.
It looks like the kind of place where you’d find a menu of reheated frozen pizzas, pre-packaged chicken wings and nachos supreme. What’s going on here?!
The restaurant’s Web site doesn’t much help, describing the Onion as a “contemporary, rustic neighborhood restaurant serving an American brasserie experience.” What the hell is a “brasserie experience?"
Apparently, chef Gary Henz knows. Along with restaurateur Mark Bursley, he runs the kitchen and was once a chef at a certain Cincinnati Mobil 5-star legend. That’s why locals refer to this place as the “Maisonette of Monroe.” And as plates come from the kitchen, we see that these folks are apparently a helluva lot more ambitious than your average mom-and-pop.
We go over the appetizers with Jill, the bartender, and she admits that some are not strictly “from scratch.” On her recommendation, we try the Garbage Fries ($4.95), a plate of hand-cut potatoes covered in melted cheese and bacon bits. They’re good but pale in comparison with downtown newcomer Senate’s poutine that I'd enjoyed the day before.
But a bowl of delicious Tomato Garlic Soup ($3.99), studded with very finely diced onion, carrots and celery (classically known as a mirepoix), is wonderfully light and such intense tomato flavor surprises this time of year. A bass note of roasted garlic adds great depth, making the soup perfectly satisfying.
Salads come with most entrees, and (for a nominal up-charge) you can choose from a number of inventive options, including a smoked Gouda Pear Salad with toasted almonds and cider vinaigrette; mixed greens with feta, dried cranberries and toasted pine nuts; or baby spinach with grilled portabellas, roasted red onions, bacon and bleu cheese.
We eventually settle on entrees, including a house-made Maryland Crab Cake (lunch portion, $10.99; dinner, $17.99) that’s plump and full of sweet crab. Served over a bed of wilted spinach and drizzled with a spicy mustard sauce, it’s a beautifully composed dish. Our efficient server (who happens to be Bursley’s daughter) mentions that the expediter who finishes the plates is a photographer who (keeping in mind the maxim “First, we eat with our eyes”) takes particular care with the visual appeal of every dish.
The Jumbo Shrimp and Crab Four Cheese Alfredo ($19.99) is also very pretty. Served over penne, it features colossal shrimp. While size matters, these are (more importantly) juicy and flavorful, and the sauce is wildly rich and cheesy. Not a dish your cardiologist would approve of, it’s undeniably satisfying — and makes great leftovers the next day.
My wife loves the tangle of pesto pasta that comes with her Grilled Salmon special ($19.99), though she finds the fish slightly underdone to her taste. Our server quickly apologizes and my wife remarks that women, in general, are too quick to apologize for things that are not their fault. “That’s the most feminist thing I’ve ever heard anyone in Monroe say,” she marvels. In any case, the dish goes well with a Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc, though the wine is a touch sweet to my taste.
My big bowl of Boeuf Bourguignon ($19.99) truly hits the sweet spot: Deep and complex, it has everything going for it on a drizzly mid-March weeknight. I loved the crunchy bacon bits and the fluffy mound of mashed potatoes laying across the stew like a blanket. It’s packed with deliciousness (what the Japanese call “umami”), and the slow cooking makes for wonderfully tender chunks of beef. My glass of Gnarly Head Cabernet shows a lot of chocolaty berries and vanilla but not a whole lot of supporting acidity, which detracts slightly from the pairing.
We finish with a house-made black-and-white brownie ($5.99) that disappears beneath a flurry of forks but fails to leave much of an impression.
In short, the Red Onion isn't in any sense a mini-Maisonette, but it’s something equally rare: a chef-driven family restaurant that’s committed to serving well-made, beautifully presented dishes that can satisfy as well as surprise.
RED ONION CAFE
Go: 214 S. Main St., Monroe
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Entree Prices: $10.99-$26.99
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of fish, poultry and salads but no vegan options
Accessibility: Getting in is easy, but space is tight and booths are raised up on potentially awkward platforms