People who hate surprises, rejoice! I have good news. You may now come downtown, park your car and enjoy dinner and a show at the Aronoff and a very nearby eatery. Jeff Ruby has opened a new place that is custom tailored for you — the Walnut Street Grill. There are no bad surprises here. Nothing unfamiliar. These are upscaled (ever so slightly) versions of dishes you’ll find in most familiar casual restaurants. And the check will leave you just within your comfort zone, too.
I make it a point to know as little as possible about a new restaurant before my first visit, so Walnut Street Grill confused me a little. We had a good dinner, but it left me thinking, “Where’s that fancy flair that was the signature of the restaurant that previously filled the space, Bootsy’s?”
I had a suspicion that it was missing for a reason. So I called Ruby’s director of food and beverage, Bawe Shinholster, and asked him, “Where’s the pizzazz?”
He confirmed my theory.
“This isn’t meant to be Bootsy’s Part II. The Grill was planned and designed to fill a niche,” he explained. “When we were closed we were thinking, ‘What’s missing downtown?’ and the answer was American comfort food.”
If that’s what they set out to do, they’ve definitely succeeded.
The menu — a single page that has the feel of an oversized playing card — is almost instantly appealing. Everything sounded good. I saw Buffalo Calamari ($8.75) and right away I wanted it. I’m not sure why, but I really did, and so did my dining companions. We actually wanted to try everything on the menu.
Instead, we started with that calamari, the Philly Steak Egg Roll ($9.75) and a round of drinks. The wine list isn’t intimidating. The selection of wine by the glass includes some you might have picked up at the grocery before. I had Stump Jump Shiraz ($7), an old reliable that doesn’t disappoint.
The calamari was tender and came with hot sauce and better-than-average blue cheese mayonnaise so that it could be dipped to the degree of Buffalo-ness that you prefer. The Philly Steak Egg Roll was fun, too — a large egg roll filled with very tender steak and caramelized onions, sliced and served with horseradish dipping sauce. We dipped away contentedly and commented on the low-key décor and Classic Rock soundtrack. Nothing’s too edgy at the Grill.
Our server was terrific. She made helpful suggestions without upselling or overselling anything. She brought us homemade potato and green onion bread, fresh out of the oven, with soft whipped butter and a Caesar salad, generously awash with rich, salty dressing and topped with a big fried parmesan flake garnish.
Of our three entrées, mine was the most adventurous and also the most delicious. On our server’s suggestion, I had gone with the Adobo Pork Shoulder ($18.75), a big portion of slow-roasted meat served on top of a perfectly cooked polenta cake that was super crisp outside and creamy on the inside. The adobo salsa was nice and chunky with tomatoes and peppers, and the whole thing was topped with a fried egg that added another level of richness when I broke the yolk with my fork. It was really a solid, homey dish with loads of flavor.
My friend’s Chicken Fried Steak ($19.75), from the “Truck Stop Cuisine” section of the menu, was a big portion of passable steak that didn’t stand out the way a Jeff Ruby steak usually does. While not very exciting, we liked the side of green beans, which were well cooked and salty with ham, sweet with honey and spicy with pepper.
A carryover from Bootsy’s menu — Fish Tacos ($16.75) — were a little dull in flavor as well as presentation. A hefty chunk of mahi-mahi was served alongside black beans, rice and pico de gallo. The highlight was a scoop of fresh guacamole. The verdict? Better to order these across the street at Nada.
Dessert picked things up a little and turned out to be the evening’s strong suit. We were impressed with Walnut Street’s homemade ice cream ($4.75). Not many restaurants go that extra mile and the flavors we tried — rich vanilla and Dutch chocolate with chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — were great. The vanilla came atop bread pudding ($4.75), another familiar, homey dish, and alongside an exceptional version of German chocolate cake ($4.75), made with a flour-less torte, toasted nuts and coconut and caramel.
On the way downstairs, I noticed a collection of old restaurant menus from places like F&N Steakhouse — memories of Cincinnati’s dining past. F&N wasn’t famous for taking risks, yet people loved it. I think Walnut St. Grill will get lots of love, too, and lure some conservative diners downtown.
Go: 631 Walnut St., Downtown
Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday
Red Meat Alternatives: Fish, good vegetable side dishes
Accessibility: Elevator to second floor