Don’t let the image of a curly pink spiral deter you. The pigtail I ate at the newly opened Abigail Street in the Gateway Quarter was discreetly uncorkscrewed into bits of delicious porky goodness, flavoring a dish of duck breast and lentils. I loved it.
We used to have a category in our “Best Of Cincinnati” lists that seemed to have two meanings: Best Place to Take Out-of-Town Visitors. Is that the place that’s most uniquely Cincinnati, a one-of-a-kind place that’s so “us” that it couldn’t exist anywhere else? I think a lot of people interpret it that way and mention places like Skyline Chili as an example. But I’ve always heard something else in the category, a hint of our regional low self-esteem that meant “Where do you take people so they realize we’re not hicks after all?”
Abigail Street would fall into that category. It’s definitely Cincinnati, but it’s the Cincinnati we’re becoming — an aspirational version, to use the marketing term. It’s not us at home on the sofa in our fuzzy socks. It’s the hip, progressive area of Over-the-Rhine that’s closer to Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Chicago’s Logan Square than to the kind of thinking that got the anti-streetcar measure on the ballot. Abigail Street is where the streetcar is going, literally and figuratively. Abigail Street is the new, good thing.
My evening at Abigail Street got off to a bad start. I arrived to meet my friend minutes after they’d opened on a weeknight evening. A Tintin-haired fellow in Warby Parker glasses told me that I couldn’t be seated until my party was complete. He told me this in an empty restaurant. I was not a happy camper. I was ready to leave and never return, but instead I went next door to Sloane Boutique, where the shop assistant was so delightful that my black mood changed back to sunny. I’m glad that Tintin was not at the door when my friend and I went back to be seated. He was the low point of what turned out to be a wonderful evening.
We selected a comfortable table close to the kitchen so we could take in all the action.
Abigail Street’s not roomy, but it’s slightly more spacious than its sister restaurant, Senate, since the bar is not as deep. Our server was the anti-Tintin — pleasant and helpful. He described the evening’s specials, and right away I knew I’d try one.
He also suggested a wine flight ($14), which sounded like fun. Abigail’s owners, Daniel and Lana Wright, are positioning their new place as a wine bar, and the innovation here is wine on tap in addition to wines by the bottle and the glass. If you’re not going to finish a bottle, wine on tap is an excellent option — especially for wines that don’t benefit from “breathing.” Your glass will be fresher than one from a bottle that’s been uncorked for the evening.
My wine flight arrived — a progression of three Italian reds ranging from a light, fruity Birbet Brachetto to a Chianti Classico — on a placemat that identifies the pours. My friend thoughtfully chose the Corral Vineyard Chardonnay ($10) that was featured on tap, a nice, oak-free, dry California white that we both liked. We chatted away and never felt rushed or like we were occupying a table that needed to be turned.
The menu at Abigail Street is made up of almost two dozen small plates, influenced by a range of regions in the Mediterranean. There are Grape Leaves ($8) and Borek ($9) from Turkey, Fattoush ($10) and Kefta with Egg ($11). Some, like the Mozza Dani ($15) — a braised lamb shank that’s one of the heftier items on the menu — are cooked and served in a tagine. Others, like the garlic grilled shrimp “Gambas de Ajo” ($11) and the Hanger Steak with Romesco ($16), are Spanish inflected. I’m not sure that the seared Duck Breast with Lentils and Pigtail ($13) had a nationality, but it was damned tasty. The duck was cooked perfectly to medium rare and sparkled with a pomegranate-based sauce.
I should backtrack to our starters. Abigail Street’s menu items are listed with icons — a carrot, an anchor or a cleaver. We laughed over my interpretation — aren’t anchors the things that weigh you down? But, of course, that’s the seafood symbol.
We each began with vegetarian options — one of which actually was a Carrot Salad ($10) that was superb. Heirloom carrots, bigger than the “baby” sized but not quite grownup, were roasted with cumin and topped with soft clouds of goat cheese and crunchy pumpkin seeds. The cumin gave this dish some heat that was slow to kick in, but definitely there. The Beets ($8) were similarly constructed — roasted, dressed with a lemony vinaigrette and then garnished with crunchy, toasted hazelnuts and homemade lebna, or yogurt cheese.
My friend chose the incredibly rich Basil Gnocchi with Lobster ($15), glistening with saffron and butter. This is why I am a fan of small plates. A heaping plateful of this would be overwhelming, but in the right quantity, it’s perfect. A dish anyone would love.
There are only two desserts on the menu, so of course we tried them both. The homemade Baklava ($7) was a revelation. Is this what baklava should taste like? Wow, so fresh! And the powdered sugar on the crispy Churros ($7) is a hipster’s nightmare. Try getting out with your black wardrobe unscathed. I dare you.
Only one more thing I have to mention that’s not positive. I hate to see Cincinnati eateries start charging for water unless you specify “tap.” When I’m offered sparkling or still, I want to trust that still means tap and that there’s no charge. If there is a charge, then the choice ought to be “Still, sparkling or tap?” so we can pass on the $10 bottle. ©
Go: 1214 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Call: 513-421-4040. (They do not accept reservations.)
Surf: Search “Abigail Street” on Facebook
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday
Entrée Prices: $8-$15 for small plates
Red Meat Alternatives: Vegetarian and seafood options
Accessibility: Historic building with a step at front entrance