When a restaurant is headed in the right direction, there are benchmarks. If recently opened Southview follows those benchmarks, they're on the way to becoming a very good restaurant.
I'd already been warned before I went to Southview that they might not be ready for prime time, but it's hard to wait until a restaurant is "ready" to review it. By that time, the news seems old. And so I grabbed two dedicated foodies and headed to Newport on the Levee on a busy Saturday.
Things got off to a good start -- we had no problem finding a parking space, and with a 7:30 p.m. reservation we only had to wait about five minutes to be seated.
My guests and I were led to a nice booth against the far wall. Southview is chic and spare, so the acoustics are unkind. The decibel level was like a high-school lunchroom on the second-to-last day of school, and our shiny new waiter looked as nervous as a freshman at his final exam. He brought us our menus and almost remembered to ask us if we'd like anything to drink.
I was impressed to see Kentucky wines featured prominently on the wine list, so I tried the recommended Elk Creek Cabernet ($10/glass). It wasn't outstanding, but it seemed like a good gesture toward local products. And there was a Mint Julep ($5) featured on the special drinks menu! My friend had never had one, so I encouraged her to give it a try.
Whoa, horsey! That drink was stronger than Secretariat at the stud farm. It seemed like straight bourbon on the rocks with a hint of mint -- no tall, frosty, silver julep cup, no powdered sugar and little, if any, simple syrup.
Again, I like the Kentucky gesture, but the bartender needs a little remedial Bluegrass education. They did much better with the Pomegranate Martini ($8). Do pomegranates grow in Kentucky?
Our shared appetizers also brought mixed results. One of the best bites of the evening was the Pulled Pork Crepe ($8), two rolls of delicious barbecued pork wrapped in cornmeal crepes accompanied by a side of red cabbage slaw with an apple-butter-sweetened dressing. It's a very successful fusion of homey ingredients in a sophisticated presentation, which is exactly where Southview needs to be heading.
The contrast in presentation between the crepes and the Fried Okra ($7) did the okra a disservice. Heaps of tiny fried bites on a china plate with a metal cup of sauce -- it looked uninviting, and all three of us guessed that the okra was frozen. It probably wasn't: Biting into it, it looked fresh and green and the texture was crisp. The gumbo sauce was nice and smoky, too, and merited a prettier container.
The kitchen outdid themselves with the side dishes. They were quite good. The "24 Hour Mac n' Cheese" is easily a contender for next year's Best of Cincinnati. I usually prefer very creamy, gooey, macaroni and cheese. This wasn't, but the combination of cheeses made it rich and tasty. Plus, I'm intrigued by the name.
I'm guessing that slow-roasted tomatoes gave the Smokey Red Beans and Rice their excellent flavor, and although the Sweet Potato Fries could have been a bit crisper, they were delicious. Again, I think Southview has some real strengths -- and the sides were all-stars.
I chose the recommended Pecan Pie Stuffed Pork Chop ($16) as my entrée -- well, I had to see it to believe it after I heard that they made it with actual pie in the middle, and it was true. The delicious parts of this dish were, ironically, the edges, where the sweetness had created a crispy finish.
The Cajun Crabcake Sandwich ($10) was quite good, but the best entrée was the Crawfish and Shrimp Grits ($18). A big plate of yummy, creamy, stone-ground grits topped with a generous portion of crawfish meat and tender baby shrimp in a rich, peppery sauce. This is a creative dish, skillfully cooked and nicely presented -- and absolutely mouth-watering.
Less successful -- a lot less -- was dessert. There were three choices: Pecan Pie, which I'd already sampled in the pork; Vanilla Custard, which sounded kind of, well, vanilla; and Sweet Potato Waffles with ice cream and chocolate ganache ($4.50). The last one sounded so promising, but it just didn't work. The waffles were cold, and none of the elements complemented the other. Need some fine tuning here!
Southview has some standout dishes and quite reasonable prices. I liked the mix of the crowd, although the acoustics need improvement. I definitely hope they bring the minor disappointments up to match the macaroni. If they do, they're a good addition to the Levee lineup. ©
Go: Newport on the Levee, Newport
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Red Meat Alternatives: Many
Accessibility: Accessible at tables, not booths