For what’s seemed like forever in the downtown Cincinnati restaurant scene — or at least in the recent past — much of the food focus has been on either the scorching hot Over-the-Rhine area or the spanking new Banks district. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the older, typically staid central business district (CBD) doesn’t really receive all the culinary respect it’s beginning to deserve.
New and exciting things are happening just south of OTR. Most recently, a small part of Vine Street seems to be turning into a “petite Paris.” With the opening of French Crust Café (915 Vine St.) just two blocks north of Jean-Robert’s Table — and the delightful, European-like Piatt Park daintily sandwiched between the two — Master Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and pastry chef Jean Philippe Solnom have brought a little bit of France to the CBD.
“Jean Philippe and I have talked for a long time about opening a café just like this,” de Cavel says. “So when the space became available, it was the right opportunity to collaborate with my longtime friend. Especially because it is so close to the Table.”
The convenience of having the two restaurants right next to each other is substantial. When a staff member recently informed Chef de Cavel during a morning planning meeting at French Crust that a line cook at Table was ill, de Cavel was able to quickly walk over to start the lunchtime soup.
Like de Cavel, Solnom is a French Master Chef.
His most recent position was as the pastry chef at Table and the owner of his own Jean Philippe Chocolatier. Born in Lyons, France, he began his culinary education at age 14, going to the National Pastry School of France (École National Supèrieure de la Pâtisserie). There he spent a total of 11 years studying and working with chocolate in France and Switzerland. He also spent a year under the tutelage of La Maison du Chocolat’s renowned Master Chocolatier Robert Linxe.
Solnom came to the United States in 2001 to work in the kitchen of Le Cezanne, a French bakery café in Wyoming, Ohio. He then opened Le Cezanne’s second location in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He joined the Jean-Robert French Restaurant Group in 2006, opening the Greenup Café in Covington, Ky. In 2008, Solnom launched his own company, Jean Philippe Chocolatier, creating outrageously decadent custom chocolates and pastries for corporate and retail clients. While the chocolates are not yet available at French Crust, the plan is that they will be sometime in the near future.
The French Crust Café is cozy, seating just 26 people, and serves both breakfast and lunch. The full-service breakfast includes Solnom’s buttery croissants and rich brioche; Swiss granola with Snowville Creamery yogurt; puff pastry with local goetta and poached eggs; and Eggs Benedict. There are fresh fruit tarts and other pastries, which are served with coffee throughout the day.
With an eye toward traditional French fare, the lunch menu was designed to please appetites of all sizes. Lighter fare includes homemade soups such as a creamy chicken soup with wild rice, white beans and mushroom and salads. As is customary in a French café, French Crust will of course serve quiche, offering not one, but three selections: Lorraine, Duo of Salmon and Goat Cheese. The hearty “Les Casseroles or Le Creuset” (casseroles and hot pots) menu section will be most welcome come colder weather with choices including beef short rib with mushroom sauce, red potatoes, carrots, peas and zucchini; scallop and shrimp vol-au-vent with mushroom and vegetables; seafood crepes with béchamel, white mushroom, spinach and piperade — a Basque dish with onion, green peppers and tomato sautéed with red Espelette pepper; and mac and cheese with a medley of mushroom, leek and celery. There are also assorted sandwiches.
As is the case with Jean-Robert’s Table, French Crust Café will be sourcing ingredients as locally as possible, with dairy coming from Snowville Creamery, seafood from Lukens, chicken from Hills Farm and produce from farmer Sallie Ransohoff.French Crust Cafe
GO: 915 Vine St., Downtown
HOURS: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; breakfast hours are 8 a.m.-11 a.m. and lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.