Change is progress. Change is a sign of growth. But it can be truly frightening, particularly when it means your favorite restaurant has a new chef and the menu is going to be different.
If you’re a Cincinnati foodie or cocktail connoisseur, in all likelihood you already love The Rookwood, the former Rookwood Pottery Company’s studio and manufacturing facility-turned-bar and restaurant in Mount Adams. The historic building overlooks the city, and one of its best features is that it still houses the pottery’s enormous brick firing kilns, in which guests can now dine. The attention to detail has always been apparent, not only in the décor but also in their menu.
The restaurant hired a new chef, Jackson Rouse, this past spring. On a chilly weekend this winter, I headed back to The Rookwood to see what changes it had undergone and to try out some of Rouse’s new creations.
It was a short wait for a table for five on a Friday night, but we didn’t mind a few minutes posted up at the beautiful bar separating us from one of Cincinnati’s best bartenders, Rom Wells. Wells looked the part of the director of beverages and spirits with a long beard and an old-timey vest as he offered us some proper craft cocktails. I went for a standard this time: the vodka and house-made tonic ($10). The house-made tonic is complex in flavor, sweet and limey, and caramel in color. My boyfriend ordered a Sazerac ($9), which is an old favorite of his. In addition to cocktails, the list of wine and beer is rather extensive, including several local brews.
We were soon seated. Looking over the menu, as a vegetarian, I was pleasantly surprised to see that several meatless options were added, including a veggie burger. Our waitress explained that the menu was seasonal, and the bruschetta, pasta and herbed butter change daily.
The “Starters” menu has definitely expanded.
We ordered two for the table in addition to several items from their “Small Plates” section. The bruschetta of the day starter ($7) was a unique combination of ingredients. Each slice of bread was slathered in labneh (a Mediterranean yogurt spread), topped with yellow beets, candied walnuts and bitter greens. It absolutely worked. The butter of the day was lemon and thyme and tasted like lemon and thyme. My dining companions reported the Speck Wrapped Dates ($7) small plates were incredible as well, wrapped in a thin slice of prosciutto. So far we were impressed.
The surprise came when the plate of Hanky Panky’s ($8) arrived. They barely resembled the dish we had known from the previous iteration of the menu. The small slices of dark rye bread with little piles of a spicy sausage mixture were no more; the new incarnation features thick slices of marbled rye topped with a milder goetta mix and colorful pickled topping. The reviews from the table for the ’panks were mixed. Some missed the old classics and others liked the fresh take, but all agreed they were tasty nonetheless.
And while the sandwiches portion of the menu has a few new additions, thick, juicy burgers are what Rookwood patrons have come to expect. Served inside large gourmet buns complemented with a mound of fries, that is exactly what was delivered to two of my dinner mates. They both ordered Rosie’s Classic Burger ($14). Each seemed to think it tasted more or less like what they had expected. One of them did have some regret for having ordered the Grippo’s-seasoned fries ($2), only because the regular crispy, brown fries are so great on their own.
The one veg option on the “Large Plates” menu was the Grilled Chinese Eggplant ($16). I’m sure I would have been equally satisfied with a few small plates, too. What arrived was a mound of pasta-like spaghetti squash, topped with two generous slabs of grilled eggplant and lots of tasty fried chickpeas. It was definitely not your throw away vegetable-medley-so-a-restaurant-can-technically-have-a-vegetarian-option sort of dish. It was thoughtful, complex and not like any combination I’d ever had.
My boyfriend ordered with gusto, getting the Beeler Farms Heluka Pork Shank ($27). The huge bone-in shank was impressive to look at. We all gazed upon it, wide-eyed. The meat rested atop a pile of grits. I snuck a taste and can verify they were lusciously cheesy and smoky. The tender, meaty and perfectly fatty pork comes with fried, pickled okra, but my boyfriend’s gluten intolerance meant that was omitted. Words nearly failed him when he tried to express how much he loved his selection — even the next day as leftovers.
With distended bellies and in need of naps, we waved at some old friends at the other side of the restaurant as they too finished their meal. They smiled and suggested that we try the Crispy Skin Faroe Island Salmon ($26) next time. Because, we all know, there will be a next time.
Go: 1077 Celestial St., Mount Adams
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday (bar open until 2 a.m.); 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sunday