The Phoenix, the late 19th century building formerly known as The Phoenix Club, is one of the grand Cincinnati landmarks designed by architect Samuel Hannaford. Along with City Hall and Music Hall, the Phoenix and its Italian Renaissance style are testament to Hannaford’s classical disposition. And The President’s Room restaurant inside The Phoenix has that same traditional feel, but with some whimsical touches that welcome a younger crowd.
There’s valet parking at the Race Street entrance to the building, and a broad marble staircase leads to the restaurant on the second floor. The bar is quiet and dark, with a muted television opposite a painting of a mostly naked young woman wearing white stockings and what looks like a Mardi Gras mask. There is gold in the décor and Norah Jones on the Pandora, so the feeling is clubby but not too staid.
The cocktail list is inviting. I was tempted by the Sazerac but swayed toward the Pimm’s Cup on our server’s recommendation (all the house special cocktails are $10). Instead of a cucumber garnish, it was made with cucumber simple syrup — a novel approach that made for a really refreshing summer drink. My husband sipped away contentedly at his Riesling ($9) as we perused the menu.
The Snacks section had some good bar nibbles — spiced pistachios, smoked olives and deviled eggs — but we chose the Bruschetta of the Day ($9). Two rounds of grilled baguette were topped with whipped ricotta and a salad of minutely diced watermelon, halved yellow-cherry tomatoes and tangy bits of pickled zucchini, glazed with balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with a fennel frond. The zucchini was intriguing and the overall effect was delightful.
My husband chose the Iceberg Salad ($10) but opted out of the lamb bacon (I didn’t think to ask for it on the side so I could try it).
The gorgonzola dressing was very mild, like sweet butter. My Little Gem Salad ($9) had lots of interesting bits — dates, pecans and sweet pickled-onions.
We wanted to try one of the pastas, so we had a half-order of Gnudi ($9). It was small — only three pieces. Our server had described the gnudi as “halfway between gnocchi and a dumpling,” but these were probably three-quarters into dumpling territory. Although the flavors were good, they were just too heavy.
Another surprise: the bread. The three rolls were nice and warm when they arrived, accompanied by whipped butter and housemade apple butter. I split one open to try it and was surprised that they bore a striking resemblance to donuts. I asked the server if that’s what they were, and she assured me that they were “biscuits, lightly fried” … as in donuts.
We weren’t in a hurry, but even so, there was a significant pause before our entreés arrived. Hubby tried the Black Cod ($27), recommended by the server as her favorite. It was excellent. So much restaurant fish is of dubious pedigree, but this was the real thing — genuine cod and perfectly prepared. It was served on a purée of cauliflower and sunchoke, with a mouthwatering sauté of leeks and spinach; a flavorful, delicious dish.
My Strip Loin steak ($33) had been the cause of the aforementioned time delay. Instead of a thin, broad cut, the 16-ounce steak was tall and round, cut like a filet. The outside was nicely seared, and the inside was perfect — on the redder side of pink. It rested on garlicky kale with gorgonzola. Less successful was the potato accompaniment, listed as German Potato Salad, a timbale of somewhat-undercooked sliced potatoes layered with mustard seeds.
I’d planned on having only one bite of the Sweet Corn Panna Cotta ($6), but I confess that I devoured it. It was topped with sliced strawberries and — here’s that touch of whimsy — bits of corn-nut brittle. There were also three corn fritters dusted with cinnamon that were dry and didn’t do anything for me.
Less successful was the Monkey Bread ($7), which husband ordered, alongside a double espresso ($5), hoping that it would be like bread pudding, which it definitely wasn’t. It was like a generous pecan breakfast roll, but the bread was too chewy.
The Presidents Room is a good alternative to hotel dining in the downtown business district; grown-up but not stuffy, innovative but solid. There were several German heritage dishes that looked like they’d be great in the winter, and an evening in the bar with snacks and shareables could be just right.
The Presidents Room at the Phoenix
Go: 812 Race St., Downtown;
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday