In the grand American tradition of mispronouncing a foreign word and then adopting said error for our own (“Ver-sales” and “Dell-high”), my uncultured lips knew just how they wanted to enunciate “Huit,” the French word for “eight” and the name of a new downtown barbecue restaurant featuring eight internationally inspired secret spices.
“Hewitt,” I declared, pointing to the restaurant sign in ignorant triumph. (To avoid my faux pas, fellow fledgling Francophiles, know that the correct pronunciation sounds closer to the word “wheat.”)
Huit Craft BBQ’s brick-and-mortar location, which opened for lunch on Court Street last month, was years in the making. Owners Tobias Harris, Trang Vo and Jennifer Eng honed their talents as budding restaurateurs via a number of pop-up dinners and engagements at both City Flea and the Asian Food Festival, where their cuisine earned top honors and raves from salivating fans. Now they’re ready to enchant the downtown lunch crowd, with brunch and dinner service expected in the near future.
The menu reflects an intriguing mashup of cultures: Flavors from Indonesia, the Americas, China and Southeast Asia make appearances in the restaurant’s assortment of pork, beef, chicken and tofu dishes. Malay-based influences are also well established through liberal doses of the region’s unique spice combinations. The result is a series of barbecue sauces and rubs quite unlike anything else in Cincinnati.
Huit’s dining room punctuates the trio’s experience as restaurant designers: the gutted interior is unrecognizable as the former Raya’s Lebanese Restaurant (which has since relocated to 801 Elm St.). It’s clean, simple and contemporary, with a dozen tables lining the east and west walls and a makeshift bar area for solo diners available in the back. Dominating one wall are three prominent, floor-to-ceiling photos of folks greedily devouring Huit’s premier meats with sticky, hedonistic abandon.
As my girlfriend and I were seated, our waiter reviewed the four available proteins that make an appearance in Huit’s widely varied appetizers, sandwiches and combo plates.
There’s the eight-spice, baby back pork ribs; roasted coffee-rubbed, beer-braised brisket; chicken marinated in Peruvian pepper and coconut water; and a slow-cooked barbecue tofu.
Huit’s lunch menu offers five starter items, including salads, soups and some very delicious steamed pork bun sliders; four sandwiches, each showcasing a signature protein; and Huit’s “Craft Plates” ($8-$11), easily the best value, offering heaping portions of meat along with a choice of two side dishes.
I opted for a combo of tofu and beer-braised beef brisket sliders ($8), while my girlfriend chose the eight-spice rib craft plate with a side of roasted cauliflower and a side of shredded Brussels sprout salad ($11).
The tofu slider features a hefty slab of seared bean curd soaked in Huit’s sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. It’s topped with peppery arugula and a housemade jicama slaw on a pleasantly sweet, doughy challah bun. Huit’s bread is supplied by Sixteen Bricks Artisan Bakehouse, and every variety we tried was stellar. The combination of jicama and barbecue sauce evoked refreshing citrus notes without the sweetness becoming overly cloying.
My beef brisket slider was a particular favorite, offering a deep, complex, chocolaty richness to the tender meat. Wisps of crunchy red cabbage and a dollop of caramelized onion au jus offered appropriate textural counterpoints.
The visual highlight of our lunch was the eight-spice ribs, arranged artfully on a bed of arugula. The meat was fall-off-the-bone juicy, beautifully encrusted with spices and lightly drizzled with barbecue sauce. But eating Huit’s signature eight-spice dry rub is an intense experience. The initial explosion of flavors is truly wondrous as the brain tries to make sense of it all.
The ribs were equal parts smoky, chocolaty, earthy, mildly sweet and spicy. Eating them over time became a bit overwhelming, as the slow-burn intensity soon left our tongues and lips tingling with hyperactivity long before the last bit of meat had been torn from the bone. Leftover jicama slaw from my sliders made a nice palate cleanser between bites.
The side of roasted cauliflower was hearty like a casserole, topped with melted Swiss cheese. Its slightly oily appearance near the bottom belied its fresh and light taste. The side of Brussels sprouts salad struck us with a strong lemon punch on the first bite, but soon gave way to an earthy, raw Brussels sprout flavor fully disarmed of its inherent bitterness.
Huit Craft BBQ will dazzle the senses with an array of powerful spice profiles. Those seeking a new, unique twist on the standard barbecue fare will not be disappointed.
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