What makes a good restaurant? I pondered this while trying the Brown Dog Cafe for the first time a few weeks ago with a large group of friends. The food? The service? The atmosphere? A mysterious combination of all three?
After my first evening I was ready to say, "Yes, this is a pretty good restaurant." Appetizers -- from the crabcake and oysters plate, the Brown Dog Twofer ($7.50), to the salad of Baby Greens ($5.95) -- won raves. I wasn't so thrilled with the salty Baked Wild Mushroom Gratinée ($5.95), a hunk of French bread in a Madeira-enhanced broth with sliced mushrooms and then gorgonzola cheese melted over the top.
My entrée of Five Spice Grilled Duck Breast ($19.95) was succulent and richly flavored in an espresso port reduction sauce, flanked by grilled carrots, puréed sweet potatoes and garlicky broccoli rabe (my first time to see this trendy veggie on a Cincinnati menu), and my dining companions enthusiastically approved of their food except for the couple receiving the Grilled Cumin Rubbed Pork Chops ($15.95) But how many places can really do pork chops without drying them out? Dessert reviews were mixed, with the Carrot Cake ($3.95) which I ordered the least liked, but everyone else seemed happy.
Service was fair considering the size of our party and the fact it was Valentine's weekend. As far as the atmosphere -- or the ambiance as some will call it -- the space looked attractive, except for the plate glass window looking out onto the parking lot of a suburban strip mall. It was noisy, though, because of tile floors, and sleekly modern with contemporary art on tastefully taupe walls.
After that first visit, I thought this place had possibilities. Some interesting entrées, lots of good vegetable sides and an attractive dining room with pleasant personnel. Not to mention a fairly extensive wine list with a wide range of prices, in addition to the full bar service.
A week later, my husband and I returned for dinner. The noise level was reduced somewhat because of fewer large parties, but that window was still there. The service was not up to standards, including being repeatedly called "you guys" (very unprofessional!). The salad we ordered to follow the appetizers came out first. When we reminded our server that we wanted it later, she tried to peddle it to the next table who also turned her down.
We started with the Roasted Duck and Vegetable Spring Rolls ($7.25), cooked a little too crispy with an overly sweet apricot ginger sauce. But once again the crabcake/oyster platter was a hit.
The scallops, featured in the BFD -- Beef and Fish Dinner ($22.95) -- were tender and nicely grilled, but the steak was an uninspiring piece of beef, especially considering the price. I did like the Tagliatelle Pasta ($13.95), a rich blending of pasta, cheese, and prosciutto and those wild mushrooms again. It more than filled me up and made nice leftovers for the next day. Breadsmith supplies Brown Dog's breads, and a fragrant, herby loaf accompanied our dinner.
Dessert was homey rice pudding ($3.95), done just right: creamy but not at all mushy, topped with real whipped cream. It hit the spot, and I waddled out with my Brown Dog doggy bag, grateful for elastic waistbands.
Driving home I thought again about what constitutes a good restaurant and how the Brown Dog stacked up. Atmosphere? Pleasant enough, but for the noise level and "The Window." Service? Work needed, but then it does at so many places these days. Finally, the food? This always weighs much more with me than anything else. There is much to like and appreciate at Brown Dog, but it was a tad uneven.
The potential is here. With some work, the Brown Dog should make it to that rarefied list of "good restaurants."
Go: 5893 Pfeiffer Rd. Blue Ash
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Prices: Moderate to expensive.
Payment: Accepts major credit cards.
Vegetarian Friendliness: OK in the salad and appetizer areas.