Most of the "fine dining" restaurants I cover are fairly sedate, but Simone's sizzles. Simone's Café in Walnut Hills is a hot spot. The food's not spicy, but the crowd sure is. I tried to figure out why there were enthusiastic diners at every single table on a recent Thursday night. Sure, the weather was OK, and the food is great. But more than that, there's a sparkle at Simone's that feels lively and vibrant -- something that makes you want to be there, too.
Simone's is intimate in scale, but the place is a little too loud for serious conversation. There is live music most nights, but even before the music starts, laughter and lively chat fills the room. Our lovely server assured us that it's not always this busy on a weeknight, but that Friday and Saturday nights are definitely a full house.
We started the evening with cocktails and an order of Bayou Crab Cakes ($10), served atop mixed greens. The crab cakes were mildly seasoned, and I was impressed by the lack of filler -- just the right size for a starter, and all flaky crab. Next time, I want to try the Brie Bruschetta ($8) with a basil and garlic touch, or the Portabella Fries ($8). Black pepper aioli sounds delicious.
The music started right before our entrées arrived. Ed Moss, a Cincinnati Jazz piano legend, accompanied vocalist Pamela Ross. Moss has certainly mellowed since the days when he'd stop playing and wait for diners to be silent! No chance of that happening at Simone's
My Cioppino ($23) looked spectacular. There were crab claws and mussels in their shells arranged artfully around the perimeter of this beautifully flavored fish stew. Of course, that presents a bit of a challenge to the eater -- namely, how to get all the tasty bits without diving in to the bowl! A few extra tools, like a seafood fork, would have been welcome. But I navigated the yummy sea, matey, quite oblivious to the soup dripping from my elbows. After all, I came here to eat!
My companion's much more manageable choice was Pan Seared Salmon ($20). The server asked whether she would like this served rare, medium, or well done -- a thoughtful touch. She went with the server's recommendation of medium-rare and loved it. She was less happy with the cheese risotto she requested as a substitute for Cajun dirty rice, since she felt it was a bit too al dente, but my stolen forkfuls were quite yummy.
Our desserts were impressive. Though Simone's features a variety of offerings from nearby Bonbonerie, we chose the two homemade selections. The Tiramisu ($5.50) was not traditional but tasty, rich and not too sweet. I was surprised that the Strawberry Shortcake ($5.50) featured a mini bundt-style pound cake rather than a biscuit-like shortcake, but the strawberries in liqueur and the whipped cream topping were excellent.
Many of the dinner items are also featured at Sunday brunch, along with nine hearty sandwich choices and some unique New Orleans-flavored options. I'd be tempted by the Blackened Tilapia with Creole sauce ($8.95), served with jalapeño grits, fruit and beignets.
Simone's is a wonderful restaurant with a good menu, a spirited crowd, classy décor and excellent service. Two words of caution, though. The drink prices. Wow. $9.50 for a non-call vodka martini (they substituted Stoli although we didn't request it) is a bit much. I understand that restaurants have to make their margin somewhere, but I suffered a bit of sticker shock when the check arrived. There are drink specials and half-price appetizers in the bar (5-7 p.m.), so thirsty people might want to plan accordingly. Also, the noise level is high. If you're very sensitive to this, you might visit when the outdoor patio is open. ©
Go: 1544 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Sunday Brunch is 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Payment: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, seafood, salads, vegetarian lasagna, three beans and rice.
Accessibility: Through a front door