The corner of 7th and Race long ago earned its reputation as a doomed location for any entrepreneurs naive brave enough to risk placing their restaurant there. We've seen so many different ones come and go: RedFish, Sully's, Bagpipes Irish Pub and the Blue Wisp Jazz Club easily come to mind. Some lasted longer than others, but none had the staying power many other established downtown eateries enjoy. It's mystifying why we have pockets of areas like this in the heart of the Queen City, where businesses simply cannot get the foot traffic they deserve.
The latest tenant at 7th and Race is The Butcher and Barrel, a meat-celebrating, Argentinian-style small-plates restaurant conceived by Chefs Alfio Gulisano and Howard Johnson. Gulisano is the same man who brought us Ché, an Argentinian bar/grill in Over-the-Rhine, and Alfio's Buon Cibo, an Italian-Argentine restaurant in Hyde Park.
Butcher and Barrel opened last summer to mild fanfare, offering both a lunch and dinner menu. But they've since stopped serving lunch as I imagine they just couldn't get the necessary traffic in the door to make it worthwhile. They now focus on dinner and late night entertainment, catering to the same demographic its immediate predecessor did.
The interior is -and has always been- incredibly spacious, which probably explains why so many businesses have struggled to keep the proverbial lights on. The cavernous space comes complete with a dominating central bar, taxidermied animal heads staring at patrons accusingly and a subdued, dimly-lit, almost dungeon-like motif.
I've honestly not had high hopes for Butcher and Barrel and, surprised as anyone that they've survived nearly a year, I decided to finally give them a try while I still could. I figured that, given the fact that I've passed by this place so many times and have seen very little activity, that it couldn't possibly be very good.
I was wrong.
My girlfriend and I were actually enroute to another new restaurant when we passed by Butcher and Barrel. We got to talking about how we'd never tried it and soon abandoned our original plan and stepped through the door shortly after 5pm on a Friday. There were only a few tables taken, but the reception desk still made a show of intently studying a seating chart to figure out where to place us in the midst of all the vast, non-busyness.
We were finally led to a table and given a small, one-sided menu of items ranging in price from $6 to $38. There were no separate "entree," "salad" or "shareables" sections, as the website depicts. It was all lumped together and we were told they are all considered "small plates." Our waitress recommended that we each order at least two items from the menu for a complete meal.
I was dying to find out what could possibly be so special about four deviled egg halves that could justify a $9 price point, so that was immediately the first thing I selected. It was described as egg infused with Asiago cheese and spices, topped with crumbled, smoked bacon. I also chose the Osso Buco ($13), with braised beef and a tomato relish served atop a bed of saffron risotto.
My girlfriend chose the Empanado Trio ($12), which featured an Argentine-style beef, a tabasco-braised pork belly and a spinach and cheese empanada. She also selected the Shiitake mushroom braised short ribs ($14) over house-made gnocchi in a creamy spinach and truffle sauce.
The deviled eggs and empanadas were the first to arrive, and were quite fetching to behold. Argentinian empanada pastries are each uniquely shaped to denote the type of filling inside. The beef empanada was half-moon shaped with crimped edges. The pork belly was round and folded around itself. The spinach and cheese also sported a half-moon shape, but with its corner edges folded inward. They sat on a bed of nicely-dressed mixed greens.
The eggs were surprisingly wonderful. The mixture of Asiago cheese and the bite of smoky bacon elevated the standard deviled egg to a level I'd never imagined. I'm a deviled egg fan, and am accustomed to the usual, vinegary, mustardy variety. These were something altogether different.
We both enjoyed all three empanadas. My girlfriend's favorite was the rich and flaky spinach and cheese variant, while I loved the smoky, mildly spicy edge of the braised pork belly. Our least favorite selection --but still pretty good-- was the beef, whose consistency and flavor tasted a lot like taco meat with onions.
Our entrees each featured incredibly delicious, fall-off-the-bone tender beef and veal variants. I very much enjoyed the acidic spike from the grape tomato relish paired with the creamy risotto. My only complaint with my dish was the saffron-flavor, which I don't believe I'm genetically inclined to like. To me, saffron has an almost metallic aftertaste, which kept interfering with my enjoyment of the dish.
My girlfriend's house-made gnocchi was delightfully light amidst the very heavy, intensely-flavored truffle sauce. We teamed up to quickly devour her dish in a matter of minutes, leaving only a pool of the truffle sauce that we wish we could have sopped up with a side of bread.
Our first impression of The Butcher and Barrel was a surprisingly positive one, clearly showing how outward looks can be deceiving. It was encouraging to see several more groups filling tables as we left. Perhaps they can buck the trend, achieving a longevity both they and this cursed corner of downtown Cincinnati so richly deserve.