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Posted Friday, September 10, 2010

Dilly Café, formerly known as Dilly Deli, is a popular restaurant in Mariemont, the local village known for its English Tudors, a general lack of utility poles and its proximity to the Frisch's Mainliner.

I may not have a degree in marketing, but I think changing "Dilly Deli" to "Dilly Café" was a stupid, stupid, stupid ill-advised exercise in re-branding. Don't get me wrong: their newly designed website, whose fonts and star-graphic motif vaguely remind me of an earlier version of CaptureCincinnati.com, is smashing. Food porn is auto-rotated there in large, glistening, SLR camera-enhanced deliciousness.

But Dilly Deli was a cool, catchy name. It rolled off the tongue like Louis Lane or Captain Caveman or Peter Parker. As for "Dilly Café?" Yawn. It's like someone had advised the owners that "Dilly Deli" was too clever and distinctive --better to blend in with everybody else. I get the fact that it wants to be bigger than its meager deli roots --it yearns to be known as a "deli turned gourmet restaurant brimming with a charmingly relaxed elegance," but c'mon...everybody knows it as Dilly Deli!

Whatever mystical strategery was behind the decision, one can still find solace in the fact that the restaurant's name change hasn't hurt business: the place always seems to play to a packed house.

The afternoon of our latest visit was an exceptionally steamy one. We waited about five minutes for a seat --well worth it, given that the only other option was to eat outside on the patio and bask in the furnace-like, 95-degree air.

Immediately upon sitting down, I flashed our Groupon printout to the waitress. We had paid $15 for $30 worth of food. If we'd ordered when the dinner menu was available, it would have been an easy figure to reach, but the lunch menu made it slightly more challenging, despite Dilly Café's penchant for expensive menu items. The waitress suggested ordering desserts to help pad the bill, then simply box them up to take home for later. Our strategy was more compelling: we'd order a shitload of food, then gorge on it all in one sitting. Perfect.

The restaurant harbors a bustling, casual, slightly upscale ambiance, with a healthy mix of young, aspiringly-affluent families, intellectuals and, well, the rest of the people who were more like us. In one corner near the bar are shelves of various beers; in another area rest myriad bottles of wine.

We started off with cups of gazpacho. The traditionally cold soup was especially refreshing on such a hot day, not watery, with hunks of cucumber swimming in a mildly-spiced tomato broth, accompanied by a very tasty, crunchy crostini that we broke up and mixed into our cups.

Next came our Maryland-style crab cake appetizer. The two biscuit-sized cakes had a nice crunchy outside and a creamy, soft core. They were packed with slightly sweet, fresh crab flavor, accentuated by a Dijon mustard/mayonnaise dipping sauce.

My girlfriend ordered the grilled shrimp and asparagus salad entree. The salad has received recognition in CityBeat's "Best of Cincinnati" issue and it's easy to see why. Every bite of the salad seemed infused with a rich grilled flavor, even without a shrimp on the fork. It perfectly epitomized all that's good about a waning summer: prodigious grilling.

I chose the seared Ahi tuna sandwich with sweet potato fries. I would have preferred my sesame-encrusted tuna be cooked a little longer --it was near raw-- but it was very good. The sandwich was quite messy, with the herbed cheese, cilantro-lime vinaigrette, cucumbers, field greens and tomatoes all conspiring to produce milky streams of moisture that crept down my wrists. Serving it on a thick, hearty foccacia bread was an excellent tactical decision, given all the juices at work. The thinly-sliced sweet potato fries were hot and delicious.

Service was good and our water glasses were kept perpetually filled. A pretty good feat, given the hectic, constant turnover of customers.

Without the coupon, our overindulgent lunch would have cost around $50 including tip. With the Groupon, it came in at $20, tip included. Quite a deal. It's no wonder that Dilly Café's Groupon offer broke records: 2,389 people bought the coupon.

Despite its dubious new name, Dilly Café continues to laugh all the way to the bank, showcasing a menu of thoughtfully-conceived and prepared dishes amid a comfortable, mildly highbrow atmosphere. As their marketers say: "Eat, Drink, Shop, Relax." Just don't call it a deli.

Dilly Café on Urbanspoon
Dilly Cafe

Price: Moderately Expensive ($11 - $16 per person)
Service: Good
Rating: 3.5 out of 43.5 stars

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Ratings Legend
four stars = Outstanding
three stars = Good
two stars = Fair
one star = Poor
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