February 3, 2009

Our Year of Living Steakishly: January, Carlo & Johnny's

As January comes to a wintery close in the Cincinnati area, The Girl and I were halfway through out second winter break (thanks to four consecutive snow days). We decided to celebrate with a bit of Steakish Living by visiting the first of our trio of Jeff Ruby establishments: Carlo & Johnny's.

We had initially tried getting a reservation at Jimmy D's but were rebuffed and eventually found out that it had closed in early fall, apparently a victim of the renowned Cincinnati magazine top steakhouses curse. Because of this, we are currently taking suggestions for a replacement twelfth steakhouse in the Cincinnati area.

Carlo & Johnny's is technically in Montgomery, just south of the Kroger where we were supposed to have students collecting over the weekend. It is set back from the road in an old house that has been converted into a series of very distinct dining rooms. Ours - no photos of the room itself, sadly - had darkly quilted walls on which were hung large, golden-framed portraits that wouldn't have looked at all out of place in my maternal gradmother's home. There was a gilded lion's head with a spray of flowers, a mermaid statue appearing to support the ceiling, a painting of a French general with a bulldog's head, rather dim lighting, and an upholstered, four-sided settee around the aforementioned mermaid. The Girl sat on the settee.

In getting to our dining room, we passed a raw bar with oysters, crab legs, and numerous sushi-quality cuts of fish as well as a more inviting, socially active bar with live music. We heard acceptable covers of David Grey, the Beatles, Jim Croce, Jimmy Buffet and more through the doors throughout the evening.

I got the feeling that Carlo & Johnny's is many restaurants for many people. It is a bar with scantily-clad, pixiesh bar maid for those in search of a search of an adult night out. It is an old-school steakhouse for the older couple seated behind me - he in sport coat over read turtleneck, she taking off her faux fur coat to sit down. It is an elegant place for younger professionals to take a nice night out. And it is a place where the high-end regular customers keep their own wine cellars by the door as you walk in, cellars that contained everything from Miller Lite to Dom Perignon, $500 bottles of port to bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 with business cards taped on the front.

All of these, however, are presented in the finest restaurant fashion. Our waiter had a custom embroidered Carlo & Johnny's jacket over a simple white shirt and black tie. The lower wait staff - bus boys, water fillers - wore similar vests over a black on black shirt and tie combination. The manager visited every table, inquiring as to the meal, patiently decanting bottles of red wine before pouring the glasses for each patron at the table beside ours.

The menu is extensive - sushi had its own menu - and dominated by the sixteen different cuts of steak that our waiter claimed is the most extensive selection in Cincinnati. They had changed one thing, replacing the bone-in filet with what they referred to as a shorterhouse and that our waiter explained was their cutesy way of saying a porterhouse cut off of which they had trimmed the large fat at the bottom.

All steaks are served a la cart, and sides are sized to be shared between two or three diners. Initially we thought this meant the meal would be significantly more expensive than those at the other restaurants we had visited, but this didn't turn out to be the case, and neither of us felt the meal overpriced.

After a few minutes looking over the menu and being entertained by salads such as the Peter Frampton (Mixed Lettuces, Asparagus, Maytag Bleu with Pistachio Vinaigrette) and the Crab Calloway (Lump Crab, Rock Shrimp, Hearts of Palm with Dijon Vinaigrette), The Girl and I placed our orders:
  • Appetizer
    - oddly, none - nothing stuck our fancy in this section
  • The Girl
    $33 barrel-cut filet mignon, medium rare
    Freddie salad
  • ChemGuy
    $40 Prime NY Strip, medium rare
    steakhouse tomato salad
  • Sides to share
    saute of fresh green beans
    potato pancetta augratin
  • Dessert (again, to share)
    crème brûlée
Our waiter, Mark, took our orders, complimenting a few of our choices, and returned in moments with bread and butter. The bread was sourdough and salted rye, the butter a composite pat of mushroom/truffle butter and plain butter with a simple JR-logo'ed paper round on top.

This should be turned 90 degrees clockwise, sorry...bread in the basket, butter pat on the plate

The aforementioned JR-emblazoned butter pat

The bread was tasty enough to eat on its own, but the truffle/mushroom butter moved it into excellence. Neither of us put away more than a single piece, however, as we knew that more important things were yet to come.

ChemGuy's steakhouse tomato salad - mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, lettuce, a balsamic reduction, and a bit of vinaigrette

The Girl's Freddie salad - lettuce, bacon, tomatoes, buttermilk ranch on the side

Both of our salads were excellent. The Girl's salad was simple with lettuce and tomatoes topped by wonderfully flavorful bacon. The bacon - crumbled large - had a gorgeous smokey flavor, the sort of real smoked flavor to which bac-o-s can only aspire. She commented that the bacon would make a wonderful BLT, and I would agree from the basis of my one taste.

My salad was more complex with mozzarella and basil laid atop large tomatoes that were in excellent condition for winter tomatoes. In the peak of summer tomato season, I would imagine this salad to be mouthwatering enough to comprise a meal unto itself. The field greens behind the tomatoes were drizzled with a balsamic reduction that made me think I've been eating the wrong thing out of bottle labeled balsamic vinegar for years. It had a marvelous sweetness balancing the perfect tart notes. Wonderful.
ChemGuy's prime strip steak, ~16oz

The Girl's barrel cut filet, ~14oz

Mark took our salads and refilled our glasses - The Girl declined a second Manhattan, and we had a few minutes to chat and watch our fellow diners before the main course and raison d'etre was delivered. The steaks were presented with a minimum of flair, a well-cooked piece of meat in the center of a white plate with just a few sprigs of - at The Girl's guess - pea shoots.

The steaks smelled marvelous, but at first The Girl was afraid that hers was over cooked. She had ordered medium rare, but her first slice in suggested a solid medium - gray all the way through. She began to turn up her nose but sliced through the center of the steak and found the correct colors there. The photos don't show the redness well as the light in our dining room was very low, but be assured that the center of her steak was a nice red. Her steak was buttery smooth and nicely crusted. She managed to bring half of it home for a great dinner while I was at Rock 4A Cause the next night.

My strip steak was right from the first bite, wonderfully red in the center and darkly brown/black on the outside. We both tasted the other's steak and affirmed that we are, indeed, different tastes. The strip has a beefer flavor and stronger chew that I appreciate, and the filet is smoother and richer, both of which she enjoys.

ChemGuy's steak after the carnage

The Girl's steak - she took half home

We discussed the steaks while we ate, trying to find a way to compare these to those of Embers and our other steakhouses. We both agreed that these were a narrow margin below those of Embers, last month's Steakish Living destination. The lines here are fine, but we agreed that the crust on the Embers's steaks were more flavorful, a little richer. The crust on the Carlo & Johnny steaks were a bit thinner, blacker, and more crumbly. I don't want to say that they had an almost ashy mouth feel - too black, thin, sandish - because that would sell them short, but it's a little way onto that spectrum.

Neither of these complaints - The Girl's steak's overdone outer edge or the imperfect crust - is meant to say that the steaks this time were anything short of excellent. Instead, it's a way of splitting the hairs that are starting to show up in this competition. Where the Embers steaks were near perfect, the Carlo & Johnny steaks were merely excellent...the difference between the 9 that I gave Embers and the 8 that I'll give Carlo & Johnny's.

Potato / Pancetta Au Gratin

Saute of Green Beans

Where the steaks at Carlo & Johnny's were less than perfect, the side dishes were nothing short of absolute perfection. The au gratin potatoes with pancetta pieces within had a gorgeous, broiled crust under which creamy slices of potatoes were on the verge of melting together. It is the rare side dish onto which I won't throw at least a little pepper - preferably freshly ground - but this one needed for nothing. The flavors were outstanding, the texture marvelous, the dish spectacular.

And the green beans were better.

They were sauteed in olive oil with chopped garlic and chives on them, and they were wonderful. The beans themselves were barely cooked, retaining the crisp freshness of a blanching but softened just enough by the sauteing, and the flavors while simple were gorgeous. The Girl and I both agreed that we could make a meal out of the green beans themselves.

The side dishes will be earning our first perfect score thus far in the rankings.

crème brûlée in its apparently native habitat with a mint sprig and raspberries

Dessert tempted us both, and we went for the crème brûlée which was served in an attractively flared, almost trapezoidal dish and with soup spoons for each us.

The crème brûlée at Embers was too runny by half, but this one had an excellent consistency, custardy and rich. The crust atop was dark and bordering slightly on burnt in the center, but the contrast with the rich crème beneath stood up well. We would have appreciated more appropriate dessert spoons - smaller, more pointed - because the larger round soup spoons that we were given, particularly because of the corners in the dish, but that isn't a reflection upon the chef's creation.

The meal - with a single Manhattan for The Girl - came in at $120 plus tip, so I'll be ranking it at $114, the bill without anything from the bar. As I wrote earlier, we expected much worse on the pecuniary spectrum.

So, let's turn to the numbers and see if Embers has been displaced:
  • Appetizers/Dessert - 8 - The crème brûlée was very good.
  • Steak - 8 - Excellent steaks but not the best in town.
  • Side dishes - 10 - Simply put, perfection. With the salads included here - there's no pure salad category - I'll drop them by half a point because the salads weren't perfection, just excellence.
  • Atmosphere - 7 - The Girl would've given the place a nine, but she's into more "interesting" decors. I like a slightly more contemporary touch and didn't enjoy sitting with the freakish artwork.
  • Cost - 4 - A few dollars cheaper than Embers but not by much. And The Parents deserve major thanks for funding this visit with a Christmas gift of $100 gift card to any of the Jeff Ruby establishments.
  • Service - 8 - Mark was friendly but not overly so. The Ted Green scale scored highly as my water glass was never empty or even a third so. Our waiter was noticeably absent for a fair portion of the meal, but there were enough other wait staff around that had we needed anything, we certainly could have gotten it.
  • Total score - 44.5 (out of 60)
Barely behind Embers, about where I would have guessed. I was assuming it would come in slightly lower - maybe a point or two.

Summarizing things so far...
  • Embers - 45 (of 60)
  • Carlo & Johnny's - 44.5
  • Mitchell's - 44.5
  • Oakwood Club - 40
  • Pine Club - 37.5
  • Guenther's - 30
The numerical rankings fall right about where we expected things to fall.

My overall feeling - supported by The Girl in discussions after the meal - is that I prefer Embers as a restaurant, and the perfect meal might be the Embers steaks with the Carlo & Johnny's side dishes. Perfection has not yet been achieved.

We steakishly live on...


achilles3 said...

love living steakishly through you;-)
thanks again!

TL said...

Not being a great steak connoisseur, I'd hate to make a suggestion and then find out I made a poor one, but you may want to give Jag's Steak and Seafood a try in West Chester. My husband says the steaks in Red (Hyde Park) are not the best he's ever had, but we both really enjoyed their truffle fries. He did enjoy the steak he had at that modern Spanish tapas restaurant... Seny. He ordered from their more traditional menu while I dabbled a little with the molecular gastronomy side as well as the more traditional. Not the best dining experience ever, but very fun to try something new.

ame said...

Just a side note since you mentioned decor... When we picked up the gift card we were told that Jeff Ruby personally selects all the art work. Mom and I felt the one in L'Ville was close to a whorehouse is looks actually.

PHSChemGuy said...

Glad I can help, Lakes...next week we'll have another one up as I'm going on the 28th.

TL - we're headed to Red next weekend as it was on the list already. Jags is also on the list, but we've been there before and thought it only ok, so we're not rushing it to the front of the line. Don't know much about Seny, but I'll have to check it out at some point.

Ame - Carlo & Johnny's was certainly interesting on the inside. It's not what I'm looking for in a restaurant, but the food was good.