Thursday, April 25, 2013

The National Exemplar Sets a Higher Bar

Commendable dining with some service snafus

All Eyes Were on the National Exemplar (Including Dexter's)
      When we heard that Chef Sean Daly was joining the National Exemplar at the Mariemont Inn as Executive GM and Chef last fall, Eric and I were both elated and dumbfounded.  He is one of our favorite chefs in the city, with a high profile as chef/owner of the now defunct Hugo's.  When he originally
announced that he would be renovating the old Village Kitchen (again in Mariemont) for a newly conceived restaurant, we were a little disappointed.  That project was scrapped, leaving him the chance to take on the National Exemplar.  But why the change?  And, why an established restaurant with a historically set menu as its draw?

The Bar at the National Exemplar
       Last fall, Will was visiting and asked if we could have dinner at "The Inn".  We informed him that the chef was new, but we were excited to see what changes (if any) Chef Daly had made at that point.  It was a Monday night and it became apparent after a short time that neither the Chef was there that evening nor the usual Restaurant Manager.  In short, it was pretty good food with some Hugo influences, but nothing that knocked us one way or another.  The service, on the other hand, was inexperienced and abominable.

Dexter has a Cat's Eye View of the 30th Anniversary
      Last week the National Exemplar celebrated its 30th Anniversary.  I've been in Cincinnati 27 of those years and The Inn has always been a place for celebration (Eric and I had our first dinner there) and a destination for family and friends.  So, we asked one of those friends to join us. Paul agreed and we were set to enjoy another memorable evening at The Inn.

      I had made a spontaneous reservation, so the fact that we were seated in the pub (rather than the main dining room) was a little bit of a sigh, but certainly understandable.  Our server was timely with his approach, but appeared to be a bit "green".  (I wasn't going to let that bother me, though.  No, not this time.)  The spring menu was explained and we were left to ponder all the newness.  

      It was bustling (30th anniversaries will contribute to that) and we were left a little too long.  (That was OK—I was going to take it easy this time around.)  Then our orders were taking quite a while and Paul joked that we would probably get all of our courses at once.

Smoked Salmon
The first round came and the plate presentation was wonderful.  Eric's Smoked Salmon was like an Eggs Benedict sans hollandaise with white asparagus and pickled onion.  One sample bite of it and I thought I had made the wrong selection.  The salmon was not overpowering as it most certainly could have been.  Paul and I chose the Shrimp Salad
Shrimp Salad
that was featured that evening.  Displayed on an elongated plate, we worked our way along the minced meat and chopped greens.  It was lightly dressed, which paired well with the minimal ingredients.  Our second course came soon after.  So soon that our plates had not been cleared and there was the awkwardness of that exercise for all of us.  Luckily, the new course plates made an instant impression.

Caesar Salad
Eric's Caesar Salad was the best presentation he had ever seen (it was elegant and simply '50s), living up to the same exclamation while he ate it.  Anchovies were in the dressing,  accompanied by the surprise addition of prosciutto ham.
Hungarian Mushroom Soup
Paul and I decided to go with the Hungarian Mushroom Soup that has been on the menu for many years.  It was always fabulous, but now it is one of the best soups in the city.  

     I was still enjoying the soup when our main courses arrived.  Again, our plates had not been cleared, which led me to retort, "could we finish this course first?"   The tag team server gladly accommodated my request.  (Then there was that long pause of silence that one never wants to happen when you're having a great night out.)  My camel's back had been broken, but Chef Daly brought us back to life when our meals were properly presented a second time.

Chef's Selection of Fresh Fish—Rainbow Trout
Paul chose the Fresh Fish selection of Rainbow Trout paired up with fingerling potatoes, fennel and asparagus.  Eric and I really didn't pay much attention to his choice as we were so engrossed in our own.  Both of us had ordered the Gerber Farms Chicken Breast perched charmingly on the plate over a bed of grits and braised greens with slices of sausage heavily swimming in a smoked tomato puree.  The chicken was baked and a recommendation of our server.  It was without a doubt one of the most flavorful and best prepared chicken dishes that I have experienced in recent years.  (My point of reference was  a chicken breast I had at Chez Panisse in 2000.)  Our plates were cleared as each of us finished (a pet peeve of ours), instead of after the last guest has finished her or his meal, but most importantly they were cleared. 
Pot de Creme
The dessert course was a pleaser also.  Chocolate Pot de Creme with a splash of raspberry mousse.  One can't go wrong with that combination.  It should definitely be considered for the regular menu.

      The National Exemplar has taken a leap with its culinary offerings and that is to be commended.  However, the inexperienced servers and the lack of connection with their guests brings down the total dining experience.  We can only hope that the management will recognize the great potential they have set in place and be able to overcome that stumbling block by properly training the servers to make this one of the finest restaurants and dining experiences in the area.

      BTW…breakfast and lunch dining at the National Exemplar is a completely different (and pleasant) experience.  For that, please see our review from July 2011.


O-Town HD said...

I love the mushroom soup at the Exemplar. I've never had better.

Dexter said...

We definitely agree!