Steakhouse champion

The Precinct in Columbia Tusculum scores consistently with prime cuts, polished service

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

With mostly aged beefy things on the menu and caricatures of aging beefy guys on the wall, The Precinct steakhouse never has been on the culinary cutting edge.

Now 16 years old, the Columbia Tusculum restaurant could settle into an out-of-date formula and rest on memories of its glory days. Instead, the restaurant has remained one of Cincinnati's favorite places to eat, always there when a list of favorites is compiled, and forever popular with celebrities, especially pro athletes.

How does owner Jeff Ruby keep the shine on The Precinct? First, he takes advantage of the fact that people like conservative food. Then, he does it well.

I'm not impressed especially by a pound-and-a-half porterhouse, nor by caricatures of Oliver North and Sly Stallone on the menu, but I am impressed by the restaurant's fine service, the comfortable luxury of the dining room and the richness of the bearnaise sauce poured over a meltingly tender filet mignon.

Keeps updating menu

Plus, Mr. Ruby is willing to make changes to keep things interesting. In 1993, he hired Chef Anita Hirsch-Cunningham, who revamped The Precinct's menu. There was even a vegetable plate on the menu, and a steak with a Thai sauce.

Ms. Hirsch-Cunningham left in 1995 to start Arboreta in Over-the-Rhine, and The Precinct menu settled back into meat and potatoes, like dad in his La-Z-Boy after halftime. But there are enough creative dishes and updates to keep the menu from stodginess. Some fine-tuning has added seven new menu items, including the Ki-Jana Kabob ($21.95, named for Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter) and several others honoring football celebrities.

If anybody ever names a steak for me, I'd like it to be something like the new Steak Blake ($24.95, named for Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake), an understated preparation of crusty twin filets, with sauteed portabella mushrooms and eggy, lemony bearnaise, a perfect contrast to the plush beef.

But before you get to eat your steak cooked, you have to inspect it raw. Our young servers both nights did a smooth job presenting the cuts, but it feels like a sales pitch to me, and somewhat intrusive. (A tip: If you say you've eaten there before, they will forgo the spiel.) The servers do the rest of their job in a polished, friendly and efficient manner.

Ah, those steaks look so much better broiled to a charred and crusty turn. There are only three cuts of steak: a filet, a New York strip and a porterhouse (which includes parts of both). The filet and the strip each come in two sizes. New is the king's filet mignon ($29.95), looking like the Rock of Gibraltar at 16 ounces. It's too tender for a steak knife, either for the red interior or the outside crust.

The smaller filet in some of the other preparations seems more flavorful. In Steak au Roth ($25.50, named for restaurant investor Dick Roth), the meat stands up to a heavy crust of peppercorns and peppercorn sauce. The more flavorful strip cut is used in Steak Pelfrey ($24.95, named for the Bengals place-kicker Doug Pelfrey) because the Cajun spices give it a kick. I'm afraid it falls short of the goalpost, being fairly moderate in heat, but the steak is well-blackened and served with two sauces.

The new Sword, Steak and Dagger ($24.95) is a three-for-one dish that includes an exquisite seared swordfish (also available on its own, $23.95), a piece of Steak au Roth and blackened scallops with an appealing contrast between their crusty outside and plump, sweet meat. Lamb Chops ($27.95) are as tall as they are wide, and with an assertive lamb flavor that a lamb-lover such as I enjoys.

I was a little disappointed that the dishes prepared by the dining room captain are not done tableside. Flaming brandy would fit right in. My barbecued shrimp -- a refined version of New Orleans barbecued shrimp, peeled except for their tails and in a spicy creole butter sauce -- appeared from the back of the dining room. Barbecued shrimp are $8.95 as an appetizer, $18.95 as an entree.

Entrees come with a choice of salads, of which I especially like the pungent bacon-topped hot slaw. Garlic mashed potatoes, unlike the current vogue for roughly smashed potatoes, are a smooth puree. And the bread, Boudin sourdough from San Francisco, is a treat.

A Waterfront appetizer

Thai spring rolls ($6.50) are new appetizers borrowed from Mr. Ruby's The Waterfront. They're crabby and crispy, different from usual egg rolls.

My friend from Baltimore refused to put a purist's stamp of approval on Maryland crab cakes ($6.25), but that doesn't mean they aren't good, with a zippy corn salsa and spicy sauce. A sampler from the raw bar included perfect shrimp the size of Dan ''Big Daddy'' Wilkinson's ring finger, plus wonderful sweet crab legs and raw oysters. (Raw bar prices are market. Shrimp can be $2.75-$3.25 each, oysters $1.50, crab legs $2.50 an ounce.)

Desserts ($4.95 and $5.95) are as opulent as the steaks. Cheesecake lives up to the name New York-style, cheesy and dense. Bananas Carl (as in Carl ''Chiquita'' Lindner) is another captain's dish. It's like bananas Foster, with caramel sauce, big crunchy walnuts and vanilla ice cream.

If you're following along, you will have noticed that prices at The Precinct will set you back. Unless you're a millionaire ball player, this is a once-in-a-while treat, but one that delivers.

map Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

IF YOU GO


The Precinct

***1/2

Food: Excellent.

Service: Excellent.

Atmosphere: Excellent.

Value: Good.

What: Ever-popular, upscale, celebrity-spotting steakhouse.

Where: Columbia Parkway and Delta Avenue, Columbia Tusculum.

Hours: Dinner 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

Recommended dishes: Any steak; raw bar; Thai spring rolls; Steak Blake; Sword, Stake and Dagger; broiled swordfish; cheesecake.

Vegetarian choices: Not much on menu, but kitchen can prepare various pasta dishes.

Prices: Appetizers: one shrimp from the market-priced raw bar can be $3.25, other appetizers $6.25-$8.95; steaks and chops $16.95 (pork chops)-$29.95 (16-ounce filet mignon). Side dish and salad included. Desserts $4.95-$5.95.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Diners Club.

Reservations: Absolutely necessary for Saturdays, perhaps a few weeks ahead. Highly recommended other times.

Miscellaneous: There is no smoking in the dining rooms; no cigars in the bar. Booster seats, high chairs available. Upstairs party rooms can seat 100; two private rooms downstairs. Wheelchair accessible.

Phone: 321-5454.


Comments? Questions? Criticisms? Contact Greg Noble, online editor.
Entire contents Copyright (c) 1996 by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.