Work in progress

Baxter's Eatery has makings of fine restaurant, but needs to refine entrees, service

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Baxter's Eatery and Saloon in Blue Ash is a serious restaurant hiding behind a ''We're just a bar'' disguise.

There's a good chef in this kitchen who turns out some well-conceived and delicious food.

But the logo and name, TVs and loud music leave a casual and off-hand impression.

After a first visit that impressed me, I thought Baxter's should change clothes, come right out and be a real restaurant.

A second visit made me think it has a few other things to fix besides its name.

I'm not surprised that owners Phil Frost and Dave Munster (who doubles as chef) are trying to cover more than one base.

The restaurant occupies a spot that was once Viva Barcelona!, which offered serious food but didn't last long, and then BABES, which was extremely casual and didn't last long.

I liked Baxter's familiar but interesting menu, the quality of extras, such as the salad and hot biscuits, and on my first visit, the efficient but unobtrusive service.

What I disliked was the service on my second visit: efficient but so obtrusive I was exhausted.

There were also a couple of poor entrees and TVs in the dining room. (Eating with TVs always brings out the curmudgeon in me.)

Good stuff first: Specialty martinis are featured drinks. The Colbey's Martini, for instance ($4.95), is vodka with champagne and Chambord, served in a tiny carafe nestled in ice to keep it at sipping temperature.

Excellent appetizers

Several appetizers are excellent, notably the spicy chicken spring rolls ($5.95) -- a little cheesy, a lot chickeny and crunchy. Crabmeat and Artichoke Dip ($5.95) is light and fresh, not gummy with cheese as I've had elsewhere.

Of the entrees, I most liked the salmon filet ($13.95), wrapped in long, thin strings of potato, deep-fried until the potatoes are crisp but the salmon is moist.

The pasta in Tender Maine Lobster Ravioli ($13.95) is filled with lobster and cheese with lots of brandy and cream in the sauce. Louisiana Shrimp and Crayfish Etouffe ($11.95) has an authentically rich and dark roux-based sauce.

Light but rich and hot biscuits appeared at the table the minute we sat down.

The same biscuits appear in a traditional-but-improved fresh strawberry shortcake ($3.95) with pastry cream and whipped cream.

Free entrees after wait

The first night I was at Baxter's, eating with friends at a deliberately leisurely pace, we had finished appetizers and had been sitting entree-less but not unhappy for maybe 15 minutes.

The general manager came over and apologized that the computer was down, they'd lost our orders and the entrees -- $40 worth of food -- were on him.

Now, how could a restaurant that well-attuned to service do an about-face the next time I visited? On the second evening, we had a waiter who would not leave us alone. He came to our table so many times and asked in such a hearty voice so often how everything was, that the evening was all about him and his job instead of about four friends having a nice dinner.

That night, the food wasn't as good, and I think it had to do with the choices we made.

Prime rib ($12.95 or $14.95) was, as it should be, pink, juicy and beefy, served with a loaded baked potato. Seafood Mixed Grill ($14.95) was considerably lighter: a piece of grilled salmon and one of trout, with rice and fresh green beans. A few shrimp or scallops would have made it live up to its name.

Shrimp and Crabmeat Hot Brown ($10.95) was a disappointment.

My friend tried to pick her way through a pile of bread crumbs but gave up without hitting paydirt. Another friend ordered the smoked chicken and wild mushroom penne without the chicken ($8; with chicken $9.95) It was cemented with cheese, which solidified when it got cold. This, and the hot brown, were far too salty.

A big, perfectly chocolate brownie with nuts and ice cream ($4.95) went a long way to canceling the negatives of that meal, even though it meant several more visits from the waiter.

The flaws at Baxter's can be corrected. I've no doubt that any place that would correct a mistake as generously as our entree wait was corrected will be making plenty of changes for the better.

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

IF YOU GO


Baxter's Eatery and Saloon

**1/2

Food: Good.

Service: Fair.

Atmosphere: Fair.

Value: Good.

What: Casual bar and restaurant with more-than-casual menu.

Where: 4858 Cooper Road, Blue Ash.

When: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Bar open until 1 a.m.; half-price appetizers after 10 p.m.

Recommended dishes: Spicy Chicken Spring Rolls, Salmon in Crispy Potato Crust, Maine Lobster Ravioli, Chocolate Walnut Brownie, Strawberry Shortcake.

Vegetarian choices: Nothing on menu; ask for pasta without meat.

Prices: Sandwiches and salads at dinner $5.95-$9.95; dinner entrees $7.95-$15.95; desserts $2.95-$3.95.

Decibel level: 80-85 on a Saturday night; 75-80 on a Tuesday, mostly from rock music on sound system. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Miscellaneous: Children's menu, children eat free on Sunday, full bar, specialty martinis, carry-out available, wheelchair-accessible dining rooms and restrooms.

Paying for it: MasterCard, Visa, American Express.

Reservations: Taken.

Phone: 791-2223.


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Entire contents Copyright (c) 1996 by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.