Bistro best for lunch
Through the Garden in Blue Ash specializes in fresh veggies, salads and light meals

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Through the Garden would make a fine neighborhood bistro. All it's missing is a neighborhood.

You'll find the restaurant in the far northern reaches of Blue Ash, a land of light industry and office parks, warehouses, semi trucks, loading docks and, oddly enough, a sailboat sales lot.

Through the Garden
**1/2
Food: Fair
Service: Good
Atmosphere: Fair
Value: Good
What: Suburban cafe for simple, healthy lunch or dinner.
Where: 10738 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash.
When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Recommended dishes: Baked goat cheese, garden pasta, stir-fry, pecan pie.
Vegetarian choices: There's something in every menu category.
Prices: Appetizers $4.95-$5.95; sandwiches $4.50-$5.95; entrees $6.95-$14.95.
Paying for it: MasterCard, VISA.
Sound level: Moderate; 74 decibels on a Wednesday evening. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).
Reservations: Accepted.
Miscellaneous: Smoking and nonsmoking sections, children's menu, high and booster chairs, beer and a nice wine list, takeout, catering, wheelchair-accessible.
Phone: 791-2199.
It's a pleasant surprise to walk from this landscape into the airy dining room, with its parquet floor and wide stone-topped counter, behind which guys in tall chef toques are creating wonderful aromas of grilled chicken.

Fitting name

I love the restaurant's name. It comes from the old lunch counter expression, yelled by a waitress back to the kitchen, meaning to add lettuce and tomato to an order. The food lives up to this fresh promise, with lots of salads and crunchy vegetables and light meals. I don't see how you could go wrong at lunch here. Dinner, however, is not as sure a bet. The simple dishes that are appealing at lunch don't seem substantial or imaginative enough for dinner.

For lunch you might have grilled chicken salad, nicely priced at $5.95. Tender grilled chicken breast is served over fresh greens with homemade salad dressing. There are three variations: Mediterranean, Oriental and Southwestern. The Mediterranean is essentially a Greek salad, with feta cheese cubes, olives, tomatoes and pita bread. The basil vinaigrette is miles above a bottled Italian, a bit sweet and poured lavishly (ask for it on the side).

Sandwiches include chicken or tuna salad with grapes and water chestnuts ($4.50) and a portabella hoagie ($4.95). There are also stir-fries, pastas and soups.

The dinner menu is similar, but adds steaks, a grilled chicken breast, fish of the day and a couple of specials.

The baked goat cheese appetizer ($4.95) is a good start with a glass of wine. Pungent and wonderfully creamy, it melts into a bed of tangy marinara sauce, to be scooped or dipped on crisp hot garlic toast. Deep-fried calamari is another appetizer with strong tastes. The rings are tender, batter-dipped, with a garlic aioli sauce.

Stir-fry is billed as a specialty. There are four choices of sauce and four of meat, or no meat. I can report on the vegetarian Jamaican version ($7.95), with carrots, broccoli, celery, peppers, carrots and snow peas in a sauce that's a little sweet, a little spicy. The mound of vegetables comes on top of wild and brown rice.

Garden pasta also comes with a choice of sauce -- tomato, alfredo or olive oil and herb -- and three meat choices. With chicken and a creamy but understated alfredo sauce ($10.95), plenty of crunchy snow peas, carrots, green and red peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms, and served with a salad, it's a meal of which the most vegetable-pushing mother would approve.

I ordered a dinner special of seafood lasagna ($13.95). When I didn't find as much as a shrimp, I realized they served me the vegetarian lasagna from the regular menu ($6.95).

I ate -- and paid for -- the vegetarian, but wished I'd insisted on the seafood, because the green pepper and spinach in the vegetarian version weren't enough to make it interesting despite a good tomato sauce. Our server was gracious about the mix-up, and in general, the restaurant's service was fine, pleasant but not obnoxiously helpful.

London broil ($11.95) was a nice piece of steak, but the bordelaise sauce was too thick and strong. It came with lots of good crunchy vegetables on the side.

In-house desserts

I was happy to hear desserts (all $3.25) are made in-house. I always get my hopes up when I hear the words ''cobbler'' and ''pie.'' Unfortunately, they were out of apple pie, but I tried the blueberry and peach cobblers.

I commend the simple, fruity filling, but the square of pastry sitting on top didn't turn it into cobbler by my definition. The chocolate pecan pie didn't have chocolate in it -- I had everyone try it to make sure I wasn't losing my mind or taste buds. But it was an excellent regular pecan pie, full of toasty nuts. There was enough chocolate in the triple chocolate cheesecake to make up for the pie.

There's a good wine list at dinner, which bypasses big-name chardonnays and cabernets for smaller California producers, along with a few French, Italian and Australian selections.

Some are available by the glass ($3.75-$5.25). There are even ports, sherries and champagne.

Chef John Kraemer, who co-owns Through the Garden with Bill Groth (they're veterans of Viva Barcelonas), says they'll be planting a garden behind the restaurant this spring. Among other things, they'll grow their own basil. Maybe the dinner menu will grow, too.

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

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