(All photos courtesy 5chw4r7z, who has taught me that you need to take your camera with you everywhere in case of last-minute restaurant openings.)
Most people say that if one is trying out a restaurant, avoid the first couple of weeks of service. That’s when they’re working out the kinks in the front of the house and the back of the house, and most of us don’t want to be guinea pigs for a green staff and rough draft of a menu. However, when I heard about the opening for Bootsy’s, Produced by Jeff Ruby, I realized I didn’t have to wait. Jeff Ruby’s restaurants are always orchestrated to the tiniest detail– this place would be perfect from starting gate.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment is known for steaks, but in talking with Bawe, the general manager for Bootsy’s, I discovered that they wanted to go beyond steaks and in a new culinary direction. Borrowing from various Latin traditions, including Spanish, Peruvian, Brazilian and Cuban cuisines, throwing in some Sushi for good measure, and importing chefs from Miami and Sarasota, Bootsy’s goes beyond the meat and potatoes offerings and into some uncharted territory.
While I waited for my friends, I started out at the gorgeous, story-high bar that is at the end of the staircase that leads to the restaurant (at the time of this writing, Bootsy’s Rock and Roll Museum was not open nor near completion). The extensive cocktail menu featured rum and cachaca drinks, including elderflower and pineapple mojitos. I chose the pineapple mojito, which was excellent– not too strong, not too sweet, not overrun with mint or overwhelmed by pineapple. Very well balanced and quite tasty.
Once my friends showed up, we moved to a banquette. We were three, and these banquettes were built for two– we had some trouble navigating with all of the not-so-small plates they would eventually bring. However, we are good friends and the banquette had a great view of the semi-open kitchen, the sushi bar, and people walking by without feeling exposed or like everyone was watching.
The rooms are done in surprisingly tasteful gold, red, and beachy pastels, with artwork reminscent of both Bootsy’s influence and a Latin influence. They sound like they don’t quite go together, but they do– all in Ruby’s near-trademarked opulence. From the cushy, pillow-covered banquets, to the sunflower soap in the bathroom, to the jauntily outfitted wait staff, the whole place oozes Vegas-like excess, but with a bit of Cincinnati character.
Our server, Virginia, was extremely knowledgable about the menu– reports say Ruby spent $100,000 just on educating his staff, and it shows. If she was unsure, she asked the chef– always a good sign. We had two omnivores and a vegan at the table, so we wanted to make sure that there were choices for the vegan so she didn’t feel left out. They had several, including vegetarian sushi, fried plantains (sauce on the side), patatas bravas (with the sauce on the side), edamame, flatbread, and several others. She was impressed! The rest of the staff ranged from attentive to clingy– a problem when there are 50 members of the wait staff (at least) to only about 10-12 tables.
Our table got a variety of small plates. I picked duck tacos, braised pork belly, and edamame; my vegan friend got fried plantains, patatas bravas, and a vegetarian sushi roll, and our other omnivorous friend got the night’s special roll, a Ruby roll.
The duck tacos were excellent– three tacos on a skewer with moist breast meat, microgreens and a fresh mango salsa. The pork belly was also good, with a sweet glaze, crispy outside and rich, meaty inside. The patatas bravas were a little spicy and fresh from frying, with a very spicy brava sauce on the side. It was quite a bit hotter than the brava sauce at Seny, but a little sweet and smoky because of the Spanish paprika base. The sushi dishes– both the vegetarian and the Ruby roll, though served beautifully and of good quality, were not nearly as impressive as the tapas. The rolls were wrapped in soy instead of nori, which is a fun twist, but the pieces were two-bite worthy, not one-bite. The vegan roll was essentially a salad within soy and rice, and the Ruby roll was overwhelmed by the wasabi mayonnaise dressing the plate. Both were good, and were this not a Ruby restaurant, it would not have been a misstep.
The real standout dish? Fried plantains, three ways– sweet plantains, crisp plantain chips and simple fried plantains, served with a lemon aioli. The sweet plantains, very popular in both Latin and Indian cultures, were reminiscent of Puerto Rican mofongo: sweet balls of plantains, fried in batter. All three of us loved these, and would have happily eaten our fill of them. The portion size was good– classic tapas-sized portions, perfect for sharing. None of us went away hungry.
The food is great, the drink is great, the ambiance is great– what about the price? With two drinks and three tapas on my bill, it totaled around $40 with tip. Considering an average outing to Jeff Ruby’s runs in the $75-100 per person range, this is a steal. It’s a great place for a date or a night with your girlfriends without breaking the bank, but still keeping the fashionable quotient up. It’s definitely a see-and-be-seen kind of place– there were already a bunch of Bengals players there and some visible movers-and-shakers in the Cincinnati scene. I suggest you join them!