By Joe Levy
At first glance, Parker’s Blue Ash Tavern seems out of place in Blue Ash. The sprawling white ranch house with its patio shaded by large black umbrellas reflects Indian Hill or maybe even Lexington, Ky., but definitely horse farm country.
Step inside and the decorum—pictures of thoroughbred winners, plaques, trophies, saddles, tacking and other horse paraphernalia all around—screams Kentucky even louder. And, oh yes, there is even a Churchill Room, a Paddock Room, a Trotter Room and a Lexington Room inside.
But Parker’s—with its five dining rooms and bar—is nestled in Blue Ash. No one would ever think of modern Blue Ash as big horse country.
But when it comes to fine casual dining—prime rib ($25-29), filet minon ($32-39) and lamb shank ($25),—Parkers in Blue Ash doesn’t exactly horse around. Like her sister, Parkers’ Restaurant in Chicago, Parkers Blue Ash Tavern is all about the meat.
General Manager Jim Brewster met me in the bar amid the facetious wooden plaques (i.e “Minimum ten dollar bet”) and shiny beer spigots for Mt. Carmel, Guinness, Sam Adams (seasonal) and Loose Cannon. A fridge stacked with craft beers with clever names such as Snake Dog, Great Lakes Elliot Ness and Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter top the left, shelves of liquor bottles to the right. “You can find every type of bourbon sold in Ohio at this bar,” Brewster said. “Our patrons like bourbon. They like it a lot.”
“We’re a midscale restaurant, not stuffy—neither purely casual nor purely fine dining,” he explained, leading me to a wooden dining room table with a white cloth in the main dining room.
I shuffled past the King Louis XIII post—inscribed with the names of patrons who had popped for a glass of the $120 namesake’s cognac—then the walls mounted with saddles and the trophy and case currently being dusted and settled into a table underneath two sulkies suspended from the ceiling. Brewster had prepared a few dishes. I half expected to see two jockeys hanging upside down on the sulkies but no such luck. Even kitsch has its limits. Parkers is going for Derby Day fun, not casual dining kookiness.
A pair of gray horse blankets with red lettering stood on the wall facing us inscribed “Ohio stakes” winner. The blankets looked very crisp and tidy, exceptionally clean in fact, as was the rest of the restaurant. My own mother would be proud of the clean floors and neat restrooms.
The restaurant also specializes in hosting events under its roof. Jim has hosted about 20 Bar Mitzvahs over the past few years and a fair number of Jewish weddings. Not surprisingly, banquets are a forte and Parkers has party rooms seating 20 to 100 each plus a banquet coordinator —Gina Mack.
That sounded very good to me. I like restaurants that are banquet friendly. If they can take care of a large crowd, they can take care of me as well as my dinner guest.
We talked wine. Parkers offers a Wine Spectator honored list—a wide array of prices ($8 a glass on up) and venues, New Zealand, France, Argentina, Spain among them. This is definitely a wine-with-dinner kind of place and even a wine-after-dinner kind of place. Sparkling wines, bright, crisp wines, lush fruit wines, rich full wines, mellow reds, rich velvety reds, big, bold reds all are available.
In addition, Brewster talked about the summer specials, which included Parkers grill-outs every Friday from 4- 8 p.m.
“From now until Labor Day we grill dinner out on our patio,” he said. “Every week we have a new dish. Every single week.”
Now I was hungry. Time to try the appetizer he offered—fried zucchini.
I dipped a ten-inch strip into the red bowl of Reggiano Parmesan marinara sauce. The crumbly, fried panko breading transformed this $6.50 diet-friendly veggie dish into a high calorie, guilty pleasure.
It was served hot, not hot enough to burn the tongue, but just hot enough to bring out the flavor. And nothing is worse than cold fried zucchini.
Other appetizers on the menu were also tempting. Maybe next time I would start off with a bowl of vegetarian chili ($8).
Pizza and ravioli, goat cheese, no less, are on the menu too, I noticed. “Italian chef?” I wondered. “That is the sort of fare you can expect from an Italian chef.”
No. Not even close.
“Chef Josh House,” Jim explained, “is Ohio born, and came to Parker’s from the Marriott in West Chester and before that a hotel in Louisville, Ky. He very much understands this area, and what it is about—concentrating on locally available ingredients, the best available.”
The main dish—a house specialty cedar-planked salmon in white wine butter sauce—followed. The hearth oven-roasted fish rested on a wooden square next to a small vegetable medley which proved a worthy complement. Priced at $22, the salmon was neither woody nor fishy, surprisingly unmarred by a skin sliver tucked underneath. I liked the portion control—not a huge chunk of fish but just enough to really enjoy its subtleties.
Time for some dessert. What to order? Ohio maple sugar cotton candy ($5) and Godiva chocolate ganache cake ($7) were possibilities. But Brewster offered Brulee cheesecake ($6)—a very fluffy cheesecake slice with a touch of brulee and crème anglaise. Excellent choice. It would do well in a Manhattan kitchen somewhere in the neighborhood of Lindy’s. I have had less cheesy cheesecakes many times so you can rate Parkers as near the top of the pile.
Brewster ordered my leftovers boxed in a black foam box, then escorted me past the reservations desk. Parkers Blue Ash Tavern is a “reservations recommended” restaurant. You can get in without one, but why take the chance?
I gave Brewster a chance to explain the décor—“Our owner used to own horses”—and brag about points of pride—the daily happy hour from 3:30-7 p.m., live music on the weekends, the wheelchair accessibility of all but one or two rooms. But most of all he bragged about his prime rib Sunday brunch (10 a.m.–2 p.m.) costing $21.95, with complimentary Champagne included. “Guests come from all over the Tri-State every Sunday. We serve the same prime rib for Sunday brunch that we serve every other day of the week.”
Parkers also offers a carryout business. Maybe in the end that is one of the main reasons, Brewster does not see Parkers Blue Ash Tavern as purely fine dining. And maybe it is one of the reasons he says the restaurant is not stuffy.
And reason for the somewhat over-the-top horse decor? “Our owner (at Select Restaurants) used to own horses. Our decorator picked up on that.”
At the end of the meal I could not chuckle to myself with my signature statement, “What a meal, such a deal.” But the food was good enough to go back, especially when I am in the mood to celebrate. It is a good place to go.
Parkers Blue Ash Tavern
4200 Cooper Road
Cincinnati, OH 45242