Bob Wilhelmy writes the Dining Out column for The American Israelite.

The outdoor signage at Sacred Beast

Oh, what a meal!  We savored every forkful in the way diners-out do when the dishes brought to table are simply wonderful. More detail about the dishes in a moment. But first…

The above experience was provided by Sacred Beast, where Jeromy Lieb, owner/operator/chef, is creative inspiration behind the menu items we enjoyed. His menu offers dishes that are classically conceived, delectable, and in many cases very likely unique within the Greater Cincy dining scene. For example, I know of nobody else offering arancini (aka Italian rice balls) made from richly flavored truffle risotto. But before we jump to the weedy specifics of the recipes Lieb creates, it’s good to hear from him on his approach to every aspect of the Sacred Beast experience: “I want people to come here, have a great time, and come back. It’s like I’m inviting them to my home. These are fun, light, flavorful dishes. It’s the real deal. We’re not pretending here,” he said.

So, what about those rice balls? “They’re truffle risotto balls; basically, it’s truffle risotto that we make and let cool. Truffles and truffle oil, because truffles by themselves taste really earthy—they’re delicious, but you need to extend (and enrich) the flavor with a little bit of the oil. It’s the most wholesome, true way to make (this risotto) that I know. It’s the way I was taught to do it, so that’s what we do. We chill it and make balls and bread them and then fry them. And we make a marinara sauce and add a little mornay cheese sauce to the red sauce, which gives it the final texture.”

The truffle risotto rice balls in marinara sauce

We enjoyed the vegetarian rice ball appetizer as part of a three-selection meal of all relatively new items to the menu. The truffle risotto balls are scrumptious! Having had arancini in Italy, we were expecting a wonderful treat, and the Sacred Beast version was excellent, rivaling the finest Sicily has to offer. The mild but discernible flavors of the risotto are a perfect match for the rich sauce. And once the rice balls are eaten, sopping up the remaining marinara sauce with bits of bread is a tasty, fun finish.

Next, we split an order of gnocchi Bolognese (hold the dusting of parmesan cheese, please). The gnocchi in this dish are Parisian style, made with a potato mixture. They are good and fun to eat. But the real star of this dish is the meaty Bolognese sauce, made special by the ingredients that are incorporated into the Italian tomatoes and beef. “I do a soffrito (the Italian version and not the Spanish one, spelled sofrito), which is the most important part of this dish. I use aqi peppers, red peppers, carrot, onion, celery, garlic, chili flake (which adds a layer of mildly spicy heat), and I grind that all up, cook it really slowly in olive oil, add salt, almost caramelize it. The way it’s cooked, it’s almost sweet but so wonderfully savory. So, we mix it with tomatoes from Italy and the meat,” he said.

Because of the chili flakes added to the soffrito, the sauce takes on the character of a fra diavolo sauce, but more flavorful and less spicy, my tastebuds tell me. We enjoyed every forkful and were sorry to see the bottom of the bowl. Our Bolognese was chunky with meat and tomatoes, and the sauce made this gnocchi dish a special treat.

The crispy goat cheese salad

While eating first our rice balls and then the gnocchi dish, we shared a crispy goat cheese salad. Too often, salads are a throw-together of lettuce and whatnot. That’s fine as far as it goes. But salads can be much more than that, as Lieb clearly demonstrates with this dinner-sized entry. The goat cheese is special. It’s aged Bûcheron goat cheese, native to the Loire Valley in France. The aging adds depth. This cheese is creamy and mild, without the ripe saltiness of the common variety most folks use. The cheese is grilled crispy on one side and crowns the salad when brought to table. The greens are a bit heartier mixture than the fragile leafy micro-greens found in many of today’s salads. Personally, I prefer the toothier texture of a hearty lettuce collection. The salad features cucumbers, thin-sliced radishes, apricots, sunflower seeds, and pickled turnips. “I use the pickling liquid to make the vinaigrette. It’s delicious; you’re going to love it!” He’s correct: the salad was delicious, and we did love it.

See you at the Sacred Beast!