A new page has been written in the history of Cincinnati cuisine with the opening of Jean-Robert at Pigall’s in the autumn of 2002. A story filled with drama, tragedy, vindication, and success has recently followed the career of Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel. Cincinnati gourmands were crestfallen when, after many years as chef de cuisine at the Maisonette, he left his position. A distinguished path brought him to the Queen City; born in Roubaix, a French town near the Belgian border, de Cavel graduated from an apprenticeship at Le Feguide culinary school in Lille, France, and was chosen to work under master chef Joe Rostang at La Bonne Auberge, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Antibes. Rostang later sent de Cavel to the Malihouana Hotel in Anguilla, British West Indies, and eventually to New York, where at 26 he became the executive chef of the Le Regence restaurant in the Plaza Athenee Hotel. He progressed to chef de cuisine at Maisonette, Cincinnati’s – and the country’s – longest-running Mobil five-star restaurant. In 2001, he left Maisonette to pursue the dream of opening his own establishment.
The chosen location was the legendary Pigall’s. Originating as a residence in the early 1800’s and later owned by the Sinton and Taft families, this downtown address became the home to Pigall’s French restaurant in 1963. Pigall’s was rated with Mobil four or five-star ratings from 1967 until it closed in 1990. Renovation was a major undertaking and possibly the costliest for a restaurant in the city’s history, almost failing when financial partners backed out. Persevering, de Cavel maintained an unrelenting vision for the design, materials, and construction. Nearing completion, he and his wife suffered an abysmal loss of their infant daughter to SIDS. Through the mourning they applied themselves to the new restaurant and opened to acclaim in August 2002. In the May 2003 issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, Jean-Robert at Pigall’s was rated as one of the top 75 new restaurants in the world, and is one of only 26 U.S. restaurants to make the list. Our bailliage felt most fortunate to take over the restaurant on a summer evening for an exceptional experience in a modern Parisian setting, with New York ambiance and Cincinnati charm.
Met at the green lava stone front bar by Maitre d’ Richard Brown, we ascended the stairs to the large private room for assorted hors d’oeuvres and Pol Roger Brut NV. The chef offered a variety of amusements to view and sample, including escargot stuffed new potato, seafood quiche, classic tuna tartare, salmon, and duck appetizers. A raspberry balsamic infused shrimp served on a spoon matched very nicely with the Pol Roger. Having a bit of creamy sweetness balanced by an effervescent mousse, this Champagne has approximately equal proportions of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay.
After this welcome we descended to the main dining room and its restrained elegance. The clean lines and quality finishes of the room revealed tables set with Bernardaud porcelain on light golden Garnier Thiebaut cotton damask table linens. This scene was lightened by the inclusion of paintings from local artist Leslie Shiels and shadow boxes in the walls containing fifty sets of antique salt and pepper shakers from Chef de Cavel’s personal collection. We sat with high expectations and were not to be disappointed with a series of spectacular courses. First a crabmeat salad arrived on a bed of asparagus coleslaw. This beautiful innovative presentation was dressed with caviar crème fraîche and a concentrated balsamic glaze. Although asparagus is well known for its difficulty to match with wine, the chef modulated the flavors masterfully to create a crisp clean combination with the crab. We enjoyed this with Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive 1996. Schlumberger has the largest vineyard in Alsace and for generations the family has produced some of the finest wines there. Vendanges tardives are late-picked or late-harvested wines produced according to very strict criteria and are the domaine’s rarest, made only in good years. The Spiegel vineyard produced its first Cuvée Pinot Gris Vendange Tardive in 1996 with a wonderful balance between residual sugar and acidity to give the wine a delightful freshness. This wine proved to be a controversial choice with the crab salad, but may have been the ultimate match for the next course of foie gras and roasted peaches. Another inspired presentation from the chef came in the form of a sachet made from phyllo resting on field greens. Complex flavors met perfectly with the deep richness and sweet characters found in the pinot gris.
Our next presentation initially appeared understated but revealed another remarkable layering of colors, textures, and flavors. With a foundation of Arctic char, our chef combined shallot purée, truffle red butter cream sauce, and green vegetable purée for a pleasure to all the senses. This was served with Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches Red 2000. Situated on a hill between Pommard and Beaune, Clos des Mouches is one of the most famous Premier Cru vineyards of Beaune. The name “Clos des Mouches” literally means “Enclosure of the Flies” (the local name for honey bees) and today has an almost equal balance between pinot noir and chardonnay. Clos des Mouches is made from pinot noir with the uncommon addition of a small percentage of pinot gris. The deep fruit aroma and heavy tannin front of this young wine lightens through the mouth to the finish by the inclusion of the pinot gris.
The only possible progression for the next course had to be based on a signature dish of the restaurant, the very popular rack of lamb. This beautiful cut was seasoned with thyme and rosemary, cooked to tender perfection, and accompanied by ratatouille, mushrooms, and potato goat cheese flan. Such classic rich French cuisine was at this point on the verge of overwhelming but our chef provided smaller portions through the evening so all the courses could be thoroughly enjoyed. A great Bordeaux was called for here and to match our succulent lamb we were served Lynch-Bages 1999. Typical of the greatest wines of Pauillac, it is made primarily from cabernet sauvignon and is famous for its fine bouquet and rich tannin. Displaying a dense purple color as well as low acidity, the blackberry and cassis-flavored 1999 possessed outstanding fruit and glycerin in the long finish concealing the restrained tannins.
Our dining extravaganza came to a wonderful conclusion with an assortment of bite size desserts provided by pastry chef Karen Crawford. Based primarily on chocolate, these cake and ganache items came in a variety of shapes, flavors, and textures so one was hard pressed to pick a favorite from such a marvelous group. Can giddiness come from a dining experience? Whether or not, our sated crowd left with smiles, laughter, and satisfaction after an exemplary evening from the team of Jean-Robert at Pigall’s.
J.T. Mayer, Vice Chargé de Presse