Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hugo, Reviewed

Ever since we read this years Top 10 Restaurant List for Cincinnati Magaizine and saw Hugo listed at #9 (last year’s runner-up for Best New Restaurant), we have been waiting with baited breath for an opportunity to try it out. We normally take turns surprising each other for our anniversary but we decided to make an exception this year since we both already knew where we wanted to go – Hugo!

I’ll start with the only negative that I could possibly think of, the interior/ambiance/décor could use some sprucing up. There’s nothing exceedingly fancy, glamorous, or memorable about the inside of the place. There’s nothing wrong with it either, there are just places of this caliber that I like better in terms on the surroundings (Boca, Corbett’s – Louisville). Of course both of those places also spent a ton of money to make the interior what it is and Hugo is still a newbie with probably very limited resources. I’ve gone on too long about that and you’re going to expect some dump when you walk in the door. It’s totally NOT like that, I just was pointing out the only flaw I could think of.

(All of the pictures are courtesy of Hugo's website. I'm not that skilled number one and number two, I could never convince Wes to let me whip out my camera at a restaurant!)

So, we decided to do the tasting menu, with wine. Our waiter was excellent – ask for PJ if he’s working because of the 3, he was by far the best. He was extremely knowledgeable of the food, the wine, and the way they paired together. Even if you normally wouldn’t consider the wine pairings, I would definitely recommend considering it because it matched so well with the food and it was such a bargain at $23 (for 7 glasses)! I won’t bore you with each course and it’s full description, but I will highlight a few and give some general comments. For the appetizers, the scallop is DIVINE – quite possibly my favorite of the evening. For the tasting we only got 1 but off the menu you get 2. The perfectly cooked scallop was paired with a tiny arugula salad with a house-made vinaigrette on one side and a cauliflower puree with bacon crumbles for garnishment. The She Crab soup was good but a) not my favorite and b) not like most She Crab soup in Charleston. It’s definitely got a kick, as they add hot sauce to it. It’s darker in color, maybe from the hot sauce, maybe from the roux, or maybe from the sherry, I’m not sure. It’s very rich but there are some nice chunks of crab in it – not something you often find in Charleston. Wes’ second app was Pork Belly and he LOVED it. I did try it and it was fine, but I was glad I had asked to sub in something else (the soup). Note: the staff is so flexible and considerate and actually suggested that we could make substitutions should we not like all 7 components of the tasting menu – wow, that’s rare!

The Hugo salad was great. This was another sub for me, as the tasting menu had the Watermelon salad, which Wes liked but I was glad I didn’t get it either. The Hugo salad had almost like a warm potato salad on the bottom and then the cold greens on top. While the potatoes are warm, they toss them with the goat cheese and it gets all melty and covers the potatoes. It might sound like an odd combination but it’s really good. They also had a Caesar but the server warned that the dressing was intense and I didn’t want to taste garlic all night! Incidentally, Wes ended up loving the Watermelon salad as a very summery and light dish. The fresh watermelon was topped with pickled red onions and local baby greens. He especially loved the onions!

We got to taste 3 entrees: the fresh fish (swordfish), the hanger steak, and the shrimp and grits (their signature dish). Surprisingly, the shrimp and grits was my least favorite. The shrimp was good but the grits were just too blah for me. Wes said he thought they were creamier than I was used to but I thought the exact opposite. I thought it tasted like they had been cooked with water, as opposed to milk or cream. I didn’t detect any cheese or other flavoring but I also realize that is the way the traditional dish is made. The swordfish was great but the sweet potato and crab hash that it sat upon was the highlight of that course. The hanger steak was another surprisingly good dish. The meat was medium rare but the restaurant was dark and I couldn’t really tell. It had great flavor and the accoutrements really made it stand out. It was served atop a potato cake, a small pile of wilted chard, and drizzled with a lamb demi glace.

Our dessert was an apple pie of some sort and it was great but the little drink we got paired with it was oh-my-gosh-good! They melted down maple ice cream and added it to some kind of vodka – it tasted like a spiked milkshake! Our server pointed out that you don’t get it served that way if you just order it off the menu. The apples were mixed with toasted nuts and nestled into a perfect little circle. Fresh shaved cocoa separated the pie from the mini milkshake. What a way to top off an otherwise perfect meal!

Despite the fact that probably sounds like a feast, the portions are small enough and spaced far enough apart, that you don’t ever feel stuffed or overwhelmed with the amount of food. The only additional comment I’d add about the food in general is that the regular entrees looked pretty large. I can’t be 100% sure of that because I couldn’t see the entire dish but the plates and bowls were huge! The tasting portions were small and perfect in my opinion, not to mention the best value for the price point.

In addition to the food, the service was truly special. I’m not sure if it’s because I chatted it up with our server and we told him we were from Lexington (you know, the big city) or if it’s because we got the tasting menu with the wine, but we felt like royalty. The maître’d brought us a course or two and then came back to chat after our meal. He thanked us and then asked if we had done many tasting menus. I said we always like to try that when we try a new restaurant, if it’s available. Then, the chef/owner came out to talk to us! Seriously, what in the world? Since then I’ve read a couple other reviews and they’ve all mentioned the marvelously attentive service. Perhaps we weren’t that special after all but they certainly had us fooled!

So if you ever find yourself in Cincinnati, we would highly recommend Hugo and feel confident in saying that you won’t be disappointed!


  1. This looks delish! Mike and I have had it on our list of places to try for a while and I'm glad to see your review. If you guys ever need dinner company while in Cincy, let me know - we're always looking for couples to eat with at some of the nicer places.

  2. Have you been to Daveed's in Mt Adams? Mike and I are planning to go there in a few weeks (it's one of the Cincinnati Magazine Top 10) and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on their menu? It looks somewhat seasonal, but I thought I'd check.