Photo: Matthew Allen
The recently extended dining room on Abigail Street.
You don’t need an excuse to eat at Abigail Street, which is without a doubt one of Cincinnati’s most reliable restaurants. Go there with a few people and order and share two or three items per person, and you are all guaranteed to have an unforgettable feast.
But I’m glad I had a reason not only to dine there but also to help spread the word about some welcome additions to this 11-year-old lead in Over-the-Rhine.
In October, owners Dan and Lana Wright closed their restaurant next door, The Senate, and said they plan to expand Abigail into the space. Ten months later, this project is nearing completion.
The new dining room, now open to the public, has a noticeably different decor and atmosphere than the one I’ve come to know and love all these years. Seating is spaced wider, and there are more banquettes and booths than tables, so the room doesn’t get so loud that you have to shout to talk to your dining companions. The often oppressive noise level in the main dining area was previously a downside – although not enough to keep me away – but the option for a great meal and less conflicted social interaction makes the new addition so appealing.
As with many building projects these days, turning what was the Senate House into an enlarged version of Abigail took longer than expected. One of the most time-consuming aspects of the project, Dan Wright said, was repeating the finishes on the floors to create a seamless transition between the two dining rooms. His team also tore up the Senate tape to make room for more tabletop seating.
Wright said the expansion doubled the restaurant’s capacity by adding 50 seats. This includes three large booths seating eight and two banquet tables also seating eight at each table; Nothing of the sort was possible in the original dining room. Outdoor tables on Vine Street add a few dozen more seats, and Wright has managed to find enough staff to operate at capacity.
The restaurant now uses the reservation service Resy, which is a welcome move. For years, Abigail Street has taken no reservations, and waits en route can be prohibitive. With this added convenience and capacity, Wright said, the restaurant is now “running better than ever.”
When the expansion opened earlier this summer, the Wrights also made some personnel changes, most notably raising head chef Joe Biddle to executive chef. Biddle is no novice to the process – he’s been sous chef for six years – and many of the flavor combinations that make dining on Abigail Street memorable can be traced back to his creative influence. Former Executive Chef Youssef Shteiwi – who should also be thanked for the amazing food that comes from this kitchen – has been promoted to Culinary Director at Queen City Hospitality Group, the umbrella company for all restaurant and bar concepts in Wright’s growing empire.
With Abigail’s expanded capacity comes some new menu items, but longtime favorites don’t go away. Some of the additions are seasonal, like the wonderful peach and tomato salad. Since the menu helpfully lists all the ingredients for each dish, I tried to reproduce that salad at home the next night and did a good halfway job, but the restaurant is a cut above – I didn’t have burrata cheese or croutons, and used nectarines instead of peaches. .
Equally refreshing and delicious, fattoush is a cold salad that’s been a mainstay here since day one. One of my buddies said he always orders it, however I never tried what seemed rather boring. How good are yellow peppers, radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers? Much better than it looks, thanks to the crunchy lemon dressing served by the toasted pita bread pieces. Fattoush now goes to the top of my must-have list for return visits.
We ended up trying eight dishes shared between the four of us. Other hits included mutton spaghetti, a relatively recent addition that Wright said could become permanent, given its popularity. As with much of Abigail Street’s cuisine, the preparation is uncomplicated, letting the high-quality ingredients shine. The pasta, cooked to al dente perfection, is topped with a sauce of crispy lamb shoulder, Parmesan cheese and kale.
The Murqaz stuffed dates weren’t to everyone’s liking at our table, but I enjoyed this delicious preparation that brought out almost all of the sweetness of the dates. Stuffed With Lamb Sausage (Marguez) Wrapped In Bacon And Fried With Tomatoes And Saffron. Sweet dates have their place, but this delicious version was a revelation.
I’m not sure how this happens, but we were unable to order two of my favorite dishes – wood-grilled octopus and potato gnocchi. Wright assured me that while the chef might adjust the preparations, these two items would not be removed from the menu. We enjoyed making the daily hummus, one of the new offerings that starts with homemade hummus and builds the dish with either meat, fish, or vegetables, according to “what the farmers bring in,” Wright said.
Wright is still awaiting completion of the second kitchen in the back of the former Senate space, which needs approval from the city. It would include a wood-burning oven and generally give employees more room to produce such remarkably tasty food. Sunday lunch is also on the horizon, perhaps before the end of the year.
Looking beyond Abigail Street, the Wrights’ Queen City Hospitality group will make changes to its Liberty Street location, Forty Thieves, and develop two new restaurants in Terrace Park.
While we wait, it’s easier than ever to take a table at the Wrights’ star status.
Abigail Street, 1214 Vine Street, Over the Rhine, abigailstreet.com.
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