1211 Vine St.
Because I either walk or ride the bus to my job in downtown, lunchtime treks are limited to places within walking distance of the office. Ideally I should be able to get there, eat and get back to the office in about an hour, and as such hadn’t yet had the opportunity to try Jean-Robert de Cavel’s newest venture, Lavomatic, due to the distance between the two. So when a friend rang up to say he would be driving into downtown for business and asked if I had lunch plans, I could hardly contain my glee.
Wheels + lunch = the perfect opportunity for a quick trip to Over-the-Rhine. Neither of us knew how busy the restaurant would be at lunch and given the chef’s excellent reputation we figured we would be taking a gamble on finding a table, but decided to risk it. I also carved an extra half hour out of my schedule so that we would have ample time to dine without feeling rushed. If we couldn’t get into Lavomatic, our back-up plan would be Tucker’s.
We lucked out, arriving in time to grab a table for two along the wall. The restaurant is quite narrow, with a full-service bar made of sustainable cork running along one side and small bamboo tables lining the other, but the pale green walls and blond wood lighten the space considerably, making it feel larger than it is. Space is tight though, and as the restaurant filled up and diners grabbed seats at the bar, it felt mildly claustrophobic. It also took more effort than necessary to maneuver from the front of the restaurant to the back, where the unisex restroom and stairs to the rooftop terrace are located. I can only imagine how difficult it must be on crowded evenings.
As one might expect with a name like Lavomatic, the restaurant's inspiration comes from the social aspects of the laundromat as neighborhood gathering place. The color scheme mimics the pale green, old-fashioned washer sitting just inside the front door, and variously sized, brightly colored clothespins add a whimsical touch. Tables are nestled closely together, making it impossible not to eavesdrop on nearby conversations, but also lending itself to a more sociable atmosphere. My friend and I happened to be seated next to Mr. Cincinnati, Jim Tarbell, and spent a most enjoyable lunch chatting with him and his dining companions.
Service at the restaurant was slow. I’m unsure if that is because they hadn’t planned on such a large turnout for lunch or if they were just shorthanded, but we waited nearly ten minutes for glasses of water to arrive, and once they arrived were never refilled. We also had to ask for menus.
Lavomatic offers quite a few vegetarian options on their lunch menu and everything sounded so good that it was difficult to choose. I was tempted by the ubiquitous grilled cheese sandwich – which de Cavel tarts up using a French baguette – but instead decided upon a trio of vegetarian salads, and since it was a chilly day I also requested a cup of cauliflower soup. Although the better value is to order a tureen of the soup – it’s a mere two dollars difference between a cup and a pot that could easily feed four – my dining companion wasn’t in a soup mood and missed out on the rich, creamy delight.
The menu didn’t indicate what the trio of salads would be, but it wasn’t a concern because Jean-Robert very rarely disappoints me with his creations, and this time was no different. The trio - cucumber dill with shallots, smoky beluga lentils with roasted cherry tomatoes, and a peppery white lentil salad with sultanas - arrived in small bowls on a long, curved platter. I am a collector of oddly shaped dishes, stemware and barware, so the presentation was aesthetically pleasing and I'm kicking myself for not finding out the manufacturer. The bread and butter plates were Denby, but a quick look at their web site doesn't show anything similar to the groovy salad platter. No worries - I'll check next time.
Whilst the appealing presentation adds to the overall experience at Lavomatic, the real showstopper is the food, which is exquisite. The cucumber salad reminded me of the agurkesalat my Danish mother-in-law used to prepare for koldtbord (similar to the well-known Swedish smörgåsbord). Kirby cucumbers sliced paper-thin and delicately flavored with white vinegar, sugar and dill, Lavomatic's version would be right at home in a Scandinavian kitchen.
The lowly lentil is rightly elevated to star status here as well. A lot of people shun the quick-cooking legume, possibly because they've experienced them as a mushy mess - the result of overcooking - but lentils are packed with nutrients and are a perfect low-calorie, low-fat and cholesterol-free food. At Lavomatic, they are cooked flawlessly; no burst skins, no unpleasant squidiness. The beluga (black) lentils resembled caviar; glistening little black orbs absolutely bursting with earthy flavor. The white lentil salad teased the tongue, coaxing an exotic array of spicy flavors with each bite. My dining companion, who had ordered a beautifully presented curried chicken salad, eyed my selections jealously as I failed to hide the delight I got with each bite. In the end I was forced to share, and was pleased to see the look of utter rapture on his face after that first nibble. Yes, it really is THAT good.
The total for our meal was just over $20 - an unbelievable bargain for food this tasty. There is an expanded menu in the evenings and a stronger emphasis on the wine bar, so another visit is in order to garner the whole Lavomatic experience. The name may conjur up visions of dirty laundry, but the dining experience is akin to sliding between freshly washed bedlinens: pure bliss.