Now more than 10 years old, The Rossi Bar + Kitchen is still one of the coolest places to go for a drink and a bite in the Short North. A new chef will try to keep the party going.
Reviewing The Rossi during the melee of back-to-school time really had a way of bringing the restaurant's upscale, buzzy Manhattan vibe into high relief.
Less than an hour after sitting in a plastic chair designed for first-graders alongside other tired parents in a bright elementary school classroom for "curriculum night," I was down in the Short North sliding into a big leather bar stool at The Rossi. The dark, J-shaped corner brasserie was alive with well-dressed couples and groups of upbeat young professionals. Talk about a change in scenery.
Handouts about nut allergies and homework were tucked away in my bag at my feet. The Rossi is no place for such concerns. It is a place for red wine. The Rossi has around 20 bottles of pinot noirs, cabernets and blends, mostly from California. One bottle is $95, but most are in the $30–$40 range. On two different occasions, our servers recommended Smith & Hook ($11/glass). It is a big lush cab, and I liked it so much I'm now buying it for my own kitchen. Another good, slightly quieter one: Bedrock Old Vine Zinfandel ($13/glass).
At some point while I sipped, dusk turned to dark and the music changed from late '90s indie to global lounge. Every now and then, The Rossi's new chef Matthew Heaggans looked out from the kitchen window like a DJ behind turntables, eventually shedding his white chef's coat to reveal a Star Trek T-shirt.
Soon I was sawing into my first course: a bundle of grilled romaine swaddled in a meaty blanket of prosciutto ($7 for a half order). I believe it was crowned by a single silver anchovy, but the room was so dimly lit, I couldn't swear to it.
Every table in the small, brick and tin restaurant was taken, but The Rossi's bar is not a bad place for a full-service dinner. The bar is a massive, dark-wood, Art Deco-style piece of furniture that owners Randy and Tina Corbin (Club 185, Philco, Little Palace and El Camino Inn) imported from New York when they opened The Rossi in 2005.
The Rossi, now an elder statesman in the neighborhood, has achieved O.G. status. You've probably driven by its neon red sign on North High Street a million times. The façade is so Manhattan-the type of place the "Sex and the City" girls might have gone for drinks.
The restaurant's popular happy hour may have unwittingly branded The Rossi. Some people are definitely in it for the drinks as I learned one night. As my friend and I slid into our booth, the couple next to us was on their first round. Our tables were so close, I felt like we were intruding on their date.
Over the next few hours, my friend and I sipped cocktails-specifically, a Michelone Mendoza Sour ($10) that's like a whiskey sour topped with malbec, only not as good as that sounds, and a sweet, rummy Pineapple Smash ($10).
We scooped creamy burrata and nectarine slices drizzled with warm honey and olive oil-a last hurrah of summer. We traded halves of the thick Rossi Burger ($13, or $8 at happy hour) and a fantastic grilled salmon sandwich ($14) served on plush, buttery bread (so many salmon sandwiches get the bread wrong). We dipped waxy Yukon Gold French fries into lemon aioli until the fries got cold. Even after all this, our neighbors were still on cocktails.
The Rossi has earned a reputation for good food, especially in recent years when Andrew Smith was the chef (he left to open Salt & Pine but has since moved on from that). Taking over the kitchen of a beloved restaurant like The Rossi is a tricky proposition. It's like taking over a popular late-night talk show: Make it your own but don't screw up the basic formula.
Before the Corbins hired chef Heaggans earlier this year, he was doing some very innovative cooking at Flatiron Bar & Diner-a terrific roasted carrot salad, scallop crudo-and was recognized as a 2014 Tastemaker byCrave magazine for his creativity within the food truck and pop-up scene.
Heaggans had only just started to tinker with the menu during my visits, but his global tastes were already showing in new dishes like a Sichuan cucumber salad ($4) and Bo Ssam ($33), a traditional Korean dish. The latter is a stunning platter anchored by a Flintstones-size pork shank rubbed with a spicy red chili paste and braised for hours until it's falling off the bone. It's served with sides such as kimchi, leaves of Little Gem lettuce, spicy Korean dipping sauces and steamed buns that are split so you can make little tacos. It's wonderful and best shared. But is it really what I want when I go to The Rossi?
Tastes are evolving. Korean, Filipino and other world cuisines are popping up on the menus of some of the hottest restaurants in the country. So kudos to the Corbins for taking a chance on a chef who can help The Rossi stay current. Whether Heaggans can introduce his own creativity without alienating The Rossi's loyal base remains the question.
I am unencumbered by nostalgia for Rossi classics. But I tended to favor the dishes that turned out to be menu stalwarts, such as the grilled lamb lollipops crisscrossed over a sweet and savory bacon chutney ($14) and the aforementioned grilled Caesar salad.
Then there's the pizza. Did you know The Rossi has great pizza? The savory aroma alone will floor you. The magic is in the crust, which is as thin as a saltine. In fact, the middle of the pie kind of fades into nothing but cheese and toppings: the tip of your slice will droop. A margherita pizza ($15 for a large) made with fresh mozzarella and roasted Roma tomatoes is the only predesigned pie. Or you can customize your own with $1 items like cooked prosciutto di Parma or slices of Rosa Grande pepperoni that curl into little cups of hot oil in the oven.
Plenty of places are serving innovative, high-quality dishes and craft cocktails in a cool atmosphere. What makes The Rossi a cut above? It's something I haven't mentioned yet: great service.
I've never had a bartender at The Rossi offer a blank look when I tried to make conversation. Never wondered where the server disappeared to, or had an appetizer prematurely whisked away. Never felt cool judgment from a hostess even when she looks like she's going to a concert at Ace of Cups later and I'm still wearing my stodgy work pants. Yes, it's definitely The Rossi's outstanding service. That and the pizza.