BLUE ASH, Ohio — When Joel Gregorcyk arrived at Parkers Blue Ash Tavern, he soon discovered that his training wouldn’t involve much more than finding where things were in the kitchen.
The restaurant was at that point a ship without a captain thanks to the simultaneous departure of key top managers, including the executive chef, he said. That’s simultaneously a terrifying and empowering situation.
It’s been a year now. Triage is long over, a solid staff is in place and Gregorcyk is putting his own stamp on the neighborhood mainstay at the corner of Reed Hartman Highway and Cooper Road. It’s a process at work behind the scenes and on the menu.
“When I started, we got almost everything from one supplier,” Gregorcyk said. He’s now using more than a dozen suppliers for his food, many of them local, including Pic’s Produce, and looking to incorporate even more diversity in his supply chain. His goal isn’t to go full farm-to-table, but to keep him closer and more personally connected with his suppliers, and that, he said, will improve quality.
Just to be sure, he’s at the back door to check shipments in every morning — “crazy early,” he said, considering how late he’s in the kitchen at night.
Those behind-the-scenes improvements have paved the way for the next step: updating what had crossed the line from a traditional to an outdated menu.
“I was brought in with the goal of moving this place forward,” said Gregorcyk, who cames to Parkers after years working at Local 127 and Palomino Downtown.
He has to maintain a delicate balance. Parkers has been in business for 35 years, a tremendous run in the restaurant business. That’s possible only with the help of deep customer loyalty, and that’s linked with familiarity. The flip side of the coin is that it’s impossible to ignore the vitality and variety that’s exploded in Cincinnati’s dining scene.
While keeping his maturing clientele happy, “we want them to be able to bring their kids and have them like it, too,” he said. Those are the people who otherwise might be heading for the myriad small, unique restaurants of Over-the-Rhine.
Gregorcyk’s other project over the past year has been an ongoing, detailed analysis of the old menu’s performance: what sells, what doesn’t and when; what concepts are growing in popularity, what’s falling off. “It’s sabermetrics for restaurants,” he said, chuckling.
The results are bearing fruit. The menu’s appetizers and salads have already been tweaked, adding choices like hummus, polenta fries and an Asian salad drizzled with a wasabi cucumber aioli. Now it’s the entrees’ turn.
WCPO.com was among a small group of food-news outlets invited to a special tasting dinner served Sunday, May 15, to introduce the new entrees. Gregorcyk said he intends some of these to be seasonal dishes and, based on the reaction to these updates, to look for more change in the future.
This is by no means a complete overhaul. No one is touching the filet mignon or New York strip steaks, the cedar-plank salmon or, of course, the prime rib. “We sell a metric ton of that,” Gregorcyk said, exaggerating perhaps less than one might imagine.
Still, the newer, lighter and livelier flavors sampled Sunday add a welcome facet to a popular core. Here’s what we tasted:
Portobello mushroom ravioli: A sherry cream sauce with melted leeks reinforces the earthy flavor of the mushroom, while English peas, arugula and pickled red onions add a balancing lightness. Served with a down-the-middle sauvignon blanc — not too fruity, not too grassy.
While this is positioned as a vegetarian entrée, and the ravioli are large, we suggested the dish would make a fine appetizer, and Gregorcyk seemed open to the idea. We’ll see.
Seared jumbo scallops: Have you ever had to endure rubbery scallops? Not these. The generous-sized mollusks are served over delicately flavored white cheddar grits and with a few small spears of asparagus. The acidity of a dab of roasted tomato puree was a great touch, and the scallops’ sea flavor paired nicely with a chardonnay.
This, too, is an entrée, but our tasting portion would also work as a fine appetizer.
Grilled turkey burger: Good turkey burgers are a happy thing, and these are good: tender and still juicy (there’s some Parmesan mixed in). What gives this dish zing is the seasoning. There’s plenty of spicy chili and cumin, and some pepperjack cheese on top adds to the impact. Some found the blend too much for the turkey; those of us who like cumin had no problem getting it down. You’ll have to judge for yourself. It was paired with a moderately dry Riesling.
Expect to see this on the lunch and happy hour menus, too.
Pork tenderloin medallions: The old menu’s 12-ounce chop has been re-imaged as an homage to the Sunday dinners of Gregorcyk’s Tennessee childhood. The pork is now grilled medallions with an apple cider gastrique. It has the usual side dishes, too — peas and carrots — but the baby carrots here are glazed in a balsamic sauce, and the peas are a delicate puree. As befits the Southern inspiration, the medallions are served over the white cheddar grits. Served with a pinot noir.
Hickory-smoked meatloaf: Since the word meatloaf carries several preconceptions, not all of them good, it might be better to come up with a different name for this dish. Half bacon and half ground beef, it might not be for everyone. Some of the tasting’s diners came up with “high-school mystery meat” and “Spam” as their initial impression — in part, they admitted, because it wasn’t what they expect in a meatloaf.
Give it a minute, though, and its dense, smoky, chewy texture begins to win you over. The chili-balsamic glaze keeps the richness from being overwhelming, and the creamy mashed potatoes and crispy asparagus make it a complete sensory experience. The table can vouch that it goes just fine with a cabernet sauvignon.
One more thing: Gregorcyk said a pet project for most of his time at Parkers has been to figure out the mysteries of a particular machine he acquired. Now, he said, he’s figured it out. It’s cotton candy, spun from maple syrup sugar. It’s perfect and light as air, the maple flavor keeping it from the sugary monotony of carnival midways. The bubbles of a light Prosecco were a fine companion.
Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter: @tconsolo_news.
Parkers Blue Ash Tavern
- Where: 4200 Cooper Road, Blue Ash
- Lunch hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday brunch.
- Dinner hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Sunday.
- Contact and reservations: 513-891-8300, parkersblueash.com. Menu posted on the website.