Great American Upgrade.

There is exactly one San Francisco Giants game in the 2012 baseball season within driving distance of Columbus, Ohio (Cincinnati or Pittsburgh) that does not happen at the same time as a Columbus Clippers game. These facts are not relevant unless you work for the Clippers and are, strangely enough, a lifelong fan of the California baseball team. That one game happened last Wednesday evening.  And a road trip was in order. Ben and I cut out of work early and journeyed south, with hopes of bypassing rush hour traffic to get to Cincinnati in time for a non-ballpark dinner. Ben, who’s much better at following all the foodies on Twitter than I am these days (I’ve been a little addicted to Instagram), suggested our pre-game culinary destination in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood: Senate.

My Cincinnati experience, prior to this short visit, had been limited to several reception hall weddings, Mt. Adams and the Great American Ballpark. At first glance, Over-the-Rhine was adorable. I quickly made a mental note to return, without the pressure of catching a view of the opening pitch. (We didn’t, by the way. I never make it to baseball games on time. Never.) We missed the beginning of the game for good reason. Senate’s wares and beverages were grand enough to distract Ben from his beloved Giants for at least one inning.

The restaurant’s menu of upscale street food taunted us with dozens of dishes that we just didn’t have time to try. We settled on two hot dogs and one starter, a green corn tamale I’d spied at a neighboring table. To choose the tamale meant to pass over a pork belly bahn mi, crispy pig tails and a lobster BLT. I think we made the right choice, though. Inside the husk, we found masa kissed with sweet corn. On its own, the starchy dough was bland, but when combined with the flavors enveloping our wrapper, the dish became exciting. Bite-size morsels of cilantro, goat cheese, tomato, perfectly-sauteed red onion, avocado and a spicy sauce easily made this starter my favorite of Senate’s offerings.

Ben’s hot dog of choice was the Dan Korman, featuring a house-made lentil and bean sausage topped with all sorts of freshness atop. The first bite was a salad on a bun: spicy arugula, my beloved goat cheese, pickled onions and shaved fennel. Going deeper into the dog, the crunchy lentils (with the texture of nuts) disappointed. I wanted something different. I wanted a hot dog.

It’s appropriate, then, that my choice was lacking in everything Ben’s was abundant. I ordered the Croque Madame because I’m a sucker for anything with a poached egg. Especially an all beef hot dog. Served on a brioche bun and topped with béchamel and salty ham, each bite of the dog was incredibly rich. It could have used something healthy or acidic to break through the fat, but in all fairness, the dog was simply living up to its namesake; the French sandwich eschews all and any green. A note on brioche: A French major I knew in college once told me that Marie Antoinette’s original statement was “Let them eat brioche.” While I love me some cake, I’d happily take brioche as a substitute.

(In an effort to soak up all of that beloved yolk, I accidentally ate some of the paper wrapper from this knife and fork hot dog.)

With two beers and tip, our bill was $51.60, just a tiny bit more than ballpark prices. But it’s safe to say that Senate offers up exponentially more than anything we’d find at the ballpark — or even Columbus. The restaurant showed more potential than our dear Giants did that evening. (They lost to the Reds while we sat in the rain.) We’re not fair-weather fans — nor are we fickle eaters. We’ll be back to Senate (and Over-the-Rhine) to try the rest of what’s on offer. Next time, without the restraints of the National League schedule.

1212 Vine Street
Cincinnati, Ohio

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