Don’t throw caution to The Winds in Yellow Springs just yet

By Paula Johnson

Photo: The La Belle Farm Duck Breast with lavender honey and red wine reduction at The Winds in Yellow Springs; photos: Paula Johnson

My occasional and most excellent dining pal Jurgen Durstler and I were discussing restaurants we’ve felt were “consistently inconsistent.” Those places where you show up and have a stellar meal and flawless service, only to return and assume the kitchen must be experimenting with the wrong kind of mushrooms (and that the wait staff has been imbibing too). You leave checking the receipt to confirm that it is in fact the very restaurant you raved about just a few weeks earlier. Turns out, we both have had exactly those same experiences at one of the Dayton region’s most touted dining destinations—The Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs.

Service With No Smile

“They’ve got a reputation among colleagues and friends for somewhat condescending and apathetic service,” Jurgen noted. I had experienced the same recently, in our case going beyond those descriptors to borderline hostile, not to mention incompetent. I was attending a special prix fixe dinner with wine pairings, though the wine rarely arrived when the food courses did, either far in advance or nearly after the food was eaten. And worst of all, there was no explanation of the food or wine given when each course was hastily delivered. If we hadn’t held on to a menu for reference, we’d have had no idea what we were eating. So, I invited Jurgen to join me to review The Winds, and both of us held our breath to see which  way The Winds would blow that night we dined. Would we be throwing caution to The Winds? Read on to find out.

We met at the restaurant on a Tuesday evening. I had just been seated in the casual dining room, an intimate space with dim lighting, compartmentalized into three semi-open, sectioned areas. (Seating is also available in the bar area, something I would like to try out on my next visit.) We were both greeted warmly and immediately by the manager and by our server, Greta. We began with wines from the well-curated list. I love that The Winds offers options by the glass, quartino, or bottle for most wines. I went with a favorite, Chateau Lamothe de Haux 2015 Bordeaux Blanc, at a very affordable $7.50 per glass. Jurgen selected a hearty Roberts + Rogers Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.50) as we pondered where to begin. The Winds menu is not extensive and focuses on what’s regional and in season, allowing the kitchen to highlight and celebrate the ingredients of the moment. The Winds also sources quality ingredients from the best suppliers, such as duck from New York’s La Belle Farm and Nueske’s bacon.

A Strong Start

We decided to begin with few small plate appetizers to share, the first, a daily special, Fried Walleye Bites and Crispy Potatoes ($9) with a house-made dipping sauce. The fish was crispy golden and generously heaped over shavings of seasoned potato decorated with wheels of roasted lemon. The sauce, a sour cream horseradish mix was a tangy complement with bits of dill and red onion. Next we tried something neither could pass up—Fried Brussels Sprouts ($9) with cubes of crispy applewood smoked bacon, crushed Marcona almonds, and a piquant mustard caper vinaigrette. Well done and seasonally satisfying, the fried surface petals and bright acidic note of the dressing struck the perfect balance for the slightly bitter earthiness of the sprouts. A soup and salad to share was next, both featuring the flavors of fall, an Aged Cheddar Soup ($8) and the Emma Salad ($9).

A Better Cheddar

The visually appealing Emma salad included ribbons of local sweet kale, roasted winter squash, pear, toasted pistachios, tangy Blue Jacket Chèvre, and a roasted pear vinaigrette. We both found the salad a little underdressed. However, a simple boost from salt and pepper woke it up.

“A total grand slam” is how Jurgen described the soup, for which Greta had thoughtfully provided two spoons. We attacked our starting dishes not in the wisest order and left the soup for last, which usually results in an unpleasant gloppy mess. Indeed, cheese soup is one that I rarely order since it’s usually reminiscent of Velveeta. This soup maintained a perfect fluidity and was still thoroughly heated. I loved the small chunks of chopped vegetables, and particularly the mustard cheddar crouton. As the menu described, the rich vegetable stock with notes of wine, garlic, and cream resulted in a savory, satisfying warmth. We nearly ordered another. So far, Jurgen and I were in accord that The Winds was providing an experience we were impressed and pleased with. The service was anticipatory, with our needs being met almost as we became aware of them. Greta welcomed our questions and comments, was sparkly and personable, kept our water filled, and, most importantly, did not rush us.

Duck Dynasty

The Winds is known for its duck, so that was a must. And as Jurgen pointed out, “It is Yellow Springs, so we should also go with a vegetarian entree.” The duck ($25), a seared La Belle Farm Duck Breast with lavender honey and red wine reduction, was extraordinary. Medium rare with a dry rubbed, fatty layer of crust tasting of citrus, coriander, and bay leaves, every bite was robustly salty, crunchy, and perfect. Mopping the edges of the plate, painted with lavender, honey, and syrupy red wine added additional layers of taste. I loved every bite. Served alongside a bacon-infused nutty rice pilaf blend, I can’t think of any way to improve this dish.

The Squash and Pumpkin Lasagna ($18) was the least favored dish of the evening for us. While the noodles were perfectly cooked and the pepitos sprinkled on top helped, nothing seemed to overcome the overall bland creaminess of the dish. The biggest puzzle was the added on broccoli. Naked, plain, and cold, the broccoli felt like it came from a freezer bag. Of course it didn’t, as Jurgen and I both knew, but we just couldn’t get past its color and temperature. “Why not something roasted?” he commented. As Jurgen pointed out, the dish was well crafted and properly prepared; it just wasn’t tasty, especially when compared to the attention to detail and complexity of the duck.

At last, it was dessert time, and one reason I like dining with Jurgen is his stance on after-dinner sweets: if there are three desserts you love, why not order all three? Which is what we did, choosing Chocolate Mousse, Butterscotch Pudding, (each $6) and a seasonal Fruit Tart, featuring pears and prunes ($6.50). All three were fantastic. The buttery free form tart pastry, the stiff constancy and right amount of chocolate on the mousse, and the silky whiskey flavor of custardy pudding ended our experience at The Winds in the best way possible.

Yes, it was a lovely pleasurable evening from the warm greeting and flawless, thoughtful, and knowledgeable service. The good Winds had shown up and outdone itself on all but one of the night’s dishes. This is the restaurant that has been around for so many years, consistently rated as one of Dayton’s finest. This is the one I hoped would be there for me that night, and I hope will be again.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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