August 2008 Issue
On the Menu
Bring along your appetite for a tasty tour of Cincinnati.
No, my new fave is down the hall, past the pastry kitchen, tucked among the classrooms of the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College.
The Summit, which opened in late May, is the showcase for professional chef and Midwest Culinary grad Matt Winterrowd and the learning lab for culinary students. It tracks the latest taste trends for its seasonal menus, so your roasted pork might come with chipotle ice cream, your seared arctic char with a foam of saffron and fennel. The menu crackles with surprises, and you’ll never find a more attentive wait staff.
Cincinnati has long been a great eating town, from the sauerbraten and beer of its early German heritage to the kaleidoscope of flavors from the later immigrant experience: Greek, Italian, Thai, Indonesian and French, currently executed with panache by Jean-Robert de Cavel at his coterie of restaurants.
Cincinnati once led the nation in beer consumption — for men, women and children. So it’s no surprise the city’s oldest bar, Arnold’s downtown, is still taking orders and serving spaghetti and meatballs.
Summer’s the time to try this 1861 landmark, savoring pasta and muffulettas over a Christian Moerlein beer in the courtyard. But winter works, too —they just cover and heat the patio.
There’s music every weekend — catch the Cincinnati Dancing Pigs on the first Saturday of the month. If you’re truly lucky, Cincinnatian Peter Frampton may pop in for a drink and a jam. But whatever the vibe, leave room for chef-owner Rhonda Androski’s carrot cake, made with mayo and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And don’t miss the bathtub on the second floor — the gin made in it helped the bar pull through Prohibition.
Christy’s and Lenhardt’s has long carried Zinzinnati’s German standard, sizzling up killer potato pancakes and slow-roasting sauerbraten for generations. And bringing Hungarian heritage to the table, with chicken paprikash and goulash.
Step down into Christy’s Rathskeller, in the basement of this 1890s house that brewmeister Christian Moerlein built as a wedding present for his daughter. Better yet, head for the biergarten and join in a game of bocce ball or Cincinnati’s gift to the world of sport, cornhole.
For a glorious melding of setting and service, try Orchids at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, a grand French Art Deco palace from 1930. Take a moment to admire the French shepherdess murals, the Rookwood tiles and the miles of German nickel trim. Then it’s on to either Sunday brunch, with 20 feet of desserts, or dinner — maybe blue cheese beignets and roasted Kurobuta pork tenderloin, with celery root, spinach, mustard seeds and bosc pears.
Savoring the Greek Isles
Everyone knows that Cincinnati’s famous chili is a distinctive Greek concoction, improbably spiked with cinnamon and chocolate, and served with cheese, onions, spaghetti and/or hot dogs. Definitely an acquired taste, but some natives crave it like oxygen.
Skyline and Gold Star chili parlors all over town stand ready to help. Other addicts head to Camp Washington Chili, for a hit 24 hours a day except Sunday.
Mythos Grecian Grill, scattered around downtown, goes beyond the chili five-ways to gyros, souvlaki and that Greek comfort food, avgolemono soup.
Long for grandma’s homemade pasta and “gravy”? Campanello’s Italian Restaurant downtown has been baking chicken parmesano and lasagna for generations, and grandma herself would feel at home in its dark, cosseting rooms.
For a more modern take in a sunny setting, Nicola’s Ristorante downtown dreams up such starters as poached baby octopus and Tuscan fava beans, followed by asparagus and ricotta gnudi with Vermont butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, coupled with daring wines.
For dinner and a show, you can’t beat Primavista, high on a cliff overlooking the western edge of downtown. As you finish your zuppa pasta e fagioli and move into the veal scallopine, the sun dips over the Ohio River and the lights of downtown glint like diamonds. It’s the best dinner show in town.
A Slice of Pie
LaRosa’s, the ubiquitous pizza parlor, is a reliable, family-friendly place for pizza, sandwiches and lasagna.
Dewey’s, with a handful of locations, flings an edgier pie: Edgar Allan Poe, with roasted garlic, kalamata olives and goat cheese, or the Bronx Bomber, piled with pepperoni and sausage. Vegetarians flip over the Green Lantern, Socrates’ Revenge and, of course, the Killer Veggie. Add Dewey’s salad, with pine nuts, cranberries and goat cheese, for a bit of balsamic zest.
Bring Out the Steak Knives
Jeff Ruby has built an empire on steak, and his retro supper club, the eponymous Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, may be the highest expression of this culinary art form.
The downtown restaurant specializes in dry aged roasts and steaks, along with classic toppings: béarnaise, cognac peppercorn sauce, foie gras butter.
Remember surf ’n’ turf? It’s right at home in Maury’s Tiny Cove, a west side institution in the Cheviot neighborhood. Slide into the red vinyl booth, chow down on the kosher pickles, and get ready for a nostalgic dinner experience, little changed since 1949.
Dinner in the Gloaming
Scotch egg. Oatmeal-crusted fresh trout. The region’s largest line-up of single-malt Scotch, chased with Highland Spring water. It sounds like Brigadoon, popping up once a century, but it’s Nicholson’s downtown, serving every night.
From the kilted wait staff to the Highland décor, this is a grand taste of Scotland. Start with fresh smoked salmon, then maybe the fish and chips — hearty haddock with steak fries and cabbage fennel slaw. Or shepherd’s pie or Edinburgh osso bucco, with hunter’s sauce and chive whipped potatoes. Some like to finish their meal with a super-sweet bite of Scottish “pudding” (dessert), while others just order a wee dram of peaty Scotch as the perfect finale.
For decades, China Gourmet in Hyde Park has set the standard for reliable Chinese cuisine with remarkable twists — the usual Cashew chicken and Mongolian beef, sure, but also quail tacos in vegetable wrappers and steak kew in savory brown sauce.
Thai Café, in Clifton near the University of Cincinnati, knows its way around a noodle, with some of the city’s best pad thai. Moving upmarket and up Mount Adams, Teak Thai Cuisine and Sushi Bar draws the crowds for its sashimi and chicken Thai spicy with vegetables, served on its summery patio.
The rich flavors of coconut, chilies and peanuts in Indonesian cuisine meld at Gajah Wong West in Northside. Try an Indo garden roll with shrimp, crunchy with lettuce, cucumber and vermicelli noodles, then a tofu entrée such as adhun with fried coconut, vegetables, rice and peanut crackers with hoisin sauce. Savor the summer air in the Java Garden, one of the city’s nicest dining patios. Among the ferns, shrubs and bubbling fountain, check out statues of goddesses and komodo dragons.
Essencha Tea House in Oakley strikes a sophisticated tone with teas and teapots from around the world. Book the Asian- or European-style afternoon teas from 2 to 4 p.m., with sweets and savories, or just stop in and enjoy a pot of Sunburst green tea or Comfort and Joy herbal tea any time. Be a kid again and sip the bubble tea, served with an oversized straw. Go ahead, slurp your way to the giant tapioca in the bottom of the glass.
In the mood for a more girly tea? Follow Madison Road from Essencha to The Bonbonerie, a drop-dead decadent bakery that carves off a little corner for teatime. Try the spring salad with one of 75 varieties of tea, butalways leave room for a cookie, scone or slice of cake.
A Soupcon of France
Can’t make it to Paris for dinner this weekend? Pop into one of Jean-Robert de Cavel’s restaurants and feel transported, bite by bite.
Swing open the door to JeanRo Bistro downtown and you’ll swear you’ve been tornadoed like Dorothy and Toto into a Parisian cafe. The chef from Normandy and his German-born wife swept through France, picking up vintage posters and knick-knacks to bring to the Queen City.
This is the place to try lamb shank a la Basquaise with Basmati rice, steak frites and “les douceurs” such as chocolate mousse, meringues with creme Anglais, almonds and caramel, or fromage du jour and dried fruit compote.
Really want to put on the ritz? Move a few blocks south to Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, his most elegant restaurant. It’s now a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux worldwide association, along with its Mobil four-star and AAA four-diamond accolades.
A $74 prix fixe three-course menu might include Maine lobster salad with apple, endive and celery remoulade with Flying Fish caviar, followed by halibut antiboise, with mustard and tomato emulsion, roasted eggplant with basil potatoes. To finish, rhubarb almond tart with local maple syrup ice cream. C’est magnifique!
Below the Mason-Dixon Line
Radio personality Gary Burbank, who recently retired from WLW and his nationally syndicated show, missed his native Memphis barbecue when he came north. Burbank’s in Sharonville cuts cornbread and scoops up smoked chicken and sausage gumbo, then lets you slather on the sauce for your BBQ meat of choice. Get into a Dixie vibe with live blues on the weekends. Leave some room for Derby pie, and try to resist the urge to wash all that sauce off in the red bathtub smack in the middle of the floor.
Looking for Southern comfort just a bit more sophisticated? Chef Sean Daly has brought his Low Country sensibilities to the Oakley kitchen of Hugo, named for the hurricane that devastated his native Charleston, S.C. This isthe place to try shrimp and grits, creamy with white cheddar and tasso ham.
Start, maybe, with fried green tomatoes, accompanied by confit tomato and crab, or Charleston she crab soup. For dessert? Get down-home with s’mores of homemade marshmallows and chocolate bomb.
Scream for Ice Cream
In a town like Cincinnati, why not skip the restaurant dessert and head for some of the galaxy’s best ice cream?
Everyone knows that Graeter’s, churned with heavy cream and chunks of fruit and chocolate, is Oprah’s favorite. But how many people know that Aglamesis Brothers on Oakley Square is, according toBon Appetit, “one of the last authentic ice cream parlors in the U.S.”?
Step back a century, to 1908, when the Greek brothers Thomas and Nicholas Aglamesis froze their first vats of eggy French ice cream, sweetened with honey and sugar. Step up to their marble-topped fountain bar for a malted milk or a Sincere Soda. Or dive into a dish of coconut ice cream or champagne Italian ice.
Can’t pull yourself away? Drool over the chocolate case, each piece hand-dipped, and pick out a box of pecandes or opera creams for the road. Now you’re instantly addicted? The descendants of the original Aglamesis Brothers will be glad to ship your favorite ice cream right to your door. You’ll soon be greeting the UPS guy at the door, spoon poised.