Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Miscellaneous Ramblings

Given that I've been travelling most weeks since my last post, I've been woefully lacking in dining out in Greater Cincinnati and even more lacking in writing up where I've been.

So instead of the usually one-entry-per-place, I'm going to write a brief summary to remind myself of places I've enjoyed and places I probably ought to give a second chance to (but might not given the first go round wasn't so enjoyable).

Arloi Dee serves as an almost distant memory now, but I certainly remember being surprised at the ordinariness of it all. And disappointed that my food was so cold when it was brought to the table, I actually sent it back (almost unheard of for me). Nothing particularly bad here, but the service was not particulary good and the food was what you might find at your average Thai restaurant in any city (other than the fact Cincinnati has quite a dearth of Thai restaurants, but still...). I'm left feeling surprised that Arloi Dee seems to win one of the "Best of Taste" awards each year.

Pompilio's serves as a perennial favorite. Even though I enjoy the old-schoolness of the place, I am enjoying their new menu. And I especially love their sausage and peppers appetizer. It reminds me of some of the old places I went to in Philadelphia and C some of the places he went to in Providence. Another tip: a couple near us once ordered the Classic Italian Sampler as an appetizer. Seems slightly like overkill to me (and to them too...I remember them taking most of their dinners home), but it's a good way to try most of the traditional favorites. Service here is often hit-or-miss, which I think is true of most old Italian restaurants I've been too, but somehow it adds to the charm. Expect long waits (~ 1 hour+) if you go on a weekend.

Kona Bistro was delightful, and I could rhapsodize endlessly about how good the scallops are there. I don't know where or how they get those in Cincinnati, but I love them. The service here was quite good, and they left my friend (who'd just driven to Cincinnati from Texas - props to Cheryl!) and I alone for long stretches to enjoy our wine, and then the appetizers (good hummus), and the entrees. Good and well-priced wine list.

And of course Kona Bistro is right next door to another favorite, Dewey's. We love, love, love Dewey's in Oakley. We love them so much to the point that the servers now recognize us as regulars. C was surprised by this; I was not. We tend to see the same people over and over in there, and it's because they have the best pizza in Cincinnati, hands down. C has never deviated from the Dewey's Original (snore!) whereas I sampled around on the menu. Until I found the Green Lantern, that is. That's the only pizza I've ordered for at least our last 10 trips there. Unbelievably good but not for the garlic faint of heart. Their caesar salad is quite good as well if you aren't expecting your caesar to be anchovy-ish, which I actually enjoy. But I enjoy this as well, so it's its own version of the salad. Also a very good (and well-priced) wine list for a pizza joint.

We finally went to Pho Paris after spending the better part of the summer saying we'd go there. Unfortunately, it did not live up to our expectations. I tried both of the evening's specials, a squash soup (not terribly French nor Vietnamese) with the fish special. Sadly, I can't even remember what the fish was, so this dish definitely did not leave a very lasting impression on me. C had a bowl of chicken pho and found a p-hair in the pho. Ick. He also had a steak dish (no longer on the menu, it seems) that had such a funky (and not in a good funky kind of way) marinade/sauce with it that I could barely choke down the bite I sampled. He managed to eat a good bit of it, but I still can't quite imagine how or why. We shared the coconut cake drizzled with mango sauce served with cilantro ice cream. It sounded like such a weird mess of food that we felt compelled to try it. The individual parts were not as good as the whole, but the whole of those tastes together really was quite good. It was definitely the best part of the meal. The service and atmosphere were both quite nice, and we'd give it another shot despite our disappointment after our first visit.

A return visit to Jean Robert's Bistro was long overdue, and I managed to squeeze in a visit for coffee this past weekend. Unfortunately, the place doesn't really live up to its billing of being "open" for coffee until 4:30 on the weekend. Sure, they'll let you get drinks after they stop serving brunch at 2pm, but they do not let you sit inside with said drinks. Tip for Jean Robert: if you're claiming to be open, then you should at least let people sit inside your restaurant. This would especially be true in fall and winter, when sitting outside is hardly a viable option and probably the very reason you went in to get something hot to drink in the first place! Even though I've loved everything I've gotten there previously, I have to say the hot chocolate was mediocre. I expected chocolat chaud, much like what I'd had each day for breakfast when I was an exchange student. Uh, no. This was milk with Hershey's syrup (and not the good kind in the can; it was the weird kind in the plastic bottle), sort of heated up and sprinkled with a few chocolate flakes on top. Tip two for Jean Robert: if 95% of everything you do is extremely French-ified, do not make hot chocolate like this. Starbucks has a better hot chocolate than this. Hell, I make a better hot chocolate than this. Very sad.

I do love grocery shopping, and my beloved Trader Joe's still is at the top of my list of favorite groceries. And I was so very happy to see the return of my long-missed 99% fat free bean burritos. For whatever reason, they'd gone AWOL for several months, but they're back now and good as ever. I also picked up some other favorites there, including the spicy Thai green beans, the fresh hot salsa, and the flattened bananas. I also use endless amounts of their jarred roasted red/yellow peppers and Moroccan oil cured black olives in salads. Yum. I need to get a job at Trader Joe's because I so love that place.

Speaking of other places I love and want to work, on a recent visit to Starbucks, I felt compelled to try the new Maple Macchiato. I love most things maple, so I thought I'd love this. But I was, in fact, pretty ambivalent about it. It was not bad but not good, and on the whole, I'd rather get the Carmel Macchiato or hot chocolate, natch.

While on the road, I recently made a visit to the San Francisco area. I felt I had to go to Chez Panisse to see what all the fuss was about. I couldn't get a reservation in the restaurant, so instead I had one in the Cafe upstairs. It was as nice as the dining room appeared to be as I walked by it, and the food was amazing. I had a great bean and fig salad to start, a so-so corn and polenta entree, and a delicious Meyer lemon ice cream. It was remarkable how good fresh food tastes, and it was a discernable difference, to be sure. I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, but this is not a restaurant (not even the cafe) that I'd advise dining in alone...it was clearly a place to go as part of an 'experience,' and I felt just slightly rushed in and out of there because I was solo. Also, on the advice of a friend, I checked out Canteen in the Nob Hill section of SF. This place is quite interesting in that you can be seated at a counter whereby you can watch as all of your food is prepared in front of you. For someone like me, who enjoys watching chefs at work, this was a treat. Most people at the counter seemed to ignore them. This was a good place to eat solo because you really could just get lost in the hustle and bustle of the food being prepared. I had a fantastic brussel sprout salad with bacon and egg (sounds weird, tasted phenomenal); a chicken entree; and their renowned vanilla souffle. The salad was definitely the highlight of the meal, but it was all delicious. Both CP and Canteen change menus daily, so it's hard to recommend trying something specific, since chances are high it won't appear on the menu again anytime soon.

More specific entries coming soon!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Dee Felice

http://www.deefelice.com/

6th & Main Sts.
Covington, KY 41011
(859) 261.2365

Hours of Operation: Opens at 4pm, Mon-Sat (no closing time posted); Dinner served starting at 5pm; Sunday brunch 10am-3pm
Dress: Smart casual
Payment: Major credit cards accepted

I'd long been wanting to try brunch at Dee Felice. This has long been a restaurant I've loved. As a child, I'd walk past this restaurant daily, and I always thought it seemed like the coolest and most chic place you could go. It just mesmerized me with the dark lighting, small candles on each table, people who always seemed to be laughing and just generally enjoying themselves - and the band...Dee Felice is known for its live music. Long before I knew (and loved) what Cajun food was, I thought Dee Felice was a place I really wanted to be.

And having had dinner there now on many occasions as an adult, it has lived up to my expectations. The food is always delicious (and quite reminiscent of the real New Orleans cuisine I grew to love last year), the service is always extremely attentive and spot-on - somehow a delicate combination of aloof cool but with some flashes of friendly folksiness. And the music. The music would make you come to this place even if the food was mediocre. Happily that is not the case.

Brunch at Dee Felice was a somewhat strange experience in that it was strange to be in there with lights on and plenty of sunlight coming in through their large front windows. It was just a bit like seeing Miss America without her makeup -- still quite nice in its own way but just not quite the same.

Given that eggs benedict is one of my favorite things in the world, I ordered the Big Easy Benedict, which was the standard offering of two poached eggs on an english muffin, but instead of the random miscellaneous offering of bacon or tomato/spinach, here at Dee Felice they offer one with crab meat and the other with andouille sausage. Served with home fries - say no more, I'd found my perfect breakfast.

It was quite good. I expected to love the andouille sausage with reckless abandon, but it was slightly disappointing. It was ground (instead of how I'd imagined, with the thick links cut in half under the egg), and it seemed to have no real discernible spice to it. Disappointing, because I've had many dishes at DF that were quite spicy and quite reminiscent of the flavors and spices of good New Orleans food. I'm not saying this wasn't still tasty, but it wasn't quite what I had hoped for either.

The lump crab meat was generous on the second muffin top, and while initially I thought it was good, I wavered once or twice wondering if the crab meat had been frozen a bit too long. Granted, DF is in Covington, KY - a landlocked city - and so to expect fresh crab meat is unrealistic. But I think I expected DF's quality to be just a little higher than it was. Again, still good, and the hollandaise was quite good (not lemon-y enough, for my taste but still good), but it did not quite live up to the expectations I had (especially after the hearty endorsement my order garnered from the server).

The real treat in this breakfast was the potatoes. The red new potatoes were fried up all good and greasy with some onion and rosemary in a generous amount of oil. Perfection.

C, as per usual, ordered the belgian waffle, which came with a heaping portion of bacon (or sausage) and a fruit cup.

The service on a late Sunday morning was good, friendly, and attentive. Overall, it's well worth going to DF for either dinner or brunch, or just to have drinks and listen to the amazing music that's available there nightly.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

King Wok

www.kingwokrestaurant.com
(Site seems down)

203 W McMillan St
Cincinnati, OH 45219
(513) 723-1999

Hours of Operation: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10:30 p.m.
Dress: Casual
Payment: Major credit cards accepted (except American Express)

In the interest of fairness, I will start by saying we dined here while I had a head cold. I think that explains my experience here.

I went with every intention of ordering off of their extensive and interesting seafood menu, which was presented to us only after it seemed like we were (I was) having a hard time making a decision from the main menu. After all, on a previous trip here, I'd had the salted squid dish off of this menu and it was very good.

Strangely, I ordered the hot and sour soup (not strange for me, as it's a soup I like quite a bit) and the beef with orange sauce. C had the ubiquitous egg roll and Hunan beef.

I have to say, the hot and sour soup was some of the best I can recall in recent memory. It was unusually spicy thanks to a high level of black pepper in the broth. It was also loaded up with egg and tofu with no discernable meat of any kind - unusual given this soup usually comes with pork, but this was a nice, vegetarian-friendly offering, and one which I would highly recommend.

The beef with orange sauce was tasty but not spicy enough to warrant a red star next to it on the menu. The sauce was alternately tangy and sweet and was harmless enough. About 3 bites in, I quietly chastised myself for not ordering seafood though. C's dishes seemed equally fine if not terribly interesting or unsual in any way.

The service was very friendly and attentive, except that I never received the tea that I ordered. It was a mixed and growing crowd on a Friday night, so that was good to see, since UC is on vacation for the summer. It seems to attract people who, like us apparently, were looking for some basic Chinese on a Friday night as well as young Chinese folks who seemed to know, far better than I, what to order. I watched as a table near us ordered soup, then a large bowl of another soup that was shared by all three, and then several vegetable entrees eaten with white rice. Watching them made me decide to return to King Wok once again, when my head cold was gone and my decision-making skills were more adventurous than they were last night.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Precinct

http://jeffruby.com/index.php?affiliate_uid=precinct
311 Delta Avenue
Cincinnati, OH
(513) 321-5454

Hours of Operation: Sunday-Thursday 5pm-10pm, Friday-Saturday 5pm-11pm
Dress: Smart Casual
Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Online Menu:
http://jeffruby.com/index.php?affiliate_uid=precinct&level2=menu

Having grown up in this area and never having eaten at the Precinct, I always felt like I was missing a real dining experience here locally. Dinner on Saturday night proved that I had been missing out on what is probably the best steak in the Cincinnati area.

As it was C's birthday, we decided to have a nice dinner out, and since he could live on steak alone, we figured this was the perfect opportunity to go to the Precinct. Making reservations here is a must - walk ins won't fare well, here, I imagine, as the restaurant was packed during our visit and any time a table opened, it quickly filled again. Even having reservations, we still waited - which was perfectly fine since we could check out the foyer/bar area. It was a small bar but there seemed no limit to what could be ordered, and service at the bar was quick and friendly. Like most bars in Greater Cincinnati, smoking was permitted, and the seats right at the bar were too close to the door leading the bathrooms, so there was a slightly unpleasant bathroom smell in the area we sat, but given the smell alternately was noticeable when the smoke was not, we chose to focus on our drinks and not so much our olfactory distractions.

Once we were seated, service was swift and friendly, if the slightest bit condescending (we hadn't been there before; we asked questions about different sauces and cuts).

We both started with the caesar salad; C ordered the Jeff Ruby's Gem with garlic mashed potatoes; I ordered the Johnson & Johnson with baked potato.

We asked for and received a basket of bread, which included piping hot sourdough as well as salted rye. The salted rye was delicious. The bread was served with two butter options - butter and a mushroom/garlic butter spread. The latter was quite good if unexpected.

Lesson #1: Only order the caesar salad at the Precinct if you really like anchovies. I do, so I thought the salad was among the best caesar I've had in Cincinnati; C does not and thought it was way too overpoweful for the salad. Again, though, I am an anchovy fan, and I could have eaten just a plate of this salad and been extremely happy with my dinner. In fact, since dinner on Saturday, I have wondered if it would be possible to get a large caesar with the salted rye as take-out from here. Mmmmm....

Lesson #2: Go hungry. The portions here are huge, and it's easy to overeat quickly because the meat is so good. We both suffered from overdoing it at dinner.

Lesson #3: Never order a baked potato at a place like this. What was I thinking? There is nothing more boring or plain than a baked potato. I tried C's garlic mashed potatoes and really regretted my choice. Well, on second thought, maybe not because I surely would have eaten the mashed potatoes if I'd gotten them, so maybe I did myself a favor.

C's Gem steak was an enormous bone-in filet which he had with garlic butter. The bit I tried was probably some of the best, most tender steak I've had. My Johnson & Johnson was perfect for me - two tournedoes cooked with sliced portabello mushrooms under and over the steaks, topped with a subtle bernaise sauce (given that I think hollandaise is one of the world's great culinary inventions, I hoped bernaise would be similar - I was right and was very happy with my choice). We both had our steaks medium rare, and both were cooked as requested.

After eating most of both meals, we passed on dessert, though the Precinct does often cakes from the Bon Bonnerie as well as desserts (including New York cheesecake) made onsite.

One of the best parts of dining at the Precinct is the mixed crowd it attracts - go for some entertaining people watching and eavesdropping among the patrons. And try not to feel too much car envy while walking amongst the Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Lexus, and Ferrari in the parking lot on the way back to your wheels.

Jean Robert's Greenup Cafe

http://www.greenupcafe.com/
308 Greenup Street
Covington, KY 41011
859-261-3663

Hours of Operation: Changing - open daily for coffee & pastries until 4:30pm; open for sit-down breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday
Dress: casual
Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Let me start by saying I am a fan of Jean Robert de Cavel. Eating at his Jean Ro Bistro downtown has been among my most memorable and enjoyable dining experiences in Cincinnati. So to say I was excited when I heard he was opening an outpost here in Covington would be putting it mildly.

I went on the opening morning to try what surely must be proof of divinity in the universe - a pain au chocolat. Because that is one of my favorite things to eat, I won't go on here ad nauseaum about just how very good this particular one was, but suffice to say, I would heartily recommend trying any of the pastries in this shop based on how buttery wonderful the PaC was. The house blend coffee, which I had black, was a strong, dark roast and an perfect pairing with the sweet pastry.

But the lunch...oh the lunch. The menu is presented as a photocopy, suggesting they plan to change the menu often.

For our lunch, we ordered the Tart Fine with Duck Confit served with a mix of greens and the Omelet du Jour served with a side Greenup salad and seasoned potatoes. The tart was a buttery, flakey foundation on top of which was a mixture of duck and mushroom. The greens were piled high atop the tart with a generous scoop of goat's cheese in the center. The cheese was smooth and creamy and not the least bit sour or tart. The duck itself was very reminiscent of the duck I'd previously had at Jean Ro Bistro, and so obviously the recipes are consistent among his restaurants. Some might complain of the confit's dryness, but I believe that can be traditional in the dish, and given my general fondness for dry poulty (a weird fault in taste, I own it), it didn't take away from the tart in any way.

The dressing on the mixed greens gave me pause. It was the first time since I'd been an exchange student in high school that I'd had the exact taste of the salad dressing my French mom/host always used on our salads. Literally, it was exactly the same. I wish I could master this very basic staple of French (basic) cooking , but I have tried on numerous occasions and cannot. The combination of the greens, the dressing, the goat cheese, the duck and that amazing pastry was a lunch I could gladly eat every single day. A little heavy yes, but each and every bite was amazing...and believe me, I ate each and every bite.

We also had the Omelet du Jour, which today included asparagus, mushroom and Gruyere cheese. When served, it was a very generous omlette (3-4 eggs?) served with equally generous portions of Greenup salad (the house salad at Jean Robert's which had a vinagrette dressing and dried cherries) and fried potatoes. The omlette was very good and the combination of flavors was a good pairing.

A final course in the lunch feast was a chocolate eclair. Unexpectedly, the cream in the eclair also was chocolate. A very rich end to the meal, even if I only saw one bite of it myself.

The lunch menu included a variety of sandwich offerings (most interesting is the "CLT" - chaucuterie, or a mixture of French 'cold cuts' including a white sausage served on French baguette spread with pate -- definitely will be at the top of my list for the next visit), egg offerings (quiche and omlettes), as well as fuller meals (roasted salmon and chicken appear on the current menu).

The dining room in Jean Robert's is bright, cheerful and inviting. Outdoor dining is also available in the back and side of the cafe. Service in the cafe was quite good, friend, and attentive, even at the height of their lunch rush.

I'll post more on what I'm sure will be many future visits to Jean Robert's!

Hi, my name is SBB and I am a foodie.

Just a quick note to introduce the blog, get it started, and give some background.

Having grown up in this area, I'm familiar with most of the local haunts - both good and bad. However, after living in and around one of the east coast's great food cities, Philadelphia, for a number of years, I've come back to this area with new eyes, and, most important, new tastes.

I'll chronicle my dining and food experiences here in the blog, and I'll provide useful details as well. As always, I enjoy hearing about others' experiences as well, so do feel free to chime in with comments adding to and (dis-)agreeing with my observations or making suggestions about what else to try.

Bon appetit!
SBB