Jogging and Benching to Burn off Ice Cream and Grilled Cheese in Cincinnati

While researching Cincinnati’s scene, I came across an article from Cincinnati’s travel site telling me about 5 things to do for under $5.  They included observation towers, castles and conservatories  but I was particularly interested in food related activities which included  Graeter’s ice cream and Tom and Chee grilled cheese.

Graeter’s was started by the family with the same name in Cincinnati in 1870.  Since then, it has grown into a 50 million dollar enterprise with around 50 stores and numerous celebrity endorsements.  Since it was an above average night from a temperature perspective, the Over the Rhine location was buzzing.  Normally I’m a sloth when it comes to ice cream choices but the website instructed me to indulge in the black raspberry chocolate chip, their signature and best-selling flavour.  It was well worth a few bucks highlighted by big chunks of dark chocolate mixed within the rich and not sickly sweet raspberry ice cream.

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Black Raspberry and Chocolate Ice Cream

Graeter's Ice Cream Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Tom and Chee’s started in a tent in downtown Cincinnati. Short for Tomato and Cheese, this grilled cheese eatery has steadily grown in the Midwest boosted by endorsements from a couple of  Shark Tank investors as well as a pre-weight loss Adam Richman on man versus food nation. It’s  smart concept for a number of reasons.  One, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese and better yet 16 different ones?  Two, they have a great gimmick with their spin on this classic; using a donut instead of bread with almost 10 different filling combinations. Three, the restaurant decor is fun, fresh and clean.  Bright red and yellow colours highlight the simple interior.

 

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I opted for the same item as Adam…the Blueberry Bleu consisting of blueberry compote, blue cheese and lemon mascarpone within a donut.  It certainly removed the stigma that a grilled cheese is a simple, handheld American snack. This one needed a knife and fork. It was salty and sweet and crunchy and smooth with every bite.  I loved the abundant blue cheese against the marscarpone and the blueberry compote was excellent.

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Blueberry Blue Donut Grilled Cheese Donut (may be a little more than 5 bucks)

Tom+Chee Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I made up a few of my own cheap excursions that didn’t involve any eats.  For example, I took a 6k jog and was able to hit three bridges, two states, two rivers and pass both an NFL stadium and an MLB stadium.  Speaking of the latter, the Great American Ballpark is a spectacle. The outside has a recreation of an infield complete with a pitcher, catcher, batter and base runner. The entrance to the stadium bring you into the top of stadium meaning you have to walk down instead of up to get to your seat.

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Johnny Bench Statue Outside the Great American Ballpark

My Take

I’m always interested in the snack scene of a city as much as I am the James Beard nominees or triple D destinations.  In the case of Cincinnati, some of the highlights include an ice cream shop nearly 150 years old and a grilled cheese joint in its infancy.  Both are cheap indulges you can help burn off with a jog through a couple of states or a stroll through a modern ballpark which is the centrepiece of an interesting midwest American city.

 

 

Lachey’s: If Only the Meatballs Were 98 Degrees

Maybe it was a dare or maybe I was curious but I felt it necessary to drop into Lachey’s bar while in Cincinnati.  The show Lachey’s: Raising the Bar was an expose of the trials and tribulations of opening a sports bar in the US midwest.  Of course, the Lachey brothers gained notoriety as two members of 98 degrees. Although hailing from Ohio, the quartet fled to west coast to gain fame as one of many cookie cutter boy bands that were prominent at the time. After a decade’s hiatus,  they joined  NKOTB and Boyz II Men as members of “the package” tour in 2013.  I neither watched the show nor listened to the music (now or then) but I felt compelled to visit to see if the bar warranted the hype.

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Lachey’s Bar

One of the first thing I noticed about the website (other than Nick’s glistening teeth) was the fact it had a rather long happy hour.  One could enjoy a couple of bucks off any draft beer, wine or cocktail until 8 pm on weeknights. Although it was a Monday, I had no idea what to expect crowd wise, so I rushed my daughter so we wouldn’t arrive too late.  We probably got there around 630 to a nearly empty bar.  The decor was nice enough (my daughter specifically asked me point out how nice the washrooms…err…restrooms were) and we waited and watched one of the many televisions before a  somewhat disgruntled waitress came by to take our order.  There was no mention of the happy hour or any half price appetizer.  I asked about a specific beer and she had no idea where it was from although she did look it up later.

Food wise, we ordered Not Your Nana’s Meatballs ($9), the chicken tenders ($9 plus $2.50 for the tots) and the hair of the dog burger ($12.50 plus $2.50 for the tots).  The meatballs were dry and cold (so they clearly were not my Nana’s.  The chicken tenders were a bit overdone and the sauces (honey mustard and house BBQ) were mediocre and although I didn’t try the burger, reports from the table were that it was pretty good.  The tots were ok.

When I got the bill, there were $2 off my pints as promised although I felt there was a bit of souvenir pricing for the food.

My Take

I came to Lachey’s with an open mind and free of any angst caused by exposure to boy band music in my younger years. Despite this, I was generally disappointed by the experience. The chicken tenders with accompanying sauces were average and the meatballs weren’t even 98 degrees. The happy hour beer was a steal but the food  was a bit pricey. Service wise, the waitress might as well sung “Was it something I didn’t say?” because she didn’t say much.   Unfortunately, in the end,  I didn’t leave the place humming  “Thank God I Found You”.

Lachey's Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Salazar: It Seems Only the Hipsters Have Beards in Cincinnati

Cincinnati has long been ignored as one of America’s culinary destinations, especially in the area of finer dining. Sure, there’s Jeff Ruby and he acclaimed steakhouses but other than that most of the regional foods are more pedestrian in nature and include chili, goetta (a German inspired spiced meat patty containing oats) and grilled cheese via Shark Tank.  They are perennially shunned in the annual James Beard awards mostly due to the fact that they are in the same regional category as Chicago.  Take 2016 for example.  Of the 20 James Beard semifinalists for the Great Lakes region,  11 were from Chicago compared to one in Cincinnati. As for the finalists, all 5 hail from the Windy city.

The lone wolf in Cincinnati was Jose Salazar.  Salazar isn’t your typical hometown boy.  He’s originally from Columbia and after coming to the states, developed a passion for cooking, schooled in New York (and was two blocks away from the twin towers when the 9/11 attacks occurred)  and ended up working with icons including Geoffrey Zakarian and Thomas Keller.  He decided he wanted a quieter life and moved to the Queen City.  Since then, he has opened a handful of restaurants including Mita’s ( the tapas restaurant he was nominated for) and Salazar, his first endeavor which celebrates the Over the Rhine region of Cincinnati.  Given the simplicity of the menu and the fact I was with my daughter, I opted for the latter.

Salazar has a modest but pretty interior highlighted by a large bar, brick walls and tiled floors which seems characteristic of the OTR region. We were quickly greeted by a waitress and I started with a Kentucky Penny cocktail, mainly because it is bourbon based and shares my last name (hey…it’s the closest I’ll ever get to a namesake cocktail so I gotta love a little).  Made with  maple, lemon, bitters and topped with ale, it was a shandyish but punchy concoction which I quite enjoyed given the abnormally warm weather.

salazar kentucky penny
Kentucky Penny $10

There’s a handful of nibbles on the menus so we indulged in some brussels finished in a yuzu aoli. They were crispy, fantastic and gave me an idea of how to use my bottle of yuzu vinegar at home moving forward.

salazar brussels
Brussel Sprouts $6

My daughter went with the burger and I chose the sandwich special which was egg salad served with gravlax.  I found it kind of funny that the salmon played second fiddle to the egg but the combination was quite delicious, especially with the toasted bread it was served on. The farm green salad was a pleasant side. The burger was solid even when dumbed down by my daughter’s cheese omission and medium-well patty.  The thick bacon and “special sauce” were both spot-on.

We ended the meal with a dessert which fused three American favorites; sweet potato pie, donuts and smores.  The sweet potato donuts served with chocolate, graham and marshmallow. The earthy and naturally sweet flavour of the potato was a terrific medium for the  sweeter accompaniments and the fact they were served hot out of the flyer was bonus.

salazar donut
Sweet Potato Donut $8

My Take

Jose Salazar and his namesake restaurant prove there is more to Cincinnati than chili and goetta.  It’s modest and economical menu delivered on taste and value without a whole lotta pretension. Even though the Queen City’s culinary scene will likely always live in the shadows of Chicago’s, Salazar growing empire is a reminder that, unlike the Bengals and Nick Lachey, there is hope in Cincinnati after all.

Salazar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

 

Detroit:Where you can Stop and Smell the Flowers and the Stables are Always Greener

I took a March break trip with my daughter and was excited to see that the timing was right allowing me visit the pop-up called Flowers of Vietnam which opens every Sunday night in the  Vernor  Coney Island location in Southwest Detroit.  Starting at 630 pm, after the restaurant closes, the diner is transformed into a makeshift Asian eatery with tables complete with jars of hoison, garlic chili and fish sauce beside a bottle of sriracha, a lantern and a jar of utensils.

I got there around 8 pm and the place was buzzing.  We were seated at a communal table with a quiet couple as a trio of DJs (one who looked like Ashton Kutcher with a porn stash) bobbed their heads up and down to some sort of hip-hop my daughter understood much more than I did.  Our waitress reminded me of the authenticity of Detroit.  Hipsters in this city are naturals; an appropriate mix of angst and oddness that other cities only try and mimic with whatever recipe they read in “Hipsters for Dummies”. She called me darling while at the same time leaving me with my bill to head outside and chain smoke in the rain.

The booze free joint (in fact I think water is your only option) features a small menu with traditional Vietnamese dishes ranging from pho to a fresh mango salad to fried fish as well as a few spins on snack food like caramel chicken wings.

Let’s start with the salad.  The fruit and vegetables were fresh and crisp and I appreciated the ability to use my discretion and add the amount of nuoc mam I wanted and mix the salad myself.  The liberal use of fresh herbs added to both authenticity and flavour of this excellent starter.

flowers salad
Goi Ngo Sen Tom Thjt Salad $14

The noodle bowl,although good, had a flavour profile almost exactly the same as the salad.  That said, the pork was beautifully seasoned and I hoped for a little more of it.  It has the same nuoc mam sauce which they should bottle and sell on the way out. The spring roll hidden within the bowl of noodles and vegetables was a gem and I almost wished I could get an order of them on their own.

flowers noodles
Bun Thjt Nuomg $12

The wings were fried and coated with a sweet caramel sauce (not abnormal in Vietnamese cuisine).  I’m not normally a fan of sweet wing sauces or wings served whole, but there was something about tearing them apart on the side of the  Vernor highway  while listening to Kelso spin vinyl that was the perfect package.  The sauce, when combined with accompanying herbal condiment created a new flavour which I will certainly crave on occasion moving forward.

flowers wings
Caramel Chicken Wings $14

I’m not normally big on Asian desserts but was intrigued by the trio offered at FoV.  In the end, I opted for the Ca Phe Trung and the Yum Yums B cua Rob.  The first was a twist on a Vietnamese coffee which I was hoping had a bit more of the condensed milk (which I consider nectar of the gods) taste than it did.  The second was a dessert which looked like it could be served at a number of fancy places with candles and white table clothes.  The plate as a whole contained a number of South Asian flavours which were great individually but lacked a bit of a togetherness.  The sesame crisps were surreal.

flowers dessert
Yum Yums B cua Rob $8 and Ca Phe Trung $6

Green Dot Stables needs no introduction to any Detroiter.  This iconic eatery is on every “Things to do in the D” list and has been visited by an entourage of the rich and famous. As with Flowers of Vietnam, it is quintessential Detroit.  It’s always busy, non-apologetic, economical (no food on the menu is more that $3) and filled with a mosaic of patrons that reminds you that there is a fantastic diversity in America’s most misunderstood city.

I’ve been a few times and my favorite sliders are the Korean (peanut butter and kimchi) and the Hot Brown (chicken, mornay and bacon). Any of the sides, whether it’s the cucumber, kale, fries or mac and cheese are all well worth a couple of bucks.   The booze is dirt cheap and they carry a small but nice array of craft beer in bottles and on tap.

My Take

It’s no coincidence that Anthony Bourdain ended Season 2 of Parts Unknown with a visit to Detroit. People look at me funny when I suggest that Detroit is among the top 10 dining destinations in the U.S but hear me out.  First, people don’t pretend to be cool in Detroit. Unlike other cities, their “hipsters” are authentic and not the ridiculous rip-offs that exist in every other city. This makes for a unique and real experience as opposed to feeling like you’re an extra in the Broadway version of “Angst”. Second, there is a good diversity of cuisine in the D.  The two restaurants featured in this blog are a testament  to this. Separated by the I-75,  one is a brand new Vietnamese pop-up while the other is a well-established iconic eatery which is as recognized as Vernor’s ginger ale or McClure’s pickles and there are many along  the spectrum in between.  Dearborn serves some of the best middle eastern food in North America. Ferndale is a breakfast haven. The Eastern market has everything from killer pizza to fantastic BBQ and entertainment at Bert’s. Even if you want fine dining, you have a plethora of choice including TV celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Roast or Joe Muer’s seafood haven.   Third, the restaurant scene is economical.  As a rust belt city, Detroit has not lost it’s appreciation of value.  You can still get a $1.50 Coney  dog at many places in town.  Mexicantown almost gives away authentic and delicious food.

In the end, I never just drive through Detroit to get to my destination…I stop every time.  It is the perfect place to stop to get everything from a taco to a shawarma.  You can go to Slow’s BBQ for some ribs or grab a pint of one of the many craft brewhouses that have opened in recent months. Both the patrons and the staff of the city’s eateries are fun, authentic and refreshing so I encourage you to go and smell the flowers and see for yourself that the stables are in fact greener on the other side (of the Detroit river that is).

Flowers of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Green Dot Stables Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bono: Two Degrees from Kevin Bacon but Only “One” from Mark McEwen

I have a love/hate relationship with U2. One can’t help but appreciate the talent of the four Irish boys even if it at times their music is clouded with political mumbo jumbo and the haze of enormous egos.  Perhaps my opinion in this regard  was somewhat softened when it was revealed in 2014 that Bono wears blue-blockers in front of the world’s dignitaries not to look like an assclown or in public in order to qualify for  the Senior rate at the movies but because he suffers from glaucoma which he has for years. That said, it  still doesn’t forgive the fact that they were found guilty of pure arrogance for their “Songs of Innocence” iTunes  fiasco where they made the assumption that the entire world wanted their new album.

If one were to ask me my favorite U2 song from their vast library of music which spans a number of musical decades, I would have to say the live version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” off of the Rattle and Hum album. As far as bad songs, I’d say anything off the Zooropa album.

So what do Mark McEwan and Bono have in common?  Probably nothing.  One’s a singer and one’s a chef.  One is moderately tall and one is moderately short. I imagine the two of them would interpret the word “edge” very differently.  Maybe I can make a case by saying that the title “One” is not only one of  U2’s biggest hits but also the  name of  Yorkville’s contribution to the  McEwan eatery empire and that in fact Bono has been seen dining there during one  of his many stops in Toronto.

I was there with a larger group and the night got started with a cocktail. In my case, it was the paper plane. Made with bourbon, amaro nonino,  aperol and lemon juice and with a staggering price tag of $20, it was supposed named after the song (paper plane by MIA) the creator was listening to at the time. It certainly met my cocktail criteria in that it was pink ( a running joke regarding my normal choices). It came with a small fruit fly as well which I wasn’t overly concerned about given the warm weather.  The waiter took it back with an apology and promptly replaced it.

For my starter I chose the Heirloom carrot salad, pomegranate yogurt, cauliflower, avocado, orange, pistachios, raisin chutney and cilantro vinaigrette.  Despite a mishmash of ingredients you normally wouldn’t expect together on a plate, it has a predominately middle eastern taste and was beautifully presented for a reasonable $16.  The cauliflower was seasoned nicely and the raisin chutney and yogurt were fantastic. The orange and avocado were a little odd but added a nice dimension of texture and flavour.  

one salad
Heirloom Carrot Salad $16

For the main I decided on the Ravioli Duo heirloom squash and ricotta raviolis, short rib ragu and Pecorino Romano for $26.  The pasta was tender and fully stuffed with a nicely seasoned filling.  The short rib, in addition to the pecorino, added a welcomed saltiness to the dish.  I can argue it was a little chintzy for the price but it was reasonably filling and allowed some room for dessert.

one pasta
Ravioli Duo $26

Dessert was banana cream pie with peanut shortbread crust, malted chocolate pastry cream, butterscotch and vanilla chantilly and was a steal at $9.   It was elegant and filthy at the same time. The fresh bananas were a smart addition as was the thin, crispy brittle on top.I also snagged a bite of the white chocolate cheesecake served with a sour cherry compote.  It too was a bit bipolar; the comfort of Sara Lee on one side and a whimsy delicateness on the other.

one dessert
Banana Cream Pie $9

I finished the night with one of the worst americanos I have ever had.  If I’m paying $6 for a coffee, it better be mind blowing and not something that tasted like it came out of a Keurig.

My Take

I couldn’t help but hum a few U2 songs along with the lepers in my had while dining at One.  From the clean and crisp decor to the pristine presentation and premium pricing, it’s a piece that fits perfectly into the Yorkville puzzle where the streets have names although  it can take me a while to find what I’m looking for.  The food and service was quite good highlighted by a really pleasant salad and the sinful dessert which was the sweetest thing. The coffee was bad. Although I couldn’t help but sing “One”  when I got there, after a couple of sips of the paper plane I couldn’t help humming “The Fly” until the appetizer came.

One Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato