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.
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.
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.
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.