Waffles, Kibble, Rhine and PBR in Cincinnati

I reverted back to increasing my Diner, Diners and Drives tally on my recent trip to Cincinnati.  It was an easy call since three of them are less than a block away from each other on bustling Vine street. Over the course of two days I hit all three; one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.

When Guy Fieri was only 10 years old, WKRP in Cincinatti hit the air.  I remember watching the short lived sitcom (four seasons to be exact) as a kid.  It featured a group of misfit radio personalities at a radio station in the Ohio city.  The cast, headed by Andy Travis (not to be mistaken for Randy Travis) featured the likes of Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Jennifer Marlowe.  Andy may have precluded the hipster movement by frequently donning plaid shirts and luscious locks.  Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever,  went on have success as the lead in the sitcom Head of the Class and Loni Anderson will go down in history for certain features and for being remembered as Mrs. Burt Reynolds until the end of time.

wkrp_cincinnati_complete_series_dvd
The Cast of WKRP in Cincinnati

 

In honour of this cult favorite, here’s an overview of Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield and Senate, three of Cincinnati’s Vine street triple D joints.

W- (Waffles and Wright).

Taste of Belgium boasts waffles done right so it seemed to be the ideal breakfast spot.  The decor had the brick walls and tiled floor characteristic of Over-the-Rhine eateries. We were seated and greeted but a waiter with a definite chip (unfortunately not chocolate) on his shoulder.  He was efficient but far from welcoming.  I ordered a decent Americano and the McWaffle, a breakfast sandwich containing egg, bacon, cheese and served with a side of maple syrup.   The waffle itself was far from the fluffy batter you might bake up at the free Hampton breakfast.  It was much denser and more filling.  It flirted with dryness but was helped by the syrup.  The combination of everything made for a good but not remarkable bite that was a lot sweeter than the service.

 

Daniel Wright is the brainchild behind Senate, the street food pub which revolves around the ultimate street meat..the hotdog.  In addition to tube steak (including a daily dog names after a celebrity), there are a number of items including bites, burgers and sandwiches. It had a good vibe highlighted by a long packed bar surrounded by tables. Since it was over twenty degrees, the front window/patio was open and I managed to score a seat overlooking the street.  Our waitress was attentive although somewhat overshadowed by this dude in a vest and tie walking around like an..umm…senator.  As tempting as the Mama June celebrity dog of the day was (you can imagine the toppings), I opted for the best selling trailer park burger, mainly because it was topped with Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s crushed BBQ chips atop a bacon wrapped dog and finished with slaw and american cheese. It was a delicious mess.

senate dog
Senate Trailer Park Dog $10

K-(Kentucky and Kibbles)

Bakersfield is a taqueria which is gradually expanding in all directions from it’s Cincinnati epicentre.  Also focusing on Mexican food, the booze menu is expansive, not only including traditional tequila but also whisky from the neighbouring state of  Kentucky.  In fact, I was there on a Monday night which meant I could get a shot of Bulleit for $3.  Add a $2 boot of PBR and I’m two thirds of my way to a George Thorogood song for $5. I felt bad to the bone.  As for kibbles, the guacamole at Bakersfield was fresh and chunky (which I’m sure is Cincinnati style)  and aggressively seasoned with garlic which was paired nicely with one of the best (and spicy margaritas) I’ve had in a while.

R- (Restaurants Over-the-Rhine)

Defined as one of the most historic neighbourhoods in the US, the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati has deep German roots and architecture dating from the 19th century.  Over the years, it has debilitated into one of the sketchiest area in the states.  For example, the area was used as the backdrop for the 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem” because of it’s resemblance to 1950’s Harlem.  However, over the past decade or so, there has been major restoration, at least along the southern part of Vine St, resulting in a trendy neighbourhood full of shops and restaurants including the trio of triple D’s mentioned in this blog.  I was speaking to a table of locals at Bakersfield and they confirmed this restoration story, telling me that crossing Liberty street to the North after dark was once  a death wish but ven that is slowing changing.  That said, I late took a drive north up Vine St.to check out the University of Cinicinnati  and passed through one of the most decrepit neighbourhoods I remember, easily rivaling  Michigan St. in Detroit, parts of  Harlem and the worst part of San Francisco’s tenderloin district.   Restaurants like Taste of Belgium, Senate and Bakersfield are part of the nucleus in a molecule of hope working through the celebration of food.

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Cool Floor at Taste of Belgium indicative of Cincinnati architecture.

P (Pastor, Potstickers and Poutine)

The foundation of the Bakersfield menu is the taco and there are almost 10 to choose from.  They pride themselves on making their own tortillas and ironically, that was the weakest part.  I felt they tasted a little raw as if they were only fried on one side.  They were nicely presented on a large tray with abundant fillings at a reasonable price point of $3-4 each. The pork belly pastor were a good representation and the spicy cochinita pibil and huitlacoche tacos were quite unique.

Meanwhile at Senate, the potstickers were full of extreme Asian flavours and the poutine was served with short rib and cheese  and since a white gravy was used instead of the traditional (at least in Canadian terms) brown one, it was more creamy than squeaky and quite rich to say the least.

My Take

Based on my ongoing Guyz rating for diners, drive-ins and dives, none were a disaster but  I’ll  give top taste, service and vibe points to Senate. The vibe of all three were helped by the cool architecture but the buzz at Senate and Bakersfield was much better than the sleepiness and snarkiness of Taste of Belgium.  Service wise, both Bakersfield and Senate were pretty good. Regarding the food, the Senate hot dogs, in addition to being pretty delicious, are a great concept especially with the rotating celebrity choice of the day.  The Bakersfield guacamole was good and the tacos were average.  Taste of Belgium served a decent breakfast.

In the end, Over-the-Rhine is a fun and buzzing area with a number of funky restaurants, shops and snacks.  In fact, Vine Street may be the best thing in Cincinnati’s food scene since WKRP’s  turkey bombing of the Pinedale mall on Thanksgiving in 1978.

Senate

Food- 4/5 Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4.5/5 Guys

Total- 12.5/15 Guyz

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

Bakersfield

Food- 3.5/5  Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4/5 Guyz

Total- 11.5/Guyz

Bakersfield OTR Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taste of Belgium

Food- 3.5/5 Guyz
Service- 3/5 Guyz
Vibe- 3/5 Guyz

Total- 9.5/15 Guyz

Taste of Belgium Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Review:Toronto:The Junction:Roux

I had to get my manager to the airport so it made sense to hit the junction so she could get to the 427 relatively quickly after we were done.  Other than that, I decided to ad lib dinner and saw Roux sitting on the corner Indian Grove along Dundas street. It was still rather early so it wasn’t too busy but the dining room was filled within an hour of our arrival.  It’s a smallish place with a number of tables, a few high stools by the front window and a dozen or so seats which faces the bar/open kitchen. There are oysters on display is an ice filled bin as you walk in.  It had a comfy aura; mixing the feel of an underground speakeasy with a southern US kitchen.  The walls are filled with artistic script  outlining recipes for  jambalaya or what looks like hand drawn pictures of oysters.

Whether the concept of southern hospitality is a theme or we just had a friendly waiter, we were immediately made to feel at home.  We were offered a drink from a short list of local brews (including a Conductor’s craft ale from the Junction Craft Brewery down the road),  one of two kinds of wine on tap and a short list of cocktails including a blueberry old fashioned and the suffering bastard. I opted for the latter; a simple mix of bourbon, gin, bitters and a splash of ginger ale for $8.50.

Perhaps in the spirit of both famous and infamous cinq a sept (referring to Quebec’s happy and/or France’s term for the time a debutant may plan a tryst with his mistress) , the waiter boasted a $5 at 5, a  list of appetizers  taken from the menu with slightly smaller serving sizes.   We opted for a trio of mussels, shrimp fritters and pulled pork poutine.  Although smallish, the mussels, soaked in a beer broth seasoned with a mirepoix.were rather enjoyable.  All of the components of the pulled pork poutine had great flavour although it was served a bit cold.  The shrimp fritters were a bit disappointing…the flavours hit the mark but they were doughy in the middle.

Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)
Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)

In addition to the nine or ten entrees, there were a number of specials that evening. Despite these numerous temptations,  I was sold on the yardbird (fried chicken). Furthermore, I had the dubious task of choosing between sides which included waffles, creamy grits and spicey slaw.  I was promised the waffles were the way to go.  The chicken was middle of the pack (I was hoping for it a little crispier) but the waffles were terrific especially when coupled with the bourbon maple syrup.  Despite the fact I was reluctant on the liberal use of powdered sugar and cranberries, it kind of worked.

Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16
Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16

My manager opted for scallops.  Although I didn’t try them, I did request a taste of the grits (the boundary between manager/employee sharing food starts at protein so I was safe).  They were a fantastic twist on the standard. They lacked the normal cream of wheat gruelness  and instead were presented with the firm yet soft texture of a risotto.   I completed the experience with a side order of collard greens which hit the mark made with a simple yet authentic recipe.

Scallops and Grits
Scallops and Grits $20
Collard Greens $5
Collard Greens $5

As mentioned above, early on the service was friendly and prompt but did diminish a bit as the place filled up and things got frantic. There were a number of forgetful moments and it took quiet a while to get the bill despite many indications we were done.  For this reason (and the need to get my manager back to Saskatoon that night), I skipped on dessert.

My Take

There has been an emergence of high and lower end BBQ joints that have opened up across the GTA.  However, most focus on the art of low and slow smoking and sides more characteristic of  a Texas family gathering than a Louisiana cook-off. Chef Derrick Markland infuses New Orleans into the junction, offering a joint that is casual, unique and refined.  One can argue that the junction’s clientele can be described the same way.  Beside us sat a couple; the guy looked like the white version of the Fresh Prince’s Carlton and she looked like a very feminine incredible hulk, complete with bright green hair and matching eyebrows (which left me wondering….never mind).  On the other side was a guy and his date who were clearly fans of the Big Bang Theory (I think I even heard a bazinga once or twice).  Even an cute, older Asian couple showed up to share a few of the $5 at 5 choices and sip on water while blending in with the mosaic of characters which graced the small dining room.

In an environment of restaurants serving small plates with inflated prices, Roux does bring some promise of value back to dining out.  The $5 at 5 choices, cocktails under $10, six dollar glasses of wine on tap and a number of good sized entrees under $20 make it worth the cab ride or the extra gas you’ll need driving a few blocks further west to the bustling Junction triangle. Plus, it’s kind of fun with a passionate chef, a zany cast of fellow diners and sultry blues filling the air in between laughs, conversations and the bumbling banter of pleasant yet overwhelmed waitstaff.

In the end, Roux is like a wedding. Passion reigns as you hang out with a cast of characters you may otherwise never associate under the same roof.  In this case, it’s a passion for food as opposed to that shared by your third cousin on your mom’s side and his high school sweetheart from smalltown Ontario. Even if everything isn’t perfect, you’re still glad you went.

Roux on Urbanspoon

DDD:Cleveland:Lucky’s Cafe

Despite living in Ontario, I’ve been there three times and have thoroughly enjoyed it.   Each visit is an experience.  It’s a bit outside the normal definition of a DDD, but still maintains the fact that food is delicious. I’ll let the pictures do the talking regarding  Lucky’s, which is located in Tremont, a posh neighbourhood in Cleveland.  It has all the elements of a great breakfast/lunch place.

Lucky's Herb and Vegetable Garden
Lucky’s Herb and Vegetable Garden

From sweet to savory, anybody’s taste will be satisfied here.

The “biscuits” dish is surreal, with sausage gravy I can only describe as some sort of nectar of the porcine gods.  Both the biscuits and the eggs are light and fluffy like clouds where these gods reside.  The potatoes and grapes are perfect sides, especially when you douse the former with their homemade hot sauce. One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.

Biscuits
Biscuits

Perhaps the only thing that could make the above dish better is bacon.  In its own creative style, Lucky’s offers pecan coated bacon which bring some sweet into the natural saltiness of this iconic meat.  Although a buck and a half a slice, all you’ll need is a slice or two.

Pecan Bacon
Pecan Bacon

The gingerbread waffle floated like a magic carpet carrying Aladdin in the form of maple apples and honey whipped cream.  According to the new menu, this waffle has been replaced with a lemon one.  Needless to say, I don’t doubt it will be equally good.

Waffles
Waffles

For the tree huggers, there’s a granola and yogurt offering, complete with fresh fruit (although I don’t think the bananas were grown within 100 miles of Tremont).

Granola and Yogurt
House-Made Granola and Yogurt

For the savory at heart, the Reuben is fantastic. Other than the cheese I believe the entire dish is house-made, from the bread to the sauerkraut, including the potato salad. I ordered it with the soup which was equally delicious.

Reuben
Reuben with Carrot-Ginger Soup
Lucky's Potato Salad
Lucky’s Potato Salad

The Verdict

Instead of my normal banter, I’ll rely on the visuals to get my point across.  Lucky’s is a friendly, consistent and quality cafe in the heart of a city not known for a plethora of culinary genius  (well, except for Michael Symon who made an appearance during the taping of Lucky’s on DDD). It’s a can’t miss spot for me with every visit to Cleveland. The food is amazing,  it’s clean and the service is friendly.  Ask Zagat, who rates it  27, 20 and 24 respectively.

5 Guyz!

Lucky's Cafe on Urbanspoon