Diner: Checking the Tea Leaves

Revisiting the year in local dining

Joe Lamb

Via Vite

Every year at this time we look back and try to make sense of the past 12 months. We attempt to find a pattern, some meaning or significance. We can't help it; we're hard wired that way. That's where the whole idea for reading tea leaves and Rorschach testing comes from. As for dining patterns for 2007? Here's what the inkblots looked like to me.

You Win Some, You Lose Some
It's inevitable in the restaurant industry — some places flourish, others don't. Who knows why certain places close, like Chez T in Mount Lookout, one of my favorite lunch spots. It had a unique combination of a lovely, feminine atmosphere and hearty dishes — the perfect place to wile away a wintry afternoon over an omelet. Or Mejana Restaurant with its extensive lunch buffet and thick, ass-kicking Turkish coffee. Or Rondo's Restaurant in Cheviot where chef owner Ron Wise made fabulous dishes redolent with local ingredients.

(Our best to Wise and his family, who moved to Switzerland to be close to family.)

Vinyl in Over the Rhine, which had a troubled youth, now appears to be defunct, which is too bad, especially since owners Roula David and Michael Spalding were working on opening two other restaurants in the struggling area — Jardin Wine and Tapas Bar (in the old Neon's space) and Mixx Ultra Lounge (in the old Jump space). While Mixx is scheduled to open New Year's Eve with David as manager, the fate of Jardin is unclear. One Restaurant & Lounge in Mason will be closing Jan. 1 after one last hurrah on New Year's Eve. According to Sean Kagy, the chef and owner, the construction on Main Street of Mason's business district made it hard for people to find the restaurant. Still, while Kagy might be down, he's not out. While he works as corporate chef for Prasco Pharmaceutical he'll store his equipment and search for a new location.

Even with these closings, when you look at the stats, overall it seems like our batting average was pretty good this year. Restaurateurs have an almost magical knack for re-inventing themselves. Michelle Lightfoot, the former chef at Poppies Deli, went on to open her own lunch spot, deli seven20.

Olives Restaurant & Bar filled a much-needed spot in the Clifton dining scene — somewhere, other than an Indian restaurant, to get a casual sit-down meal or meet friends for drinks. In my graduate school days I seemed to have a permanent bar stool at Uno's — I'm glad the next generation of over-caffeinated, under-fed grads will have a place to nurse their wounds.

Culinary machines like the father-son team of Nicola and Cristian Pietoso, David Falk and Jean-Robert Cavel never stop their pursuit of providing Cincinnati with ways to keep our taste buds engaged: This year they brought us the Pietosos' Via Vite, Falk's Nada and Cavel's Twist Lounge on the east side of Pigall's.

We also got some fresh meat with Sean Daley's new restaurant Hugo in Oakley, Ron Perez's innovative menu at Allure in Montgomery and Chef Romy Jung's freaking fabulous food at The Palace Restaurant in the Cincinnatian Hotel.

On a final sad note, this year we saw the passing of two Cincinnati culinary legends: Paul Sebron (aka Mr. Pig of Mr. Pig's BBQ at Findlay Market) and wine man extraordinaire Paul Ortiz.

Island Hopping
They say there's power in numbers. If that's true then three parts of town are turning into the strongmen of Cincinnati's culinary circus.

The Genius of Water (the Tyler Davidson Fountain) on Fountain Square needs to be renamed the Genius of Wine after this year's Square renovation. The place literally exploded with food in the past 12 months. Along with Via Vite, Morton's — The Steak House moved to the square. Boi Na Braza, Ingredients, Graeters and Potbelly Sandwich Works popped up on the outskirts as well.

Covington gave birth to a bouncing baby food district — Roebling Point. With Greenup Caf´ and Pho Paris as its anchors, Newport on the Levee better be watching its back. At Roebling Point diners have many new options, including Keystone Bar and Grill, Rima's Restaurant, Deadwood Caf´, Molly Malone's Irish Bar and Restaurant and Bouquet Restaurant & Wine Bar. Guess I can't whine that there's no place to go for a bite and a first-rate glass of wine anymore.

Milford might be our sleeper candidate this year. The historic little village is quickly becoming a major culinary outpost with the addition of Tattie's Gourmet Deli and 20 Brix wine bar, restaurant and wine seller to an already burgeoning roster of edible goods.

Ethnic Vs. Chain
Things aren't easy for restaurant owners these days, what with the rising price of gas and food, but it's hardest on independent operators that don't have one of those ghostly silent partners with oodles of cash in a big, fat wallet. That's why the epic battle that seems to be raging between chains and smaller, ethnic places in our little borough warms the cockles of my heart.

In downtown, for instance, we saw large venues like Sully's and Cadillac Ranch open and smaller chains like Potbelly Sandwich Works and Starbucks (all hail the espresso bean, chain or no chain) join the retail mix at Fountain Square.

If you were paying attention you also noticed independent ethnic shops moving in on their flanks. Downtown gained two new Mythos locations, Marrakech Caf´ and Sung Korean Bistro. The suburbs, the quintessential land of chains, have also seen a dizzying array of small (and not so small) ethnic shops pop up this year. Apsara, the new Thai restaurant owned by Chanaka Delanerolle of Teak, opened in the space of the former Watson Bros. Bistro & Brewery in Blue Ash, and Jessi Singh opened a fourth Indian eatery called Guru India in Crescent Springs. (His other three include Baba India in Oakley, Akash India downtown and Ambar India in Clifton.) Raja Indian Restaurant (also owned by Sungh — hmm, is this starting to sound more like a chain to anyone else?) and Greek Isles both opened in West Chester and The Silver Fork, a German restaurant, opened in Symmes Township.

As for the coming year? All signs are positive, at least according to my tea leaves.

CONTACT LORA ARDUSER: larduser(at)citybeat.com