Best Bites of 2014

CityBeat dining writers list their favorite epicurean experiences from the past year

click to enlarge The friendly guys behind downtown brunch/lunch favorite Cheapside Cafe
The friendly guys behind downtown brunch/lunch favorite Cheapside Cafe

CityBeat’s crack team of dining writers have the difficult job of getting paid to eat and imbibe at Cincinnati’s newest restaurants and dining concepts, engage with talented local chefs and spot booze and food trends — from street eats and fried chicken to any new-brew coffee variation and bars with arcades. After chewing over (ha) their edible experiences of the past year, they each came up with a list highlighting their favorite things they ate, drank and did in 2014 — some based on their own and each other’s reviews and some just plain favorites. CliffsNotes’ version: Salazar, Cheapside, the lunch tray at Jean-Robert’s Table, meatball variations and Northside (in general) were big winners.

Kristen Franke’s Picks

Favorite new restaurant:

Cheapside downtown.

Favorite classy brunch:

Red Feather in Oakley.

Favorite dishes/food items:

The pork belly with braised cabbage at Walhill Farm. I could not stop eating it. Braised in a concoction that includes red wine vinegar, sugar, cinnamon and pork fat, it paired quite well with the juicy pork belly and lip-smackingly good pear butter.

The turkey breast sandwich at Salazar. The turkey breast sandwich did everything Jose Salazar told me a sandwich should: It took delicious ingredients and combined them to make something “melty and gooey” that kept us entranced until that last bite.

Banh Mi at Le’s. Le’s Banh Mi is served on six inches of a French baguette that puts all other baguettes to shame. Every crunchy bite of my pork Banh Mi melded the cilantro, carrot and barbecue pork together in a delicious way that made lunch conversation a second priority.

Jean-Robert’s Table’s French lunch tray. Four courses (soup, salad, savory and sweet) for $15.50, served at the bar.

Holtman’s glazed donut.

Chicken liver mousse at Sotto.

Ricotta and honey on grilled bread at Abigail Street.

Thai curry mussels at Zula.

Challah French toast at Cheapside.

Favorite trends:

Servers in plaid shirts; mismatching china; barbecue everywhere; giant spherical ice cubes; local libations everywhere; bourbon bars.

Favorite drinks:

The horchata (a traditional Mexican drink with milk and cinnamon) at La Mexicana; the Manhattan at The Lackman.


Anne Mitchell’s Picks

Favorite dishes/food items:

The scallops starter at The Mercer OTR. Though plural, it is indeed just two scallops. But wow, were they amazing. They were perfectly seared with brown butter and served over parsnip purée flavored with shitake mushrooms — one of those dishes where you have to close your eyes when you take a bite to allay the sensory overload.

Don’t pick The Presidents Room at the Phoenix for your place to go carb-free. Their dinner rolls are served nice and warm, accompanied by whipped butter and housemade apple butter. I split one open to try it and was surprised that they bore a striking resemblance to donuts. I asked the server if that’s what they were, and she assured me that they were “biscuits, lightly fried.” As in donuts.

The “don’t miss it” dish at Marrakech Moroccan Café in Clifton is the Bastilla. I’d seen a variation — bisteeya — on other Middle Eastern menus and had never tried it, but the description of this “sweet and savory chicken pie” intrigued me. Chicken that had been cooked with saffron and ginger was shredded to a fine floss and then layered with firm scrambled eggs, spices and slow-cooked caramelized onions into a flaky pastry crust . The savory ingredients make up the base filling, but then there’s a sweeter layer, with ground almonds, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon. The sweet and savory contrast was crazy good.

Several of my “Best Bites” were at two events where I was judging chefs as they cooked — imagine that. At Gorman Heritage Farms’ Savor the Season, chef Jaime Carmody from Out of Thyme Catering whipped up some milk-poached duck liver pâté with a quinoa crust that won our hearts — and the contest. At CityBeat’s Iron Fork, Frannie Kroner’s lamb chop entrée was so wonderful that I gnawed the bones clean. Jose Salazar created a lamb tartare on the spot that was amazing. It was the kind of dish that separates ordinary food from art. Audience members who were willing to share cooties with the judges got their best bites, too.


Pama Mitchell’s Picks

Favorite new restaurant:

Tie between Bistro Grace and The Littlefield (though, technically, Bistro Grace opened in late 2013). 

Favorite trend:

Northside resurgence. You see a pattern here …

Favorite dishes/food items:

Airline Chicken at Ruth’s Parkside Café (oops, Northside again).

Grilled octopus at Abigail Street.

The charcuterie plate at Metropole.

Favorite drinks:

The Old Fashioned at A Tavola; Mad Anthony at The Littlefield; Aztec hot chocolate at Coffee Emporium (with extra cayenne); Red-Headed Stranger at Bakersfield.


Garin Pirnia’s Picks

Favorite new restaurant:

Kristen and I agree: Cheapside is our fave new restaurant. Everything I’ve had there — the sandwiches, nitro coffee — has been great. Plus the dudes who run it are super nice. 

Favorite dishes/food items:

Hen of the Woods potato chips. So good.

Snowville Creamery’s crème fraîche.

Afishionados in Friendly Market has good and fresh seafood.

Those potato things at Boca (pommes souffles).

Bread: Blue Oven’s English muffins, also Sixteen Bricks bread.

I didn’t think this would be good but it was: gluten-free pancakes at Sleepy Bee in Oakley.

Favorite coffee spot:

I just discovered Trailhead Coffee inside Reser Bicycle in Newport and I think it’s my new fave coffee spot.

Favorite OTR additions:

Salazar. Gomez Salsa. Also Half Cut and Liberty’s Bar & Bottle.

Favorite out-of-the-box dining: 

Nuvo in Covington is great. I’m interested to see what it will evolve into. Love their siphon coffee. And I finally went to one of those Please dinners and it was cool. The chef, Ryan Santos, just announced he’s raising money to open his own restaurant.

Fave dessert:

The brown butter bourbon chocolate chip Rice Krispies treats from The Littlefield. Yum. Actually all their food and cocktails are quite good. 

Favorite trends:

Complimentary sparkling water at Kaze and The Mercer; dishtowels used as napkins; half-portions of food (Mercer and Boca do this); smaller pours (at Liberty’s Bar & Bottle). Small, neighborhood, gourmet markets like Sprout, Clifton Natural Foods and Dutch’s. Packhouse’s no tipping policy is interesting. Quinoa meatballs! Even NY Mag mentioned this place. I like how much craft beer Cincy now has, especially localish breweries like Jackie O’s, Warped Wing, West Sixth and Country Boy. I like that you can buy most of those in cans, too.


Ilene Ross’s Picks

Favorite new Findlay stand because I love pies but I hate baking them:

O Pie O.

Favorite dessert that haunts my brain 24/7:

Pat Bing Su at Sung Korean Bistro — sweetened red bean with shaved ice topped with vanilla ice cream, sweet rice cake, fruit, chocolate syrup and coconut milk.

Favorite place for a first date cocktail:

The Bar at Palm Court.

Favorite lunch:

The lunch tray at Jean-Robert’s Table.

Favorite steak:

Jimmy G’s.

Favorite place to sit at the bar and order drinks, see everyone you know and order every appetizer on the menu:

Salazar.

Favorite place to take my family for dinner because I know there is something for everyone:

Maribelle’s eat + drink.

Favorite breakfast spot:

Sugar & Spice.


Michael Taylor’s Picks

Favorite new restaurant:

Swad Indian from the former owners of Dusmesh in Clifton.

Favorite not-so-classy brunch:

Parkside Cafe in Walnut Hills (not to be confused with Ruth’s Parkside Cafe in Northside).

Favorite laid-back weekend lunch: 

Curry chicken piroshky and Roman’s chicken stew from Puffins Bistro & Desserts in Blue Ash.

Favorite dishes/food items:

The chicken cornik (English pastry) from TasteFlare in Montgomery.

Poblano corn chowder from La Soupe in Newtown.

Cowboy Stew from Django Western Taco in Northside.

The spicy pork meatball pasta plate from Meatball Kitchen on Short Vine.

Pazole from Mazunte in Madisonville.

Veggie omelet from either Hathaway’s or Sports Page (on Vine downtown).

Favorite trends:

Meatballs; Short Vine resurrection: part three; exotic soups; Korean food; new food trucks; cheap comfort food; takeaways (e.g. Gomez Salsa, Piper’s Cafe).

Favorite drink

: Chicha Morada at Sabor Peruano in Fairfield. (If you didn’t get a chance to try it, you might be out of luck: The restaurant burned to the ground in November.)