December 27, 2017

A Year in Reviews

An abridged collection of CityBeat dining writers’ favorite stops in 2017...

Bauer Farm Kitchen

435 Elm St., Downtown, 513-621-8555, bauercincinnati.com

Bauer Farm Kitchen is a truly unique exploration of German cuisine with French accents — a farm-to-table, Alsatian-influenced eatery that no one has done here before. “Bauer” means “farm” or “farmer” in German, and the emphasis on farm-fresh ingredients is great, but really it’s chef Jackson Rouse’s finesse that makes Bauer a must visit.

Rouse’s skills make even a winter salad exciting. Sexier still is the sous vide sauerbraten short rib ($34). The long, slow bath means the beef is fork-tender, yet still pink, and the flavor is incredible. The seasonal sausage ($14) is served in a cast-iron pot with German potato salad, toasted pretzel buns, housemade sauerkraut and fresh mustard. For a porky dish, this is actually light and feels very vegetable-centric.

The sausage, charcuterie, steaks and chops are all dry-aged in house. Bauer also offers “tete du cochon” ($75), which is best for three or more diners and must be ordered in advance. Half of a piggy’s head is cooked sous vide and crisped before serving, and honestly not as gruesome as it sounds. (Anne Mitchell)

Casa Figueroa

6112 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, 513-631-3333, casafig.com

More than a year ago, I heard that an important addition to our foodie world was coming to an out-of-the-way corner of the metro area: A Mexican/Latin restaurant with an ambitious chef and design-conscious owner would open in Pleasant Ridge, probably by the end of last summer. As it happened, though, the chef went elsewhere and Casa Figueroa took almost another year to open its doors. But based on one terrific visit, I’m happy to report that the end result definitely rewards the wait.

Chef Matthew Schroeder, most recently sous chef at Anchor OTR, developed a menu that so far skews mostly Mexican (heavy on really good tacos), with eventual plans to move toward a more pan-Latin cuisine. Although there’s a greater variety to the Casa menu than I expected, somehow my companions and I ended up sticking to the basics: chips with guacamole, and tacos.

The tacos we loved best included Baja fish (fried cod, cabbage and herb slaw, grilled ramp and avocado), smoked duck confit (with parsnip and radish slaw, charred carrot and queso fresco) and chicken and chorizo (with smoked garlic aioli and shaved romaine). That last one was my fave and it wasn’t even on my plate — my husband let me try a bite of his.

Casa Figueroa offers an option with your tacos: beans, rice, feta and herbs ($6). Get it! The rich flavors made this side dish one of the big hits at our table. (Pama Mitchell)

CWC the Restaurant

1517 Springfield Pike, Wyoming, 513-407-3947, cwctherestaurant.com

To borrow from the tagline for the original Disneyland in California, CWC the Restaurant might just be the friendliest place on Earth — or at least in Cincinnati. CWC — from Cooking with Caitlin, Caitlin Steininger’s longtime catering business — opened this summer on Springfield Pike. Her sister Kelly Trush runs the front of the house and makes sure each guest is satisfied, while their dad buses tables, among other tasks. Mom pitches in, too, as does Steininger’s 13-year-old niece, who’s in charge of the busy pizza oven.

The menu isn’t extensive — we tried almost all seven of the items listed as “shareables” or “starters.” Just about everyone in the house was ordering the homemade baby biscuits with tomato jam and corn butter ($5), and we managed to grab the very last of the night’s batch. A couple of the salads were great hits at our table, too. Harissa-roasted cauliflower salad ($8) had olives, oranges and raisins, while the green papaya salad ($9) with soy-lime vinaigrette and toasted peanuts might have been the best thing on the table, at least until dessert.

We also tried a few of the half-dozen “Mains.” My zucchini carbonara ($12) used strips of squash instead of pasta as a base, dressed simply with a light roasted garlic cream sauce, a sprinkling of parmesan and the dish’s saving grace, crumbled bacon. We enjoyed grilled snapper ($14) over avocado purée with roasted salsa verde — a small portion, but with satisfying flavors. The Char Cheddar Burger ($9) came with a large pile of crispy fries and was covered in a housemade cheese sauce. Trush told me later that this burger is their biggest seller. (PM)

Cork & Cap

2637 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-321-5227, corkandcapofhydepark.com

Tucked in a corner at one end of Hyde Park Square is Cork & Cap, an establishment with a wine bar focus that has rapidly evolved into a nice little restaurant. A selection of grilled pizza anchors the menu, with a couple of salads, casual small plates and a section of “mains” that range from burgers and sandwiches to a salmon entrée. There are also charcuterie and cheese offerings that you can mix and match.

Given that Cork & Cap started as a wine bar, wine lovers will be happy to know that your grapey choices are many and varied. Clever minds organized the 70-bottle list into a dozen descriptive categories. Dinner was simple but satisfying: My friend and I each had a grilled Caesar salad that topped a nicely charred grilled romaine with croutons, diced tomatoes, shaved parmesan, herbs and a creamy dressing ($9), and then we split a grilled pizza.

Our wild mushroom pizza ($15) came bubbling hot with a finish of arugula salad, which reminded us of how pizza often is served in Italy. (PM)

Court Street Lobster Bar

28 W. Court St., Downtown, 513-246-0184, courtstreetlobsterbar.com

There is nary a bright-red shell in sight at Court Street Lobster Bar. Instead, there are several ways to enjoy tender, buttery lobster meat — in a creamy bisque or as an ingredient in poutine; as part of the decadent lobster mac and cheese; or in one of two styles of lobster rolls.

The lobster rolls available will be familiar to any New Englander. The Lobster Bar menu lists them as “Maine Style” and “Connecticut Style.” The Maine roll is a chilled lobster salad with mayonnaise while the Connecticut roll has warm lobster meat drizzled with hot butter.

We knew we wanted the warm lobster roll instead of the chilled “Maine Style.” That night, they had two choices of warm lobster roll: the standard Connecticut ($19) with four ounces of meat, hot butter, pea tendrils and a bed of lettuce on the toasted bun; and the “roll of the month,” Lobster BLT ($19). We ordered one of each. We liked the Connecticut roll better, but the overall yumminess factor was excellent in both sandwiches, thanks to high-quality lobster and the custom buns — Sixteen Bricks bakery created a bun thick enough to keep its shape under a lot of melted butter and a heavy pile of shellfish. (PM)

Eighth & English

2038 Madison Road, O’Bryonville, 513-386-7383, 8thandenglish.com

This seafood-centric, Italian-flavored eatery — which goes by the nickname 8 & E — is a godsend for those looking for innovative, thoughtfully crafted fare somewhere in the city outside of Over-the-Rhine, downtown or parts of Covington.

The menu looks Italian, with sections such as Primi (first course, usually pasta) and Contorni (vegetables and sides). But if you read ingredients and style of prep, clearly there’s a range of influences, such as Middle Eastern (little lamb sandwiches with tzatziki and harissa) and solidly American (grilled hanger steak with hash, egg and arugula). As suggested by the sea-themed art on the walls, there are a lot of seafood offerings in just about every menu category, and yet plenty for landlubbers, too.

We each began with something from the dozen “Start” choices. I’m a fan of octopus and went with the Sardinian baby octopus stew with white wine, chili and tomato ($14). They were tender and quite delicious, as was the tomato-based, slightly spicy base.

For some now unfathomable reason, we all skipped the pasta (Primi) section and picked either an entrée or, in my case, another starter and a side. My main course consisted of swordfish meatballs in tasty gravy atop creamy polenta ($14) and a side of charred broccolini with anchovies, capers and golden raisins ($8). I loved this version of the vegetable, with its salty and sweet components. For sure, we’ll be back — and probably often. (PM)

Gomez Salsa Cantina

2437 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills, 513-954-8541, gomezsalsa.com

Gomez Salsa Cantina pays homage to the original OTR location with a single walk-up cash register (inside the restaurant) where you place your order. There’s no paper form to fill out here, just a big printed menu on the wall. The menu makes it easy to order by featuring four distinct “styles”— pre-designed combinations of ingredients, including the standard “Gomez” style, along with Diablo, Baja and Southwestern. But you can always build your own.

All the items — tacos, bowls, burritos or Turtle Shells — are $9. You select your item, then your protein, then your style. Chips, salsa and guacamole are also available, along with a full bar featuring signature margaritas, sangria and a good beer selection. I went for an order of tacos with chicken, Diablo style, the hottest option.

The tacos come on flour tortillas by default, but you can request corn tortillas like I did. Chunks of tender chicken made up the bulk of the filling, and they were topped with lettuce and a little soft crumbly white cheese. The numerous other ingredients were present in smaller quantities (note: rice and beans are omitted from tacos); however, the zingy pickled jalapeños stood out. They were sweet-hot, reminiscent of a hot cinnamon candy. I think it was the jalapeños that made these delicious tacos almost too hot for me to eat. Almost. (Brian Cross)

Harvest Pizzeria

1739 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-0087, harvestpizzeria.com

While the Findlay Market area slowly expands from a daylight-only stop, Harvest Pizzeria OTR adds something important to the mix: an excellent version of one of Cincinnati’s favorite foods with plenty of tasty small plates, burgers, drinks and desserts for those who want more than the pie.

Small plates ($6-$9) encompass everything from mixed olives with marcona almonds and herbs to pimento cheese with biscuits and pickles. Our table ordered bruschetta topped with whipped cheese, cherry tomatoes and candied prosciutto, among other ingredients. It was good enough almost to fight over.

We selected our 12-inch pizzas: fennel sausage (with three cheeses and red onion), roasted garlic (dotted with spicy chilies and topped with arugula salad) and margherita (tomato and cheese with basil), at prices ranging from $12.75 for the margherita to $15.75 for the sausage. Sausage is hard not to love on a pizza, and except for a couple of vegetarians among us, we approved of the Harvest version.

Highest compliments went to the roasted garlic pie, even though the potent Calabrian chilies unexpectedly zapped a few taste buds. “My new favorite pizza,” one of our companions announced after we had polished off the last bit of crust. (PM)

Hi-Mark

3229 Riverside Drive, East End, 513-492-7119, thehimark.com

A new collaboration between Eli’s and the folks behind another popular restaurant team — the Lang Thang Group — is the latest welcome addition to Columbia Tusculum: the newly christened Hi-Mark, a nautical sports bar with a menu that packs a punch.

Half the menu comes from the Eli’s BBQ side, whose pulled pork sandwich and so-thick-it-breaks-your-plastic-spoon macaroni and cheese proved their worth long ago. Hi-Mark’s other culinary inspiration comes from the Lang Thang side, the people that brought us the beloved Over-the-Rhine eateries Pho Lang Thang and Quan Hapa. Their flavors dance across Hi-Mark’s menu in the unreal Smoked Pork Bánh Mì and Lang Thang Chili.

The South meets Vietnam in Hi-Mark’s Southern-Fried Chicken Thigh Sandwich, topped with tangy coleslaw and tossed in Buffalo sauce. Wings are available in orders of six or 12 with sauces ranging from classic Buffalo style to Eli’s BBQ sauce, garlic pepper lime or a dry rub. A basket of crinkle fries can be “loaded” with variations of bacon, cheddar, green onion, tomatoes, scallions and either beer cheese or Lang Thang Chili.

Both of the bar’s signature sandwiches are served on hefty baguette-style breads with a heftier side of napkins. You’ll need all of them to clean yourself up with after wolfing down the food. (Madge Maril)

Longfellow

1233 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-549-0744, longfellowbar.com

While it’s an OTR version of a dive bar, Longfellow’s menu showcases the life of the owner, Mike Stankovich. Stankovich has a Southern and Italian background — he grew up eating cornbread and rolling out homemade ravioli. Combine that with his experience traveling through Europe and Japan and his stint in New York bartending, and you have Longfellow’s menu.

The menu manages to offer something traditional yet refreshingly new, with classic sandwiches, a selection of cheese, fresh vegetables, hand-sliced meats, crostini, marinated Mediterranean olives and, of course, Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s barbecue chips. Each simple dish is delivered without much fuss; I ordered the tomme ($4) and goat cheese ($5), the radishes and butter ($4) and three Babuska Pierogies ($5).

The radishes are served raw and still a tad wet, and I did what the dish invited me to: I dipped the radishes in the chilled butter like a piece of bread and dug in. Longfellow’s butter is the kind of butter that no one would judge you for eating with a spoon.

The cocktails enhance the menu. I ordered the Spruce Goose ($11), St. Joseph’s Sour ($10) and the Classic Daiquiri ($10). The Spruce Goose — a recipe Stankovich brought with him from New York — is a wicked mix of gin, tonic and other almost undetectable ingredients like lime and honey. The Classic Daiquiri was my favorite drink of the evening, especially when paired with the European menu — the tart lime-infused cocktail cut through the creaminess of the cheeses. (MM)

Panino

1313-1315 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-0287, findpanino.com

At the end of last year, Nino Loreto expanded his Italian-style charcuterie and meat-sandwich food truck Panino, which he established in 2013, into a full restaurant on Vine Street. Having more space to cure his meats is ideal for an operation that literally uses the entire animal — from snout to tail — and stores the meat in the basement at a controlled 55 degrees.

By day, Panino is more of a lunch spot in which hungry customers can order sandwiches to go, but at night the place lights up with table service, a full menu, cocktails and beer.

For dinner, my dining companion and I were presented with a two-sided menu: food on the front; drinks on the back. Our waitress told us the menu changes weekly, sometimes daily. That’s a testament to the hyper-localness of Panino. Loreto sources animals from Kentucky farms and grows vegetables down the street. Even the wine is exclusively sourced from Skeleton Root, less than a mile away.

We devoured the charcuterie board while we waited for our sandwiches — it was Dutch’s-level good. I ordered the dried tomato pesto and local cheddar panini ($8), and my friend ordered the weekly sausage sandwich ($10), which was a Reuben made with goetta instead of corned beef. I respect Loreto’s focus on local: You know you’re getting the best possible quality and flavors. (Garin Pirnia)

Please

1405 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-405-8859, pleasecincinnati.com

Chef Ryan Santos has helmed Please as a gypsy pop-up concept since 2011, crafting creative multi-course meals in locations ranging from his former Prospect Hill apartment and Cheapside Café to Carriage House Farm, all the while working toward the dream of eventually owning a stationary restaurant. After private backing and a Kickstarter campaign, that dream became a reality.

Diners can choose from a vegetarian, pescetarian or omnivore menu, although gluten-free options are always available and Please’s website does say that vegan menus can be created with advance notice. Menus change with the seasons — sometimes more frequently as ingredients run out.

Once you make your selection, each dish is brought out and carefully spaced to make for a long, lingering meal. My second course (pescetarian) was again the same as my partner’s (omnivore), and it was our favorite: a piece of perfectly cooked fluke on a bed of pomelo and avocado with a vibrant green sauce made from local watercress, topped with thinly sliced pieces of celtuce, a crunchy, mild vegetable. The plates are deceptively small but the food is rich and filling, which is partially why the final dish of the night, an icy sweet concord grape granita, tasted so good.

An à la carte menu and bar menu are also available, leaving the dinner up to the diner. Even so, next time I go, I think I’ll trust the chef. (McKenzie Graham)

Postmark

3410 Telford St., Clifton, 513-281-3663, postmark.restaurant

Many rejoiced last summer when Red Feather chef/owner Brad Bernstein and partner Devon Barrett purchased what had been La Poste and, later, Harvest Bistro. Bernstein reopened as Postmark this fall so once again Clifton and its surrounding ’hoods can enjoy a full-service, white-tablecloth, wine-oriented restaurant that harkens back to the early days of its namesake.

Standouts among the appetizers included French onion soup, steak tartar and a special off-menu foie gras. My onion soup ($10) came classically prepared with a rich, oniony broth enhanced by bone marrow and topped with toasted garlic baguette and plenty of melted Gruyère cheese.

Our entrées ranged from a stuffed pasta ($21) to a duck breast special ($31) and a couple of fish dishes ($28-$29). The agnolotti pasta stuffing included white corn, hen of the woods mushrooms and a hint of black truffle oil. I thought the halibut was interesting — the Postmark version came with radishes, beans and creamy polenta.

Bernstein told me later that with Postmark he’s shooting for a more produce-centered “farmhouse refined.” The evolving menu will reflect “Ohio river culture and Creole and Southern influences,” he added, “with classic French training” mixed in. (PM)

Royal OTR

1200 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-3092, facebook.com/royalotr

This “sandwiches + greens” spot in Over-the-Rhine offers a refreshing new option for lunchgoers and sandwich-seekers alike amid the myriad pizza slices that pepper Main Street.

Sandwiches are indeed the bulk of the menu, with inventive takes on classics like chicken adobo grilled cheese and beef dip. But if you came for the sandwich, you’ll probably stay for the farro grain bowl. The concept is self-explanatory enough: Start with a bowl of farro — a chewy cooked grain in the quinoa family of healthy stuff with which to replace rice — then layer on tons of customizable topping options like pickled carrots, sunflower seeds and roasted sweet potato. Add chicken or chopped pork for $3, top with a dressing, et voilà.

The verde pork sandwich is not something I’d normally order, but executive chef Mike Kasak’s in-house 24-hour salt-cured pork and melange of pickled onions and carrots made it a worthwhile step outside of my comfort zone. The pork used for this sandwich can also be found in the excellent braised cabbage and pork soup — one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted.

Even without a hangover, the Deep South chili dog is a big winner. Starring Avril-Bleh’s andouille sausage and Kasak’s housemade pork étouffée on a solid bun topped with garlic jack cheese and onions, this chili dog delivers the perfect amount of zing and heat. (Leyla Shokoohe)

Sartre

1910 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-579-1910, sartreotr.com

Before we took a single sip or bite, and in fact before seeing a menu, I could tell that Sartre could become one of our go-to OTR destinations. The vaulted ceilings, remarkable woodwork and indirect lighting create a feeling both majestic and intimate.

While the name Sartre, from the French playwright and philosopher, might indicate that the menu skews completely Gallic, not all the dishes go that way. We didn’t quite know what to do for a “main” course, given options that ranged from country pâté, moules frites and steak frites in the French(ish) section to yellowfin tartar, “poisson frit” and a $7 lamb poutine. I thought the grain dishes were the most successful.

My overall favorite was the farro, which came with a large cluster of maitake mushroom resting on warm grains that had been seasoned with lardo and given crunchiness with chopped pistachios. The flavor and texture contrasts melded beautifully and the smallish portion was just right. The bulgar wheat dish was seasoned with pork belly and Green Goddess dressing and got its crunch from walnuts. I’m all about crunch as a flavor component.

And dessert turned out fabulous. Whatever you do, save room for dessert. (PM)


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Please
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Please

Bauer Farm Kitchen
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Bauer Farm Kitchen

Court Street Lobster Bar
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Court Street Lobster Bar

Cork & Cap
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Cork & Cap

CWC the Restaurant

CWC the Restaurant

Eighth & English
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Eighth & English

Gomez Salsa Cantina
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Gomez Salsa Cantina

Longfellow
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Longfellow

Panino
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Panino

Postmark
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Postmark