February 05, 2018

Inside Aster: Sleepy Bee's New Downtown Bar

Aster Social Sippery — a new bar downtown helmed by the team behind the Sleepy Bee Café — happened by happy accident. As the restaurant was renovating the third floor of their third Sleepy Bee location on Fourth Street, they unexpectedly discovered expansive ceilings and beautiful wooden beams.

“Once they uncovered more of it, we kind of just decided what we wanted to do with it and that was open a bar,” says Frances Kroner, executive chef and partner at Aster and Sleepy Bee. “It felt like a space that we wanted people to celebrate (in). I don’t know what else would do it justice.”

Kroner, along with executive sous chef Emma Cotter (of both Aster and Sleepy Bee), are the leadership duo at the bar, which is situated upstairs from the breakfast /lunch restaurant space.

The pair have worked together for more than four years running the Sleepy Bee, with locations in Blue Ash, Oakley and now downtown. Their intuitive partnership and balancing strengths made running the bar a no-brainer for Sleepy Bee and Aster co-owner Sandra Gross (along with husband Dr. John Hutton).

“I would trust them with anything. Seriously. Frannie is ridiculously thoughtful about every single detail,” Gross says. “What Emma brings, one of her greatest strengths, is working with people and hearing people and allowing people to express themselves. Both Giacomo (Ciminello, beverage director) and Zach (Shumate, general manager) are bringing strengths and incredible ways of viewing the bar.”

The name Aster comes from both the perennial flower that serves as an important food source for bees, and is ancient Greek for “star.” The team has added a third definition: “A social sippery where old friends gather and new ones are made.”

“I can’t stand walking into a place and feeling like I’m not supposed to be there,” Kroner says. “That’s my least favorite thing ever, and I think it’s most people’s least favorite thing. I feel like, a lot of bars, they’re so cool, that piece is forgotten somehow — the hospitality piece; the fact that people are coming in to seek solace from their day and to have a really good time and feel that warmth.”

The bar is decorated to emulate a living room — somewhere relaxing and comforting. Lounge-y couches are sprinkled throughout, along with a handful of tables and a few high tops. The bar top seats are cozy, and the whole space has a welcoming vibe.

“We really wanted people feeling like they’re supposed to be here, like they’re comfortable here,” Kroner says. “We wanted it to feel a little bit like a house party or like you’re in someone’s living room, and that they took a lot of time to put really delicious drinks together.”

That’s where Ciminello comes in. Known as much for his distinctive handlebar mustache as the boozy milkshakes he made a staple at Sundry and Vice cocktail bar in Over-the-Rhine, Ciminello worked closely with Kroner and Cotter to create the cocktail selection at Aster.

“I love working with chefs,” Ciminello says. “They just have a different way of looking at cocktails. They’re looking at the organic ingredients, whereas a bartender generally looks at the spirit ingredients, so the idea of bringing the farm to the cocktail world was intriguing.”

Standout cocktails include the Fig Dandy, a fig syrup, bourbon and dandelion tea concoction, and the Voodoo Lily, a carrot-orange coconut milk and rum cocktail with a kick of curry. 

There’s also a smattering of non-alcoholic and low ABV cocktails that go beyond soda and virgin mixed drinks. The Moonville stands out on the non-alcoholic list — coconut milk makes it creamy while pineapple and rose water add sweetness, lime gives it a refreshing zing and a sprinkle of cinnamon on top adds texture.

And then there’s the food. The bar serves weekend brunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and all day Sunday, plus different, more shareable items after 4 p.m. Kroner and Cotter wanted to elevate the concept of bar food, along with relishing the challenge of creating a whole new menu of items intended for sharing.

“We built a skeleton that makes changes really easily,” Cotter says. “The guests are always going to know about what they can expect, they know what level of food they can order, and then we can just keep playing with it seasonally and as ingredients get exciting to us.”

There re many dips to choose from, including an avocado yogurt dip with dukkah and a mini shakshuka. When we tried the avocado dip, we had no idea what dukkah was: it’s  an Egyptian spice blend that adds a lovely dimension and aroma to the creamy dip. The shakshuka, a heat-filled tomato-and-red-pepper-sauce dish with poached eggs, was perfectly balanced.

All dips are served with crunchy carta di musica, a Sicilian flatbread coated in olive oil and salt that gets its name from the ultra thin dough. Cotter describes it as ideally being so thin before baking that you can read a sheet of music through it — hence the “musica.” If taste is an indicator of that achievement, then the yeasty, crispy end product signals a mission accomplished.

Pressed sandwiches include a flavorful chutney-filled grilled cheese and a lamb BLT.

More sharing is on the way. Aster will soon introduce “socials,” a carafe of drinks meant to serve four to six people. The idea is to eliminate time spent waiting at the bar for individual drinks and instead focus on the company you’ve come to spend time with.

“We want this to be a very flexible space. We want it to feel comfortable for a lot of different types of people, coming from and going to different types of events or going home,” Cotter says.


Aster

Go: 8 E. Fourth St., Downtown;

Call: 513-381-0956;

Internet: asteronfourth.com;

Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday 1 a.m.; 11 a.m. midnight Sunday. 



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Interior of Aster
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Interior of Aster
Voodoo Lilly and Moonville cocktails
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Voodoo Lilly and Moonville cocktails
Giacomo, beverage director, preparing cocktail
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Giacomo, beverage director, preparing cocktail
Valerian Steel
Valerian Steel
Interior of Aster
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Interior of Aster
Spread of shareable plates and cocktails
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Spread of shareable plates and cocktails
Giacomo preparing the Voodoo Lilly
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Giacomo preparing the Voodoo Lilly
Butternut squash sharable dish
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Butternut squash sharable dish