Affordable Variety Is the Delicious Main Course in Cincinnati's Oakley Neighborhood

CityBeat dining critic Pama Mitchell explores another Cincinnati neighborhood’s culinary delights.

click to enlarge A spread of food available from vendors at Oakley Kitchen Food Hall - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
A spread of food available from vendors at Oakley Kitchen Food Hall

If there’s a faster-growing city neighborhood over the past decade than Oakley, I haven’t heard about it. As of this spring, the 74-acre Oakley Station development south of I-71 includes almost 500,000 square feet of retail and office space along with 462 residential units. Restaurants aren’t a major part of the development, but you can find quite a few eateries in the surrounding neighborhood, where relatively affordable rental units have attracted younger people with sufficient disposable income — enough to keep a lot of the restaurants hopping, especially on weekends.

Oakley isn’t a restaurant mecca like downtown or Over-the-Rhine, and you won’t find a lot of what I would call “fine dining.” But Red Feather Kitchen (3200 Madison Road, redfeatherkitchen.com) certainly has the best claim on that designation.

The food is high-end, both in terms of price and quality, especially the meat. It will set you back over $50 for either a double-cut pork chop or a portion of melt-in-your-mouth beef short rib, so it’s the kind of place where people spend an evening — which is appropriate, since there’s a short supply of performing arts here to rush off to, unlike downtown.

Red Feather’s bar puts out some of the best cocktails in town — the Penicillin ($14) is first-rate — and the wine list won’t disappoint even genuine connoisseurs. It’s a spacious restaurant with several dining rooms and a separate room for the bar, along with valet parking.

On a recent visit with friends, we definitely enjoyed the drinks. Food-wise, our favorites were roasted beet salad with hazelnuts and arugula ($9), a special entrée of mussels and frites ($18), and the aforementioned short rib ($51).

At the opposite end of the fancy scale, you’ll find Oakley Kitchen Food Hall (3715 Madison Road, oakley-kitchen.com), a warehouse-style assortment of casual food and drink stands with enough space and variety to accommodate the hungry masses.

The first floor of what had been an antique mall houses more than a half-dozen separate eateries and an excellent bar, while the second floor is reserved for seating. In the evenings, enough people come to fill up two or three nearby parking lots, looking for everything from a Hawaiian stand called Onolicious (which offers grilled Spam, an island favorite) to the meat specialists Parts & Labor and Khana, an Indian grill, among several others. It’s a good destination for couples or groups that can’t agree on what kind of cuisine they want for dinner. The upstairs area is spacious enough to accommodate more tables than are there now, which would come in handy on busy Saturdays.

I can recommend smoked brisket with a choice of two sides from Parts & Labor ($16), enhanced by a tangy housemade barbecue sauce. The Mediterranean stand, Olive Tree, dished out a nice lamb kebab with spiced rice and a green salad ($18.99). And The Cutaway makes an Old Fashioned ($12) as good as any of those found at my favorite Over-the-Rhine cocktail bars (the Cutaway is actually manned by the team behind OTR’s Longfellow).

click to enlarge Bee cakes at Sleepy Bee Cafe - PHOTO: KHOI NGUYEN
Photo: Khoi Nguyen
Bee cakes at Sleepy Bee Cafe

One of my favorite Oakley destinations, and a relative old-timer, is Sleepy Bee Cafe (3098 Madison Road, sleepybeecafe.com), which opened in 2013. Its upbeat, sunny décor is full of whimsy, all flowers and bumble bees with an undergirding of Earth-friendly activism. It serves breakfast, brunch and lunch seven days a week, and in my experience, the place is always packed.

I’m partial to the breakfast dishes, though I do find it hard to select just one. I’m usually torn between Ember Avo Toast ($13) — described as “a fork and knife breakfast toast with avocado, one over-easy egg” and other tasty ingredients on toasted multigrain bread — and a scramble, in particular the one with chorizo, black beans, pepper and white cheddar ($13). But wait, there’s the pancakes, a whole assortment of styles made with either buttermilk batter or a gluten-free version “made from bee-pollinated flower.” Depending on the cake’s size and whether you want one or two, prices range from $3.75-$12, with the bee-pollen batter cakes at the higher rate.

If it’s later in the day and you’re craving more savory dishes, Sleepy Bee also offers a selection of bowls, sandwiches, salads and soups. Check out the green salad called Bee Chop ($11.50), a delicious mix including raw beets, carrots, celery, broccoli, avocado, mixed seeds and a hot-honey vinaigrette.

I’m partial to wine bars, and the neighborhood has a good one at Oakley Wines (4011 Allston St., oakleywines.com), a boutique shop whose basement bar pours a selection of interesting, often unusual wines and offers cocktails, beer and a satisfying menu of “bites” to accompany your libations.

I’ve tried the cheese plate ($16) and bread and butter ($5), the latter of which may sound uninteresting, except that it’s Allez sourdough with herbed caper butter: four thick slices that went especially well with a glass of Verdicchio ($11), a fragrant Italian white.

There are enough food choices to make a meal of it, if you so desire. Occasional special events include Sunday Suppers, featuring a more elaborate menu with wine pairings, and seasonal Tuesday “Raclette Nights” based on a fragrant French cheese that’s melted and poured over meat and potatoes.

Oakley also is the home of the ice cream parlor Aglamesis Bro’s (3046 Madison Road, aglamesis.com), which even Graeter’s fans should put on their list to visit. Not quite as long-running in its hometown as Graeter’s — 1908 vs. 1870 for the latter — Aglamesis is among the elite confectioners in our region. The shop opened its marble-festooned Oakley storefront in 1913, and it’s still a beauty, with handmade chocolates and other candies as wonderful as the ice cream.

And yes, there’s more: the local coffee chain Deeper Roots (3056 Madison Road, deeperrootscoffee.com) started with the Oakley location and is among the city’s most elite coffee purveyors. Seafood lovers will find much to like at Oakley Fish House (3036 Madison Road, oakleyfishhouse.com), and a little carry-out called The Wheel (3805 Brotherton Road, thewheeloakley.com) offers Italian grab-and-go entrees, sides, breads and sweets along with an array of inventive sandwiches on Saturdays. I haven’t tried The Wheel yet, but it has been a frequent Best Of Cincinnati staff pick winner, especially for the carrot sandwich ($11), featuring rosemary roasted carrots on housemade focaccia with garlic yogurt, romesco and kale.

If you’re not a resident of this ‘hood, you might consider making the drive, too.

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