I 'm an urban patriot, dedicated to the vitality of our city. I'm more allergic to than incompatible with super-sized suburbia, and I feel congested and anxious among the homogeny and Humvees, so I'm generally reluctant to spend my leisure time and entertainment dollars farther north than Kenwood. However, a recent assignment to a restaurant beyond the I-275 beltway could quite easily redefine my boundaries.
On a quaint corner of Main Street in Mason, in a 19th-century building with a haunted history, Chokolate Morel has quietly been gathering a following of dedicated diners who relish the intimate atmosphere and outstanding food amid the burgeoning area of paved paradise and hackneyed fast-food joints. Chokolate Morel is the welcome antithesis: slow food, passionately prepared, proudly delivered and — as four of us affirmed — enthusiastically consumed.
The original idea of chef-owners Pam Kennedy and Dave Avalos (pastry chef and executive chef, respectively) for Chokolate Morel when they opened it 10 months ago was a small, private event-catering house. Indeed, they hung no sign and did little advertising, relying instead on customers from former catering gigs.
My guess is that customers insisted that the business expand: This was too good to keep from the general public. And grow it has; so much so beyond Mason residents that Cincinnatians are driving north, Daytonites are driving south, and what has been a Wednesday through Saturday dinner-only venue will soon expand into the building next door to include lunches and carryout.
Part of the intimate charm of Chokolate Morel is Kennedy and Avalos' choice to keep the separate rooms of the historic home intact, providing each with its own décor and personality.
With names like the Gold Room, the Patina Room, the Cabernet Room, the Tapestry Room and Rebecca's Room (a nod to the former reclusive owner who was murdered in her bedroom more than a century ago and is reported to still linger in the house), the owners have created an atmosphere that feels personal and attentive. As I peeked around the restaurant (it's hard to resist), I fell in love with the Tapestry Room; a luxurious, brocaded romantic red with one round table that seats up to four. My imagination soared with bacchanalian feasts and poetic sighs.
The comfortable surroundings serve as a framework for the exceptional food. The menu — printed daily to reflect seasons and features — is divided into Tapas (more specifically Water Tapas, Land Tapas, Green Tapas and Semolina Tapas), "Big Plates" and Desserts. I love tapas menus, and Chef Dave's philosophy — ".... a perfect small meal to quench the appetite, assist the beverage and not overwhelm the waist while promoting friendship at the table" — resonates with my own dining style.
The four of us ordered extensively from this menu: Fresh Soft Shell Crabs ($11.50), served with couscous in a pool of black bean sauce and drizzled with rooster aioli sauce; Caramelized Onion, Boursin & Brie Tart ($9); House Salads ($6.95) of bibb lettuce, field greens spiced pecans, apple stilton cheese and dried cranberries with house-made "Purple Trillium" vinaigrette; Seasonal Local Tomato Salad ($8.95) accompanied by fresh mozzarella and basil with balsamic gastrique and red onion cucumber salad; Pan Seared Pineapple and Spiced Shrimp Ensalada ($12.95) over white corn, jicama and mango salad in avocado cups and roasted citrus and tomatillo drizzle; and finally Arugula Pesto Angel Hair Primavera ($14) tossed with baby arugula, pesto cream, broccolini, sugar snap peas, fresh local greens, reggiano, pine nuts and Wasabi peas. Whew! That doesn't even include the one "Big Plate" of Chai Tea Salmon ($19) over curried date basmati rice, covered in vinegared baby spinach and sided by poached mission figs. I'm not going to dissect each dish here. All I'll say is yes! we ate it all — with yums and smacks, slurps and moans in glorious orgasmic fashion.
With all that I offer you this: Do not skip dessert! How fortunate we are that one of the owners is a pastry chef: So few establishments can support their own any more, leaving us with pre-frozen things-that-slice-neatly. The four of us — who rarely order restaurant desserts — shared three of Chef Pam's creations: Lemon Chess Pie ($6.50) with fresh cream and blackberry coulis; Warm Sun Dried Cherry Custard-Style Bread Pudding ($6.50) with caramel to-die-for sauce; and Apple Rhubarb Cobbler ($6.50); each one a plate of sophisticated deliciousness.
I'll be back, yes, in the new spirit of redefining my urban boundaries, but more precisely because the Chokolate Morel is reason enough. ©
Go: 101. E. Main St., Mason
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Private rooms and reservations available
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Major credit cards. Gratuity (18 percent) is added to parties of five or more
Red Meat Alternatives: Varies due to daily changing menu. Lots of seafood