Diner: Self Service

Vinoklet Winery is all about the view

"Turn left at Rumpke Dump. We're a mile-and-a-quarter down the road," the woman cheerfully tells me when I call Vinoklet Winery for directions. Hmmm, I'm a bit apprehensive. I'll have to check my non-derisives file to see if I know anyone well-mannered and objective enough to overlook the location. Since most of my friends are a pretty cheeky lot of urbanites, this is going to be challenging. I mean, what if there's a breeze?

The Scene
The four of us manage to hold our tongues as we pass Rumpke's vast real estate of landfill. (In fact, we're momentarily rendered mute with awe and shame to realize how much waste we generate). Another half-mile and we are greeted by the pastoral setting of Vinoklet: It is unexpectedly idyllic. We're amazed that not one of us has been here in its 11-year history.

A majestic grapevine arbor leads to an outdoor patio buzzing with Saturday night celebrations, but it's the huge outdoor grill that catches our eye.

An esprit d' corps of grillmeisters — two dozen, at least — are gathered around the fire, drinks in one hand, tongs in the other, a communal backyard of sorts. Uh-oh, it appears we're going to have to work for our dinner.

Cross the patio to enter the restaurant: a big open room decorated in Midwest Lodge and Chuck Wagon humor. We identify ourselves to the hostess and let her know it's our first time: We're suspicious that there might be a lot of procedure and protocol. Quite taken with the ambience of a romantically lit, glass patio that overlooks the bucolic view, we request a table there. She is sweetly adamant that the entire restaurant is booked, and the only available table is on the outdoor patio next to the behemoth grill. She gives us the lowdown on the routine and, even though I'm sure we look confused, she heads off.

The Scoop
OK, here's the routine for first-timers. Step One: Head to the bar and stand in line for a wine tasting. You can taste any of the wines they are serving that evening (up to six) and then choose two to accompany your dinner. Wines are made on the premises and have names like Cincinnatus (a cabernet) and Tears of Joy (chardonnay). Of the six wines we tasted, only the aforementioned ones were not Manischevitz sweet. They do have a limited bar if you are not a wine drinker. Some of my party thought gin and tonics would go better with our meal.

"People don't really come here for the food: They come for the atmosphere and the wine," a young staff member tells me. Yikes. Now that I've had the wine, I'm a little concerned. Step Two: Order your meal. At the same bar, you select between a strip steak, a chicken breast (marinated in Italian dressing), "Icelandic cod" (wrapped in foil with butter, salt and pepper) or vegetarian lasagna (indescribable). You're handed a tray with entrées and help yourself to the buffet of mashed potatoes, vegetables, bread and salads in center of the room. All of this, plus a half carafe of wine is $25.50 per person.

Step Three: Send the men out to the grill with dinner. Unfortunately, the staff member was right. With the exception of the strip steak (which my friend enjoyed) and a few of the sides (mashed potatoes and pasta salad received good comments), the rest of the entrées (especially the fish and lasagna — ugh, really awful) hovered between hospital and cafeteria food. Even the three desserts we tried from the dessert bar were left unfinished.

The Sizzle
Step Four: Clear your own table. Vinoklet is essentially a self-service restaurant in a beautiful setting. Food is not the point here; you're paying for the space. I think they would really be onto something if, for a reasonable charge, you could bring your own entrée to grill and a good bottle of wine. ©

Go: Old Colerain Ave., Colerain Twp.

Call: 513-385-9309

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday Noon-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 1-11 p.m., Sunday 1-7 p.m. Closed Monday.

Prices: $25.50 (fixed price)

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken breast or cod. Vegetarians: Bring your own tofu kabobs

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