East side or West side? Cincinnati has long been known for the mythological abyss dividing the city into East side transient and West side stable. You would think it was a north-south river, impossible to navigate for the deep historical waters, as infrequently as we venture into each other's communities.
How many Eastsiders are hopelessly lost after crossing the Western Hills viaduct — if you even know where it is — or can name more than three West side neighborhoods (did you remember Mack, Dent and Bridgetown)? And Westsiders; how many of you consider an outing to the Kenwood Towne Center a day trip, or can't understand why the East side doesn't identify their neighborhoods by a parish?
Despite the disengagement or confusion for most of us, there is a faction of Cincinnatians who know both sides because — egads! — our job took us out of our comfort zone and across the tracks.
Ron Wise, well-known chef of such restaurants as Primavista, Chateau Pomije and Iron Horse Inn belongs to this contingent who grew up West side and continues to live West side, though has spent most of his career further east. When continually asked to recommend a really good restaurant on the West side — in his own neighborhood — he couldn't. So he built one himself.
Ron and his wife, Mona, opened Rondo's — just west of Boudinot on Harrison in Cheviot — two months ago to provide an answer to that very question and be within walking distance of their home. And I am thrilled to report that it is a really good restaurant.
Just as the East side often leans toward flash-and-frill nouveau, Rondo's reflects the unpretentious sensibilities of the West side. Housed in the former historic Beech Flats restaurant, Rondo's is a simple, comfortable atmosphere of small dining rooms, mismatched utensils and a single sheet menu, likely printed that very day.
If many of the upscale East-side restaurants were the equivalent of a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos — beautiful, expensive and special occasion, I would equate Rondo's menu with a pair of split-toe Nikes — West-side sensible comfort with a flare. Grilled Pork Chops ($17.95) are paired with a typical Midwestern potato and vegetable, but embellished with balsamic onions and Gorgonzola. Spinach Salad ($4.75) is dressed with a familiar warm honey-mustard dressing, bacon and onion, but receives an added zing with whole cloves of roasted garlic and bits of goat cheese. Westside Crab Cakes ($8), often accompanied by trendy "aiolis," are served with Rondos' "cocktail sauce." Caesar Salad ($4.50) is presented in elegant simplicity — entire leaves of crunchy romaine under cheesy dressing — topped with two large anchovy croutons.
It works, and it works well. The menu is in a constant rotation: Some items are removed weekly and replaced with others, so you might love the Eggplant Napoleon (I did!) one week and not see it again until Chef Wise can purchase choice eggplant from one of his many growers.
Ron Wise has worked long in Cincinnati to establish beneficial relationships with small family farms and businesses. You can often run into him on Saturday mornings at Findlay Market carrying a bag overflowing with organic vegetables or handpicking premium cuts of meat for a menu feature that evening. In our follow-up phone conversation, he hoped I would highlight some of his purveyors ("Would you give a plug to GW Farms in Kentucky?" he asked, adding, "Rhonda grows the most beautiful oyster mushrooms") rather than talk about him.
That "we take care of our own" attitude carries throughout (if the West side had its own theme song, it would be cued up here). Rondo's is without a liquor license? Not a problem. Chef Wise sends wine distributors across the street to the diminutive Friendly Market with a list of food-friendly wines to stock, including a current menu available with wine pairing suggestions for each entrée. Brilliant! What a great example of community. Friendly's Market is selling more wine than ever, and customers save the 250 percent mark-up. (Rondo's does charge a $5 corkage fee, but I figured I still saved $15 on my Pinot Noir).
Importance of community extends to the small, neighborhood dry cleaner ("We send them all of our linens, they deliver it daily," says Wise), a local glass blower and a nearby farmer who provides Wise with smoked potatoes. The chef's 6-month-old daughter is often near mom and dad as they work, and Wise leaves the confines of the kitchen once or twice a night to connect with customers.
"It's important to know them," he simply states.
A word to the wise (ahem): Skipping dessert at Rondo's could be perilous to your well-being! Chef Wise is equally talented with desserts. From his ethereal bread pudding to the Black Magic Cake, Lemon and Mango Tart with Pomegranate to Banana Pudding with Mascarpone and Crème Anglaise — every one is a wise choice. ©
Go: 3234 Harrison Ave., Cheviot
Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed on Sunday-Monday.
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Eggplant Napoleon, various salads, Cheesy Horseradish Mustard Tart, but menu changes weekly.
Other: Non-smoking restaurant. No liquor license. Street parking.