Elements of Surprise

Reflecting on the year’s best — and worst — dining surprises

Dec 28, 2011 at 8:45 am
click to enlarge Bacon and Jalapeno Pizza from The Don in Northside.
Bacon and Jalapeno Pizza from The Don in Northside.


verybody gives their readers a year-end wrap up list of the best dishes they tried over the past 12 months, so I decided to surprise you. What follows are our Dining Team’s biggest surprises of 2011.

I have to say that there were quite a few things that toppled long-held truths for me this year. One truth that dated back to my childhood was my hatred of lima beans. Every time they appeared on my plate, it was a trauma. Canned, never fresh, they tasted like carefully crafted little olive-drab sandbags. I imagined a prison camp filled with downtrodden sprouts under the sadistic whip of the cruel Not-So-Jolly Green Giant, forced to encase dry earth in slimy green wrappers just to torment me. 

And then there were the sadistic parents who forced me to eat them — every last one. I devised a method of swallowing them whole, washing them down with milk, metering out the frosty goodness so I had enough to choke down every malignant oval as tears ran down my cheeks. 

And then one day this spring I strolled into a little café in Paris and ordered a glass of red wine and a “mixed plate.” I didn’t know enough vocabulary to tell what would be on it. When it arrived, there were slices of omelet, roasted peppers with cheese and olive oil and a big scoop of the dreaded lima beans. I had no cold milk. I bravely forked the first little offender and took a careful bite. 

Mon dieu! It was delicious! How could this be? Had the beans changed or had I? Was I wiser, braver, or did the flavor of Paris itself make those beans magical?

So I went on to eat more adventurous things, including pig from nose to tail. I was lucky with that: Delicate, paper-thin slices of house-made porchetta at the Palm Court are a damn good way to eat pig face. And the tail, when it showed up in a bed of lentils under seared duck breast at Abigail Street, was delectable. 

Oh, and speaking of pigs and surprises, one of my best laughs of 2011 came when I ran into Marvin Smith, Ollie himself from Ollie’s Trolley, in the West End. He was barbecuing a piglet outside Findlay Market. 

“Marvin!” I said. “You look great! You lost weight!”

“Yes,” he replied. “I became a strict vegetarian!”  

Here’s what surprised the rest of the Dining Team most this year.

A Conversion Experience

I admit that I wasn’t a fan of the old NorthSlice pizza place in Northside. So when I ran in to the new pizza place called The Don’s Pizza Lounge (1609 Chase Ave., Northside), which advertises itself as having the same sauce and same crust as NorthSlice, my hopes weren’t high. Still, I was starving. 

Running out to continue my Christmas errands with a slice of jalapeno- and bacon-topped pizza on a paper plate, I stopped dead in my tracks. I wolfed down half the gi-normous slice! Now my New Year¹s resolution is to go back and sample more of The Don’s offerings in the cozy little dining room with its red and white checkered tablecloths. Who knows, maybe the BBQ chicken with its local free range chicken or the spinach ricotta will surprise me even more. I can proudly say that this pizza lounge made a believer out of me. Like The Don says: Pizza is the only truth. (Lora Arduser)

The Trend of Ruining Perfectly Good Side Dishes

This was the year of meat encroachment — in ice cream, popcorn and Bloody Marys. Meat gained territory like a bacon-wrapped plague. Like a veal virus. I appreciate the notion of using all parts of an animal, but is the dusting of beef powder on my corn on the cob necessary? I’ll have the lima beans, hold the tripe, please.

I long for the days of yore when one could order vegetables at a restaurant and expect to be served what could easily be discerned as a vegetable. With the meat renaissance in full swing, brussels sprouts are wrapped in caul fat and deep-fried, while cauliflower is braised inside a veal calf’s stomach and served atop fois gras. Even potatoes aren’t safe. They are smashed with chicken stock, baked with bacon and fried in duck fat. 

I just want the vegetables my mom used to make. Well, maybe not that sweet potato casserole with the marshmallows on top, but you get the idea. (Karen Christopfel)

Cakes of Shrimp

When I find a tasty new food, I tend to obsess on it. I think about it, I try to replicate it if I can and I finagle my way into obtaining more of it. My latest obsession, and the biggest surprise to me of this year, are the shrimp cakes at Zab Thai (10667 Loveland-Madeira Road, Loveland). These tasty cakes are impossibly light and crunchy, bursting with freshness, reminiscent of crab cakes but much more delicate and nuanced. They are served with an amazing sweet and sour sauce with just the right amount of pucker-inducing sour and a cucumber relish that disappears all too quickly. So far, my replication efforts have failed. But since everything I’ve tried at Zab Thai is amazing, a return trip for more “research” is not a problem. (Candace Miller-Janidlo)

In Praise of Perseverance

What was my biggest food surprise of 2011? Well, food rarely surprises me. It’s either good or it isn’t. What really surprised me this year is that in spite of a shitty economy, grueling hours, rising costs and demanding customers, it is a shock that anyone still wants to be in the food industry.

I remain in awe of talented individuals who take the time to source local ingredients or even grow their own. I so appreciate the chefs who work from morning to late at night so that we can sample the results of their dedication, and I respect those same chefs and restaurant owners who take the time to regularly update and freshen up their menus to reflect the current season. 

To the countless servers, bartenders, hosts and bussers, a gigantic thank you for putting up with unreasonable customers, poor tippers and squirming, spilling, shrieking kids. You are perhaps the most underappreciated group of hard working people in the world, but I, for one, am grateful for all you do. 

Yes, it is surprising that talented individuals still want to work in the food service industry. During this holiday season, take time to thank them, tip them well and appreciate all that they do so you can enjoy a great meal. Let’s all strive to make the industry more hospitable to those involved, so that in the future it won’t surprise me when a new generation provides even better food and service. (Bill Hatfield)