Sandwiched between Americano Burger Bar and Mita’s in the 84.51° building downtown, Thunderdome Restaurant Group’s latest restaurant, the upscale “California-style” Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, seems to be the inverse of their other local eateries — The Eagle OTR, Currito, Bakersfield and Krueger’s Tavern. Whereas The Eagle is all about fried chicken and cheat-day sides, and Krueger’s does burgers, sausage and beer, Maplewood focuses on healthier foods, like cold-pressed juices, somewhat nutritious cocktails, organic superfood salads, egg-white omelets and buzzword ingredients like chia and quinoa. We have arrived in an era where people are conscious about what they eat and are seeking out creative dishes that don’t bust the gut.
Currently, Maplewood serves breakfast and lunch but they’ll soon be adding dinner service. Unlike Over-the-Rhine’s typical restaurant size, downtown’s Maplewood has ample space and can accommodate more patrons at a variety of tables, booths and a 15-person bar. Of all of Thunderdome’s eateries, Maplewood is quite possibly the best one yet because the menu takes risks — it’s fresh, fun and features ingredients and dishes you don’t typically see outside of the coasts — and offers a few obscure innovations.
Upon entering Maplewood, a host hands you a menu on a clipboard and then you wait in line to order at the counter (with the exception of baked goods and juices, which lend themselves to a more grab-and-go cafeteria style). After ordering, you get a number and take a seat. Your food and drinks are brought to your table quickly by waitstaff, but dining at Maplewood feels more like a restaurant experience than a fast-casual joint. The décor leans toward industrial Pottery Barn versus Panera, and Thunderdome has added some curated upgrades. Off to the side of the counter, the restaurant has a water station made out of sleek taps that pour sparkling, still and chilled water — all complimentary. They also offer 16 regional, local and national beers on tap, delivered from the same fancy and unobtrusive spigots as the water. Basically, the bubbles and booze will get you buzzed, right before that afternoon meeting.
During a recent lunch, my dining companion and I ordered the chopped salad ($13), the spicy chicken sandwich ($10), sticky ricotta toast ($5), a side of hash browns ($3), a side of roasted romanesco broccoli ($4), Brainstorm Coffee ($5), Sweet Greens cold-pressed juice ($10; cucumber, green apple, pear, spinach, celery, lemon and lime) and a roasted tomatillo bloody mary, served in a foot-tall glass.
While we lunched, two Maplewood employees — including co-owner Joe Lanni — stopped by our table and surveyed us about the roasted tomatillo bloody (made with Tito’s vodka, roasted tomatillo and Super Green juice). Something like a green bloody made with cold-pressed juice would be the norm on the West Coast, but not in the Midwest. We told him we liked it a lot — it tasted fresh, and with the juice and the purple cabbage accoutrement, the drink didn’t feel like empty calories. And it was worth the $10 price tag. A few years ago, cold-pressed juice was almost nonexistent in Cincinnati, but it has since exploded all over town (e.g. OTR’s Off the Vine, Oakley’s Rooted Juicery, Hyde Park’s The Weekly Juicery). The difference is that Maplewood not only serves cold-pressed juice by itself; the restaurant also ingeniously integrates the juice into cocktails, like the Super Green Margarita, taking the trend a step further.
The salad — charred corn, green beans, purple cauliflower, goat cheese, pecans, figs and beets; I held the bacon — came with a ton of veggies and chunks of whole pecans and figs (no skimping here), drizzled with a light dressing and accompanied by a couple pieces of toasted bread. It is the kind of salad you can eat almost entirely and not feel guilty about because it is packed with antioxidants and other stuff that is “good” for you. The spicy chicken sandwich, which featured rotisserie chicken, piri piri sauce, pickles, cheese and slaw on Sixteen Bricks bread, got its spiciness from African piri piri pepper — yet another innovation for Maplewood; piri piri is rarely seen on restaurant menus around here. (Could piri piri sauce be the new Sriracha?).
Like any good brunch spot, Maplewood also has a focus on coffee. The staff makes different types of specialty coffee drinks at their espresso bar using beans from local roaster La Terza. I tried the Brainstorm Coffee, a take on the already established Bulletproof Coffee (coffee blended with grass-fed butter). The foamy drink is supposed to boost brainpower, and, according to the Bulletproof Coffee claims, drinking butter in the morning jump-starts your metabolism. Though, after paying an overpriced $5 for a cup, I felt sleepy, not filled with Herculean strength.
One reason The Eagle and Bakersfield have been so successful is because they are franchise-able. They are niche restaurants specializing in one thing each: fried chicken and tacos, respectively. Maplewood would be more challenging to franchise, but the concept could work in other cities, too. Thanks to Maplewood, maybe Cincinnatians could get used to more wholesome foods.
Maplewood Kitchen and Bar
GO: 525 Race St., Downtown; CALL: 513-421-2100; Maplewood Kitchen and Bar; INTERNET: maplewoodkitchenandbar.com; HOURS: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.