Karrikin combines a distillery, brewery, bar and restaurant in a gigantic former warehouse located in what feels like a no-man’s land of industrial buildings between Mariemont and Mount Lookout. As obscure as the location seemed when we arrived on a stormy night, we nevertheless had trouble finding a parking space in either of the two large lots. A whole bunch of people quite obviously weren’t put off by the incongruous setting for what has become one of the “it” spots in Greater Cincinnati.
We finally found a space in the gravel lot behind a loading dock and crunched through a muddy path to the front door, where we stepped into the raucous main bar and found a host station. To our left, we could see the dining room — as cavernous as the bar and distillery areas in front of us, but which we hoped would feel noticeably less boisterous than the bar.
The Karrikin project — and the scale of this enterprise definitely has the feel of a project — is the brainchild of an impressive group of men with expertise ranging from interior design to brewing, sales and marketing, and yes, culinary arts. The executive chef, Jared Bennett, served for six years as sous chef and then chef de cuisine at Metropole, one of my absolute favorite restaurants in town. Even inside a warehouse — or distillery, industrial building, whatever it is — you can safely expect delicious food to come out of Bennett’s kitchen.
And the restaurant staff is bolstered with a team of Bennett’s fellow alums from Metropole. They include chef de cuisine Christopher Davis, sous chef Meagan White and beverage manager Chris Brown.
We did have a reservation for our dinner, which was a lucky thing since the wait can run up to an hour or two if you show up on a Friday or Saturday without planning ahead. The host staff seated us promptly at a table near the back of the dining room, which alternates tabletops with a couple areas of sofas and lounge chairs for more casual eaters. And while the noise level did diminish compared to the front room, the ambiance was very energetic.
Once we settled in, the first order of business at a distillery and brewery — quite naturally — was to decide what to drink.
The three-page beverage menu starts with a description of the eight spirits made in-house: two gins, vodka, rum and agave/tequila along with a rice-based liquor called Shifu, apple brandy and apricot brandy. Below that are 10 house cocktails and a few mocktails featuring housemade non-alcoholic sodas and shrubs.
If none of that suits your mood or taste, page two covers Karrikin’s own draft beers and hard pop, and after that a short list of wine offerings.
As it happened, we all started with one of the house cocktails ($8-$9). The one that stood out for me combined Karrikin white rum, dry vermouth and orange bitters.
Our server helped us navigate the food menu, which contained a fair number of unfamiliar terms. He discouraged us from ordering our eats in courses. “Each dish will come out when it’s ready,” he said, and we agreed to that plan. Bad idea.
Among four of us we chose at least eight items, and every one of them showed up at our table within five minutes of each other. Unless you want to have some of your food get cold and the table to get so overloaded that you’re rushing to finish a dish so the server can clear off the plates, order a few items at a time.
As it happened, dish after dish kept arriving while we gamely tried to keep up with all the food.
We tried items from up and down the menu — everything from beef heart pastrami with sauerkraut fritters ($8) to shaved Brussels sprouts and apple salad ($9) and sliced pork shoulder with polenta and kohlrabi ($12). A chilled dish I enjoyed was jicama and cucumber salad with crabmeat and sesame seeds ($12). The Brussels sprouts were served cold, surprising us, but we were pleased with the flavors and counted it among the winners.
My hands-down favorite combined creamy, roasted cauliflower with crunchy grains — not sure if it was rice or quinoa — in a savory sauce ($8). (The menu lists wild rice.) Butternut squash spaetzle ($12) had both richness and delicacy and it, too, was enhanced by a sprinkling of crisp pecans. I’m all about texture contrasts and appreciate something crunchy in almost any dish, sweet or savory.
We encountered a few misses along with the hits. A couple of the cocktails were lackluster, and the scallops ($16) had been over-salted to the point of being almost inedible. We found the baked cheese curds ($10) rather puzzling, as they didn’t look like the little nuggets we are used to. The cheese board ($12) would have been nice with drinks as a true appetizer but piled on the table along with salads and hot dishes, it became extraneous.
And what’s with the name, Karrikin, you might ask? Wikipedia says karrikins are “a group of plant growth regulators found in the smoke of burning plant material.”
It seems like a stretch, but as I interpret it, the ownership team makes a connection between this process and the distillation of grains to make liquor, and also the alchemy involved when humans cook food.
Or as a promotional blurb from Karrikin explained, “the same fire that stimulates new growth and renewal is the vision and passion we have for Karrikin Spirits Co.”
“The original idea was to be a brewery that does cocktails, and then it just took off,” Bennett said.
Judging from the East Side multitudes making their way to an obscure corner of the ’burb of Fairfax, I’d have to agree that Karrikin definitely has taken off.
Karrikin Spirits Co., 3717 Jonlen Drive, Fairfax, 513-561-5000, karrikinspirits.com.