Review: Madison Road Dining Destinations Feature Inventive Meals, Desserts and Drinks

A stretch between East Walnut Hills and O’Bryonville boasts several top dining destinations.

click to enlarge Symposium is one of the newest additions to Madison Road in East Walnut Hills. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Symposium is one of the newest additions to Madison Road in East Walnut Hills.

Madison Road – a major artery in Cincinnati – runs from Victory Parkway in Avondale out to Madisonville, passing through many neighborhoods along the way. And on a particular one-mile section between East Walnut Hills and O’Bryonville, locals can find some of the best eats and drinks in town.

Here, there are a couple of wine bars, a cocktail lounge, sweet treats, creative burgers, excellent coffee, authentic Asian and South American food and a young chef producing inventive pasta dishes for every season.

That would be Alessandro Urbisci, executive chef at Branch (1535 Madison Rd., eatatbranch.com) since last fall. His pasta creations range from light and refreshing to hearty and filling, always with a careful eye on the season. Summer menu standouts include gnocchi with sun-dried tomato pesto, house ricotta and preserved lemon, as well as spinach tagliatelle sauced with gorgonzola, braised pork and toasty breadcrumbs gently seasoned with Calabrian chili. The latter is plate-licking good.

Urbisci has a talent for sauces of all kinds, and not only on pasta dishes. Even the whipped balsamic butter served with toasted bread from Allez Bakery had us asking for more. And I loved the tomato-based concoction that accompanied an entrée of branzino, although I would have preferred the fish filet served whole rather than cut up into pieces. New York strip steak and pork ribs are two meaty main courses, if you’re looking for something more substantial.

Across from Branch on Madison is another highly regarded eatery, the Japanese restaurant and bakery Café Mochiko (1524 Madison Rd., cafemochiko.com). Running for less than a year, the bakery often attracts long lines on the four mornings a week the walk-up window is open. With the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the café itself usually is available, as well, if you want to sit and scarf up some of the sweet and savory treats along with a cup of strong coffee or other drink.

The ube halaya croissant that bursts with purple yam jam and cream is killer, and it’s so large and decadent that I’ve always had to cut it into slices and share with at least one other person. During evenings, Mochiko serves what its website calls “Japanese café fare,” from excellent ramen to an entree I loved called Shitake Don—a tasty mushroom dish served over Tamaki Gold rice.

The newest addition to this stretch of Madison is a corner café called Symposium (2835 Woodburn Ave., symposiumcincinnati.com). Helmed by chef Aaron Owen, Symposium bills itself as a cantina as well as a wine bar. It’s only been around for a couple of months and recently closed for two weeks to give staff a summer vacation while Owen went overseas for his wedding and to tour Italian wine regions.

Owen has been experimenting with a variety of small plates to accompany daytime coffee drinks and evening libations. I’ve enjoyed a few of the house cocktails but was disappointed in the small selection of wines by the glass. Symposium has a lot going for it, including a large covered patio and well designed indoor seating. But the “wine bar” label may not apply if, as we discovered one Friday night, an establishment offers only one red, one white and a Prosecco by the glass.

For what I think of as a true wine bar experience, head a mile east to O’Bryonville and try Tim Shumrick’s new bar and retail wine shop, Annata (2021 Madison Rd., searchable on social media). Shumrick spent the past year or more renovating and updating the building that once housed Chateau Pomije, which he also owned. At Annata, you can select from a couple dozen wines by the glass or bottle, with or without cheese, Mediterranean or charcuterie plates. House-smoked meats and fish add a special touch to those plates. Create your own wine flight by choosing three three-ounce pours of any of the wines on the list.

I found the staff to be knowledgeable not only about the glass pours but also when we browsed the adjacent retail room. You can sit inside in the air conditioning or on a pleasant elevated back deck on the shadier side of the building.

The best-known place in O’Bryonville has to be The BonBonerie (2030 Madison Rd., bonbonerie.com), possibly the most famous bakery in Cincinnati. Co-owned by Mary Pat Pace and Sharon Butler for more than 30 years, BonBonerie’s opera cream torte has graced many tables for birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions. I remember my best friend and I took our mothers to Bonbonerie for afternoon tea with all the trimmings 15 or 20 years ago, and you can still do that in the BonBonerie Café and Tearoom. The holiday goodies are phenomenal, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or Easter. Brunch/lunch is served six days a week, so it doesn’t have to be a special occasion to partake.

Another recent addition is the O’Bryonville location of Over-the-Rhine’s empanadas house, Ché Empanadas y Mas (3009 O’Bryon St., cheempsymas.com). The business has done a beautiful job transforming the interior of a nondescript building into a truly convivial restaurant and bar.

One of my favorite café/bar combos is Bean & Barley (2005½ Madison Rd., beanandbarley.co), also in O’Bryonville. About a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, a couple of local entrepreneurs gutted and renovated the B&B building on Madison, creating an open, airy space with outdoor seating and a thoroughly modern ambiance. It’s a pleasant place to hang out, and the emphasis on what its website calls “the craftmanship of local coffee roasters, brewers, bakers and artists” definitely adds to its charms. Bean & Barley is one of those neighborhood places you wish was in your ‘hood and that you will go out of your way for when the opportunity arises.

Also of note is a new branch of the ice cream shop Hello Honey (1530 Madison Rd., hellohoneyicecream.com), which closed a downtown location around the time it opened in East Walnut Hills. I’ve learned not to fall in love with a particular flavor there because the flavors change with lightning speed. I’ve also learned to have them pack a pint or two of a heartthrob flavor.

Heyday (1527 Madison Rd., heyday.menu), next door to Branch, dishes out burgers, fries, and slices of seriously good pie – as you’d expect from an establishment hailing from the owners of O Pie O. Around the corner on Woodburn, check out the classy little cocktail bar Anjou (2804 Woodburn Ave., anjoucinci.com) as well as Woodburn Brewing (2800 Woodburn Ave., woodburnbrewing.com), which along with highly regarded beer also features spirits made by Cincinnati Distilling plus a terrific cocktail list.


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