This story is featured in the March 22 issue of CityBeat.
What comes to mind when you encounter the phrase “hotel food?” That might depend on how often and how recently you’ve traveled.
Overall, food service in American hotels these days ranges from the pre-packaged “free” breakfasts (factored into the cost of the room) at the big hotel chains to chef-driven, cutting-edge restaurants such as Metropole in downtown Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel. What seems to be an endangered species, however, are hotel restaurants somewhere between those two extremes.
I travel a fair amount and have noticed that many of the pandemic-induced cutbacks in hotel service have not been restored. For instance, I haven’t been offered daily housekeeping service for a hotel room in years. That probably doesn’t matter too much to hotel guests, who would just as soon not have staff coming into their rooms, but it has put a lot of housekeepers out of work. Another noticeable fallout from COVID-19 has been the diminishment of hotel dining facilities, either by eliminating in-house restaurants altogether or significantly cutting the hours and range of their offerings.
The restaurant at downtown’s newest hotel, the Kinley, has followed the boom-and-bust food-service cycle I’ve encountered on visits to other cities. The hotel opened with a splash late in 2020 – the splash coming mostly from its high-profile restaurant Khora. The hotel is part of Marriott’s boutique brand, Tribute Portfolio Hotels. As of press time, it is one of two Kinley properties, with the other in Chattanooga.
Before it opened, Khora received national attention due to its staffing dream team that included chefs Kevin Ashworth and Edward Lee, pastry chef Megan Ketover and general manager Blair Bowman. The opening came after the COVID-19 shutdown early in 2020 but before the vaccines became available in 2021 – obviously, not an ideal time to lure either travelers to the hotel or locals to the restaurant.
The dream-team Khora was one of my first fine-dining forays after the shutdown, and the experience definitely lived up to the hype. It was wonderful to break the COVID isolation and go out with friends to a place where everyone in the room was having a terrific time. Highlights included Ashworth’s spectacular pasta dishes and everything from Ketover, who had been the pastry chef at Orchid’s, the five-star restaurant in the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel. The culinary team was so impressive that Esquire magazine announced plans to name Khora one of the nation’s best new restaurants that year.
Then, it fell apart when the hotel’s corporate owners fired Ashworth and Lee, followed shortly by the departure of Ketover and Bowman late in 2021. Esquire’s published list did not include a Cincinnati entry, and within a few months, the restaurant closed. The lovely dining room sat empty, while the hotel offered minimal food service to overnight guests in its lobby bar, the Exchange.
Then, sometime in 2022, Khora quietly reopened. It’s had some time to create a new identity, so I decided to see if it bore any resemblance to the Khora of 2020-21.
The physical property retains its original charm, with lovely light fixtures, comfortable seating and a generous amount of space between the tables. The 2020-21 menu featured pastas made from unusual grains; in fact, the name “Khora” derived from the Khorasan grain of Middle Eastern origin that some Ohio farmers have revived.
But the focus on pasta was not evident in the menu we were offered, which listed only two pastas: vegetarian gnocchi and ramen chicken. Starters included roasted squash soup, two salads, beef tartare, fried cauliflower and broccolini. We ordered the soup and poached pear salad. The soup had a nice flavor profile, sweetened with poached pears and accented with roasted pecans, but they served it lukewarm. The salad included delicious bits of pumpkin seed granola and chopped quark, but the lackluster greens detracted from those ingredients.
The entrees were similarly hit-or-miss. I lucked out with the salmon dish, which was finished to a perfect “medium” level of doneness, accompanied by equally well-cooked cauliflower and brussels sprouts; at the table, the server poured a broth of chili oil and lemongrass over the dish. It was excellent. Two of my companions had the smash burger, served with candied bacon, provolone and caramelized onions on a 16 Bricks bun. They loved it.
However, the ramen chicken was flavorless; I think the kitchen may have omitted the chili oil ingredient listed on the menu. Three of our table of eight went for the daily pasta special, tagliatelle in a wild mushroom sauce. Everyone said the mushrooms were great, but the pasta itself stuck together in a gummy blob. The whole thing was room temperature, as were the ramen chicken and, as mentioned, the soup.
For now, the hotel seems to be putting an emphasis on the breakfast and lunch bars served in the lobby area. The breakfast sandwiches, toasts, espresso drinks and lunch items are available for hotel guests and the general public. You can get some decent cocktails from the bar, as well. But Khora itself is definitely still finding its way.
While trying to understand the evolution of this restaurant, I hit a wall in navigating the Kinley-Tribute Portfolio-Marriott bureaucracy. Nobody wanted to talk about why management pulled the plug on the restaurant that the company said was “unprofitable” after one year in operation, even after the departing chef publicly called it “unfair” to abandon ship in the middle of a pandemic. And although Kinley’s current general manager Zackary Oxley said Tribute Portfolio was planning a “new direction” for Khora in the coming weeks and months, he wasn't able to offer details.
Oxley would only say that the restaurant’s food would be “more approachable” and “designed for the local community, as well as guests from out of town who want to experience what Cincinnati is all about.”
Going forward, while the restaurant may not have the sky-high aspirations it did in 2020, I’m hopeful they’ll be able not only to feed overnight guests but also to entice the rest of us by producing consistently good food.
Khora, 37 W. Seventh St., Downtown. Info: khorarestaurant.com.
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