The Littlefield (Review)

Longtime local chef Shoshannah Hafner heads the kitchen at Northside bourbon bar The Littlefield

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click to enlarge Caramelized banana buttermilk upside-down cake
Caramelized banana buttermilk upside-down cake

A burst of commercial development in Northside over the past year, with more on the horizon, invites comparisons to the city’s other renaissance neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine. At least one feature seems notably different, however: Northside’s changes are happening without many people calling them “gentrification.” It’s more of an organic transformation of the places that have long given the neighborhood a somewhat Bohemian charm, with a small but noticeable move toward more upscale offerings. And many of the new bars, eateries and shops along and adjacent to the neighborhood’s main drag of Hamilton Avenue are owned and operated by longtime Northside residents.

The Littlefield represents this trend as well as any other new establishment. Open since July, Northsiders John Ford, Matt Distel, Chad Scholten and Mike Berry teamed up to bring Cincinnati its first bourbon bar. Food seemed almost beside the point until Shoshannah Hafner, chef and owner of former Northside restaurant Honey, “fell into our lap,” Ford says. Having a chef of that caliber on board put them in a different position than they had expected in regards to food, he says.

Hafner’s history of creating culinary magic around here stretches from the York Street Café back in the 1990s to gone-but-not-forgotten favorites such as Virginia Bakery and Vineyard Café. She initially signed on as just a consultant to the guys planning The Littlefield.

“I kind of fell for them,” she says. Now, as their full-time chef, she says she couldn’t be happier.

As a Clifton resident and bourbon fan, I was ready to embrace a nearby bourbon bar. But I also appreciate that at this one you don’t have to imbibe on an empty stomach or eat boring “bar food” with your drinks. Hafner designed The Littlefield’s menu of shareable small plates specifically to complement the depth of flavor in different bourbons. Some dishes focus on meats, such as house-smoked bacon or homemade pork sausage, but she doesn’t slight vegetarians, offering options like a spicy tomato soup that was the house soup at Honey.

On a recent Wednesday my husband and I dropped in for supper. After settling in with his local craft beer from the tap and my Mad Anthony cocktail (Buffalo Trace bourbon with housemade ginger beer, basil and balsamic vinaigrette), we started our meal with a couple of vegetarian appetizers: Garbanzo and Lentil Crisps ($8) and a small pizza with olive tapenade, mozzarella cheese and truffle butter ($10), which was a special that night. Both dishes were salty, spicy and went great with our drinks. The pizza had an especially nice balance of flavors with the melted cheese and savory olives, and Hafner told me in a follow-up conversation that customers liked it so much they’ll soon be adding it to the regular menu.

Next we considered two house specialties: potpies and sandwich-type plates. Our server recommended the newest potpie on the menu, made with stout-braised beef ($11). Under a crispy, biscuit-like topping was a creamy mixture of minced meat, carrots, peas, onions and bits of sweet potato and butternut squash. It was an unusual mix of flavors, quite tasty, and what surprised me was that a small portion — maybe 1½ cups of the beef mixture at most — was so filling that I couldn’t finish it.

Choosing among Pigs in a Blanket (housemade pork sausage in pastry), a BLP Sandwich (house-smoked bacon with lettuce and bourbon-browned pear) and a Shrimp Pobaby sandwich, my husband went with the shrimp ($12). The hearty, large sandwich came on toasted slices of Sixteen Bricks Bread with a peppery filling of sautéed shrimp, caramelized onion and lettuce.

Every savory dish we tried paired beautifully with beer and bourbon. I usually prefer wine with my main course, but wine just isn’t a strong suit at The Littlefield. There are four whites and two or three reds along with a prosecco and a rosé, but they’re all served in tiny juice glasses and none that I’ve tried were a match to the excellent cocktails or even the well-chosen local beers.

We loosened our belts and finished off the meal with one of Hafner’s irresistible desserts. Having enjoyed the bourbon pecan pie and the bourbon flourless chocolate cake ($6 each) on previous visits, we opted for a newer menu item: caramelized banana buttermilk upside-down cake ($7). Delicious, with a tender, sweet crumb and a slightly crusty bottom, it was garnished with curried coconut caramel popcorn. We also took home a ginger molasses chocolate chip bacon cookie ($3) — we couldn’t eat another bite but wanted to try that, too. What a fantastically yummy thing that was with coffee the next morning. Luckily, the cookie is a standard menu item ... in case you want to consider stocking up.

The team running The Littlefield hopes to see more new ventures popping up on their block and nearby. In the meantime, with live music on Wednesdays, food and drink specials most other nights and a separate Sunday brunch menu, The Littlefield adds significantly not only to Northside’s bar scene but also to its dining options.


The Littlefield

Go: 3934 Spring Grove Ave., Northside;
Call: 513-386-7570;
Internet: littlefieldns.com;
Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

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