It all started the day I found out I was leaving Cincinnati for good. That night, I found myself at my kitchen table sketching out a list of favorite places I wanted to hit one more time before leaving town: Bonbonerie, Slim's, Graeter's, Jean-Ro Bistro, Delight Thai Café, Pit to Plate, The Winds Café in Yellow Springs...
As my list of destinations grew longer and longer, it made me stop and think: I wasn't making a list of places to go or sights to see. My list was entirely food-centric. I was saying goodbye to my home of nearly a decade, and all that was on my mind was my stomach.
I kept working on my list. Next came places I'd meant to go over the years but had never been: Murphin Ridge Inn, Sturkey's, Knotty Pine on the Bayou, Dragonfly Neo-V in Columbus...
The list culminated in a double-underlined, circled, exclamation-pointed entry: Jean-Robert at Pigall's. Although I'd been to a swank private party upstairs at Pigall's and dined often at Jean-Robert's other restaurants in town, I had never actually made it to this culinary apogee of Cincinnati. I resolved to get there before heading out of town.
With a long list and only a month or so to go before leaving, I got cracking. I mapped out the weeks left, parceled out the nights, started lining up some dining companions and began eating my way across Cincinnati.
I was soon awash in memories and sentimentality. My final visit to Bonbonerie recalled crisp winter Saturdays when I would stop by between running errands and leave clutching a white wax paper bag with fresh, buttery scones.
My last visit to Graeter's (the last visit? Say it isn't so! I guess if Oprah has the stuff shipped to her house, I can too) brought back memories of my first experience: a hot summer day, peach ice cream and a doe-eyed friend named Sylvia who initiated me into the wonders of the French Pot process.
Brunch at Slim's, eating Lechon Asado, had me thinking about the many meals I've enjoyed at this gem of a place.
Slim's is something I definitely will miss about Cincinnati, with its delicious seasonal food, communal seating and alternative earthy vibe that's more San Francisco or Boulder than Midwest.
Lunch at Jean-Ro Bistro -- my favorite Chicken Salad Sandwich on a croissant -- was just as good this last time around as on my previous dozen visits.
Next, I started working through part two of my list -- places I hadn't been to before. I had a keen sense of accelerated discovery, of learning new things about a city that I thought I already knew fairly well.
My excursion to the Knotty Pine on the Bayou, with its crazily sloping floors, spicy Cajun food and lovely views out over sloping meadows to the Licking River, made me wonder why I had never gone there before. Just a few miles away from downtown, it feels like the Deep South.
A summer's night at the Murphin Ridge Inn eating fresh, regional cuisine with ingredients just pulled from the garden had me kicking myself that I hadn't previously made the trip to Amish country.
Sturkey's in Wyoming was something of a revelation, with its sophisticated yet approachable food (how about Roasted Chicken Breast with Escarole and Honey Potato Purée followed by a Valrohna Chocolate Semi-Freddo for dessert with strawberries and espresso pecans?), professional service and soothing ambiance. I went there in my final week before heading out of Cincinnati and found myself really wishing I had discovered this place earlier.
As I checked things off, my culinary to do list was dwindling. With just a week to go, I was ready for the main event of my farewell tour -- dinner at Jean-Robert at Pigall's. Although I'd intended to go there for a long time, I had always been waiting for the right reason for a big night out at Pigall's. Now, with the clock running down on my Cincinnati years, this seemed like as good a reason as any to dress up and head out.
The Pigall's experience was, as anticipated, impeccable and luxurious. Just walking through the dining room was a rush of sorts. Pigall's feels like a club: privileged, moneyed diners sit quietly scattered among very private tables, bathed in soothing light and surrounded by subdued earth tones.
We quickly settled down to the task of eating and interpreting layer after layer of well-crafted food -- elaborate, polyvalent concoctions like Crab Salad with Snow Peas and Beets; Truffle Essence and Cauliflower Sorbet; Duck Breast with Cracked Peppercorn and Rhubarb Compote; Duo of Sugar Peas and Shiitake Mushrooms; Medley of Rice; Roasted Salmon with Fondue of Leeks and Saffron; Fiddlehead Ferns; Fava Beans; and Morels and Purple Potatoes. How much more could you wedge onto one plate?
Pigall's is clearly operating on a very different plane from most of its restaurant brethren, serving up amazing food made with diverse, quality ingredients and a fantastic, fanatical devotion to flavor and aesthetics.
Service was crisp, smooth and professional, with needs anticipated and wordlessly cared for. It all made for an excellent meal, but one that certainly came at a price: prix fixe dinner for three at $69 each with a bottle of wine, tax and tip was more than $350. We topped the evening off with a nightcap at the opulent bar at the Palm Court at the Omni Netherland, where a spirited crowd was listening to some late-night Jazz.
I'm glad to have been to Pigall's, happy to report that it is indeed excellent, and I certainly encourage you to skip your car payment this month and go there to splurge on dinner. However, weighing all the places I've been as a food writer for CityBeat over the years, a few things are clear: Fancy is not necessarily better, and you don't have to spend a fortune in this town to have a delicious and memorable meal.
Looking back, what I really treasure about my fancy Pigall's dinner is not the food but the spirited, worldly conversation and fine time I had being there with two friends -- one old, one new, both globetrotting expats who have lived everywhere from Hong Kong to Prague. It's a basic lesson that as a foodie and food writer I relearn over and over again: In the grand scheme of things, it's not about the food, really, but rather about what the food enables, the experience that it helps create, the interpersonal connections it fosters and the mutual sharing and enjoyment that are at the heart of a great meal.
Whether you're new to Cincinnati or moving away next month, here's my advice: Get out of the house, grab some friends and get connected over a meal. Don't know where to go? You could always make a list. Here's how you do it: Start with places you'd like to go back to, then write down places you've yet to experience.
If you're stuck, I have a marked-up list I can send you. Happy eating! ©