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Cover Story: Tasty Treats

Independent restaurants, many from out of town, led a dining renaissance in Greater Cincinnati

By James Beardless · December 27th, 2006 · Cover Story
  The Great Ice Cream Truck Race of 2006
J.D. Cutter

The Great Ice Cream Truck Race of 2006

Who says you can't always get what you want? Well, Mick Jagger for one, but that's beside the point. This year we certainly did get everything we wished for in Cincinnati dining.

One of the most exciting changes came with the facelift of Fountain Square. Diners now have five new independent restaurant options, as two full vegetarian restaurants opened on the square: Moosewood and Dragonfly Neo-V.

Moosewood Restaurant, the famous vegetarian collective in Ithaca, N.Y., and Dragonfly, a gourmet vegan restaurant in Columbus, have been filled with area hippies slurping tofu omelets and portabella leek tarts ever since opening in early fall. In an unanticipated move, The Winds, the famous collectively owned, seasonally inspired restaurant in Yellow Springs, relocated downtown from its home of almost 30 years.

The remaining two additions to the square's dining options were Mullane's and Café Vienna. Mullane's, a veggie-friendly downtown staple until it closed in 2004, reopened with veterans Audrey Cobb back behind the stove and David Tape, who left a promising career in Montessori education, running the front of the house. This winning combination is sure to be a success for many years to come.

Café Vienna, a European-style cafe originally based in Mount Adams, rounded things out by providing a place for late night European desserts and a cup of espresso or an after-dinner drink.

For opening festivities, the Tyler Davidson Fountain was turned into a dark chocolate (72 percent cocoa) cascade, dripping in Scharffen Berger. The jumbotron on top of Macy's ran cooking shows all day, and the square hosted its first Iron Chef competition -- a scavenger hunt. Contestants were tasked with finding treasures such as micro cilantro, mini hamburgers and truffle oil from local independent restaurants, including Vinyl, Jean-Robert at Pigall's and Universal Grille.

They were required to store the items in their cheeks until they dropped off everything at the judges' booth. (No winner has been announced yet.)

Christmas downtown and around the square was especially festive as the Holly Jolly Downtown Trolley served spiced wine and rum-spiked eggnog on its runs with shoppers, whose arms were filled with packages and bellies filled with holiday cheer.

Earlier in the year a local organization of restaurants specializing in Cincinnati chili took a page out of San Francisco's book, where an ad campaign for milk installed smelling strips with the aroma of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in bus stops. Here, the strips smell like a three-way.

The campaign culminated in a heated bidding war by Gold Star, Skyline and Camp Washington Chili to win the contract for new kiosk operations at the refurbished Government Square downtown. In the end, Camp Washington Chili came out on top. Their four new kiosks offer owner John Johnson's secret chili recipe in the form of cheese coneys and three- to five-ways. They plan to extend their hours to include breakfast next year and add their popular goetta omelets.

A number of restaurants -- including Vinyl, Cumin, Pacific Moon and Aqua -- also introduced late night menus this year. The venues originally planned to focus on their younger patrons and offer late-night eats until 1 a.m., but they came to realize the need of their very own restaurant and bar workers for someplace to get a good meal after work and decided to serve until 4 a.m. Given the state's new smoking law and kitchen workers' draw to the drag, outside seating only is available.

And speaking of smoking, Sitwell's Lora Storie was well ahead of the crowd when she banned smoking at her Clifton coffeehouse earlier this year. Her latest move was to ban people from answering cell phones at the table. Hopefully this action will reverberate through the city as well in 2007.

City planners, along with some encouragement from Kahn's, abandoned plans to develop the riverfront for the moment and turned their focus to revitalizing the old meat-packing district along Spring Grove Avenue. Last spring saw the opening of a food theme park that focused on meat, with the opening celebration featuring a "running with the pigs" ceremony and Rozzi fireworks.

The district welcomed fleshy restaurants like Amor de Brazil, Red, Morton's, The Precinct, Porkopolis and Lucy Blue Pizzeria's new location. Lucy Blue will be serving a new dish at this location only: the Slaughter House Five Pizza topped with sausage, a pork chop, chicken wings, ground beef and fois gras.

Springtime also witnessed a new format at Taste of Cincinnati. With headlines around the nation focused on e coli outbreaks in spinach, organizers decided to require all participating restaurants to feature dishes composed of organic, locally grown foods. Of course, some long-time participants decided to forego the event because of the changes, but that left booth space for newcomers like Manna Vegetarian Deli, the Veg Head, Nectar and Orchids at Palm Court.

Northside sprang to culinary life this year. Slim's, the long-time neighborhood food anchor, was joined by Honey, Gaja Wong West, Melt and the Everything for a Dollar Wine Shop. Be sure to stop in for their Sunday afternoon champagne tastings. Better yet, pick up a bottle and head across the street to Le Rouge Chat, the new creperie, for its all-you-can-eat brunch special.

Fine dining also got a lift with the partnership between Thomas Keller and Jean-Robert de Cavel, which resulted in the city's own French Laundry, Keller's exclusive upscale restaurant in California. Cincinnati's venue, however, donned the name German Pottery in honor of its location in the Rookwood Pottery building in Mount Adams, which housed Porkopolis before its move to the new Meat District.

Local favorites Graeter's and Aglamesis Brothers saw some tough competition from Madisono's and Melt's dive into ice cream and gelato production this year. During the heat of the ice cream season, when tempers were flaring, the four held an ice cream truck chicken contest, hoping to decide once and for all whose icy product rules. Unfortunately, two of the four trucks ran out of gas before the king could be crowned.

Speaking of gas, Mayor Mark Mallory and City Council got off on the right foot in an effort to create goodwill earlier this year by helping take the sting out of rising gas prices when they announced there would be espresso carts at every gas station in town offering free espresso drinks. Of course, this put a crimp into Starbuck's plans to partner with BP's Wild Bean Cafe.

To offset this loss, the company decided to offer local baked goods such as schnecken from Frieda's Bakery in Madeira, chocolates from Marble Hill Chocolatiers in O'Bryonville and cinnamon bread from the North College Hill Bake Shop to increase sales.

Ah, what a year. Can't wait to taste what 2007 brings! ©



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