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Diner: The Large and Small of It

CityBeat dining writers' reflections on 2006

By Lora Arduser · December 27th, 2006 · Diner
  Roula David and Michael Spaulding owners of Vinyl
Matt Borgerding

Roula David and Michael Spaulding owners of Vinyl

It's that time of year again -- time to look back upon our successes and vices, make resolutions and clean slates. Empty out those file cabinets and use your last flexible healthcare dollars. Buy your sixth gym membership and promise once again to be nice to your mother.

Ancient Babylon lays claims to being the birthplace of the New Year celebration and the practice of setting new year resolutions 4,000 years ago. While we resolve to lose weight or stop smoking, the folks of Babylon resolved to return borrowed farming equipment. Of course, they weren't plagued with statewide smoking bans in public places or the health hazards of trans fats.

And so as we approach the midnight deadline ablaze with good intentions, armed with the knowledge of what's truly important and informed by the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, we're ready to resolve. We might not have much advice on plows or old horses -- unless our writers are hiding something I don't know about -- but CityBeat's dining staff does offer some thoughts on resolutions involving food in the coming year.

Here are our insights, gained as we ate our way through the city...

Balti Dreams
After spending the last few Christmases here in Cincinnati, I flew home to England this year to partake in a special Christmas treat. Most importantly, I spent time with my family.

The importance of spending Christmas with the people you love becomes obvious only when you're no longer able to do so. But the opportunity to eat a chicken balti was almost as important.

Balti is an Indian dish invented in my hometown, Birmingham, England. The balti is a rich and flavorful type of curry served in a round-bottomed metal dish, cooked over charcoal, served with Naan bread and garnished with fresh cilantro. There's an area of the city -- its limits outlined by Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road --­ that is called the "Balti Triangle." For years, the dish was found nowhere else.

Balti shares its flavor with no other Indian dish. It's simply delicious.

Invented in the 1980s by Birmingham's large Indian population, the balti is now a popular dish throughout the United Kingdom, but it remains almost impossible to find elsewhere.

Dropping by Hi Bombay! on Fields Ertel Road one night a couple of years ago, I convinced the owner to make me a balti. He agreed because he had relatives in Birmingham. After one spoonful, I was sent hurtling back across oceans and time zones to my hometown. It was like falling through a wormhole and mysteriously landing back in England a few seconds later.

The tastebuds allow this kind of travel sometimes, but they're hard to fool. This Christmas, I didn't have to try to fool them at all. (Chris Kemp)

I Was an Instant-Coffee Drinker
I'll admit it: A year ago, I was an instant-coffee drinker.

You see, I'm the only one in my house who regularly drinks coffee, so brewing a pot every morning (or after dinner) seemed unnecessarily extravagant. It was far easier to just heat some water in the microwave and stir in a spoonful of Maxwell House freeze-dried crystals.

I had become so used to this ritual that I'd ceased to realize how weak the resulting coffee was compared to freshly ground beans properly brewed.

In a restaurant review this summer, I mentioned this "idiosyncrasy" to Lora Arduser while we savored a fresh-brewed cup of French press coffee after our meal. She was understandably horrified: Here was CityBeat's "drinks" writer admitting to regularly downing, well, dishwater.

That night I resolved to do better. At home, I found a small grinder and a three-cup French press -- a gift from my dad a few years ago -- and then bought some good-quality beans (Free-Trade Dark French Roast from Wild Oats). The difference in quality is astonishing. In about four minutes, I now have a cup of coffee that's intensely aromatic and boldly flavorful. Even decaf coffee brewed this way is eye-opening.

I hope that through my "Fermentations" columns readers are inspired to break out of their own ruts by trying something new: an unusual wine or local beer, a different whisky or an unfamiliar tequila. And I look forward to sharing new discoveries in the coming year (Brazilian Caçacha, Korean Soju) that can excite your palate -- if you'll try them. (Michael Schiaparelli)

The Healing Power of Lunch
Where do you go after an outdoor press conference in a downpour? With cold hands, soggy shoes and water-spotted spectacles, I arrived at Melt in Northside. I thanked the angels that there was an empty parking space nearby and barely a few inches of water streaming down Hamilton Avenue when I opened my car door and made my wet way inside.

I looked like something the cat dragged in. I felt worse.

Then I was greeted with the delicious smell of simmering soup and the warm smile of the server at the counter. There were chunky frosted brownies in a pastry case by the cash register. There was a cozy table near the window where I could see the storm without being the storm.

I felt like a kitten in a blanket.

A warm, gooey melted sandwich arrived with a cup of rich soup and a brownie with peppermint butter frosting. It satisfied my soul. I appreciated the cool tables, the pile of CityBeats to read, the heft of the coffee mug in my hand.

This is excellent, I thought. This is awesome. This small, independent restaurant in the heart of a real city neighborhood. I want to save this moment like a postcard in my heart, and when I'm most discouraged and think that the entire world has become the Omnivore's Dilemma I will remember this and have hope.

This holiday season and in the coming year, remember to support your local sandwich shop. You'll be doing yourself and all of us a big favor. (Anne Mitchell)

Mercurial Dining
I'm a Gemini. I don't normally cotton to astrological destiny, but it might explain why I always seem to have one foot on either side of the net.

Like my sign, the city's restaurant scene seemed rather mercurial this year. On the one hand, Cincinnati restaurants grew up a little bit. Many openings and renovations unveiled hard surfaces and sleek, urbane-influenced designs. Now when I get the New York itch and can't afford it, I can visit Cumin or aqua for the taste I crave.

We also seemed to catch up from our usual reputation of being 10 years behind with many of these venues (Cumin, aqua, Pacific Moon and Vinyl, for example) developing late-night menus that currently are the rage in larger cities.

On the flip side, little made a big splash this year. Micro greens begat micro cilantro begat baby kohlrabi. Some of the restaurants in our little burg discovered The Chef's Garden, a family-owned farm in northern Ohio that specializes in and supplies restaurants with micro greens, micro herbs and specialty vegetables.

Mini burgers were also big, making appearances on menus from McFadden's to Universal Grille to the new hotspot in Over-the-Rhine, Vinyl. These tasty morsels put their precursor, sliders, to shame and threaten to elevate this American classic to gourmet status.

Another little change was the growing use of lower-case names (mesh, fresh and aqua). While it looks like a conspiracy to jump on a trendy bandwagon (and it drives CityBeat copy editors crazy), I have a theory that this grammatical quirk is a bow to a different trend -- the growing use of local, fresh ingredients. This symbol of genuflection to the food is a hopeful sign for even better things to come. (Lora Arduser) © Roula David and Michael Spaulding owners of Vinyl



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