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Gateway Gourmands

By Brenna Smith · January 9th, 2013 · Diner
josesalazar_jf02Photo: Jesse Fox

Nothing screams artisan or handcrafted food like a flannel-shirted, tattooed server. Remove the pageantry from the building, please, and just give us the weird cuts of beef or spruced up hot dog served alongside a Prohibition-era cocktail. 

Cincinnati’s growing food scene is bursting out of its starched, white linen restraints and moving onto an exposed wooden picnic table adorned with Mason jar votives and brown paper menus. Cincinnati diners want their friends or the girl next door explaining the specials or beers on tap, not some dude wearing a pressed shirt and tie (bow ties excepted). We’re willing to pay the high-end price for the food, but give us the casual ambiance that makes eating dinner feel like a Kinfolk magazine photo shoot. 

Cincinnati chefs heard our pleas and have begun stepping up to the plate. They’re taking their experience, knowledge and skills and putting them where we want it: neighborhood eateries. The trend is happening all over the city. Food is keeping its integrity, but moving into a smaller home where adventurous eaters dine without the need for reservations or sport coats, just empty stomachs and a demand for great food. 

Chef Jose Salazar found a new home in Over-the-Rhine when he moved from downtown restaurant The Palace to Abigail Street to help out friend-turned-colleague, owner Daniel Wright, and he’s fitting right in. Wright and Salazar couldn’t be happier together. The symbiotic relationship surpasses what they originally wanted from the partnership. Wright gets to spend more time with his family and other restaurant ventures, while Salazar gets to learn what it really means to run the whole establishment.

“He’s getting a crash course on how to run a restaurant, not just how to run a kitchen,” Wright says. 

Salazar’s job at Abigail Street is to maintain the restaurant while Wright is gone. He gets to work on specials and break down whole animals that come in, meanwhile serving as Wright’s eyes and ears.

“It’s different,” Salazar says. “It’s a big departure. I’m getting to do something with a friend of mine.”

Moving from a crew of about 20 in the kitchen during holiday season at The Palace to just five cooks at Abigail Street is a big game changer. Salazar gets more hands on time with his cooks, food and menu. 

“It’s a lot more one-on-one,” Salazar explains. “I get to impart whatever knowledge I have onto them and, simultaneously, I’m also learning from them, too. This type of food isn’t one that I cooked a lot of. I’m familiar with it, but not to the extent, say, Dan or his cooks are because they’ve been working with it for a while. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

Don’t plan on seeing any variations from the original menu at Abigail Street with Salazar in charge. He has zero intention of changing anything while he’s running the kitchen. 

“Dan wants my input.” Salazar says. “It’s very much his menu. I’m not coming here to change his menu. I love his menu. He is the chef and owner. I’m just here to give him my opinions and ideas. He welcomes them, but really I’m just here to see that his menu is being executed by his cooks.”

The ultimate goal for Salazar is to learn what he can from Abigail Street in preparation for opening his own new restaurant, which will also be located in Over-the-Rhine.

“I like the momentum and energy of the neighborhood,” Salazar says. “It reminds me of some parts of New York. The people here are a little more adventurous. They’re not only willing to try new things, but they’re getting to a point where they’re going to demand it. That’s really a great energy.”

His previous experience with diners in Cincinnati all came from The Palace. 

“I would always joke that Cincinnati diners weren’t very adventurous,” he says.

“I’m used to the New York clientele who are looking for what’s the next fish gut that turns into the next popular thing in the city. It was always the joke that (Cincinnatians) were very basic eaters. As the years went by, it was a lot to do with the clientele that I was feeding. People in this neighborhood eat differently than people who eat at that restaurant.”

Salazar wants what’s available from the farms to drive the menu at his new restaurant. He’s actually working with the farmers for his produce. He gets to pick what they grow specifically for his new eatery. The menu will constantly change according to what is available. 

“The cooks and I are going to come together and see what’s inspiring us and go from there,” he says. “We’re going to let it come together organically.”

With the city’s food scene growing, Salazar left The Palace at a great time. His move reflects a current trend in the Cincinnati food scene. 

Jeremy Luers, formerly the chef at East Side establishments Enoteca Emilia and Boca, is opening a restaurant in Boca’s old spot in Oakley and is transforming it into a casual neighborhood eatery. Then there’s Alex Mchaikhi, who opened up M, a more casual restaurant fueled by a wood fired oven, right next to his other restaurant, Cumin Eclectic Cuisine in Hyde Park. 

Mike Florea, owner and chef of Oakley’s Maribelle’s Eat + Drink and also a friend and former colleague of Salazar’s, has been in the restaurant industry for 14 years. He has watched the scene grow from mostly corporate eateries to the food friendly city it is today. 

“The food scene was nothing,” Florea says. “Just Applebee’s on top of Friday’s. Literally what’s going on right now is the definition of the gastro pub.”

According to Wright, the recession is to blame for the big scaling back of fine dining. Restaurants closed and people couldn’t dine out as much as they wanted to, which led to more available liquor licenses for new restaurants and a redefining of eating out. 

“A lot of these chefs were like, ‘I’m going to make food that people want to go and eat and actually spend money on,’ but the food has to be much more accessible in terms of price point,” Wright explains. “You have these classically trained chefs who are dumbing down food, whether it’s things like hot dogs, burgers or pizza. They’re taking something that’s a low-end commodity and making it a high-end commodity, and building a room that aesthetically looks good and has the same caliber of service that you would get in a fine dining place. It steps up the idea of what casual dining was.”

For restaurateurs like Wright and Florea, the trend led to easier access to new ingredients, as the purveyors, too, had to step up to the demands of the chefs. 

“When you look at a city like Chicago, that style of cooking has come to Cincinnati,” Florea says. “It’s brought a lot of sourcing as far as ingredients go. People are realizing that they can source whatever they want now.” 

It isn’t just the support of the customers that’s popularizing independent restaurants; the city is also offering help. 

“The city is putting money into the culinary industry,” Florea says. “Obviously the view of restaurants changed. Everyone is supporting the city and neighborhoods a lot more. The city is helping create that.”

The success of the smaller eateries over the last few years has led to a flood of new restaurants in the Gateway Quarter. Barely three years ago, Senate was the only restaurant on Vine Street battling the stigma of OTR. 

 “When we started you could shoot a cannon through that parking lot because there wasn’t a single car over there,” Wright says. 

Now that so many new restaurants are opening in the area, there’s concern for oversaturation in the market. 

“Everyone sees the success of Abigail Street and A Tavola and they want to do this no-reservation, median-priced-point kind of thing. At some point someone has to go lower end and someone has to go higher end because this price point is going to be completely saturated,” Wright says. 

“There needs to be more originality within this neighborhood,” he continues. “You have an Asian place that’s opening up across from an Asian place. You have a wine bar that just opened across from a wine bar and then you have another Mediterranean wine bar that’s opening a couple blocks away. The fact that there’s one group that’s helping people open these restaurants and continue to saturate the market with restaurants that are entirely too similar, I think, is something that’s detrimental to the neighborhood. Eventually these places are going to go out of business. It’s a brutal industry. It’s one of those things they’re going to have to stare down in like 18-24 months. Not every single place is going to be successful.”

The resurrection of OTR is moving along with new retail spaces and residential loft apartments opening up, making the area not only a recreational destination, but also a place to settle down. With Boca moving downtown, Wright hopes that it’ll bring its loyal customers with it. 

While we wait for Salazar’s restaurant to open up, we can find him working at Abigail Street as well as a feature chef in 513{eats} magazine. Don’t look to see Salazar slow down any time soon. He loves his job. 

“I had other jobs prior to cooking, and I hated them all,” Salazar says. 

After listing a slew of jobs that led to his first cooking job and then culinary school, he talks about why he keeps cooking amazing meals. 

“I had this girlfriend when I was 18 years old,” Salazar says. “We were celebrating something and I had been saving up my money to take her out to a new restaurant. It was one of the hottest new restaurants. Everyone was saying how great it was. We made our reservation weeks in advance. So the anticipation had been built up, especially with everyone talking about it. It had been built up even more. 

“Then we were really disappointed. We spent a lot of money on food that was really bad. I always remember that. I don’t ever want to be the guy who disappoints someone. There’s no such thing as perfect cooking. I’m going to make 100 mistakes a week, but it won’t be from a lack of trying.”

“I always tell my cooks, ‘Take your time and do it right,’ ” Salazar says.

After four years of living in Cincinnati, Salazar has already made a name for himself and has impressed colleagues. 

“It doesn’t matter what he wants to do, the kid’s got the sheer skill,” Wright says. ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
01.10.2013 at 12:48 Reply

Although I do agree that the food scene in the city right now is exciting, I feel the writter has ignored the past. So many great places that have been around for more than a few years or that have been lost due to lack of suport a publication like City Beat can give wonderful, localy owned small places. I love the food in Gateway area, but, even as a cook in the industry, I can't afford to eat there (and that breaks my heart a bit). It is all geared to the YP crowd who populate that part of town now. I have worked with several of the Chefs you featured and admire their tallent, creativity, and drive but to act as if this is all "new" to the scene just shows a lack of respect for those of us in the trenches who have been doing it all over this town for years.

 

 
 
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