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2014 Eats Staff Picks

By Staff · March 26th, 2014 · Eats
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BEST BRUNCH TO AVOID THE GLARE OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC

When you need a good meal to nurse your hangover but you feel like hiding in a dark hole, the Boom Boom Room at Virgil’s Café is for you. Owner Matt Buschle has a corner booth where you can draw the drapes and seclude yourself from the glare of lights, judging eyes and children. Virgil’s food is scratch-made, utilizing a garden on the property, and the draft beer selection is killer. Buschle often has off-beat contests on Facebook to engage fans and hosts impromptu pig roasts and garden parties on the porch. Try anything with the house-made Andouille sausage — it’s been featured on Food Network. Virgil’s Café, 710 Fairfield Ave., Bellevue, Ky., 859-491-3287, virgilscafe.com.

BEST BOTTLED NON-BEER BEVERAGES TO DRINK WITH YOUR BBQ

Attention old-school soda lovers: City Barbecue carries classic bottled beverages including Nehi and Cheerwine. (For those not in-the-know, Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored soda sold everywhere down South, but slightly harder to find around here.) Go for the awesome bottled pop/to feel like Radar from M*A*S*H*, but stay for the barbecue. It’s hard to screw up pulled pork or chicken, but City’s is still exceptional. If you smile sweetly and use your manners, the friendly guys behind the counter can hook you up with some brisket bark, too. That’s the crunchy burnt stuff on the edges — so good. They have multiple sauces, but their onion-y sweet sauce is the best. Put it on everything … even their delicious mac and cheese. Locations in Kenwood, Eastgate, Blue Ash, Bridgetown, West Chester, Highland Heights, Ky. and Florence, Ky. citybbq.com.

BEST FIRE-AND-ICE PICK-ME-UP

Dojo Gelato is not your grandparents’ ice cream shop. Located in Findlay Market, Dojo handcrafts tasty small batches of gelato using special freezers imported from Bologna, Italy. If you need a caffeine boost during market shopping, order the affogato: a shot of La Terza espresso poured over your choice of gelato. The hot espresso melts some of the frozen stuff to create a bittersweet snack with a kick. And if you like your frozen treats with an attitude, Dojo serves that up, too. Their bumper stickers are based on the logos of Black Flag, Beastie Boys and other bands, and they’re known to take playful digs at other local ice creameries on social media (cough, Graeter’s, cough). Dojo Gelato, Findlay Market, 137 Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-328-9000, dojogelato.com.

BEST global CUISINE FROM AN UNEXPECTED SPOT

Cincinnati isn’t exactly known for its Ethiopian cuisine, but the city has a few options and Habesha is definitely worth checking out. Located in an unsuspecting strip in Westwood, between a Penn Station and an IT support business, Habesha serves up authentic Ethiopian fare with carnivorous and veggie options. The recipes are authentic, the portions big and the service quick. Habesha also hosts an Ethiopian-style coffee ceremony on weekends. So head to the West Side for your fill of injera (spongy crepe-like flatbread), kitfo (marinated minced meat) and ayib (Ethiopian cheese). Habesha, 5070 Crookshank Road, Westwood, 513-429-4890, habeshacincinnati.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST PAVLOVIAN DOG EXPERIMENT IN OTR 

In September 2013, the Loveland-based Holtman’s Donuts finally opened an OTR location, replete with a window where you can peer through and watch them make donuts, like the sensational maple bacon. Every time you come within a block radius of this shop, you will begin to salivate — even if at first you don’t know why. Homer Simpson would be so proud ... and hungry. Holtman’s Donuts, 1332 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-0903, holtmansdonutshop.com.

BEST WAY TO PROCURE FREE, FARM-FRESH EGGS

Madison’s at Findlay Market is the go-to grocery destination for those looking to shop small and eat local. Bryan and Carolyn Madison sell produce from their Adams County farm in addition to fruits and vegetables from other area farms, local honey, jams, sauces, Madisono’s gelato, grains, gourmet packaged goods and more. As a special promotion running Tuesday-Friday, once you’ve filled your basket and spent at least $15, they’ll throw in a free dozen eggs (or take $1.50 off your bill). It’s a no-brainer. Madison’s, 110 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-723-0590, madisonsmarkets.com.

BEST WINTER WARM-UP  

When the temperature doesn’t rise above freezing for a week, it tends to put a damper on your mood. Iris BookCafé is the perfect home away from home — during winter or otherwise — to lift your spirits. Warm up and fill up on delicious homemade, vegan soups like Thai pumpkin, vichyssoise and veggie chili. Varieties change daily but the potato leek is not to be missed. Iris also serves sandwiches, desserts (often vegan and homemade), Aglamesis Brothers ice cream, coffee and Essencha teas. During nice weather, check out the back patio — this lush, secluded space is a hidden gem. The café doubles as an art gallery and book shop, so you can browse vintage books and check out the latest photography exhibit on display while you wait for your latte. Iris BookCafé, 1331 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-2665, irisbookcafe.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST VENUE TO LEARN ABOUT COFFEE AND ALSO SAVE THE WORLD

The Carabellos started roasting their own beans in their garage but eventually worked their way up to opening their own coffee house, Carabello Coffee, last year. They source their beans from places like Nicaragua and Kenya, and the best part is every time you buy a cup of coffee or a bag of beans, some of that money is donated to the people in those countries. If you’re a coffee neophyte, the Carabellos and their staff are more than happy to teach you exactly what a pour over is. Besides the roasted beans, they have cold-brew coffee on draft — the first and only place in the area to do so. Purchase a refillable growler and get 64 ounces of coffee for $10 and save the world even more. Carabello Coffee, 107 E. Newport St., Newport, 859-415-1587, carabellocoffee.com.

BEST MEXICAN SPIN ON A CLASSIC ITALIAN DISH

Avocados are usually associated with Mexican food, but if you crave the green stuff on unconventional dishes, Red Rose Pizza has an app for that! Their Avocado Garlic Cheese Bread combines your favorite Italian bread appetizer with rich avocado. Guests can also enjoy the superfood in Red Rose’s fresh guacamole appetizer, broccoli avocado soup, the Goats & Guacamole salad, May’s Funky Chicken grinder and as a pizza topping. Red Rose relocated from Panama City Beach, Fla., to College Hill in the summer of 2013. Red Rose Pizza, 5915 Hamilton Ave., College Hill, 513-620-7673, redroseonhamilton.com.

BEST NONNA-APPROVED ITALIAN

Lots of Italian restaurants claim to cook “just like Grandma made it,” but few actually use authentic recipes passed down from the motherland. At Buona Vita Pizzeria, the Frommeyers use their family name (Buonavita, “the good life”) and family recipes at both of their Northern Kentucky locations. Truly a family affair, Joseph Frommeyer runs the front of house while his brother/chef Matthew runs the kitchen using recipes handed down from their Nonna. Mamma helps out in the dining room, serving her homemade cookies and other Italian treats to guests. Joseph and Matthew’s brothers Mark and Nick Frommeyer own Blue Oven Bakery and Dolce Vita Gelato, respectively. Can you imagine the food at their family dinners? Buona Vita Pizzeria, 441 Sixth St., Dayton, Ky., 859-261-6792; 405-407 Scott St., Covington, Ky., 859-261-6790, buonavitapizzeria.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST VIEW TO TAKE IN WHILE DINING AND DRINKING

With plans in motion to grow business and revitalize the area, Price Hill is a neighborhood to watch. Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ new performance space, The Incline Theatre, is set to open in Spring 2015 and one of the city’s best new restaurants already calls the Hill its home. The Incline Public House is situated on Eighth Street, atop the slope that the Price Hill Incline traveled from 1874-1943, giving diners an incredible view of downtown and the Ohio River. Nearly everything on the menu is made in-house from scratch, including their wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, salads and small bites. Along with the food, top-notch craft beer and cocktail selections are served by a friendly, knowledgeable staff. It’s a great spot to catch up with friends over drinks, enjoy a seasonal special or take in the scenery over brunch. Pro-tip: Try the Braised Short Rib Grilled Cheese. Incline Public House, 2601 W. Eighth St., Price Hill, 513-251-3000, inclinepublichouse.com.

BEST GRAVY-SMOTHERED FRIES SOUTH OF CANADA 

Poutine is a popular Canadian specialty consisting of French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds. You may have seen variations of the decadent deep-fried dish featured at hip restaurants across the U.S. and Cincinnati recently. But for a no-frills local version, look no further than Pleasant Ridge Chili. Long famous for their fries topped with shredded cheddar cheese and gravy, the restaurant is currently celebrating its 50th year in business. Salute the establishment’s golden anniversary with a plate of Porkopolis poutine, which always tastes best in the middle of the night — PRC is open ‘til 4:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday. Pleasant Ridge Chili, 6032 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, 513-531-2365, pleasantridgechili.com.

BEST INDIE CHIPOTLE ALTERNATIVE

If you haven’t returned to the college stomping grounds of Clifton since graduation, you’ve been missing out on some of the best Latin American fare around. The locally owned and operated Habañero has been serving up fresh and flavorful burritos, chimichangas, tacos and salads since 1999. Hab’s staff is super friendly, knowledgeable and accommodating (like, dairy-free quesadilla accommodating). All the salsas are made in-house and you’ll be tempted to try every single one with a giant basket of their addictive homemade chips. For “fast-casual” convenience while keeping your dollars local, order your next big-ass burrito at Habañero — just head toward the bright orange building on Ludlow. Habañero, 358 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, 513- 961-6800, habanerolatin.com.

Photo: Marci Rhodes

BEST BUZZ 

Sleepy Bee Café got a lot of buzz when it opened in 2013 because of its healthy breakfast and lunch choices as well as its commitment to honeybee-friendly business practices, like buying local and organic. Bees pollinate around 80 percent of the flowering crops we eat, making them a crucial component to the human food chain. But the worldwide bee crisis known as colony collapse disorder has resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of bee colonies across the globe. And while the menu is full of ethical, healthy options, chef Frances Kroner doesn’t skimp on the flavor one bit. Locals swarm for the omelets (made with local, free-range eggs), pancakes (there’s a gluten-free option), sandwiches (three-seed veggie burger) and goetta. Sleepy Bee Café, 3098 Madison Road, Oakley, 513-533-2339, sleepybeecafe.com.

BEST LOCAL PRODUCT WITH CULTURE 

A local company specializing in small-batch fermented vegetables and drinks may sound like a Portlandia skit, but Fab Ferments has been creating tasty, healthy products in Cincinnati for the past five years. Their krauts, kombucha and kvass are made with natural, sustainable ingredients and practices, using natural preservation techniques — no heat, pasteurization or artificial preservatives. Raw, cultured vegetables, like those in Fab Ferments’ products, are believed to aid in digestion, boost the immune system, increase metabolism and combat allergies. A variety of Fab Ferments products can be purchased at Park + Vine, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s, various area farmers markets and Whole Foods locations. fabulousferments.com.

BEST REASON TO SHOUT, “OPA!” 

Serving as a West Side staple for more than 38 years, Sebastian’s family-owned restaurant is a hidden Greek treasure. Since its establishment, the family has worked hard to be among the first to introduce authentic Greek cuisine to Cincinnati culture. The quaint corner eatery is known for its friendly atmosphere, affordable prices and, of course, delicious dishes. With mouth-watering baklava, flaky spanakopita and the hands-down best gyro in town, it’s no wonder why customers keep coming back for more. Sebastian’s, 5209 Glenway Ave., West Price Hill, 513-471-2100, sebastiansgyros.com.

BEST SOUP BLOG

Local lady Corrie Loeffler turns her home kitchen into a soup test kitchen every February for her creatively named Soupruary blog. One girl. One month. Twenty-eight soups. Visit Loeffler’s blog for tried-and-true soup recipes; Loeffler cooks them, eats them and reports back. Making/eating soup every day for a month seems like a real chore, but with this winter’s weather, no one’s complaining — except Loeffler sometimes, because when doesn’t pizza sound better than soup? Head to her blog to get recipes dating back to 2009. Unique combos include artichoke edamame soup; roasted Brussels sprout soup with goat cheese wontons; pea, fennel and lettuce soup; and macaroni and beer cheese soup. soupruary.blogspot.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST REASON TO EAT KALE

When the folks behind Bakersfield announced they would be opening a nearby restaurant/bar specializing in fried chicken and beer, we were already hooked.

With around 100 beer selections, Blues music and classic American comfort food, The Eagle OTR did not disappoint when it opened in the old Vine Street post office in December 2013. You really can’t go wrong with any of the chicken, sandwiches, apps or tasty sides, but the kale and artichoke dip is not to me missed. Served in a cast iron skillet with fresh tortilla chips, The Eagle OTR totally transforms the classic dip by employing that popular leafy green veg. Much like Bakersfield OTR, The Eagle OTR offers a great bar and delicious food while maintaining a much more affordable price point than some neighboring OTR joints. The Eagle OTR, 1342 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-802-5007, facebook.com/theeagleotr.

BEST RESTAURANT OWNER WHO REMEMBERS WHAT YOU LIKE

Dharminder at Shaan Indian Cuisine in Hyde Park Plaza seemingly knows everyone, treating returning patrons as he would long-time friends. His genuinely warm smile, joyful chuckle and infectious attitude are usually accompanied by a guess at what you last ordered — and he’s often correct. Since its grand opening in 2009, Shaan has rightly earned its reputation as one of the best Indian restaurants around. Shaan Indian Cuisine, 3880 Paxton Ave., Hyde Park, 513-533-3100, shaanindian.com.

BEST PLACE TO DUNK YOUR DUSTY BALLS

Highlighting Sotto’s formidable dessert menu are the ricotta doughnuts: racquetball-sized orbs of hot, doughy deliciousness dusted in powdered sugar and served with three molten, rotating dunking sauces. Chocolate, pistachio and salted caramel options are often available. The doughnuts, which are a stunning cross between an Italian zeppole and French beignet, are among several impressive sweets offered at David Falk’s latest culinary (re)invention. Sotto, 118 E. Sixth St., Downtown, 513-977-6886, sottocincinnati.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST ESCAPE TO PARIS WITHOUT FORKING OVER A LOT OF L’ARGENT 

Iconic Cincy chef Jean-Robert de Cavel added French Crust Café to his growing list of culinary accomplishments in town, but unlike Jean Ro’s Table, Crust has an intimate French bistro vibe and is only open for breakfast and lunch. Scents of fresh croissants and coffee waft throughout the petite dining area, and framed vintage travel posters of France hang on the wall and basically scream, “Go to Paris, now!” But it’s OK if you don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on a European vacation, as French Crust’s menu temporarily plugs that void for a much cheaper price. At French Crust, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Paris and not Cincinnati. French Crust Café, 915 Vine St., Downtown, 513-621-2013, jrtable.com/french-crust-cafe.

BEST LOCAL ANSWER TO RED ROBIN

With a massive rotating cast of local and foreign beers and plenty of televised sports, it’s easy to view Flipdaddy’s as a sports bar — and plenty of customers treat it as such. However, it’s also a family-friendly local alternative to Red Robin. Try the Flipdaddy original, The Chuck Norris burger, with a roasted green chile and jalapeño pepper compote, pepper jack cheese and a super spicy sauce. No idea if Norris has ever tried it, but we’re certain he’d approve! If you don’t see something you want in their suggested burger-builds, you can even dream up your own custom burger. Yum. Locations in Symmes Township, Mariemont and Union, Ky. flipdaddys.com.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD EAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI

Cazadores is one of the city’s most underrated restaurants. It’s locally owned, boasting four decent-sized, clean and rarely crowded restaurants in the Greater Cincinnati area. There are TVs going so you can watch the Bengals/Reds games while you eat with your family. They even recently started sending a guy around to the tables with a cart to make fresh guacamole … and it’s good. But not as good as the delicious white cheese dip. Everything is made fresh and fast and we’ve yet to find something on the extensive menu that disappoints. Added bonus: Everyone is so friendly and never daunted by the white people and their weird, picky requests. Locations in Milford, Blue Ash, Mason and Franklin. cazadores-restaurants.com.

Photo: Marci Rhodes

BEST FORMER HOTEL RESTAURATEUR TO OPEN HIS OWN PLACE 

We were sad when chef Jose Salazar left his post as the head chef of the swank The Palace restaurant inside the Cincinnatian Hotel but excited when he announced he’d open his own place. After briefly working with Daniel Wright at Abigail Street, Salazar finally got around to opening his New American joint in December. Tucked off OTR’s main drag, the eponymous restaurant is more like a café. Salazar himself can be seen in the kitchen prepping his world-fusion dishes, from fresh bread served with bone marrow butter to veal tongue a la plancha. The food is just as delicious and eclectic as The Palace, but we want Salazar to start his own Third Thursday deal (two-course dinner for two and a bottle of wine for $70), like he had at the hotel. Salazar, 1401 Republic St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-621-7000, salazarcincinnati.com.

BEST PLACE TO EAT IN OTR THAT DOESN'T SERVE PBR

Don’t call it a comeback. They’ve been here for years. Get in line at the Alabama Fish Bar and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best fried fish in the city: a choice of whiting, perch or cod served atop a pile of fries resting on a bed of white bread. A side of sautéed peppers and onions and hot sauce make it a spicy, lip-smacking experience. Alabama Fish Bar, 1601 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-241-2255.

BEST GOETTA NOT MADE OUT OF MASS PIG PARTS

If you’re from Cincinnati then you know goetta. But have you ever tried vegan goetta? Park + Vine chef Caitlin Bertsch created the dish by mixing old family recipes with her background in vegan cooking. Sandwiched between Shadeau bread with lettuce and tomato, Park + Vine’s vegan goetta is a tasty and healthy twist on the signature Cincy-centric dish. Park + Vine, 1202 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-721-7275, parkandvine.com. 

BEST HAPPY HOUR GOURMET BURGER DEAL

Local 127 is one of those places that’s never too crowded despite all of the good food and drink it offers. During their Tuesday-Saturday happy hour (4-7 p.m.), Local serves up a great deal: a gourmet burger, fancy fries and a craft beer for a mere $14 (otherwise, just the burger and fries would be about $14). Their burger is house-smoked and layered with cheese, bacon and veggies and the Kennebec potato fries are accompanied with their house-made ketchup. They have a rotating draft beer selection, so depending on what’s on tap, you can wash all of that cow down with a good brew. Local 127, 413 Vine St., Downtown, 513-721-1345, mylocal127.com. 

BEST WAY TO ENJOY HALF-PRICED APPS WHILE STARING AT TOM CRUISE’S HEADSHOT

Every Thursday night, the bar inside Pompilios  — called Colonel Pomp’s Tavern — proffers five half-priced apps like spinach dip and toasted ravioli. As we know, parts of Rain Man (and Airborne) were filmed at Pompilios. To pay homage, the restaurant dedicated an entire room to the film. The Rain Man Room features framed headshots of the cast, including Tom Cruise. While stuffing your face with dip and listening to live music, think about how hot a pre-couch-jumping Cruise was. Actually, Dustin Hoffman wasn’t so bad, either. Pompilios, 600 Washington Ave., Newport, Ky., 859-581-3065, pompiliosrestaurant.com.

BEST CATERER SERVING WEDDING FOOD YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO EAT

After the rings have been exchanged and church bells have rung, wedding guests look forward to a very special moment — no, not the first dance. Food! And whether you’re half of the happy couple or a hungry guest, the whole “chicken or fish” wedding dinner is kind of passé. Enter eat well celebrations and feasts. Chef Renee Schuler and her team use fresh ingredients and source locally whenever possible to create delicious menus customized to your liking. eat well not only caters weddings but also corporate meetings, cocktail parties and other social gatherings as well. Food can be served buffet-style or at a chef-attended station (recent examples include a Pad Thai station, build-a-burrito station and interactive pasta station). eat well celebrations and feasts, 921 Monmouth St., Newport, Ky., 859-291-9355, eatwellonline.com.

BEST ONCE DOWNTRODDEN NEIGHBORHOOD NOW BECOMING A FOOD MECCA (THAT ISN’T OTR)

First Over-the-Rhine underwent a life-changing makeover, then a few years later the fallow Short Vine took inspiration and went for it. Restaurants like Café de Wheels, Caribe, Alabama Que and Mio’s were the first eateries to move into the desolate neighborhood. Once condos started going up, the neighborhood’s population expanded and so did the strip on Vine. Last fall, Taste of Belgium opened a second location there, driving more people to the ’hood. Meatball Kitchen opened this year, and many more restaurants are slated to roll out soon. OTR has a litany of exceptional restaurants, but avoid the wait and head to Short Vine for more affordable yet equally diverse options. facebook.com/shortvinecincy.

BEST METHOD TO WATCH YOUR COFFEE BREW

A lot of countries have their own methods of brewing coffee, and Vietnam has one of most distinctive processes with Vietnamese drip coffee. Employing a metal dripper called a cà phê phin, coarsely grounded dark coffee is stuffed inside the container and held over a glass cup that may or may not contain a little condensed milk stuck at the bottom. Water fills the chamber and slowly drips, eventually filling the cup after several minutes. The slow dripper can be quite hypnotic to watch but isn’t for the impatient coffee drinker. Order the beverage either hot or cold at any of the Bao and Duy Nguyen establishments: Quan Hapa, Pho Lang Thang or their newish Café Lang Thang. For the ultimate effect, make sure you get it iced and with the condensed milk. Pho Lang Thang, 114 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-376-9177, pholangthang.com; Quan Hapa, 1331 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-7826, quanhapa.com; Café Lang Thang, 1106 Race St., Downtown, cafelangthang.com.

BEST VEGAN PIZZA EXPERIENCE

A hot, cheap pizza enjoyed late-night with friends over beers is one of life’s simple pleasures. But when someone in your group can’t have eggs, meat or dairy, the options get pretty slim. Luckily for Northside veg-heads, The Kitchen Factory opened in 2012 to satisfy pizza lovers of all sorts. Just pick your crust (New York City Street Thin or Cornmeal Garlic Handpress) and select your toppings to create a meaty, veggie or vegan (dairy-free cheese is $2 extra) masterpiece. Try one of their rotating unique specialty pies like paneer or lasagna or the addictive vegan “crack ‘n cheese.” Pizza available by the slice and late-night on weekends. The Kitchen Factory, 1609 Chase Ave., Northside, 513-591-3333, facebook.com/thekitchenfactoryonline.

Photo: Marci Rhodes

BEST INSPIRING (FREE) BREAKFAST SERIES

Creative Mornings is a free monthly breakfast lecture series that started in New York in 2008. Each gathering takes place on a Friday, bringing together engaging and inspiring locally tied creatives from various fields to speak on a theme over breakfast. There are Creative Mornings chapters in more than 70 cities around the world, including Cincinnati; the city’s branch hosted its first lecture in March 2013. Think small-scale TED Talks with a focus on community. And if you can’t make it to the lecture, check out the videos online to see what locals are doing to make Cincinnati an even better place to live, work and create. Former speakers include Please’s chef Ryan Santos, Bunbury Festival founder Bill Donabedian and University of Cincinnati president Santa Ono. creativemornings.com/cities/cin.

BEST PLACE TO EAT AND WATCH A SWISS-DESIGNED SOLAR PLANE TAKE OFF AND LAND 

The tiny Lunken Airport caters to smaller, corporate planes like the Ultimate Air Shuttle, so watching planes take off and land isn’t anything terribly exciting, with the exception of the landing of the Solar Impulse last June. The Impulse, the first solar-powered plane, attempted to fly across the country without fuel and made a last-minute stop at Lunken. The Swiss-made plane drew a huge crowd at the field, along with a hive of activity at Lunken’s restaurant and bar, Sky Galley. An event like the Impulse only comes once in a blue moon, but Sky Galley is open every day with a full menu of snacks, steaks, sandwiches and booze to satiate the aviator set. (Just don’t drink and fly.) Sky Galley, 262 Wilmer Ave., Columbia Tusculum, 513-871-7400, skygalley.net.

BEST “NU” EATERY 

Chef Mark Bodenstein finally has a venue where he can let his creativity flourish, and his new dining adventure is unlike any other in the area. At NuVo at Greenup there’s no menu, you just eat what the kitchen sends out, usually in seven to 10 small courses. Pay one price, plus drinks, and see how Bodenstein takes mostly familiar ingredients and cooks and combines them in ways you never thought of. This spring they will add a cocktail lounge upstairs and service on a leafy patio out back. Recently, NuVo has altered the basic set up so that diners can choose a smaller number of courses if spending three hours with seven to 10 slowly paced dishes isn’t what you had in mind. NuVo at Greenup, 308 Greenup St., Covington, Ky., 859-415-1308, nuvoatgreenup.com.

BEST SUSHI AND SAKE WAY OUT IN THE ’BURBS

Think of Cheers, swap the suds for sake and you’ve got Sushi Monk, a suburban sushi hangout where everybody knows your name — or face and favorite order. Owner Calvin Tam is always quick to pull up a chair and challenge you to a slew of sake bombs (typically on-the-house) and a sushi education (also complimentary), whether you’re a familiar Dub-C native or a fresh face on your way to the outlets and IKEA. Since its 2011 opening, local chopstick-yielding devotees have praised the restaurant on social media, turning what could’ve been another here-today-gone-tomorrow hole-in-the-wall into a neighborhood hangout faster than you can say, “tuna roll.” Tam is something of a sushi whisperer, and if he can’t persuade you to give raw fish a chance, the heaping servings of chicken fried rice paired with conversation is worth the trip to suburbia alone. Tam’s stories are as refreshing as his fare. Soon, you’re sure to lose track of whether you’re returning for seconds or sixteenths. Sushi Monk, 8268 Princeton Glendale Road, West Chester, 513-881-1889, sushimonk.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST HOMEMADE TREATS THAT AREN’T MADE AT HOME

Grateful Grahams handmade graham crackers and goodies, Delish Dish catering and jams, Piebird Sweet and Savory Pies and Whirlybird Granola are just some of the entrepreneurs who take advantage of Covington, Ky.’s Incubator Kitchen — the opportunity to use a licensed professional kitchen without taking on all the overhead. These small-but-growing businesses are built with love, not loads of capital, and use recipes from Great-Grandmother Theodocia, not corporate chemists. But they’re winning customers in mainstream outlets like Park + Vine and Remke’s Supermarkets. Incubator Kitchen, 1032 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., 513-227-6537, facebook.com/nkyincubatorkitchen.

BEST FANCY NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED RESTAURANT

Orchids at the Palm Court has a stellar, national reputation and for good reason. There are no false notes here — the food is letter-perfect and the setting couldn’t be lovelier. Named one of the top 10 American restaurants by Open Table, given four stars by Forbes Travel Guide and picked as the city’s top restaurant by the Zagat Guide for the past three years, Orchids wows diners thanks to the combined talents of executive chef Todd Kelly, pastry chef Megan Ketover and maitre d’ and sommelier Charles Redmond. Signature dishes include a killer Maine lobster salad and red snapper “en papillote.” Not to mention anything sweet created by Ketover. Orchid’s at Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-564-6465, orchidsatpalmcourt.com. 

BEST-KEPT SECRET WINE DINNER VALUE

If you’re not among the student, faculty or staff at the University of Cincinnati you probably haven’t tried weekday lunch at Mick & Mack’s Contemporary Café, a pleasant spot in the center of campus. But wait, there’s more. Twice a month — first and third Thursdays, year-round — they host wine/spirits tastings and “chef’s table” dinners with impressive amounts of food and drink for a mere $20 per person. For instance, on March 6 the theme was Irish whiskey and beer, including hors d’oeuvres followed by a hot buffet. It’s open to the general public, no UC affiliation required. Advance reservations are a must; check the website for the schedule and to make a reservation via email. Mick & Mack’s Contemporary Café, Tangeman University Center, Level 3, University of Cincinnati Uptown Campus, 513-556-3653, uc.edu/food.html.

BEST RESTAURANT TO EAT A GRASS-FED BURGER AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF THE AFRICAN PLAINS

When visiting the Cincinnati Zoo, there aren’t many dining options besides cheeseburgers and cotton candy. But Base Camp Café has real food, such as grass-fed beef burgers, veggie burgers and salads, made from local ingredients. Zoogoers can dine inside the refurbished dining room, or take the food outside to the sprawling deck made from reclaimed wood that overlooks the recently opened African safari exhibit. Watching a giraffe saunter by really gives new meaning to al fresco dining. To top it off, Base Camp was named the greenest restaurant in the U.S.A. — zoo or not — which basically means all of their recycling and composting helps the environment and makes the zoo an even happier place. Base Camp Café, Cincinnati Zoo, 3400 Vine St., Avondale, 513-281-4700, cincinnatizoo.org.

BEST REPLACEMENT FOR NORTHSIDE'S HONEY

Along with Ruth’s Parkside Café, Northside has welcomed Bistro Grace, notable for a complete interior redesign of the former Honey restaurant and being one of the few full-service restaurants within a few miles where you can get dinner on Sunday night. Since opening in November 2013, Bistro Grace has added half-price burgers on Sundays and half-price wine bottles on Mondays, along with other weekly and nightly specials. Try the hanger steak or the duck poutine. In the works: They’ll have a beer garden when the weather warms up. Bistro Grace, 4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-541-9600, bistrograce.com.

BEST ITALIAN RESTAURANT BETWEEN WALNUT HILLS AND HYDE PARK

In a town with mostly pedestrian Italian cooking, Enoteca Emilia’s rustic Italian plays in a higher league. When chef Adam Cobb took over about a year ago, it only got better. This semi-casual, small-plate oriented trattoria, notable for cut-above pizza and pasta, benefitted from Cobb’s Culinary Institute of America training and his experience in restaurants as far-flung as Spain; Columbus, Ohio; and Chapel Hill, N.C. The menu of bar snacks, cured meats and cheeses, salads and larger plates supplement the aforementioned pizza and pasta, and the all-Italian wine list beckons you to try something new. Enoteca Emilia, 2038 Madison Road, O’Bryonville, 513-834-5773, enotecaemilia.com.

Photo: Jesse Fox

BEST PLACE TO HAVE AN ARTISANAL CHEESE TRAY MADE FOR YOU

What was once everyone’s favorite pony keg has transformed itself into an alcohol and food mecca. Dutch’s Larder has become the go-to for the epicurious — those looking for the artisanal and unique in everything from charcuterie to coffee and wine. It’s the passionate pantry from which to stock your own, full of knowledgeable staff — cheesemongers, butchers, wine experts — and the sustenance you dream of.  With a rotating menu, it’s gourmet burger night every Thursday and they have frequent beer dinners featuring local and craft brews, plus a staff prepared to make all the necessary arrangements for you to host your own artisanal tasting that will wow friends and family. Dutch’s Larder, 3366 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-871-1446, dutchswine.com.

BEST REASON TO GO TO MAINSTRASSE AND DRINK WINE ON THE REG

While we mourn the loss of fun hangout Chez Nora, MainStrasse still has the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, Otto’s and the cream of the crop, Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar. If this place were downtown, you would hear a lot more about it, but the food, drink and ambience merits keeping this in your fine-dining rotation. Chef Stephen Williams takes farm-to-table seriously in sourcing the best, often local, meats and produce, and he has a deft hand with any seafood preparation he takes on. The bar offers wine flights that change weekly, and the restaurant’s frequently updated, snazzy website gives detailed info about the week’s menu specials. Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar, 519 Main St., Covington, Ky., 859-491-7777, bouquetrestaurant.com. 

BEST LOCAVORE-WORTHY EATS YOU’LL EVER FIND IN A SUBURBAN STRIPMALL

Troy’s Café in West Chester is the product of good old-fashioned optimism. Chef Troy Meyers worked his way to the top of the culinary chain of command only to lose his position as chef years down the road when the restaurant he worked for went under. Finding inspiration in the phrase, “When one door closes, another opens,” Meyers turned the loss into opportunity in an unusual location: a vacated strip mall space situated next to a butcher who’d first set up shop when West Chester was just farmland. When Meyers opened Troy’s Café’s doors, he dreamed of creating a place where the his friends, neighbors and the rest of his community could come together to enjoy fresh, fun, local food and drink together. And he achieved just that. The food isn’t just local; it’s fresh, refreshed and reimagined every day. Meyers tweets and posts to Facebook throughout the day to share new ingredients, announce the new dishes du jour and dish about his most recent remixes of everyday staples. With the landscape littered with fast food chains and showy franchises, Troy’s Café provides a haven for any hungry locavore. OTR and Northside are freeways away, but if Troy’s is a taste of West Chester’s take on “local,” maybe the ‘burbs aren’t so bad after all. Troy’s Café, 4877 Smith Road, West Chester, 513-860-3206, troyscafeandcatering.com.

BEST GASLIGHT GASTRONOMY

While La Poste isn’t exactly the restaurant it was when it opened in 2010 — the founding sommelier has moved on and the focus has shifted away from blissful wine geekdom — it is still a reliable spot for very good food and drink in a neighborhood with otherwise mostly downscale eats. They’ve been doing a family-style $20 buffet dinner every second Monday, and also offer occasional wine dinners and other special events. You can always count on the rich mushroom ravioli or a roasted crimson pear salad with prosciutto and two cheeses, both on the menu since day one. La Poste, 3410 Telford St., Clifton, 513-281-3663, laposteeatery.com.

BEST INDIE GROCERY THAT IS FULL OF SURPRISES

Country Fresh Farm Market & Wine Depot’s Anderson location is almost fancy, but the Hartwell store (8425 Vine St.) is a little treasure. Fantastic imported pasta, excellent produce, Snowville Creamery milk and a great selection of cheese and wine to go with it. If that giant grocery store with the animatronics and award-winning Port-A-Potties gives you a headache, go to Country Fresh Farm Market and get a better curated grocery collection that’s surprisingly affordable. Country Fresh Farm Market & Wine Depot, 8315 Beechmont Ave., Anderson, 513-474-9167, facebook.com/cffmwd, countryfreshbeechmont.com; 8425 Vine St., Hartwell, 513-821-5335.

BEST NEIGHBORHOOD TACO JOINT NOT IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

Mazunte is the taqueria you always wanted in your neighborhood. Simple, delicious, a great value and hip. Get the mixed taco taster — three for $9 — and sample their beer-battered fish, shredded roast pork and sangria marinated steak. With an order of guacamole, you are in paradíso, amigo. Mazunte, 5207 Madison Road, Madisonville, 513-785-0000, mazuntetacos.com.

BEST FORAGER AND BOTANIST

Abby Artemisia is a forest forager, herbalist and hiker. She has worked with some great local chefs in the last year, including Julie Francis of Nectar and Jose Salazar of Salazar, to bring wild flavors to the table. Nasturtiums for your salad, spiceberries for seasoning, herbs of all sorts — Artemisia can help you learn how to identify the edibles you may be overlooking, as well as the ones to avoid. She leads hikes in Mount Airy Forest and Buttercup Valley Preserve, as well as classes on making your own herbal teas and tinctures in addition to working from home in Northside. 513-307-5226, mightyoakfromlittleacorn.com.

BEST PLACE TO EAT A GYRO WHILE WATCHING TURKISH MTV

Ali Baba Mediterranean Grill on Red Bank Road is a tiny hole-in-the-wall serving up gargantuan falafel and gyro platters that won’t break the bank. Stock your plate with a variety of fresh toppings doled out by a friendly server, then sit down to watch Persian singer Mansour and others belt out hits in music videos hearkening back to MTV’s glory days. Ali Baba Mediterranean Grill, 4793 Red Bank Road, Madisonville, 513-271-0706, alibabagrille.com. 

BEST STREET-FOOD FUSION

Short Vine’s newest restaurant is all about the balls — meatballs, that is. Meatball Kitchen offers the balls in vegetarian, pork and beef, but also as a taco iteration, with chicken or beef balls wrapped inside a soft flour tortilla shell and drizzled with a green salsa and a creamy cilantro condiment. It’s an interesting way to represent both kinds of street foods — the ubiquitous taco and the typical add-on of an Italian meatball — in one meal. Meatball Kitchen, 2912 Vine St., Corryville, 513-407-7405, meatballkitchenusa.com.   

BEST GRILLED CHEESE GONE GLOBAL

Local gourmet grilled cheese and tomato soup restaurant Tom+Chee has made waves since its humble beginnings as a Fountain Square vendor in 2009. The comfort food spot — known for its decadent grilled cheese donuts — gained national attention after appearing on Man v. Food Nation, The Chew, Amazing Eats and The Today Show, but the company truly took off when founders Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward pitched their joint to the investors on Shark Tank. Thankfully for Cincinnati, these humble owners aren’t leaving their hometown any time soon; locals can still enjoy the BBQ+Bacon (with BBQ Grippos, bacon and American cheese on white bread) or signature sammy, the Barbara Blue (blueberry compote, ham and Brie on a grilled donut) at one of their area franchises. Tom+Chee, Newport on the Levee, 1 Levee Way, Newport, Ky., 859-291-2433; Downtown, 133 E. Court St., 513-721-2433, tomandchee.com.

BEST NEW CHAIN BAR/RESTAURANT WHERE YOU PAY PEOPLE TO BE DICKS

Dick’s Last Resort is bringing its shenanigans and outrageous behavior to Newport, Ky. In the tradition of restaurants like The Weiner Circle in Chicago, their surly waitstaff provides live entertainment while inflicting rude humor upon their guests — but it’s all in good fun. Participate in the craziness or sit back and soak it all in. You may even end up wearing their infamous 2-foot-tall paper hat. Dick’s Last Resort, 1 Levee Way, Newport on the Levee, Newport, Ky., dickslastresort.com.

 
 
 
 

 

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