A Tavola has made its mark on Over-The-Rhine with its rustic wood fired pizzas and superb flavor combinations. What you might not know about the high-end pizza joint is that its craft cocktails are one-of-a-kind. CityBeat sat down with A Tavola’s head bartender Aaron Strasser to pick his brain, and it turns out he is as personable as he is creative and stirs up one hell of a cocktail.
CityBeat: How did your career in bartending start?
Aaron Strasser: I was a history major at UC, and my favorite period of time was Prohibition. I found it very interesting that you could ban one of the greatest things in the world — the cocktail. I really got into studying that when I was in college. I also started flavor profiles. I grew up in the kitchen with my mom and she always baking stuff and I loved tasting all the flavors and figuring out, ‘Oh, you can pair this with this.’ I got my start here at A Tavola almost four years ago. I didn't know much, but what I did know is flavor profiles and combinations. So the owners gave me a chance and allowed me to make the bar what it is now.
CB: What’s your favorite spirit?
AS: I usually go with my whiskeys and bourbon. Rye whiskey for sure.
CB: What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve used in a cocktail?
AS: I have a couple. I always saw that simple syrups were being made with fruits and some herbs and spices, but I wanted to make a simple syrup out of a vegetable, so I made a red beet and ginger simple syrup, which goes great with gin. It’s very unique, it’s a beautiful color and the taste was very interesting. I didn't want to just use fruit. Another strange ingredient in our new cocktail menu is the jalapeño jam instead of a simple syrup. It’s a recipe that one of my kitchen people and I have worked on. I wanted to have something that was sweet and savory. We do a lot of that as far as combinations go — even in our food — lots of sweet and savory.
CB: Do you see a change in cocktail culture around OTR?
AS: Oh, yeah, its definitely growing. There is a lot more appreciation as far as drinks go. A lot of people are not just ordering cocktails that they know, instead they are actually looking at the cocktails and asking, ‘What does this place have to offer that I haven’t tried before?'
CB: If you had to pick one cocktail to drink for the rest of your life what would it be?
AS: An Old Fashioned.
1 slice of orange
1 sugar cube
1 or 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
2 oz. rye or bourbon whiskey
Place the sugar cube in a glass and add one or two dashes of Angostura bitters and a splash of club soda. Muddle the the sugar cube. Add whiskey and ice. Stir until sugar is dissolved. With a lighter, singe a strip of orange peel and pinch the peel to release oils. Add the orange peel and the Amarena cherries to top it all off.
The event, which raised money for local nonprofit Gabriel’s Place and its Junior Culinary Institute, took place at the Christian Moerlein brewery in Over-the-Rhine. The restaurants represented (Jimmy G's, Django Western Taco, LaLa's Blissful Bites, Invito Chef, El Rancho Grande, Huit BBQ, Redondo Taqueria, Axis Alley on the Levee, Seasons 52, Silver Ladle, Elephant Walk Injera & Curry House, Washington Platform, Swad, O'Malley's in the Alley, Mazzaro's Place, The Pub, Boswell Alley and Moerlein Lager House) each provided a small sample of their favorite items for attendees to nibble on, from mini-steak sandwiches to shot glass-sized pecan pie. Some of the vendors were parked in the more polished taproom, while the majority of the booths and the competition itself appeared in the “basement chic” room next door. Attendees wandered from booth to booth, balancing small plates and frothy cups of Moerlein beer as they waited for the main event to begin. Everyone looked slightly confused at first, but it didn’t take long for everyone to catch on and figure out where to go — the Four Roses bourbon cider probably helped.
Iron Fork’s version of Kitchen Stadium was a small-ish cooking space set up at one end of the very large room. It was fully stocked with brightly colored produce from SYSCO, plenty of spices, gas burners and shiny stainless steel cookware from Cooks'Wares. Scattered across the room were large TVs (not in HD, our spoiled selves lamented) for those who may not be able to find a spot in the small area in front of the kitchen to watch the action. The three judges were perched to the left of the kitchen, presumably starving.
Frances Kroner of Sleepy Bee, Jose Salazar of Salazar and Joe West of The Palace at The Cincinnatian were the three chefs chosen to appear for the event. Each of them had one hour to create a dish using the elusive secret ingredient: figs. (Most of the crowd had left before the secret was revealed; it had to remain a secret to make the competition fair for everyone.) Each chef also had a Junior Culinary Institute student from Gabriel’s Place on their team; all three of the students, it must be said, were incredibly impressive in their professionalism and skill.
The hour-long cooking time per chef allowed attendees to continue to wander and stuff their faces with local treats. The amount of sweet options seemed high (possibly because it was hard to locate the free water to cleanse your palate). The beer line never seemed to shorten, which was fine. If anything, it allowed for more socializing with the other food enthusiasts. Watching the cooking itself was only really entertaining near the end of the hour-long time limit — Jose Salazar straight up ran to the judges’ table with his dishes at the end, and that’s just good TV.
Once each chef’s segment was complete and the three judges were served, a fourth dish was auctioned off to a lucky audience member. (Frances Kroner’s dish went for a whopping $150.)
"All the chefs did a great job and we had a lot of fun sharing our thoughts and our food with the crowd," says judge and CityBeat food writer Anne Mitchell. "Frannie Kroner's lamb chop entree was wonderful, and (Ilene Ross, CityBeat food writer and judge) had a great idea — she added one of her lamb chops to the auction for Gabriel's Place."
"I ate all three of mine and gnawed the bones clean, so that shows you where my heart resides," she continues, laughing. "Jose's appetizer, lamb tartare, was amazing. Ilene licked her plate. It was the kind of dish that separates ordinary food from art."
The audience did not hear from the judges until the end, when they named The Palace’s Joe West as the winner for his appetizer and entree dishes.
"Joe West's appetizer and entree blew us away," says Mitchell. "The scallop crudo was another work of art, and it was the perfect starter for Joe's main dish. I wish I could be 100 percent sure of the description but things got a little crazy at the end and we really didn't hear what Joe said, but I think it was halibut in veloute sauce with bacon crumbles for a garnish, flash-fried potato 'chips' from tiny fingerling potatoes and the figs."
"Figs were the 'secret ingredient' that all the chefs had to incorporate into their dishes," she continues. "It would have been fun to see them utilized a little more essentially in the dishes instead of used as a (yummy) garnish, but that seems a little like splitting hairs."
Overall, the event’s first run was a success. Did I want to snag one of Kroner’s scallops or a bite of Salazar's lamb tartare right off the judges’ table? Sure. But I didn’t, and it still turned out to be a nice little Wednesday night.
Rhinegeist Brewery yesterday released its third canned beer, Zen Session Pale Ale. The brew is described as "like walking barefoot through a citrus grove in the morning. Earthy and orange zest hop character permeates this Session Pale."
The dry hopped brew promises to be a perfect summer companion with notes of grapefruit and pine. Zen features Golden Promise malt and Citra, Mosaic and Cascade hops with a 4.8 percent ABV, all making for a bright and drinkable ale.
You can find canned Zen, along with Cougar Golden Ale and Truth IPA (released in cans earlier this year), at several area retailers. Find one close to you here. Zen and other core and rotating beers are also available on tap at the Rhinegeist Brewery on Elm Street.
Rhinegeist brewed its first batch just under one year ago.
CityBeat hosts an afternoon of drinking and not driving. Start at one of the participating breweries — Rhinegeist, Listermann Brewing Company, Ei8ht Ball Brewing, Christian Moerlein or MadTree — and then hop on a shuttle to the next one. After you’ve visited each, hop back on the shuttle to be driven to your starting location. Tickets include beer at each brewery, a custom CityBeat Tap That growler, lunch from Tom+Chee and shuttle rides.
Mad Tree Brewing Beer Dinner at Mecklenburg Gardens: Mecklenburg Gardens hosts local brewery Mad Tree Brewing for a bier dinner on Saturday, March 22. The evening starts at 6:30 p.m. with a Mad Tree keg tapping at 7 p.m. and continues with a German buffet featuring German sausages, sides, salad and dessert. There will also be live music from Alpen Echoes. 6:30 p.m. $20. Mecklenburg Gardens, 302 E. University Ave., Corryville, reservations at 513-221-5353.
The Wines of Jean Luc Columbo at 20 Brix: Ryan Oliver joins to discuss finer points of this South American producer. Pairings by Chef Paul. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 22. $50. 20 Brix, 101 Main St., Milford, 513-831-2749, 20brix.com.