Cincinnati-specific foods are often the butt of jokes when non-Midwesterners try them for the first time. I mean, who could forget Deadspin's assault on Cincinnati chili or West Coasters' reactions to goetta? But when celebrity chef Alton Brown came to Cincinnati for his live show Saturday, he arrived with an open mind and empty belly. Brown sampled some of the area's best coffee shops, restaurants and treats — and he had a lot of good things to say.
The Good Eats star got caffeinated at Over-the-Rhine's Coffee Emporium and Collective Espresso, both of which he gave rave reviews, and breakfast from Oakley's Sleepy Bee Cafe, where he tried goetta for the first time. For lunch, he chowed down on comfort food from The Eagle OTR (he enjoyed their quarter dark-meat chicken) and Eli's Barbeque, where he finally got his hot dog fix.
“I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a hot dog fan and while I’ve been to many places on this leg of the tour, I haven’t really satisfied my hot dog craving,” Brown says in his blog. “Well, consider that done now.”
Brown indulged his sweet tooth at Holtman’s Donuts (calling them “the best doughnuts the country has to offer”), Graeter’s, Aglamesis Bros. and Patty’s Old Fashioned Popcorn in Hyde Park.
Finally came the crown jewel of Queen City grub: Skyline Chili. Brown tried a coney and a three-way and totally didn’t freak out about it.
“I get the cult following,” he says.
all of Brown’s local culinary adventures — and see his photos — here.
LS: We are one of a kind in Cincinnati, pretty much, so it’s nice being the place that does the cocktails. Not just a bar that happens to have good cocktails.
BG: We are on the precipice of something that is new and different to a conservative market. Where craft cocktails have been present in New York, Chicago, L.A. for the last 15 years, Cincinnati is really starting to come into its own in that category.
CB: What is your most popular drink at the moment?
LS: The Old Fashioned or the Mule, usually.
BG: We have the best Old Fashioned in the city.
CB: Really? I’ve heard that A Tavola has the best.
BG: That’s funny. Hey, listen, we could put this up to test. I have no problem getting the opinion of the rest of Cincinnati.
CB: What do you guys drink on your night off?
LS: The Old Fashioned, or one of our sparklings.
BG: Nothing soothes the soul like bourbon.
CB: What’s the most important skill a bartender should have?
BG: Presentation. Having excellent mechanics, all the knowledge in the world and the ability to present a cocktail that leaves the costumer satisfied with the amount they just paid for.
LS: Also being personable.
CB: Wha’ts your favorite bar in OTR?
LS: I would have to say the new place on Main, Liberty’s Bar and Bottle. I would say Neons, too. But Liberty’s did a lot of great things. I really love the internal space. They don’t really have cocktails — it’s pretty much like the furthest from what we do here. They have an excellent wine selection and I love everything they have on tap.
CB: Can you give us a recipe of one of your especially unique craft cocktails?
BG: For sure, we’re going to show you how a Mood Swing is made.
Mood Swing1 oz. rosemary-infused Aperol
Combine all the ingredients over ice (except for Prosecco) in a cocktail shaker. Strain into glass. Add the Prosecco. Heat up lemon peel with a lighter and squeeze peel over glass. Garnish the glass with lemon peel.
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.
Restaurateur Jon Zippersteain — the man behind Japanese gastropub Kaze in OTR and sushi/steakhouse Embers in Kenwood — is slated to open the new Mercer OTR on Nov. 4.
The Mercer, at corner of Vine and Mercer streets (on the ground floor of the Mercer Commons apartment complex), will be a casual, European-influenced bistro with seating for up to 60.
"This restaurant was inspired by the sophistication and Mod sensibilities of '60s cinema, which idealized and often parodied 'The Sweet Life' a la 'La Dolce Vita'," says Zipperstein in a recent press release. "There is a vibrant lifestyle here in OTR that we want to echo. I want people to think of The Mercer as a living room for the neighborhood."
Chef Dan Stoltz will interpret rustic Italian-European dishes — like duck-leg cassoulet, porterhouse for two, short ribs, risotto and chicken saltimbocca — in a modern, contemporary way. All pasta, including garganelli, will be made in-house.
On the bar end, the full-service bar — overseen by head mixologist Greg Wefer — will seat 40 and include Prohibition-era favorites like the Americano (Campari, Aperol, sweet vermouth and lime) and a Blood Orange Sazerac (rye, Solerno and blood orange bitters), plus a diverse wine list and local and craft beers.
The restaurant is slated to open on Nov. 4 and will be — get this! — accepting reservations. Make them at opentable.com or call 513-381-0791.
The Mercer OTR, 1324 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-0791, facebook.com/TheMercerOTR.