Spring is upon us. Cooks, diners, and planters are getting itchy.
So thought I'd offer up a few photos of some lovely lettuces and microgreens from one of my favorite local farms, Walnut Ridge Acres.
I met the folks who run WRA, Becky and Bob Portmann, at one of Nectar's Dinner Clubs, where they were the purveyors of chef Julie Francis's featured ingredient (beets that night, IIRC).The Portmanns supply produce to Honey and Nectar, something like 11 local restaurants all told, and also sell to the public at the Hyde Park and Wyoming Farmers Markets. Or you can visit their farm near Wilmington, which I've done several times (it's best to call or email ahead to make arrangements). Fine people. Unbelievable produce. They also raise chemical- and antibiotic-free chickens.
With three hoop houses, WRA grows year-round. These are actually photos I took back in Feb. when we stopped by after my birthday. In mid-winter, there is nothing better than being able to get produce this crisply fresh and full of flavor.
The sunflower shoots are my fave so far, but Becky Portmann tells me people go crazy over her popcorn shoots. Can't wait to try those too!
So, whether you're a home cook or a chef (ahem), a gardener or a farmer's market afficianado, enjoy the season!
I always take Restaurant Week as a chance to try places new to me and support local independents. At $26.10 for a three-course dinner last week in Cincy, an excellent way to sample food, service, and atmosphere before dropping a larger chunk of change. A good thing, as one of our picks (Local 127) was a miss, while the other (View) was a big hit.
Located on a steep hillside in Walnut Hills near EdenPark, View’s two walls of windows make it in an airy, open space that balances the intimacy created by its low ceiling. Although we couldn’t see much of the Ohio River the damp, dreary night we dined (rain turned to monsoon, with snow by morning), every aspect of our indoor dining experience was warm and welcoming.
View describes its menu as “an inspired twist on American cuisine.” What we found on the RW menu (which I don’t believe duplicated any items on the regular menu) was food that did not try to over-reach on the “twists” (not that I would be averse to trying more from this skilled chef) but was clearly and consistently prepared with great attention. Recently opened by the same owners and chef as Bella Luna, our sense was that chef Alfio Guilsano is enjoying the opportunity to branch out from Bella Luna’s Italian menu(s).
As my starter, I opted for the carpaccio, of tender beef and earthy beets. The lemon-scented oil was quite delicate, and the sprig of microgreens a nice touch.
Cindie selected the shrimp cake with remoulade, served on fresh mixed greens. With its crispy fried breading, the cake reminded us both of shrimp toast.
A basket of three breads was served with our starters: asiago, sourdough (Cindie's favorite) and an herby flatbread (the one I liked best). Although according to our server these breads are not made in-house, we thought they were quite good. He was happy to replenish both our bread basket and accompanying butter dusted with red sea salt as we moved on to our next course.
For our soup/salad course from the RW menu, Cindie went with the corn bisque, creamy as advertised - and the essence of corn.
I chose the grit cake (not quite as cheesy as those Weisenberger grits we sampled in Louisville), but on the whole satisfying nonetheless. After I'd eaten most of the greens, I especially enjoyed swirling my remaining grits in the "bacon" vinaigrette - lightly flecked with pancetta or prosciutto, I'd guess, rather than traditional American bacon.
For our entrees, Cindie was very pleased with her tender braised short ribs served over the house "mash" - creamy potatoes amped up with butternut squash.
My tuna entree, also served over house mash, was one of my favorite dishes of the night. Seared with a crisp crust of black and white sesame seeds, it was cooked to a lovely moist rare to mid-rare (as our server said it would be) and topped with a "spicy" crab aioli that had a definite kick to it.
Intent on my tuna, when I heard a male voice from behind asking if we needed anything, I started to request another glass of wine. But I broke off mid-sentence when I turned to see someone other than our waiter checking on us this time. I stammered that I couldn't remember the name of the wine I'd been drinking, but was sure our server would know. The inquiring gentleman explained he was the owner, graciously replied that he would be happy to get me whatever I wanted, and quickly put me at ease. Moments later another glass of wine appeared.
The owner's wife (and, presumably, co-owner) also stopped by our table to check on us throughout the evening, her style a bit more informal but equally genuine. When we asked about plans for the patio adjacent to the dining room, she said they are hoping to build a bar there and eventually serve both drinks and food. In sunny weather before our summer humidity hits, this would be one of my favorite outdoor venues. When we asked about plans for brunch, she said that following their buffet Easter Sunday, they plan to offer brunch off a menu.
When we saw the dessert tray being shown to another table, it took no time to agree we would also go for dessert. Cindie's choice was the creamy orange marmalade cheese cake.
I was intrigued by the restaurant's newest dessert, made of two disks, one of white chocolate and the other of dark chocolate, one incorporating rice krispies and the other chow mein noodles, with dark chocolate mousse sandwiched between and on top, as the bed for a decorative strawberry. A drizzle of peppermint sabayon finished the plate.
It was both playful and expertly executed, if a tad difficult to eat in its lovely plated form. The owner's wife suggested it was easier to eat with your hands. She was right, and I didn't feel a bit bashful about eating it that way, thanks to her suggestion.
I don't get Local 127. Neither did my RW dining companion, Cindie.
Although there is much hew and cry in Cincinnati following the split between lionized chef Jean-Robert de Cavel and his former business partners, the Wades, we were curious to check out the restaurant the Wades opened last September in the Fourth Street space that was formerly home to J-R's signature fine-dining restaurant Pigalle's (I had been there twice; this was Cindie's first time in the space). We felt we were going in with open minds and trying not to take sides in the pro/anti Wade battle. We also went to Local 127 earlier during RW than View, so it's not as though we had another fresh, new, positive restaurant experience to compare it to.
Although we were interested in checking out the drinks at adjacent bar Tonic, it turned out we had no choice. When we arrived 5-10 minutes early for our reservation, we were informed the restaurant was still being set up and would not be open until 5:30. (Apparently the valet parking dude doesn't show up any earlier than that either.).
Our bartender was pleasant and helpful as we asked about the elaborate craft cocktail menu, which is heavy on historical descriptions. When Cindie expressed interest in a La Paloma (described as a precursor to the mojito) but reluctance about its grapefruit soda, our barkeep said he too dislikes grapefruit but finds this soda not to taste much like grapefruit. He offered us both samples of the Jarritos Toronja, a refreshing and sort of generically citrus Mexican soda, and at that point, I tasted my favorite beverage of the night.
When Cindie tasted her lime-laced tequila cocktail, reminiscent of a margarita, and wanted to try it with a salted rim, the barkeep was happy to humor her as well. Curious to try the advertised sweet and dry vermouths and house aromatic bitters, I chose the Satan's Whisker's, which was frankly too sweet for my tastes after the first few sips, no matter how lovely the curled orange rind garnish. When we inquired about the bitters, the barkeep was kind enough to bring out an array of small eye-dropper-topped bottles, but I learned that my drink was not made as advertised with the house-made version after all, just commercial Angostura in a similar bottle.
Alas, the lack of truth in advertising and other puzzlements continued after we were shown to our booth at the back of the restaurant. The space is substantially the same as it was during its incarnation as Jean-Robert at Pigalle's. Despite a louder, hipper soundtrack and some homemade-looking modifications to the light fixtures, the room still gives off something of a fine-dining vibe, even if the young wait staff are dressed in jeans covered by long black aprons. The table decorations - cubes of artificial greens topped with lemons - were odd, too (see photo at top of this post).
My starter choice, the "local" terrine of pork and chicken liver was coarse, rustic, and a little dry. It was supposed to come with pickled green beans, but I couldn't discern anything green in the dish other than tiny scallion slices. Cindie's pink and creamy mousse-like smoked trout rillettes with lemon aioli and chives was probably the best-tasting dish of the night.
The bread tray included Parker House rolls and cornbread muffins - surprisingly mundane choices, we thought, and neither tasty enough to make me want more.
For our second course, Cindie chose "Fall Field Greens with Garlic Crisp, Farm Egg & Balsamic Vinaigrette." The menu-writing on that one had me scratching my head - why would a restaurant that purports to be committed to local/seasonal foods be talking about Fall when Spring is upon us? Cindie found the dressing bland and lacking acidity. And the most interesting part of the dish, lovely watermelon radishes, wasn't mentioned either on the menu or by our server.
I enjoyed my
roasted beet salad well enough, although my guess is that it came with creme fraiche (as our server mentioned), not with sour cream as stated on the menu (another attempt at dumbing things down in the dining room?).
Cindie's entree of fried pork cutlet entree reminded her of something she could make at home. She liked the accompanying cabbage, but the small portion of grits left her unsatisfied and a little stumped, since grits are such inexpensive filler.
I opted for the "Chicken Two Ways with Wild Rice, Eggplant, and Almonds," but nothing on the menu suggested what the "two ways" were - some with wild rice, the rest with eggplant and almonds? If it weren't for reading another blogger's description of something similar, I would have completely overlooked this dish. When I asked our server about the two ways, she said one was seared and the other confited. When I pressed about whether one was cooked sous-vide, she confirmed that was done prior to searing the breast, and seemed surprised we actually knew what sous-vide meant. In fact, she said we were her first customers familiar with the term, so she had eliminated any description of it from her tableside patter. In any case, the chicken breast was moist, and did have a bit of crispy skin on the exterior. Meanwhile, if there was any confited chicken underneath, it was undiscernible, as was the purported eggplant. I did, however, discover two small half Brussels sprouts in the mix, mentioned nowhere on the menu or by our server. I have no problem if the kitchen opts to deviate from the printed menu, but I do think deviations deserve mention. I happen to like both eggplant and Brussels sprouts, but not everyone feels that way.
The young woman who waited on us was pleasant and attentive enough. But as if the disconnect between the high-end aspirations of the bar and the attempts of the dining room to be modest weren't already confusing enough, at several points during the evening, our server addressed Cindie as "Mi-Lady," giving me a dissonant Renaissance Faire flashback. When we asked if she'd ever worked at a ren faire, she said no, but she'd studied acting. Uh-huh. No wonder we didn't sense much passion or knowledge about the food from her.
Our bartender and another young man who waited on us, both of whom had apparently started under the original bar manager, were distinctly gung-ho about this place, or at least about their mixology training. But we didn't sense much passion anywhere else. If you're going to do simple straightforward dishes, they need to be impeccable. None of our dishes was overtly bad, but most were unremarkable.
Still, we pressed on with dessert, deciding to split the house cheesecake, served (in pretentiously unpretentious fashion?) in a Mason jar.Our server mentioned something about a crumble and "mustard fruit" topping of cherries, raisins, and a hint of mustard. While the cheesecake was light and creamy as described, and indeed topped with a crumble of some sort, the fruit accompaniment seemed to us to be straight preserves. Cindie's thought was that they save the mustard for bloggers they know.
Being a lover of Calvados, Cindie wanted to try the Teacher's Punch, which we indulged in with dessert. At $24 for a punchbowl of the stuff - most of the space in the bowl being taken up by a very large icecube - it was an overly sweet waste of money.
From the service, to the menu-writing, to the food itself, we did not come away from Local 127 with a sense of genuine care, commitment, or attention to detail, and the result was a lackluster dining experience.
With only 3 weeks - woo-hoo!!! - until TCM returns, something's been driving me CRAZY here in the bowels of the Aubergine TC Crack Monkey Basement: Does the fact that there are 22 contestants (yep, I counted 'em repeatedly on my fingers and toes) signal a change in format for Masters Season 2?
The 1st half of last season consisted of all-or-nothing battles within each group of 4 chefs, with the top toque from each moving on to the 2nd half of the season, and the remaining 3 immediately PYKAG'd at the conclusion of their respective episodes. The talent level was so high I would have loved to see more of the "losers'" food, especially if they had the opportunity to acclimate to the unfamiliarity of the Top Chef kitchen and competition.
But how could 22 contestants be fairly divided into teams of 4? Or even 3? Do those wily Elves have some twists in store for us? Do kitchen accidents befall a couple of contestants (gasp), requiring alternates to be brought in? Does anyone simply volunteer to go home mid-epi? (Methinks this highly unlikely.) Or . . . is TCM2 going back to the model of Top Chef "Classic" (aka "regular Top Chef"), with only 1 chef eliminated each week for the full season?
Dear Readers, if you spy any spoilage on my weighty TCM question, please let me know. Like I said, it's driving me, er, nuts.
I saved our favorite Louisville restaurant experience for last. But darn it, discovered I brought home nothing comparable on the photo front. When we arrived at the Limestone at 10:30 for Sunday brunch, we were practically the only people in the place.
I could have snapped some pics of the colorful aquariums atop the half-wall that wraps around the main dining area.
I could have tried to capture the airiness of the space, or the views of blue sky and woods that sunny morning outside this unlikely deserted suburban strip-mall location.
I could have photographed the lovely spread of salads, the giant shrimp cocktail display, the carving station with a glistening whole beef tenderloin, or the staggering dessert table . . . before the restaurant filled up and I lost my nerve.
Instead, here's what I've got.
The Limestone's brunch is an all-you-can-eat buffet for something like $16.95 or $17.95 (must take better notes in future). So the dishes you're about to see are as we served ourselves, not as the restaurant would plate.
Cindie and I decided to start with "breakfast" and samples from the hot food station. I chose bacon, cheesy Weisenberger grits, a made-to-order omelet, a bit of house-made barbecue, some roasted potatoes, and warm black beans with cilantro and melted cheese - they looked stunning in their latticework presentation before being devoured by the post-church-going Louisvillian crowd (alas, another missed photo op).
We also tried the Limestone's signature bourbon sour-mash biscuits and (unphotographed) gravy.
For plate #2, we sampled the salads and afore-mentioned shrimp.
They included a creamy potato salad, an Asian-inspired whole-wheat noodle salad with yellow squash, a corn, black bean & chickpea salad, leaf lettuces with mojito vinaigrette (note to self: must try to figure out how to make this at home) and a cucumber-tomato-onion salad that was probably a little too early for the season.
But the highlight of the cold buffet had to be this house-smoked salmon with scallion cream cheese, diced red onions, and capers.
By plate #3, we were ready to delve into the prime rib with - what else? - more Weisenberger grits. We'd seen the name "Weisenberger" affixed to grits the previous evening at Lilly's too, and Cindie asked one of the cooks about them. Our guess was that they must be made of locally ground corn (which may be the case). The cook she spoke to replied that "Weisenberger" had something to do with being cooked with cheese in a casserole fashion. Whatever the case, they were some darn fine creamy, cheesy grits.
This is Cindie's plate, avec horseradish sauce and sans jus. That's cabbage, with hints of apple, at top right. And Weisenberger grits to the left of the cabbage (in front of barbecue).
As we approached our feast's 2-hour mark, we were finally ready to tackle dessert.
(Clockwise from top) Bread pudding made with Limestone's house-made sour-mash bread; cheesecake square (I drizzled raspberry sauce over mine, although it might have been intended for the angel food cake also on offer); mini chocolate lava cake drizzled with bourbon ganache; and tiny blackberry muffin.
Even if I didn't take the best photos, or the best notes, we thoroughly loved this brunch. A steal for the plenitude and the price, it gave us a sense of what Limestone's food is all about and convinced us to put it at the top of our list for a (much pricier) dinner on our next visit . . .when I promise to bring back better photos and have at least inched up on being a better blogger.
I find it hard to resist foods I've never imagined before. So when I happened onto smoked salmon bratwurst recently, I had to buy one.
But once I got it home, what on earth was I going to do with it? Should I brown it and braise in beer with caramelized onions as I would a traditional brat or cheddarwurst? Or go with a more lox-inspired preparation? What kind of side to round out my meal? And where to settle on the bun vs. no-bun question?
A tempting hunk of baguette suggested it could make a fine bun. But I really wanted to taste this unique sausage, so opted to forgo the bread.
Condiments are de rigueur in my kitchen, so I put together a little lox-meets-dog sauce of horseradish with chives and capers. With a hefty pinch of salt to bring out their flavors so much better than when they were simply lying here in the sour cream.
As a simple and french-fry-esque side for my dog, I went for roasted potatoes, with some leftover yellow squash and a stray piece of zucchini while I was at it, cutting my veg into three-sided pieces. Keeping them uniform in size and shape (no rectangles here) simplifies how many times to turn them in the oven.
My one issue with roasting - and I tell myself this EVERY time - is that I have to get over fear of high heat. My comfort zone is at about 425 F., but real roasting works best at 450 or, gasp, 500 degrees. Yes, you've got to watch what you're roasting - even better, let the smell dictate when you need to check and turn. Still, as many times as I've roasted vegetables, I don't know what my deal is - do I think my oven is going to blow up if I set it to 500?
What you're looking for with potatoes is a bit of puffy, browned exterior. Ideally, a little caramelized crunch on the outside, with the inside of the potato cooked through.
As for the brat, the kind folks at the fish market (Lobsta Bakes of Maine) confirmed that this sausage is already fully cooked. Although many customers like to grill these babies, given the winter weather, they suggested simply sauteeing in butter.
When mine was warmed through, I couldn't resist slicing it for a closer look.
The result: a delicious and unique dinner. Happy Friday!