Monday, April 25, 2011

Last Supper?

No, this isn’t a belated Easter post. It’s about a much beloved little spot that is soon to close its doors – fork heart knife.

Thursday offered a break from our rain, and with the sun shining as I left the office, I headed to fhk for a taste of their dinner offerings – before it was too late. I arrived at the 4-table restaurant a bit before 6:00. Tables were already filled, with more customers drifting in, asking to put their names on the list, and proffering cell numbers to be called when seats became available. My plan was to get carryout (no need to take up valuable table space when I was by myself, and I don’t usually eat that early anyway).

Co-owner Sierra Laumer offered me a seat on a folding wood chair while I waited a few minutes for my order to be packed up, giving me a chance to witness the community vibe more than I have in the past. Darn, can’t believe this is only the third meal I’ve had at fhk. My other two were with Cindie, when we timed our brunch visits to beat the crowds. (Here is one my previous posts.)

Twosomes occupied a couple of tables Thursday night. A group of 6 or 8 was happily crowded around another. There were babies, and baby carriers, and folks of all ages amongst the group and I’m not sure who all was coming, or going, or who was with who. Didn’t matter. The casual sense of community was palpable, and the customers waiting for tables (at least while I was there) were agreeably patient (although apparently that is not always the case).

From the roster of the evening’s offerings, posted as always on butcher paper, I ordered “Spanish salad,” butternut squash enchiladas, and a key lime pie bar. I knew this trifecta would be more than I could possibly eat at one sitting, but I wanted to try them all and was confident I’d be happy with the leftovers. As I paid Sierra for my order, she asked if this would be the last time I’d be there. “Probably,” I said, feeling there was more I wanted to say. “Well, it’s a good night,” she said, nodding at the evening’s menu, “And thanks for your support.” “Are you still going to blog?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered. That, at least, was a comfort.

The support fhk has received from the blogging community, and eventually the mainstream media, perhaps has been more a curse than a blessing. Unlike many restaurants, which fail to draw enough customers to weather their first year, the fhk catering kitchen, which also offered weekend brunches plus dinner a night or two each week, is apparently closing because its popularity has overwhelmed the limitations of its kitchen and seating. Here’s how Sierra explained on her blog the decision not to renew fhk’s lease.

The announcement incited wails of disappointment in the Cincinnati food community (mine among them), and even some backlash against “outsiders” who live beyond the downtown/Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in which fork heart knife is located. Some blogs and commenters seemed to blame the restaurant’s closing on the fact that it drew people from beyond the city’s core, adding to the customer lines, and expectations, faced by the owners of this small business.

Sure, social media probably contributed to fhk’s success. In fact, Sierra started getting word out early herself, with brief and enticing blog posts while she, fhk partner Leah Heisel Grande, and helpful friends and family readied the shop for the public. Within a week of the opening, SoapBoxMedia ran this piece (interesting to reread in light of the business’s evolution over the last year) that also touched on the fact that Sierra’s sister Jenna, who helped inspire fork heart knife and its OTR location, died of cancer the January before it opened. Sierra continued to blog, sharing recipes from fhk’s ever-changing menu, as well as about her travels and the culinary inspiration she found elsewhere.

As I extracted the eggymobile from its parking space in front of fork heart knife and made my way to Mt. Washington, the smell of loss mixed with the aroma of green-chile-smothered butternut squash enchiladas. Once home, I took my time before delving into dinner, reluctant to let this meal slip away too soon.

Delaying the inevitable, I caught up on Sierra’s blog posts from her recent San Francisco trip, including this one where she talks about the thrill of eating at Chez Panisse and her enthusiasm for a vegan charcuterie plate at Gather. (Yes, that’s “vegan charcuterie.”) Lifted by the sails of her culinary enthusiasm, I was finally ready to eat.

And when I did, it hit me just as every time I’ve eaten fhk’s food. Regardless of the buzz, or the crowds, or even the charm and intimacy and community of the setting, this is remarkably delicious food! Straightforward, unpretentious. Simple food, made with carefully chosen ingredients.And guided by a palate that brings out the best in them.

As luck would have it, Sierra has put up blog posts I can link to about the dishes I was fortunate to eat that night.

"Spanish Salad" or "The Salad" with Romaine, Manchego Cheese, Marcona Almonds, and Zydeco Dressing

Butternut Squash Enchiladas with Green Chile Adobo Sauce, Pepperjack/Mozzarella, and Sour Cream

Key Lime Pie Bars with Fresh Whipped Cream

Social media buzz (and a "sentimental" back story?) might be enough to to convince people to try out any fledgling restaurant once. But it takes great food to keep people coming back. I'm hoping  whatever Sierra and Leah's next moves are, they remain local. I'll be curious to follow them wherever they venture.

And I just might have to go back this week for one more taste before they close.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter

I made it to and from Findlay Market between rainstorms today, and was glad I did. The Market was packed, and I picked up this sweet cock-eared Easter bunny from Chocolats LaTour.

Met Shalini LaTour in person, and picked up this four-pack of her Easter specialties: Rosemary Mandarin, Jack Rabbit (the boozy one), Dulche de Leche, and Lemon Grass.

Plus, I got a bar of Rosemary Almond with Sea Salt I'm so eager to try, I'm not stopping to take a photo.I love Shalini's devotion to dark chocolate, and her creativity combining it with other flavors.

Whatever flavor of holiday you may be celebrating this spring weekend, I wish you happiness, renewal, and hope. Oh, and may your basement not flood, nor your routes of ingress and egress be washed out:)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bison and Red Penguins: Serious Food, With a Side of Whimsy

“You went there to eat bones?” asked Cindie’s husband when she called him from Louisville the day after our dinner at Proof on Main. Rolling her eyes, Cindie tried to explain. “They’re like what we give the dogs, only they’re cooked.”

Not quite! Roasted bison marrow bones were just one of two spectacular dishes friend Cindie and I shared for our first course at Proof on Main the first night of our recent getaway to Louisville.

Proof is the restaurant in the 21C, the boutique hotel/museum in downtown Louisville that is also partnering with 3CDC to create a similar venue in Cincinnati. Plans are in the works to renovate the Cincinnati’s Metropole Hotel adjacent to the Contemporary Arts Center and across from the Aronoff.

Owned by wife and husband Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, collectors of contemporary art, Louisville’s 21C museum/hotel is unlike any place I’ve ever encountered – even in the many years I’ve gone to museums with my architect/art historian father. Brown and Wilson also happen to own a bison farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, where the restaurant’s original gardens on the roof of the hotel have been relocated.

On our first trip to Louisville together a year ago, Cindie and I stopped by the 21C, not knowing much about it. Relying on Cindie’s GPS, we figured we’d found the place when we spied these red penguins, such unexpected accoutrements to an historic building we simply had to ask about them.

We were told the owners first saw the Red Penguins, by the Cracked Art Group, at a public art installation in Florence (Italy, not Kentucky) and bought 40-45 of them after the show was over. In addition to those perched atop the hotel and above its entrance, a hotel employee told us, “We have about a dozen we play with.” Repeat clients with a known sense of humor might discover a red penguin in their shower, for instance. Or a couple staying at the hotel for their wedding might open the door of their room to be greeted by penguins dressed in wedding dress and tux. The 21C recently offered a special package for Lady Gaga’s Louisville performance, so who knows what other costumes the red penguins may have donned for that occasion.

The 21C plans to commission additional penguins for its upcoming hotels in Austin, Texas, and Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as Cincinnati. But each city’s penguins will be a different color. I hope Cincy’s aren’t yellow as in this artist’s rendering, since yellow has nothing to do with Cincinnati. And I personally hope they aren’t pink, although Cincy is known for (pink) flying pigs. Too bad red is already taken.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is exhibiting a show from the 21C’s collection through May 15 if you’d like to catch a glimpse. But I can’t help but think seeing the same works of art in Cincinnati's stately museum in Eden Park would present a much different experience than seeing them in their "native habitat" in Louisville.

The gallery spaces, on 21C’s entry and lower levels, are free, visible, and accessible to anyone entering the building. You need not book a room to feel welcomed into this quirky venue, which in addition to its acclaimed restaurant offers lots of activities – from yoga to poetry readings to its annual pajama party – to keep the locals engaged and happy to return. Many of the galleries feature video and interactive installations; others offer cozy spots to sit amongst the art, perhaps with a beverage in hand. Even the restrooms are an award-winning work of art. Exhibits in the main galleries change frequently. This fantastical chest of drawers from the current show of contemporary Cuban art was just one piece that caught my eye.

When Cindie and I were in Louisville last March, we poked our heads into Proof on Main, the 21C’s bar/restaurant. It looked like a vibrant place, but we were there in the middle of the afternoon and already had reservations for dinner. This time Proof was at the top of my dining agenda, and Cindie was happy to oblige.

Here is one of those movable red penguins at Proof.

On to the food. In addition to a selection of six or so first course options, Proof’s menu features a “For the Table” section, where you can choose your own mix-and-match combination of house-made charcuterie and artisan cheeses, at $15 for three selections or $21 for five. (Surprisingly, none were from nearby Capriole, although Capriole Goat Cheese is apparently used in other dishes and is listed on the menu as a friend/purveyor.) Cindie and I easily agreed, even before heading to the restaurant, that we’d opt for five, then asked our server to describe the current offerings in more detail.

(Counter-clockwise from bottom left) We ordered house-made chicken liver pate and pork jowl terrine (both of which Cindie found too salty after cooking for her husband’s new low-sodium diet, but I really enjoyed - yippee, more for me!), a spectacular creamy Italian cheese we both agreed was our overall favorite (we understood our server to say it was the Moringhello di Bufala, an aged buffalo milk’s cheese, but after hunting up more info on it, I think the creamy one was actually the other Italian cheese we ordered, Brunet, a young goat's milk cheese, and that somehow we, or our enthusiastic foodie server, got things flip-flopped). House-cured coppa is on the bottom right, and the accompanying "toasted" bread is in the back. Unfortunately, it had a lot of char on it. I picked off the burnt pieces in an effort to use it as a vessel for the lovely charcuterie, while Cindie’s strategy was to use the loaf we’d received when we were seated (it was tough and dry, but at least not burnt).
Our antipasti board also came with grainy mustard, cornichons, a chutney-ish condiment (I didn't eat much of it and have, I'm afraid, forgotten the particulars), and lightly truffled honey.

Also in the (online) menu’s “For the Table” section were Roasted Bison Marrow Bones,which immediately drew my attention. Finding them absent from the menu presented to us at the restaurant (there were a couple other discrepancies in the menus Cindie and I each received as well), I was assured by our server I could have the bison bones. When he returned to our table, he apologized for not knowing they had in fact been 86’d (he'd just returned from a foodie trip to Charleston) . . . but with the good news that the kitchen still had one order left, and it would be mine!

Given that bison is a lean game meat, it may seem a contradiction to order it for the fatty marrow. But those of you who know me also know I never pass up an opportunity to try something new, especially when it comes to game. I'm also happy to know this kitchen and the bison farm from which it came are celebrating, rather than wasting. We had to ask for appropriately small utensils to extract the marrow, and had better luck getting it out of the bones once the temperature had cooled a bit.

After indulging in our filling starters, I suspected I wouldn’t have room for an entire entrée. Besides, as usual, I was more tempted by several first course options. There was no way I was passing up the KY Bison Carpaccio with Farm Egg Ravioli, Sunchokes, and Tartufelo. I also had my eye on the Chick Pea and Country Ham Fritters. When I asked about portion sizes, our server was right in his estimation that the two would make a reasonable combination to sub for an entrée, and I was thrilled with both.

I’m always a sucker for carpaccio, and this was of bison. However, what made it truly spectacular was the marvelous runny-egg filling of the single raviolo oozing onto the meat. I also loved the contrasting crunch of the sunchoke chips.

When my fritters arrived at the table, I looked at the plate mounded with greens and had to remind myself what I'd ordered. The plate was covered with way more red and green Treviso than it needed to be, especially for someone like me, who is not all that fond of raw bitter greens. But when I uncovered the fritters beneath “the hair,” I loved what I found. Crisp-fried on the outside and cut into rectangular logs of fritter goodness that would make your high-school geometry teacher proud, the slight sweetness of chickpeas accented with bits of salty country ham paired delectably with a mustard crema on the plate underneath.

Cindie, alas, was not as satisfied with what she ordered. She had her taste buds set for the Braised Short Rib special served every Friday (and Thursday). Our server had informed us earlier that the kitchen was out of chicken (an Amish chicken with wheatberries, cashews, raisins, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower pickles). But it wasn’t until we were ready to order our “mains” that we learned they were also out of short ribs. It was only 8:00 on a Friday night, and Cindie was not a happy camper. So she settled on the Grilled Rib Steak with grit cakes, cipollini, and salami butter.

Cindie, true to her own preferences, asked for “regular” grits in place of the grit cakes and was told they would be happy to make the substitution. When her dish arrived, however, grit cakes were on the plate, and it took longer than she would have liked for her side of grits to arrive. Meanwhile, I was the delighted recipient of her grit cakes, which I enjoyed very much – especially with a bit of her salami butter.

One of the best things about eating, and traveling, with an old friend (Cindie and I have known each other since eighth grade, but refuse to think of ourselves as "old") is that we've learned to "go along and get along." We respect each other's differences of opinion, and know there are certain subjects we're better off not discussing (politics), while we can engage in frank discussions even when we don't come to the same conclusion in other arenas (including restaurant food). Although our dinner at Proof was my favorite of that weekend, Cindie preferred our dinner Saturday night (to be spotlighted in a later post).

One thing we both agreed on after this dinner, our late afternoon drive to Louisville, and the acknowledgment that we needed to pace ourselves for the weekend, was that we would forgo dessert. But guess what came with our check.

Cotton candy. Definitely pink. Tasting of cinnamon. So much more ethereal in texture than whenever I last tasted cotton candy, and made in Proof's own open kitchen. I've never been a fan of cotton candy, but I couldn't help but smile . . . especially as I passed a red penguin on my way outside . . .  into torrential rain . . . and a cheery young valet appeared out of nowhere, proffering an umbrella to help me to Cindie's car.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Springapalooza - Fishapalooza

Truth be told, I don't approach Lent as a season of asceticism or deprivation. In my corner of the world, Lent coincides with the wobbly and unpredictable emergence into springtime. An often three-steps-forward, one-step-back dance of hope, stoicism, and the practicality of various outerwear options. Is today the day I can put away my winter coat for good? Is the morning chilly enough I should opt for that wrinkle-free rain jacket I can stuff into my bag by the end of the day when temps are in the upper 60s? Do I dress for the predicted outdoor weather, or the HVAC realities of my downtown office building, which are frequently at odds with each other?

Spring celebrations come in many forms here in the Queen City. It snowed Wednesday on “Fountain Day,” when the Tyler-Davidson Fountain was turned back on for the season. I celebrated by getting a warming grilled cheese and tomato soup from Tom + Chee, who are back on the Square for the season!

Be forewarned that T+C's Fountain Square offerings aren’t as extensive as what you can get at their Court St. location across from the county courthouse, where they have a full kitchen. But you can always get some mighty fine grilled cheeses and soups from their Fountain Square booth. They announce each day’s specials for both locations on their facebook page.

Opening Day wasn’t much warmer, but was certainly better attended. Rather than compete with the baseball crowds and the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade that day, earlier in the week I sampled one of Lunch on Main’s gourmet hot dogs, the Aristocrat, with horseradish coleslaw, fried onions, and bbq sauce. Quite a dog!

Now I have to go back and try their new Conquistador Dog, announced with the wit I’ve come to know and love from their quote-filled facebook page: "Today, I consider myself, the luckiest man on the face of the earth" – Lou Gehrig, after eating the new Conquistador dog at LOM. That's right - there's a new hot dog to help celebrate Opening Day! The Conquistador - 1/4lb dog, homemade black bean/corn salsa, shredded lettuce, sour cream, shredded cheese and tortilla strips."

But what about the fish, you ask? My Friday turned into a fishapalooza indeed!

The New Orleans To Go food truck has been back at 5th and Race several days a week lately (typically Wed.-Fri. – stay tuned to their facebook page for updates). As my faithful readers know, I’m a huge fan of the food served up by New Orleans native Toya and her husband Randy, who runs front of house, er, truck, and greets every customer with his broad, impish smile. Their offerings change daily, which I love, because I just keep getting to try more of Toya’s amazing cooking. I’m never gonna say I’ve had her best dish, because I’m always ready for more. However, this crawfish etoufee-smothered tilapia over seasoned rice I had Friday was one of the most staggeringly delicious things I have eaten in the past year.

New Orleans To Go also has plans in the works for a special Crawfish Boil. Although they haven’t yet announced all the details, they’re talking boiled crawfish, cajun corn, fried fish, shrimp and crawfish etoufee, at $25 per person, prepaid, May 6 in NKY. Stay tuned for confirmation, but Eggy wants to be in the NOTG Clubhouse for this!

From the Gulf Coast to the East Coast, I picked up a couple of lobster roll “kits” from Lobsta Bakes of Maine in Newtown Friday after work.

Good thing I called to reserve them, because owner Kevin Smith told me he’d sold out of them this week. A native of Maine, Kevin is serious about lobsta rolls, down to the authentic buns he gets from Maine.
Kevin told me he was trying to get more buns to fill more orders this week and that some of his customers said they’d be happy for the lobster salad even without the buns. Yes, the lobsta salad is that good. But even more #winning on one of those buns :)

I’m sure Kevin will be offering more lobsta rolls in the weeks to come, but I do recommend you call ahead and reserve. Your best bet for staying on top of what he’s offering when is to sign up for the weekly Lobsta Bakes of Maine e-newsletter – just look on the left-hand column of Lobsta Bakes website to join. This venerable seafood monger has much more to offer than lobster, and usually gets his carefully sourced fish and seafood shipments in on Thursdays (they’re closed Sunday and Monday). In addition to fresh seafood, Lobsta Bakes offers some prepared items, including chowdas and seafood quiches, and if you’re looking to make a dish at home that calls for fish/seafood stock, you can find the real deal here, especially if you call ahead.

He’s also kicking off his first open-to-the-public Lobsta Bake of the season April 9 in Newtown’s Moundview Park. It’s a prepaid event, at various price points depending on which entrée you select (lobster, king crab, filet mignon, or ½ chicken). These go on through the summer and fall, and I’m determined to get to one of them this year.

Before I sign off and delve into the cioppino I also bought from Lobsta Bakes last night, I want to send out a big Eggy hug to three of my dear blogger friends who have suffered losses this week. Chickory, who always inspires me with her art, photos, and wit, lost her mother (and wrote a poem that brought me to tears). Aunty Belle also lost Granny Cracker this week . . . and gained a tribe baby. Aunty, you asked for comfort food suggestions to celebrate Granny’s passing – the foods I’ve mentioned in this post all comforted me because they were unquestionably made with love. I send that karma forward to you, knowing your clan will celebrate Granny in high style. And to Shamy, who lost her beloved Jake, but is continuing to cook her way through her sorrow, I know you’re not exactly the hugging type, but I wish you well and am glad you’re still blogging, my friend.