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.


Buzz Kill said...

You don't often hear of restaurants that are so successful that they close. From her blog it sounds like they may pop up again. Hopefully in a larger place. Its ashame because that Key Lime Pie Bar looks really good.

Velva said...

The first thing I thought...Just like Buzz Kill...They were so successful they had to close their doors? I am hoping for your community they are just going to get bigger digs, and re-open.

The food looks really good. Thanks for sharing with us!


Sharon Rudd said...

Thanks, Buzz and Velva, for stopping by and commenting. It was shocking to hear this lovely eatery was closing due to success. But it truly is teeny, tiny and its kitchen is definitely limited. I'm guessing other personal decisions were involved as well.

I love to support great small food businesses in Cincy, and got a little verklempt thinking I might have contributed to their demise. But nah. I don't blog that often or have enough readers that to bear that weight on my shoulders :)

Whatever they decide to do, and wherever they decide to do it, I'm sure it will be worth watching. I'm just hoping they'll do it close enough to Cincinnati that I can taste it too :)

LaDivaCucina said...

Wow, what a bittersweet story but I understand their frustration completely. I am in the same boat, not enough room in my kitchen or home to adequately prepare and keep the food for my events. Week before last I had 25 lbs. of lemons and limes in my living room! 10lbs. of chicken in the fridge. The DJ eating appetizers for dinner! It takes MONEY to grow, buy new equipment, get a bigger space, etc. etc. etc. And in spite of the American Dream to make your business grow, sometimes people get overwhelmed and just wanted what they originally set out to do: provide delicious meals in their little cafe to friends and neighbors! I wish them luck!

fishy said...

I 'm with your Eggy, it is a pain in the heart when a well loved eatery says good bye. It does sound like the struggle to perform with increasing constraints was overwhelming. Completely understandable as it wears you down to struggle through every single day. Imagine how hard a busy kitchen is anyway then add to that the relentless frustration of too little space.

Your photographs are fabulous as always. TOO good as I am salivating for some of that key lime goodness!

darkfoam said...

how unfortunate that too much business is causing this delicious little place to close. i'm starting to think of cinci as the place to eat delicious food.

Aunty Belle said...


Wait now....jes' last night on the cookin' channel I seen somethin' called The Hunger--a sort of movable feast put on as a pop-up restaurant all over Manhattan.

Seems that the organizers/ chefs find an alleyway, park, unused office/ storefront--SOMEthing, an make a two day rental for their upcoming dinners, then blog/twitter/facebook it/ until no reservations remain.

Read about it here:

That butternut squash enchilada is callin' mah name!

As fer community? Please come visit a spell on the Front Porch whar' I explore community too. Heh.