Friday, September 30, 2011

Culinary Smackdown – My Part of Our Entry for Battle: Oktoberfest

As I mentioned in yesterday's installment, Cindie and I had originally planned to make sauerbraten for this month's Smackdown, then switched to sausages. One of things I like best about a sauerbraten dinner is potato pancakes topped with the gravy that's made by adding sour cream to the boiled sauerbraten marinade. When we changed our main dish to sausages, Cindie suggested hot German potato salad as a side. It would have made an excellent pair, but I'm glad I stuck to my guns about going the pancake route with our potatoes. I thereby avoided blogger jinx, as Jen from Our Good (Food) Life has the German potato salad covered with her Battle: Oktoberfest entry :)

I adapted the Joy of Cooking recipe for potato pancakes a bit, primarily by doubling it (because these go like, er, hotcakes) and adding a little more onion. At Cindie's suggestion, I also threw in some baking powder (unmeasured) in the hopes it would help them puff up a little more. Turned out I didn't add enough to make much difference. Joy says its smaller recipe yields about twelve 3-inch cakes; some of mine were larger and I'd guess we ended up with maybe 20.

Aside to Cincinnatians accustomed to ginormous potato pancakes like Izzy's makes: These are much smaller and thinner, but very tasty nonetheless, and practical to make in a home kitchen :)

4 cups coarsely grated/shredded peeled Idaho potatoes (Instead of grating them on a box grater as I have always done, we used a food processor with the large shredding blade, and it worked like a charm. The size it produced was produced was perfect, and it saved a lot of hassle and time which is especially good since you don't want the potatoes to oxidize and turn brown.)

1 small onion, grated (This I did use a box grater for, although you could use the small shredding blade on a food processor. You want the onion to end up pretty small, and the onion juice produced when you grate rather than chop it helps the onion flavor permeate the pancakes.)

some lemon juice (to forestall oxidation)
5 eggs
1/4 cup flour
some baking powder (optional)

1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil and/or butter
The shredded potatoes are going to give off a lot of liquid. So you want to roll them up in a clean dish towel and wring them out to get rid of as much moisture as possible. You may want to do this in batches. I would not recommend trying this with paper towels they won't stand up to the amount of moisture you're trying to remove. What my mom always referred to as a "tea towel" (not a fuzzy towel) works best.

Spritz potatoes with lemon juice after you wring them out, then combine in a bowl with the flour, eggs, salt and pepper, and eggs. You'll have better results if you beat the eggs lightly to combine the whites and yolks before adding them to the potato mixture.

Heat the oil or butter (we used a combination of oil and lard, because we had some!) in a large skillet to medium-high heat and drop the potato mixture by spoonfuls into the skillet. You may want to flatten them a bit with the back of your spatula.
Fry until the bottoms are crisp and golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes, then flip once and cook until the other side is browned and the pancakes are cooked through.

If you'd prefer to bake rather than fry, check out this post from my friend Sam over at My Carolina Kitchen. I love the smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and caviar her husband topped them with too!

I had one more side dish up my sleeve: caramelized onions. While Cindie loves kraut with her wursts, onions reduced to melty sweetness are my favorite accompaniment. There are basically two things you need to make caramelized onions: a lot of onions, and a lot of patience.

Start by thinly slicing way more onions than you can imagine you'll need (I used 5 or 6). Add them to a large skillet with some oil, butter, or bacon grease. Stir to coat the raw onions, and I find it helps to get them softened if you put a lid on the skillet at the beginning of cooking. Add salt and pepper (thyme is a great addition too).

Remove the lid and cook over medium to high heat to let the moisture evaporate, turning every few minutes. Do not be afraid to let them get brown. That's what you're going for!

During this process you will find that even if you started with so many onions they practically toppled out of your skillet, they will shrink dramatically (not quite as much as spinach, but close). It's all good. Keep turning, reducing, and tending to your lovelies. (You can always add some beer, wine, broth or water if they seem to be getting too dry.) Let them go darker and darker until you end up with a gooey jam-like onion essence. You may be surprised at how sweet they become when concentrated.

Aside to Jen: I liked the onions with Lobsta Bakes' seadog even better than with the kraut, because I thought they let the smokiness of the seafood sausage shine. But kraut with my cheddarwurst made me happy, too :)

All in all, despite our now-expected Smackdown spillage (the most memorable of which was when Cindie dumped our platter of Lobster Thermidor on the floor); this time the hot slaw casserole tipped over in the oven) . . .

. . . and two tired cooks, plus one grumpy husband, we ended up with a satisfying meal.

We filled our plates, everybody had seconds on the potato pancakes, we cleaned up, and then everybody crashed, which is what I'm ready to do now.

Thanks again to Stephie for hosting this month's Culinary Smackdown, and to Jen for joining in the fun. Off to Stephie's place to see if there are any other entries even later than mine :)

P.S. to the usual Smackdown peeps, I know a lot of you have been traveling, swimming, hiatus-ing, or otherwise occupied, but if you have any suggestions for future Smackdown themes/ingredients, please share your ideas in the comments.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Culinary Smackdown – Cindie's Part of Our Entry for Battle: Oktoberfest

It’s that time again. Stephie of Small Girl Adventures was chosen as the winner of the August Smackdown winner by last month's host, Grumpy Granny (GG was otherwise occupied this month, traveling from Colorado to San Francisco from her epic swim around Alcatraz!). For this month’s contest, Stephie elected Oktoberfest as our theme. She’s already up with her post here, so head on over and check the comments for links to what the other participants came up with this month.

As for Cindie and me, after last week blew up on both of us, we ended up modifying our original plan to make sauerbraten (basically, German pot roast marinated in vinegar and red wine), one of my favorite German dishes. There’s nothing difficult about throwing beef into the marinade, then braising it 3 to 7 days later (the longer in the marinade the better, I say). But I didn’t get to the store early enough last week to make that happen, so we switched our entrée to sausages and kraut and forged ahead with the sides we had originally planned. Every time we’ve cooked together this summer we’ve tried to adhere to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. This time we think we finally achieved it. And I managed to remember to take some step-by-step photos along the way. So let’s roll.


This side was Cindie's baby, and she approached it the same way I often tackle recipes I haven’t made before. She googled several variations, then combined what she liked about each into her own version, which I had the foresight to ask her to write down while she was prepping. (It's always harder to remember after the fact, especially with a full belly.) I’m doing my best to read her handwriting as I transcribe here.

5 slices bacon, cut up, fried and drained

Keep the the bacon grease.

1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped

Add these to the warm bacon grease and saute until translucent. Season with salt, pepper, celery seed, and whatever else you choose. Caraway seed would be good, but Cindie's not a fan. We also declined to go the cinnamon-nutmeg-brown sugar route. We like our slaw vinegary.

1 large or 2 small heads of red cabbage, heart removed and thinly sliced

(You might want to beware of small cabbages. Cindie came to the conclusion later that the ones she'd purchased were old, with the outer layers removed, making them look smaller.)

1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 tablespoon olive oil

Place melted butter and olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish, then add alternating layers of raw sliced cabbage and the sauteed onion, apple, garlic mixture, ending up with top layer of cabbage. Add the crisp bacon.

Vinegar - oops, Cindie forgot to note how much she used. She used white wine vinegar because that was what she had on hand. I'd say cider or red wine vinegar would work just fine too.

Place the casserole in a 350 degree oven for at least an hour, turning twice.

Cindie wanted her hot slaw to retain some cabbagey crunch rather than braising it for several hours. An hour at 300 didn't get the raw cabbage cooked, so she bumped up the temp and cooked it some more. Eventually she had to add some more liquid - beer and hard cider worked great.


This is dead simple, especially if you have good sausages and fresh sauerkraut to work with. Neither of us can resist the great sausages from Cincinnati sausage artisans like Kroeger's and Eckerlin's at Findlay Market or Avril-Bleh's on Court Street. Turns out Cindie had overbought, and frozen, an interesting array from our food forays over the summer, and this was a perfect time to use them. I headed to Avril's on my lunch hour last Friday for a couple pounds of their fresh kraut (Cindie's favorite). And I couldn't resist adding one of my own faves, smoked seafood brats from Lobsta Bakes of Maine, in Newtown (more about them in an upcoming post).
We had so many different kinds that we piled them into a Dutch oven (sprayed first with vegetable spray - Cindie always does that).

Put them in a 350-degree oven, uncovered, until the brats (yep, those are those giant ones from Eckerlin's) start to puff up and split.

Dump the sauerkraut and some beer on top of the sausages and continue to bake until the kraut is warmed through.

ETA: Here's my part of our entry for Battle: Oktoberfest - potato pancakes!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lunch on Main: Around the World in 80 Dogs?

The Kraken, Lunch on Main's Mediterranean-inspired hot dog with red pepper hummus,
tzatziki, chunky feta, and sliced pepperoncini

I don’t know how sixth graders these days celebrate their birthdays. But in my girlhood, it was customary to invite all the girls in your class (our mothers didn’t want anyone to feel left out). One classmate’s birthday party stands out in memory. Not just because it was a perfect summer afternoon for splashing in the pool and having a backyard cookout, but because it was where I had my first Avril’s hot dog. Turns out my classmate was related to the Avril family that founded the Court Street butcher shop and sausage-maker in 1894, now Avril-Bleh’s. Her mother also provided “ordinary” hot dogs, in case the Avril dogs proved too spicy for our tender 12-year-old palates. I’ve come to love Avril’s hot dogs, and pretty much all the other wursts they make themselves.

Restaurateur Adam Easterling must share my affection, because he uses Avril’s 1/4-pound dogs exclusively in his expanded hot dog menu ($5 each) at Lunch on Main. And then takes them a step – or three – further. LOM offered a series of hot dog specials over the summer and is now bringing them back, a couple at a time, during the fall and possibly into winter. The most popular will remain on the menu.

The Voodoo Child, topped with Lunch on Main’s own jerk sauce, black beans and rice, red bell pepper strips, and sauteed onion with papaya

I hear the Caribbean-inspired Voodoo Child will be one that sticks around. It’s tasty, and packs plenty of heat!

The Bob Cobb, topped with fresh tomato, greens, hard-boiled egg,
bacon, and Lunch on Main's homemade bleu cheese dressing

If you’d like something cooler to complement the kick of an Avril’s dog, you can’t beat the Bobb Cobb – one of my favorites – and it’s on the menu this week! I would never have thought to put a Cobb salad with a hot dog, but this combination works.

The Conquistador, with LOM's homemade black bean and corn salsa, lettuce, 
sour cream, shredded cheese and tortilla strips

Lunch on Main’s hot dogs, like all their sandwiches, are served on breads from one of Cincy’s best bread bakers, Shadeau Breads. And you can always count on freshly sourced veg to perk up your LOM ’wich.

This place has become one of my downtown noon-meal mainstays since it opened almost two years ago. The sandwiches are hefty and satisfying at an across-the-board $6.50, and a thoughtful combination of fresh ingredients and housemade condiments goes into each.
The Main

Like the red onion marmalade and roasted fennel that accompany pastrami and Swiss on Shadeau multi-grain bread in The Main.

The Red Meat

Or the horseradish sauce and sprouts that go with the roast beef and smoked gouda on a Shadeau baguette in The Red Meat.

The Bleu Bison

Or The Bleu Bison (it’s made with chicken, not buffalo meat), a grown-up chicken salad sandwich with all the components of traditional buffalo wings, like celery and LOM’s creamy homemade blue cheese dressing, plus heat that stops just short of making you wish for a cold beer to wash down some hot wings when it’s only lunchtime.

I'm a pretty darn loyal customer when I find a lunch place I like, but I also appreciate it when my favorite vendors keep things interesting by changing up my options. Lunch on Main has started offering wrap specials, like the turkey-asiago wrap, pictured here with their signature tomato-basil soup.

Turkey and asiago in a tomato-basil wrap, with 
baby spinach, carrot, cucumber, and ginger-sesame mayo

They make a few wraps fresh each day, and when they're gone, they're gone. My turkey-asiago wrap was served cold, appropriate for the raw veg inside, and the tomato-basil flatbread it was encased in was fresh too. I'm looking forward to trying LOM's latest, a roast beef and cheddar wrap, with lettuce and horseradish sauce.

Lunch on Main always has a soup or two to round out your meal. In addition to their tomato-basil, which is almost always available, they're currently serving up clam chowder. And I'm hoping that if I ask really, really nicely, they'll bring back this spectacular squash and apple soup I had last autumn.

Lunch on Main Squash and Apple Soup, with (Legends of the) Fall Turkey sandwich

From time to time you'll also find interesting mac 'n' cheeses on the menu (from buffalo chix, to turkey + bacon, to Philly cheesesteak versions), as well as salads and Buckeye brownies and Streetpops. LOM was the kitchen home to newcomer Streetpops before Streetpops decided to move into Fork Heart Knife's old location, and continues to offer these yummy frozen pops.

Lunch on Main's name is pretty straightforward: They serve lunch only, and they're located on Main Street (633 Main Street, to be exact, which is on the west side of the street between 6th and 7th - in the same block as Izzy's, but on the opposite side of the street and a tad farther north).

There's a lot of interesting food going on inside LOM's unimposing storefront, however. They may not have 80 different hot dogs on the menu yet, but I admire them for keeping things fresh enough to manage their turnover, and creative enough to be interesting. Check out what Adam and his friendly crew have to offer, and where they'll take things next.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Eli's BBQ Going Brick-and-Mortar!

Catch ’em while you can – this is the last week for regular lunch service on Fountain Square before the plug is pulled on the food tent vendors at the end of the week. And hope the weather cooperates – after yesterday morning’s heavy rains, none of them were there for lunch on Monday.

Tom + Chee has already grown from its booth/tent on Fountain Square to two store-front locations, one on Court Street and a second at Newport on the Levee. Eli’s BBQ is growing beyond the Fountain Square “food business incubator” too. When I got lunch at Eli’s last week, I learned they’ve found a brick-and-mortar spot in Columbia-Tusculum, where they’re aiming to open in November. You can also find Eli's BBQ weekends at Findlay Market, outside near the Biergarten.

Eli’s serves up a fine moist and smoky pulled pork sandwich, topped with cole slaw and BBQ sauce.
On Fountain Square, you can get the sandwich for $5 or go for the $8 platter, with sides of gooey traditional mac and cheese (just the way I like mine) and baked beans that have some heat to go with the sweet.

Eli’s doesn’t currently have much of an online presence, as far as I can tell, but if you stop by their tent on Fountain Square before the end of the month, you can sign up for their email list to get news as their plans develop.

Congrats to another fine Cincinnati street food vendor who has made the most of its opportunity serving lunch on the Square and winning over customers one plate at a time!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Restaurant Week at Bouquet Restaurant + Wine Bar: New Food, and a New Friend

I hate to let a Restaurant Week pass me by. These affordably priced three-course deals ($26.10 for the Fall 2011 Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Week) are a great incentive to explore places I haven’t eaten at before. (GCI offers Restaurant Weeks in both spring and fall. The Do Downtown group also offers a Restaurant Week, with a separate set of participating restaurants.)

I’ve missed a few RWs because either I or my usual dinner partner Cindie was on vacation. We even had a reservation booked early this time. Then Cindie announced she was headed to the beach that week. I could have persevered with the same determination as when she baled on me for our dinner at Orchids during Do Downtown's recent Restaurant Week: “I am not missing this. Even. If. I. Have. To. Eat. Alone.” But I came up with a better idea.

Stephie of Small Girl Adventures is a local food blogger I’ve become friendly with via the interwebs. She was game to join in the revival of the Culinary Smackdown when I hosted back in July, and stuck around to participate in August. The Smackdown is a revolving monthly blogging cookoff where the previous month’s winner becomes host, judge, and theme-picker for the following month. And wouldn’t you know, Grumpy Granny, the August judge (who lives in Colorado) selected my hometown girl Stephie’s Bacon-Studded Brioche as the winner of Battle: Bacon. So Stephie is now standing tall as the host of this month’s Smackdown, Battle: Oktoberfest.

Stephie seemed like such a sweetheart online that I took a chance and asked if she might be interested in meeting me for a Restaurant Week dinner. She said yes to my “food blogger blind date” suggestion (whew!), and we met up at Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar in Covington.

Coincidentally, Covington’s Oktoberfest on Mainstrasse was taking place the night of our dinner, and the street festival had the road blocked off in front of Bouquet. When I called the restaurant to confirm our reservation, I was helpfully informed of that fact and told where we could find free parking a couple of blocks away. Covington is not an area either us is very familiar with. I managed to find the recommended lot, then got turned around trying to find the restaurant in the Oktoberfest hullaballoo, arriving a few minutes late. Stephie’s attempts to navigate the crowd and one-way streets resulted in her being a few minutes later than I was. She’s already posted about our dinner here, and I had to laugh when I read she was grumpy when she arrived because she wanted to make a good impression on lil ole me. She didn’t seem grumpy at all, maybe just a tad shy – after all, we had never met in person before. But soon we were ordering, eating, and talk, talk, talking!

Located in a row house with large windows looking onto Covington’s Main Street, Bouquet is a very congenial spot for talking. There was a mix of ages, attire, and different-sized groups that night. Stephie and I weren’t the only diners who didn’t arrive quite on schedule, yet the front of house staff made everyone feel welcome and at ease. We felt attended to throughout the evening, but never rushed. Bouquet’s décor, like the food it serves, is marked by simple elegance. Yes, there are white tablecloths, but there is nothing stuffy about this place. What does shine through is the kitchen’s commitment to locally sourced ingredients and skill in putting them on a plate. The food, thoughtful but unpretentious, is prepared with such precision that it highlights the quality of the ingredients and elevates each dish.

As it happened, Stephie and I both selected the same options for two of the three courses on Bouquet’s Restaurant Week menu. The day had started chillier than it was by the time we dined (and I felt foolishly overdressed by the time I’d hoofed it to the restaurant amidst the shorts-wearing Oktoberfest crowd). This light, yet flavor-filled Butternut Squash Soup topped with toasted pumpkin seeds perfectly fit the early fall tastes Stephie and I were both craving.

When I asked Stephie to join me, she mentioned this would be the first GCI (Greater Cincinnati Independents) Restaurant Week she didn’t have to work for. I hope it was as much of a treat for her to sit in a GCI dining room for a change as it was for me to sit across the table from her. Stephie got her culinary training at the Midwest Culinary Institute, then worked for her alma mater’s Summit Restaurant for two years before moving on to her current gig. Warm breads served with a salt-topped composed butter accompanied our soups. There was something about that butter I really enjoyed, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the flavor. As soon as I unthinkingly asked, Stephie zeroed in on it as honey and rosemary, and I was extra happy to be in the company of a trained chef. Another plus dining with a sister food blogger: as we both pulled out our cameras, we realized there was no need to apologize for doing so.

We diverged in what we ordered for our second course, but not in our conversation. Stephie had the Heirloom Mixed Green Salad with pistachios, goat cheese balls, and Strawberry Vinaigrette, while I went for the Green Bean Caesar Salad. The menu description had me at fried capers. And what’s not to love about almonds, orange, and Caesar Vinaigrette to go with? I was anticipating a romaine salad topped with crisp green beans, but this was a full-on green bean salad with nary a lettuce leaf in sight. I enjoyed the twist, and the Caesar dressing, thicker than I would have expected from something described as a vinaigrette, was hearty enough to stand up to the fresh blanched beans. Enjoyed the dish, not interested in quibbling about the menu writing.

For our entrees, we both opted for the Flat-Iron Steak with Diced Potato Hash. Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with a delicious red wine demi-glace, this course was my personal favorite of the night.

Stephie and I found so much to talk about that we were in no rush to let the evening end. Knowing that baking is her passion, after we finished our three Restaurant Week courses, I asked if she was interested in dessert, to which she readily agreed. She loved her chocolate brownie with whipped cream, while I savored my croissant bread pudding topped with crème anglaise, both accompanied by enormous cups of coffee.

Since Stephie selected Oktoberfest as the theme for this month’s Culinary Smackdown, it seemed only appropriate to check out a bit of the Mainstrasse Oktoberfest after dinner. It turns out another thing we have in common is that neither of us is big on crowds, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there among the revelers.

As it was, I already had plenty to revel in. A tasty meal becomes so much more when you share it with good company, and I thank Stephie for joining me. I was completely charmed and energized to meet her. We parted that evening agreeing to meet again to share other Cincinnati tastes, and I can’t wait!

This was such a fun evening that I was emboldened to ask another Cincy food blogger to join me for a Restaurant Week dinner. Stay tuned for that report, my Oktoberfest Smackdown entry, and good news about one of the Fountain Square food tent vendors. Catch lunch on the Square while you can - after September 30, the food tents will be gone.

ETA: Bouquet is the venue for Cincinnati Magazine's October Food + Thought event October 10. Click here for more details.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UPDATE: Fountain Square Food Vendor Restrictions

Get your own intense street-food lovin' T-shirt from Look At Me Shirts here.

Wow, this story I broke a week ago Sunday sure ended up getting some attention, didn’t it? It was picked up by Channel 5, Channel 9, Channel 12, and Fox 19 at various points as it developed, and the Enquirer ran a follow-up here. Plus a whole lot of social media going on.

I did finally receive a response from 3CDC Friday (while I was at work and before I headed out of town for the weekend), pretty much the same one you may have already read elsewhere. I’ll include it at the bottom of this post since I promised to share 3CDC’s side of the story.

Food vendors will still be permitted on Fountain Square for specific events, says 3CDC, but apparently not on the regular lunchtime basis we have seen. 3CDC’s response states: “We have also been working with the City Administration on allowing Food Truck venders around the Square on both Fifth and Vine Street.”

Food tents seem to be the target – specifically the large one on the east edge of the Square with Skyline Chili branding – which housed Skyline Chili, Tom + Chee, and Eli’s BBQ for weekday lunches this summer, and sometimes other food vendors for evening events. Utilization of space on the Square is cited by 3CDC as being part of its rationale: “To allow us to continue to program larger events while also maintaining the ample space for lunch crowds, the decision has been made to remove the food tent from the Square.”

3CDC executive vice president Chad Munitz is quoted in the Enquirer’s follow-up piece as saying “the tent will be coming down a few weeks early to free up room to repair damaged granite and trees.” The large Skyline tent is usually taken down in the fall to make way for the installation of the U.S. Bank-sponsored ice skating rink. But Tom + Chee has been told they will not be able to offer up their hot chocolate and noshes this ice-skating season.

The press release states that the Tuesday summer lunchtime Market on the Square sponsored by law firm Strauss + Troy will be back in 2012. This summer it included a handful of vendors offering Tuesday-only take-away lunch options from vendors like Cooking With Caitlin (which has participated for several seasons), but fewer than in previous years. This summer Market on the Square included one produce vendor, a couple of bread/dessert vendors, a spice vendor, a pet food vendor, and a majority of vendors of non-food-related wares, all in covered booths.

Those same covered booths are used by a variety of organizations, including many non-profits, for a plethora of events on the Square. And the Square puts up umbrellas over many of the tables on the Square provided for the public’s comfort and on-Square dining (wherever their food may come from).

So, how exactly will all this shake out among “the tent(s),” “the booths,” and “the umbrellas”? What roles do aesthetics vs. space vs. other factors play a part in the new Fountain Square plan? I'm waiting to see.

Tom + Chee, which got its start on a shoestring on Fountain Square last year and has now expanded to two storefront businesses (one on Court Street and one at Newport on the Levee), says: “We would totally get a smaller pretty tent if that's what's needed. We could take it down every day and keep things pretty!”

The owner of Eli’s BBQ, who also started with limited funds, told Fox 19 he attracted customers one day at a time serving home-cooked food on the Square with affordable weekday lunches that helped him build his business. “It's been a great incubator and it's a shame to see it go."

And what are the chances the city’s food trucks – another arm of Cincinnati’s entrepreneurial street food movement – will actually be allowed to park on Fountain Square or on the street at Fifth and Vine, particularly during events/times when they can get enough foot traffic yet remain safe? A lot remains to be seen, and you know I’ll be following it.

Meanwhile, I’m a fan of a lot of local brick-and-mortar food businesses as well. And I have the Culinary Smackdown: Battle Oktoberfest to prep for (hosted this month by Small Girl Adventures). Details here.

Stop back later in the week for fresh content.

The response I received from 3CDC:

This is not a complete elimination of food on the square – We will still have events such as the Tuesday Strauss & Troy Market. While there will not be a permanent food tent, food will be back at some events, just not all events. We have also been working with the City Administration on allowing Food Truck venders around the Square on both Fifth and Vine Street.

Through an agreement with the City of Cincinnati, 3CDC has actively programmed Fountain Square for the past five years. Over these years, we have seen an exponential growth in Cincinnati’s downtown core and specifically, in event participation on Fountain Square. While actively programming the Square it is our main goal to provide quality, clean, safe, fun, and diverse options downtown.

To allow us to continue to program larger events while also maintaining the ample space for lunch crowds, the decision has been made to remove the food tent from the Square. It will be removed at the end of September and will not return. 3CDC is currently looking into other avenues for food service during future 3CDC programmed events.

3CDC would like to thank Skyline Chili for their generous sponsorship of the food tent over the last three years. We are proud of this partnership and look forward to finding new and exciting ways to partner in the future.

Friday, September 16, 2011

3CDC Finally Responds about Ousting Food Vendors from the Square

I promised to update my original story from last Sunday when I learned more. 3CDC never responded to me when I requested comment. But after Polly Campbell ran the story Thursday on the Enquirer's website, 3CDC finally issued a press release. Polly has an update here and promises more coverage today. Julie of Wine Me, Dine Me shares from the press release here. The Fountain Square facebook page (under the auspices of Fountain Square Management and 3CDC) has also posted a couple of excerpts from the press release. WLWT ran a brief item on Thursday's 11:00 p.m. news here.

While it may or may not have led to 3CDC's decision to restrict food vendors on the Square, in my attempts to research this story, I also found this Letter to the Editor on the Enquirer's website by Charlie Luken published in July 2011 voicing dismay that the “aesthetically pleasing Fountain Square promised by 3CDC in all those pictures and designs has turned into a hodgepodge of ugly tents, wagons, barricades and a very few scrawny trees. Somewhere behind those barricades, tents and wagons sits the most beautiful fountain in North America.” Luken concludes his remarks with this: “So, I have a question: Can Fountain Square be clean, safe, fun and attractive?”

The word attractive has diverse connotations. “Aesthetically pleasing” is one. “Acting as a magnet” is another. I hope future plans for the Square do not lean toward one at the expense of the other. The inclusion of food and beverage vendors in the Square's programming efforts has helped increase the vitality of the area and draw more people to downtown, especially in the evenings.

I still have a lot of questions and am eager for more details, including how future policies may impact the city's food trucks. I will continue to update as more info becomes available.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dining Journal: Poco a Poco + Culinary Smackdown Reminder

You might recall that prior to preparing our entry for the August Culinary Smackdown: Battle Bacon, friend Cindie and I spent a lovely morning at Findlay Market. Once I got Cindie off her riverbank and into the city, we did some additional exploring as well. Our intended lunch destination as we wended our way eastward toward her house was Enoteca Emilia in O'Bryonville. But after paying to park in the lot across the street and entering EE's beautifully designed space, we were informed they were closed for lunch that day while mechanical/HVAC issues were resolved. (Enquirer's Polly Campbell reported today that Enoteca Emilia has decided not to offer lunch but intends to offer brunch "eventually" - I hope they do.)

So, what next? "How about Poco a Poco?" I suggested, having been reminded of it on a recent trip to Hyde Park Farmers Market. "What kind of food do they have?" asked Cindie. I paused, trying to remember what I had read. "Mexican-ish?" The menu has been through several iterations, and even participated in a restaurant makeover show for Food Network Canada (in one of those "I know I read about that somewhere" moments, I found it here).

Having started our day early (for us) in order to get to some Blue Oven bread before they sold out at Findlay (I think the Blue Oven line is shorter at 9:30 than earlier - but my experience is they often completely sell out by 11:00), Cindie and I were in a lunch mindset when we arrived at Poco a Poco, on Hyde Park Square in the former Red space. Feeling like we'd been up for hours, we learned the restaurant offers a brunch rather than lunch menu both Saturdays and Sundays (I wish more places did Saturday brunch).

There were so many dishes on this menu that spoke to me, from the Strawberry Summer Salad (described as grilled eggplant, strawberries, whipped Boursin, pickled asparagus, and artisan bacon vinaigrette) to the Corn Cake and Egg (fresh corn, onions, chiles, cilantro, and something called “sour cream vinaigrette"), I had trouble deciding.

I finally settled on the Latin Benedict, and was glad I did. The menu describes it as slow-poached egg, ham, smoked cotija cheese, and pico de gallo. But that doesn't tell the whole story. However they make the sauce (I had a moment of menu dyslexia thinking it might be that "sour cream vinaigrette"), it was unlike any hollandaise variant I have ever tasted and really made the dish - especially with the punch of fresh cilantro. For me personally, I wouldn't have complained if the poached egg were runnier, and I'm not sure I'd describe the fresh tomato-onion-cilantro garnish as "pico de gallo." But I enjoyed this enormously and have no interest in niggling about the menu writing.

Cindie went another direction, ordering Poco a Poco's pulled pork sandwich, topped with cole slaw and a huge fried onion ring. (Sorry my photos didn't turn out better - we sat outside under an umbrella on a beautiful sunny morning - great for people; not great results given my photogging skills.)

Smoked pork/barbecue are among those dishes with a bagillion different regional versions on which people have serious opinions. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert or dissuade you from your preferences. But Cindie and I both really liked the pork on this sandwich - moist and honestly smoky.

Poco a Poco's online dinner menu says you can order a roast suckling pig that feeds up to 22 people at market price. But I noticed that their blackboard specials mentioned pig roasts every other Tuesday for $25/person. I'm always a sucker for a pig roast (especially if cracklin's are involved), and this sounds like a great deal to me - for customers and the restaurant alike.

Last, but definitely not least, as a side I ordered the "charred" corn, which arrived in this a cocktail-ish glass.
I think the topping you see on this "sundae"-style presentation was a cilantro cream, but it was almost irrelevant to the corn -- the single most knock-your-socks-off essence-of-summer corn Cindie and I have had all summer. So much so that she and I tried to research and recreate charred corn ourselves on her home grill. Sadly, our efforts were a massive fail. (Cindie was so annoyed that a bunch of corn ears ended up tossed over her riverbank.)

One of the things I appreciate about Cindie as a cooking buddy (and my best friend since 8th grade) is being able to honestly bounce ideas off each other about what works and what doesn't. Our morning-after conclusions in this instance: 1) the corn we tried to work with was too mature and basically sucked, 2) we could try other variations as to technique, 3) there is no substitute for summer corn at peak freshness.

Hope to be back soon as I enjoy Restaurant Week. New posts may or may not be up before I head out for the weekend with dear friends.

Meanwhile, my lovely Restaurant Week dining companion at Bouquet last Saturday, local blogger Stephie from Small Girl Adventures, has her post up about our dinner here. She is also last month's Smackdown winner and this month's host for Battle Oktoberfest. So glad to meet her! Her details for the Smackdown here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Haiku Monday: Journey

This week seems to be full of invitations, both extended and received. At the shout-out/nagging? of Aunty Belle, who is hosting this week's Haiku Monday, I am going against my grain and trying to compress my thoughts into a couple of 17-syllable offerings on this week's theme: Journey.

This Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Bread Line

Sweet or sourdough, boy!
Beckoning Blue Oven loaves.
Tortano, at last.

And here's an untitled one that's less foodie-ish, but even more from the heart.

Western quest, a drive
toward hills heavy with sage.
Jagged landscapes: home.

Stop by Aunty's place to check out all the fine entries this week. Thanks, Aunty, for distracting me from my frettin' over what my silly city is doing to my beloved street-food peeps. I'll be back later in the week with more food-focused coverage (and more news about food vendors getting booted from Fountain Square if I can track it down - dang!).


Sunday, September 11, 2011

This Just In: Food Service Banned From Fountain Square?

I received word over the weekend that after Friday, September 30, there will not be ANY food service on Fountain Square! I am incredulous at this news, which I am told came from 3CDC, and working to find out more.

The only suggested rationale for this policy change I have heard so far is that “some people complained that the food tents make the square look bad.” How this stacks up versus the vitality food vendors contribute to Fountain Square and its many activities that draw people to our city’s downtown core escapes me. I am hoping the limited information currently in my possession does not tell the whole story.

Feel free to add your questions in the comments section to these that already have me scratching my head: 1) Does the prohibition of food service apply only to full-time vendors, or will food service be allowed on Fountain Square for special events? 2) Does this new policy bar beverage vendors as well? (If not, isn’t it sketchy to offer alcohol for Fountain Square events without having food readily available as well?) 3) Does this mean no coffee or hot chocolate vendors will be permitted on Ft. Square while the ice-skating rink is up this winter? 4) Does this mean the Strauss + Troy Tuesday Market on the Square will not be back next summer?

I don’t doubt my source, nor do I wish to be unnecessarily alarmist. I will update this story as I (or others) learn more. Because, ya know, I have a day job :) This is a “scoop” I would be more than happy to retract.

There Is No “Ooooh” in “Macaron”: An Opinionated Top Chef: Just Desserts Recap

Those of you following along know I’m a die-hard Top Chef fan and that I am unabashedly rooting for local pastry chef Megan Ketover, a contestant on this season of TC: Just Desserts. I was delighted to see Megan on the winning team for the second week in a row, although I’m itching for individual rather than team Elimination Challenges already.

I am somewhat surprised at my overall reactions to Wednesday night’s episode. Despite the egregious (but of course not uncommon) product placement component to the Quickfire Challenge – contestants were tasked with creating a dessert that might grow up to be a chewing gum flavor – I was impressed by the pastry chefs’ efforts. Sure, the prospect of winning the $25K ponied up by the chewing gum sponsor might have been a motivator. But, at least as the show was edited, I didn’t see any of the contestants rolling their eyes at the silliness of the exercise. When this show is at its best, the contestants rise above the goofball twists and constraints they're up against to produce innovative and well thought-out results. And I saw a lot of that in this Quickfire.

While for the most part the contestants came off well, the sponsor, not so much. The winner was to have his/her dessert “voted on by consumers” as a potential new gum flavor. However, it seems the sponsor has dumbed down [unexpected] winner Craig’s Lemon Mascarpone Pancakes with Cream and Strawberries and is offering it in gum form as "Lemon Square" alongside Root Beer Float and Bananas Foster flavor options. Vote if you care to. I won't bother. Nor will this episode convert me into a chewing-gum consumer, whatever the flavor.

Other than that, I’m wondering if I'm looking at this season through rose-colored glasses as I root for my local, Megan. Somehow I didn’t find the Real Housewives on this JD episode as annoying as I expected to. Nor did my usual allergy to the color pink send me into hives at this week’s dishes for the Elimination Challenge.

Hugh Acheson's appearance as a judge may have helped keep this episode from becoming too saccharine for me. I loved his dry sense of humor as a contestant on Top Chef Masters last season and am looking forward to his appearance as a judge alongside Emeril on Top Chef 9: Texas.

But the one thing that drove me crazy this episode was that everyone – even that chick at the end of the table who was Housewife Lisa Vanderpink’s colleague who I assumed was French – pronounced this dessert as “macaroon.”

What a missed opportunity! Macaroons are shredded coconut American concoctions, while macarons are delicate cream-filled sandwich cookies of French origin. Serious Eats has a solid 101 on the topic here. And you can listen to something resembling the correct pronunciation of macaron here. OK, stepping down from my soapbox now.

Next week Just Desserts meets Willy Wonka in an episode TC producers The Magical Elves selected as one of the all-time top 10 favorite episodes they’ve ever produced, telling Entertainment Weekly it “may be the ultimate episode of Just Desserts. . . The contestants cry when the challenge is announced, and it's one of the most creative and dramatic episodes of any show we've ever done.” So, as for that preview that shows Megan Ketover in tears? I’m hoping it was filmed at the beginning of the challenge, not after. The Elves love misdirection . . .

Meanwhile, if you’d like a taste of Top Chef before next Wednesday rolls around, Season 6’s Kevin Gillespie, one of my all-time favorite TC contestants, appears in cartoon form at 11:45 Sunday night in Squidbillies on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Sounds like Kevin had a hoot playing himself. You can read more here, and here's a video that's giving me fits trying to upload.

It's Restaurant Week 'round these parts and I'll be back with more later in the week. Enjoyed a fine dinner at Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar with local food blogger Stephie of Small Girl Adventures, who is hosting this month's Culinary Smackdown: Battle Oktoberfest. What a delight to meet her in person!