Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dîner en Blanc Cincinnati: We Did It!

I’m still that nerdy kid who actually enjoyed summer school, taking French after my family moved and I switched high schools from Walnut Hills to Mariemont. When I heard that Dîner en Blanc – the white pop-up picnic that originated in Paris 24 years ago – was coming to Cincinnati, I knew I wanted to go. Initial details were sketchy about the process of gaining admittance. But I noticed they were looking for volunteers. So I offered to lend a hand with what I expected would be a big night for my city. .

Even if you aren’t an organizer or volunteer, the occasion requires a good bit of planning and a willingness to adhere to the rules of the event, including wearing white attire (white shoes recommended but not required) and bringing your own 32” or smaller table and white chairs, plus white tablecloth and linen napkins, real wineglasses and cutlery (not plastic), and water, wine, or champagne (no beer or liquor). Each pair of attendees is also responsible for their own picnic fare. While most brought their own, pre-ordered picnics were also available from Orchids and Eat Well Catering for onsite pick-up. Here’s the one offered by Orchids.

I found a kicky white sleeveless dress back in July, and spent way too much time looking for white shoes that would be elegant enough for the occasion yet not kill my feet. (I finally settled on faux lizard-skin sandals with heels that I managed to wear ALMOST all evening, a small personal victory.) When last Monday’s forecast predicted a dip in temperatures – and, worse, the prospect of thunderstorms for this rain-or-shine event – I shifted to plan B (white pants and layers) and started googling places to purchase a white or clear rain poncho and/or umbrella. Thankfully, we ended up with a clear night that couldn't have been more perfect. Overall, attire ranged from “I’ll wear whatever I have in my closet that is white” to some fantastical costumes.

There was the organizing committee, then a handful of Group Leaders, and finally Table Leaders like me, who were each responsible for leading a group of about 50 either on a bus or from the pedestrian departure point to the event site, which would not be revealed – even to us – until shortly before Dîner began. The idea was that each busload would set up their individual tables adjacent to each other and, in my case, connect to the tables of the other two groups of 50 under my Group Leader’s auspices, to form one very long banquet table.

I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going go pull this off when I arrived at my bus departure point, the Frisch’s Mainliner in Fairfax (just down the road from where I’d taken summer school French). I drove around the parking lot looking for my Group Leader, finally spotting a car on the outskirts occupied by a woman wearing white. As we waited for the buses to arrive, she handed off sparklers, three bottles of champagne supplied by event sponsor Mumm’s that I was to raffle off to my bus mates, a sign identifying my bus as #5 that I was to tape to it, and a map of the event site – Lytle Park! – showing the exact location I was to lead my group to for table set-up.

I had a few minutes to consolidate food and gear with my friend and dining partner for the evening, Stephie Boertlein, of Small Girl Adventures. The next thing I knew, some 100 white-clad people descended on the Frisch’s lot bearing picnic baskets, tables, chairs, and flowers! They’d been urged to be punctual, and most showed up before the designated 6:00-6:15 arrival time. A good thing. The other bus leader and I assisted them in figuring out which of the two buses they belonged on, and checked off names to make sure everyone we expected was there. I learned I had groups of 10, 12, and 8 on my bus, that one couple had to cancel last-minute, and that there was some switching between buses I was not informed of earlier. I took a deep breath and went with the flow, suggesting that friends sit with each other on the bus so we could file out in roughly the order in which we would set up our tables, and encouraging everyone to work things out amongst themselves.

Which turned out to be no problem. I had a great group on Bus #5! We were a diverse group of internationals, some Cincy notables, a couple who drove from Lexington to attend, and several food writers. And everyone was ready to have fun! Speaking as loudly as I could over the road noise as our bus drove down Columbia Parkway, I revealed that we were headed to Lytle Park, ran through the rough agenda for the evening, and shared a few more guidelines (like “if you decide not to return on the bus, please let me know”). When people at the rear of the bus couldn’t hear me, a kind gentleman in the middle of the bus took on the role of relaying my info to the rest of the group. Then my friend Ilene Ross of {513}eats assisted by drawing names to raffle off the champagne, which put everyone in an even cheerier mood.

Next thing I knew, we were at Lytle Park, and I navigated us to our designated spot. Many tables were already set up. Although each “couple” was theoretically responsible for their own table and fare, there were some groups who partnered to set up extremely elegant tables.

We mixed, we mingled, and we ate!

None of us knew what to expect this inaugural year of Dîner en Blanc in Cincinnati. But winging it works when you’re with great people and the mood is festive! Although we started planning early, Stephie and I ended up pulling our dinner together somewhat last-minute too. We’d planned to meet at Dutch’s Larder last Wednesday to jointly select items for our first course. When she fell victim to a mean migraine, I went to Dutch’s myself (don’t miss the Larder’s housemade country paté!) and we divvied up duties. She made delicious whole wheat baguettes to accompany our cheese and charcuterie board.

I prepped some pickled veg, a simple Caprese salad, and an Alsatian sausage and gruyere salad for our main.

And Stephie once again turned her considerable baking talents to conjure up our dessert course: two kinds of sablés (vanilla, and chocolate chip and peanut butter) and an awesome apple spice cake with cream cheese quenelle and fruit compote in a Mason jar!

As the sky darkened and we were sated (was there anyone who didn't exuberantly bring too much food?), it was time for Dîner en Blanc to shift gears. The music shifted from jazz combo to high-energy tunes from the DJ. It was time to pull away from the dinner table and light the night with sparklers!

Some people released their white DeB balloons, and lanterns lifted skyward. Quite a sight in the middle of downtown Cincinnati, with the historic Taft Museum at one end of Lytle Park and the new Great American Tower overlooking other. And then there was dancing. Oh, my, was there dancing!
It was indeed a great night for Cincinnati! We may be the smallest of the cities worldwide to hold our inaugural Dîner en Blanc this year (including Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and San Francisco in the U.S., not to mention Mexico City, Barcelona, Sydney and Brisbane, Australia and Kigali, Rwanda). But we seized this opportunity and were filled with pride in what our Queen City continues to become!

11:00 p.m. came all too soon. We gathered our gear and trash (per DeB custom, we are to leave the spot with no trace we've been there), and headed home. I made one last pass to make sure my people were packed up, then got on the bus myself. To an astounding round of applause! Clapping ensued as the last few folks stowed their tables and chairs in the underbelly of the bus and came on board too. Things quieted as we retraced our route in the darkness to Frisch's Mainliner. But I overheard people talking about all the great ideas they gathered from this year's event that they couldn't wait to put into place next year. With this kind of response, I think a second annual Dîner en Blanc Cincinnati is a good bet!

Special thanks to the {513}eats gals, Ilene Ross and Gina Weathersby, and their wonderful husbands, Marc and SB, who were kind enough to carry tables and chairs for Stephie and me, as well as "white chair-cover maven" Natalie Wolf and her husband Scott. A pleasure to share the evening with you!

For great photos that truly capture the spirit of the event, don't miss this {513}eats blog post and this set of photos from Jens Rosenkrantz.And stay tuned to the Diner en Blanc - Cincinnati facebook page for more.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

New Orleans to Go Blue Ash Bistro Opening This Week

I’ve been looking forward to the new brick-and-mortar location of one of my favorite food trucks, New Orleans to Go. Tonight owners LaToya and Randy Filson opened the doors of their new bistro to give a few friends and fans a sneak peek.

Both Mapquest and my GPS had a little trouble directing me to their new location at 10921 Reed Hartman. But it’s really quite easy. Just turn into the CMC Office Park at Osborne Blvd., north of Creek Road on Reed Hartman, and it’s the first building on your left. Go straight in the building’s front door and you’ll face the door of the NOTG bistro.

LaToya and lovely new employee Crystal

Toya and Randy have jazzed up the two-room space, making it much more inviting than you’d expect from a spot located in a corporate office park. The walls are fittingly painted yellow, green, and purple, with a stenciled fleur de lys border. Vases on the tables hold Mardi Gras beads instead of flowers. Saints’ memorabilia and NOLA-themed artwork complete the scene.

The new restaurant could open as soon as Tuesday, although there are still a few things to be finalized, including the menu. Muffalettas and red beans and rice, which were served up tonight, are likely to be staples.

The space can’t accommodate a fryer (I’m assuming because it’s not fitted with a required exhaust system). But look for blackened fish po-boys, etouffee, and plenty of rotating specials. They plan to be open 10:00-3:00 weekdays, with hours extending into dinnertime on Friday “Fry-Days,” when they’ll fry items like shrimp for po-boys on their food truck in the parking lot and bring them into the restaurant. Fried oysters should be back next month.

Once the bistro is up and running, Randy also plans to take the truck out a couple more days a week, to downtown, one of the other suburban office parks where they’ve built a loyal following, and sometimes Covington, where they’ve done well with the food truck meet-ups (currently once a month, although the mayor has said he would like to have them weekly). NOTG will also continue to do catering.

Stay tuned to New Orleans to Go's facebook page and twitter account for updates. You can also view their twitter feed on their website. I predict I'll be making plenty of Friday night visits to Blue Ash. How about you?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tasting the World in Central Kentucky

Ouita Michel's Holly Hill Inn in Midway, KY

As much as I admire traditional Southern cooking when I travel through Kentucky, I get a big kick when talented chefs put great local ingredients to use in dishes inspired by cuisines well outside their geographic stereotype. Labor Day weekend gave me a chance to sample some fabulous dishes that did just that.

The inspiration for this trip came when I learned chef Jeremy Ashby was doing a Latin Pig Roast last Friday night at his Lexington restaurant Azur Restaurant and Patio in collaboration with chef Miguel Rivas, who hails from the Dominican Republic. I always love a pig roast, and the array of Latin American dishes on the menu for this 5th annual Azur Labor Day fest sounded too good to pass up. I've had a great time at other special-occasion dinners at Azur, including this one the night before last Thanksgiving. The Labor Day weekend bash is the only time all year Azur does a buffet, and the crazy huge assortment of dishes available at an all-you-can-eat $35 was a spectacular way to start my holiday weekend. Here's a taste.

Papas rellenas filled with picadillo and topped with a sauce 
I wanted to slather onto almost everything else

Ceviche mixto with shrimp, calamari, mussels, and crab, 
plus enormous grilled shrimp with tomatoes, serranos, and cilantro 

Ensalada de maiz, an heirloom tomato and street corn salad that showcased 
some of the best corn and 'maters I've had all season

Fried sweet plaintains and 
Chicken braised in a soulful red mole that was one of my favorite dishes

There was also a watermelon and tropical fruit salad with queso fresco, an empanada with local sweet corn butter, and the star of the show: Roast suckling pig (and cracklin's!) with mojo, rice, and black beans. And probably several other dishes I've somehow forgotten. I had to set a spell before tackling dessert.

Tres Leches cake with pineapple-kiwi salsa, and
Butterscotch banana rum pudding with dulce de leche

My previous visits to the restaurant were last winter, and it was great to finally see the Azur patio in action (there are actually two patios – one covered, one uncovered). This dinner was sold out, and everyone was clearly having a great time. When the buffet line finally slowed, I had a chance to chat with chef Jeremy Ashby, and he was kind enough to introduce me to Brigitte Nguyen, a lovely transplanted Lexingtonian who has a show on the Cooking Channel called "From the Kitchens of . . ." Brigitte also hosts "The Kentucky Proud Kitchen," aired on various FOX channels in Kentucky. She is a spokesperson for Kentucky Proud and will be introducing headliner Tyler Florence at this year's Incredible Food Show in Lexington Oct. 27. We have so much talent here in the middle of the country! Here's lil ole me with Jeremy and Brigitte.

I was incredibly impressed by last year's Incredible Food Show, a less-than-2-hour trip from Greater Cincinnati, at a mere $15 for general admission. It was a day filled with more demos than I could attend, plus samples from – and the opportunity to meet – more than 100 KY Proud food vendors. (I was so inspired I wrote about the Incredible Food Show here, here, here, and here.) IFS led me to get to know more local/regional farmers, chefs, and food bloggers, and I strongly encourage you to put the Incredible Food Show on your calendar, along with a couple more great food events I wish I could attend. Jeremy Ashby will be one of the chefs cooking for a James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef dinner at Cane Ridge Cattle Company September 15 in Paris, KY. The dinner will feature Kentucky-raised Wagyu beef from Cane Ridge! Jeremy is also teaming up with Critchfield Meats for a cooking class dinner September 18 at Azur.

While I was in the area last weekend, I also took advantage of the opportunity to taste the food of one of Kentucky's most celebrated chefs, Ouita Michel. When I saw that Holly Hill Inn – the fine-dining restaurant Ouita and her husband Chris operate in Midway, Kentucky (less than half an hour northwest of Lexington) – was doing a Mediterranean Holiday menu, I looked no further for Saturday dinner plans. It's the charming spot pictured at the top of this post, and although the evening's offerings drew inspiration from a variety of cuisines around the Mediterranean Sea, the service could not have been more rooted in genuinely warm and gracious Southern hospitality. And the local ingredients were the proud stars of every plate!

Amuse-bouche: Tomato and eggplant jam on crostino

Bacalao croquettes: Salt-cod and potato fritters 
served with a piquant salsa rosa (Spanish "pink sauce") and local microgreens. 

Sheltowee chanterelles,Happy Jack sweet corn, and sage leaf on croustades with Boursin cheese. 
The sherried cream sauce sang "Spain" to me, and was one of my favorite dishes of the night.

Salad Majorca: Heirloom tomatoes, olives, finely diced cucumbers,
and Good Shepherd cheese with balsamic, olive oil, lemon, and basil. 
There are few things better than a "real" summer tomato. 
These, with their accompaniments, were magnificent.

Lyons Farm strip steak topped with garlic-herb sauce and 
served with green beans, Happy Jack potatoes, and a Salsa Verde 
of garlic, tomato, olives, and saffron that was one of the highlights of the evening.

Dessert: Fresh figs, dried apricot, pears poached in red wine, and a chocolate truffle. 
Simple and delicious.

Holly Hill's menu is limited and ever-changing, so see what's on offer if you're planning a visit. The evening I was there, I had four courses and complimentary amuse for $40 and opted to add the bacalao fritters (I'd once tried my hand at them and couldn't resist the opportunity to taste them again, especially from a CIA-trained chef). Holly Hill also offers wine flights specifically selected to pair with the menu. The two-glass flight I chose was $15.

Holly Hill is just one of Ouita Michel's restaurants. The word "empire" doesn't seem right to describe what all she does in a fiercely local way. So I'm gonna call Holly Hill Inn the white-tablecloth apex of a pyramid that includes Windy Corner Market on the northeastern outskirts of Lexington, Wallace Station Deli and Bakery in Versailles, and the newly opened Midway School Bakery – because, yes, it's located in an former public school. Ouita is also Chef-in-residence for Woodford Reserve Distillery just outside Versailles, a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with a lot of enticing events. If you're not familiar with the area, your map or GPS will show you how tightly clustered and near Lexington they are.

Sunday morning before heading home I stopped by Wallace Station, distinctly more homespun than Holly Hill.

Here are just a few of the items in the Wallace Station pastry case. If they don't have you at "sorghum cookies," they also have "corn cookies," made with Weisenberger cornmeal and lots of butter.

Still full from my previous nights' dinners, I bypassed the opportunity to try these sweets (and am still kicking myself for leaving that opportunity on the table). But I did let Ouita Michel's team take me to New Orleans with this Sardou Panini, a breakfast-sandwichy version of Eggs Sardou, a NOLA classic with spinach, artichoke hearts, and hollandaise.

Country ham is available in various preparations at Wallace Station too. If you're searching for more of Ouita Michel's New Orleans-inspired dishes, Windy Corner Market serves up fully dressed Po-boys that go beyond traditional oyster, shrimp, catfish, and crawfish to include house-smoked roast beef, pulled pork, and tofu.

Although it wasn't originally on my itinerary, I decided to make one more stop on my way home when I read Napoleon Grocery + Deli's Sunday Supper Special: Boeuf Bourguignon over egg noodles with green beans and French bread. Operated by Tricia Houston, the Napoleon Deli is a hidden gem of a place located between the first and second exits off I-71 just after it splits from I-75 south of Cincinnati toward Louisville.

It's located closer to Northern than Central Kentucky, but anytime I'm traveling on I-71 between Cincinnati and Louisville, I try to make a point of stopping there. When I plugged this unplanned stop into my phone's GPS as I left the Midway/Versailles area, I was delighted to discover that instead of back-tracking to I-75, I could take a straight shot north through Frankfort, with far less traffic and gorgeous scenery.

This Julia-Child dish is higher-end than the fare normally served up at the only store and restaurant in the tiny burg of Napoleon, KY. But you can always count on delicious local food at ridiculously cheap prices. This enormous helping of Boeuf Bourguignon with accompaniments was $7!

Just up the road Tricia Houston is the self-proclaimed "feed delivery gal, dirt pusher, stall mucker and animal whisperer" at Napoleon Ridge Farm + Nature Center. But don't let that fool you. Before moving to Kentucky, she operated her own catering business in Vermont and worked as personal chef to the likes of writer John Irving. You can find produce, meats, and value-added products from her at Covington Farmers Market. She also operates a CSA and supplies to restaurants that include Local 127, The Palace, and Bouquet. This lady also makes a mean apple tart. If you stop at the Nap Ridge Deli, be sure to sample the fabulous baked goods Tricia and her crew whip up.

Culinary tourism is becoming a "thing" here in the middle of the country. Bleu Plate Tours in Lexington, KY and Columbus Food Adventures in Columbus,OH offer some great pre-packaged food tours. If you're coming to my city, check out the Taste the World Tour at Findlay Market, or check off a few of the 100 items on the Findlay Market "Bucket List."

Or just do a little research, follow some local bloggers and facebook pages in areas you're contemplating traveling to, and invent your own custom culinary adventure like I did last weekend. We've got world-class dishes and spectacular locally and sustainably grown food all over this region. Meeting the people who make it possible is another great way to get to know an area when you're traveling. Stay tuned for another installment from my Labor Day weekend trip, because I checked out some wonderful markets too.