I first heard about Vout (pronounced vow-t), a restaurant in the same space as Slim's, from ForkHeartKnife in early March. Then there were a few other posts about Slim's and this new iteration that followed shortly thereafter. We hadn't been to Slim's in a while, and it is right down the street, so we meandered down this week during our "staycation." On the way there, we spotted a sign for Picnic and Pantry (first details here, on wine me, dine me) - opening soon in Northside - and have a few new "bonus" details at the bottom of this post.
The menu (see in the slideshow below) is hand-written and even has a glossary on the back side. It has several enticing options at first glance. We ordered a "starter" with smoked salmon, mango, and more (photo on the left), followed by the pork belly and pernil asado for "mains," coupled with "sides" of fufu and cristianos y moros (rice and beans). I should stop right now and say what jumped out were the low prices - when you're used to a place being $50 per person, and you have mains listed at $7 (the Ohio Maiden charcuterie board at $10, that is the most costly item), you immediately feel like you are getting a value.
The smoked salmon app had great balance, and they don't skimp on such fine fish. Beautiful watercress from Ohio Maiden and a mango avocado tomato relish were all as good to eat as they were to look at.
For the entrees, the pork belly came first. It comes with crunchy carrots on the side, and a few sprigs of baby or Chinese broccoli on top. There is a thick crispy top on the pork belly, so hard you have to really work to break through. I had visions of a big porky mess every time I tried to cut it. They probably didn't mean it to be that way, but it's something to be aware of. They give you a huge portion of belly - doing justice to the cheap price of the cut. Most places give you so little, you feel like you're eating a filet mignon, only to learn at the butcher it costs $3 a pound. But the pork itself was melty and delicious, just as it should be, and the crunch added a different dimension to the bites, so we're not complaining. The pork and carrots sit in a bit of soupy liquid that was less flavorful than we imagined it might be or could have been. There was a bit of sugar in some bites that gave us a hint of the great Momofuk pork buns recipe that still makes us smile when we think about it.
Our other entree, the pernil asado, was a simple dish that lacked the wow of presentation that you got when a huge slab of pork belly hit the table. It was a bowl of slow-braised pork with oregano-garlic adobo rub - oregano was the powerhouse flavor. It came with a cup of crispy, salty, spiced-up plantains that we used to scoop up our side dishes - they were quite a treat.
The fufu was 1/2 plaintain mash and 1/2 smoky mash (potatoes plus paprika), with some bacon bits and scallions (we think) mixed in. This came in 2nd, after the smoked salmon starter, for our favorite part of the meal - straightforward and delish. Our other side was rice and beans, which has a zap of citrus from the kumquat slices throughout. Not bad, but needed salt, and not quite like the Brazilian beans and rice that we're used to - otherwise known as "party in your mouth."
Finally, we were tempted into dessert when the magic words of the week were uttered - lemon tart. We asked for it to go, and they wrapped up a plate with a slice of tart and some fresh pansies and violas for garnish. This one didn't make it long once we go to our house.
The Ingredients: A solid number of the veggies are grown in house - literally. Check out the pictures below in the slideshow. Just behind the long tables as you walk in, there are greens growing in the sunny window. There are also lemons and peppers and squash that are not, but very cool that they are sowing their own seeds. If you walk just a few blocks down the street, you can see the plot of land where "Ohio Maiden" (a play on Made in Ohio) ingredients come from - it's just a few hoop houses on an average size corner lot (right across from The Village Green), but it is definitely not something you see every day in the typical urban jungle. On the downside, the folks we asked didn't know where the pork comes from, but overall Vout is clearly paying attention to what makes its way to your stomach.
The Story, Setting, & Service: Some places have bistros or cafes upstairs or next door (ala Chez Panisse or La Normandie below the Maisonette - before it was closed of course), Slim's and Vout share one space. Reggae on the radio and a gorgeous sunlit room make for a perfect place to sit back and relax. On top of that, the staff is very friendly and easy going. In particular, Maggie, who I think may secretly have identical quadruplet sisters, because it seems she works at every restaurant in Northside (maybe Cincinnati?) always adds a positive energy where ever she happens to be.
No one else was there at 6:30 when we arrived, but it filled up a bit by 7. I wouldn't recommend going if you're in a hurry, this is a place to chill out. Oh, and it's BYOB, so you'll see folks coming in with a 6-pack or bottles of wine all evening.
Overall, this was a solid meal, and at around $30 for two, there was a lot of good going on for a low price. We could have spent closer to $20 and been happily full I think. It's exciting to have another restaurant in the neighborhood where we can walk and get dinner on a weeknight for a reasonable price and come home happy.
Bonus: Picnic and Pantry will open soon - probably late May. It'll be a fancy grocery store, with a focus on local foods, that will stock staples and ready to eat meals (from the catering business in the back - which will phase in over the next couple months, most likely). The grocery will likely be open every day, something like 8am-8pm, but they really want to be responsive to customers so will try to make it fit what people want. As for the street food in the front, Lisa Kagen (Melt's owner) and Chef Frances Kroner will likely be doing that themselves to start so that folks know they're serious about it.
I've known Chef Kroner since far before the Chef was added on (isn't it awesome when folks you know do cool things?!). She was at Slim's when it rose to prominence, and has recently been putting together "feasts" all over the city. See more info here at her blog. Sarah and I hosted a feast last year, and are putting another one together now. It was awesome - beautiful, delectable food without having to go anywhere or do anything, and costs less than we would have spent at a restaurant. We'd recommend it to anyone - get at least 12 people together and give her a call.