Why Buy Local Over Organic

A couple of years ago, when we started making the switch to buying almost exclusively local and/or organic products, we asked the question - local or organic, which is better?  Invariably, the answer we've gotten and found has been "it depends."

Of course it depends, and it'd be great to buy all local, organic items, but if you have to choose I recommend local over organic.  The reality is that most of us consumers aren't going to have the time to look into every item we purchase every time, or spend substantially greater time and energy to find the perfect product, so it is helpful to have some black and white answers to questions that do not have a middle ground (as in, do I buy the local pickles that aren't organic or the organic pickles that aren't local).  I've decided (until I'm persuaded otherwise) that local should be the top priority for the following reasons:

  • A lot of local producers don't have organic certification, but their practices are just as good as (and in many cases better than) certified organic products.
  • Especially with the organic items you get from chain stores (though not exclusively, by any means), the mass production of those items is done by raising/growing the product as part of a monoculture that can do great damage to the soils and spread disease. 
  • If your organic items travel substantially to get to you, they are very often produced with such a large carbon footprint that it's arguable whether the benefit of the organic process is outweighed by the detriment of the journey.
  • I'm actually working on a longer post about this, but by buying local you are supporting our local economy (and God knows we need it).

There is a lot more that could be said about this topic, but my sense is that for a lot of people, having a quick, easy answer to a frequently asked question may be helpful.  We certainly do our best to learn more about our food than what is on the label - by talking to the vendor, the producer, visiting the source, and more - and we'd encourage you to do the same.  That is the only way to truly know that you are making the right choice.


Scoop: NorthSlice Pizza - A New Restaurant Coming Soon to Northside

Finally, pizza by the slice, not just at late, late night (but that too) in my neighborhood in Cincinnati!  And they plan to open in time for Northside's famous 4th of July parade (actually on the 3rd this year).

Turns out that Northside Community Council meetings (3rd Mondays at 7pm) are a great way to get the scoop on what's happening in the neighborhood - imagine that!  Last time, we brought you news on The Painted Fish opening in the old Gajah Wong space on Spring Grove, and now we've got the dish on NorthSlice Pizza going in the old Portofino location near the corner of Chase and Hamilton.

NorthSlice will be open all week for lunch (starting around 11am), dinner, and beyond - every night when the dining room closes there'll be a window for late night ordering.  Did I mention they'd have pizza by the slice all day and night?!  Ever since living in New York City way back when, I've been wishing that a respectable NY style pizza by the slice place would be somewhere near me in Cincinnati.  I am very hopeful this'll be just that place.  They'll be keeping it pretty simple to start, and will be doing mostly Italian - pizza (whose crust will not be super thin, but definitely not thick either), calzones, subs, soups, salads, gelato/sorbetto, and canoli.  A deli case will be stocked with things like olive salad, prepared cold pasta salad, cheeses by the pound, things like that.  There will be bottled beverages along with fountain Coke, and while they won't have a liquor license, you're welcome to BYOB.  They're open to ideas, and do plan to deliver someday.

Mike Aug is a 10 year Northside resident and has a great combination of clearly caring about the neighborhood as well as a background that includes a number of food-related connections.  The inspiration for NorthSlice came from No Anchovies - a sliced pizza hangout in the 90's where Sitwell's is now on Ludlow.  He'd like to have his spot be a similar hangout, and even has a couple items they used to have in the shop now.  Mike told me about how No Anchovies was the first place hip hop shows were in town, before things to moved to Top Cats eventually - sounds like a happenin' place to be!

Mike has worked at the Northside Tavern since it opened, helped open Madison's Markets, put the kitchen in the Gypsy Hut (that's where NorthSlice started, then they were doing it out of the Hideaway), and has always felt a part of the community.  He went to high school with Darren from Shake It Records and has known Dave from the Comet for years - he's wanted to be a business owner and add to the community himself.  Outside of Northside, Mike's also started a deli in Athens in 1990, opened two different Party Source stores, opened the Wild Oats cheese counter, and worked for various distributors, including selling European imported goods to Jungle Jim's.  He definitely wants to work with other businesses and be a part of the neighborhood, and even plans pizzas with names to reflect the local flavor.

As you can tell from above, Mike knows good ingredients.  They'll be some specialty items - sundried tomatoes, feta, etc. - that you can't get at NYPD (the other pizza place just off Hamilton, which is pretty standard), as well as using fresh herbs (and growing their own soon).  He also says they don't cook the sauce, will be roasting the mushrooms before they go on the pie, and they'll be using local and seasonal as much as they can.  Mike said "everybody says better ingredients make a better pizza, but they don't always do it" - he's clearly planning on living up to that statement.  NorthSlice will also be vegan friendly, and they'll be trying to pay attention to different dietary needs.

It's all coming together quite quickly, and they've already been taking some pizza over to Northside Tavern in the evening.  The whole operation is a local one - the work being done is by neighborhood guys, a lot of people are biking to work - sounds like a nice community-based setup.

I'm really excited to have this place around the corner from our house - good luck to Mike and everyone working around the clock to get up and running by the parade!


Existential Eating #14

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential       Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Lunch Out @ Soho Sushi

Soho Sushi is not your typical sushi place, and they're not trying to be.  They opened recently in the Tower Place Mall (with a storefront on 4th Street), and although we were a bit skeptical about the concept - they use a few machines to automate the process, and are arguably more like a Chipotle than what you probably know as a sushi restaurant - it was actually pretty darn good.  We'll have to try the chicken or steak on a roll on a future visit, but some more familiar options were quite tasty.

The Food:  We've done a handful of sushi reviews in the past month or so, and I've found the bullet formatting you'll find below to be the best way to talk about each item in an easy to read format:

  • Soho California roll - The use plenty of crab, and in general they don't seem to skimp on the ingredients at Soho.  There are some places lately where I've had a hard time tasting the fish or crab, so its nice to have it loud and clear here.  Not too much rice, which again is appreciated.  If anything we've been overwhelmed by it recently.  It does stand out that these are not particularly good looking rolls - the ends are messy and even the best pieces aren't particularly tight and compact.  But, that's not why you should go to Soho Sushi.  This roll had avocado, cucumber and sesame seeds in it and was topped with wasabi mayo and yakisoba sauce, and was truly full of flavor.
  • Spicy salmon roll - Sarah particularly liked the cream cheese, but there was too much scallion in a couple of my bites (I suggested they cut it more finely to ease the texture).  This was another across the board comment - bite to bite things can vary quite a bit, as the construction of the rolls happens so fast.  You know when you're at Chipotle (or any build your own place) and they put most of one ingredient on one side and you're in a long line so you're trying to decide whether to say anything - that will happen to you here.  But, you'll get over it because they used lots of salmon and carrots (yes, carrots) and topped the roll with spicy mayo and a sesame seed mix (black and white) that was delicious. 
  • Tempura shrimp roll - Not much to say here except the roll had avocado and asparagus in it - I've never seen the latter before in a roll.  This was one of those times that I thought maybe I would try a steak roll sometime soon - its not the norm, but it's not bad either. 
  • Spicy tuna roll - Like with the salmon, lots of thick cut scallion in some bites.  Again with plenty of tuna to match the avocado, cucumber, and a spicy mayo topping.  Not my favorite spicy tuna roll ever, but satisfying nonetheless.
The Ingredients:  With only 2 raw items on the menu (the back of their shirts read "not just raw fish" and "that's how we roll") - tuna and salmon - that is what stands out as far as ingredients go.  They're talking about doing seasonal ingredients, and would like to buy local (I'm starting to hear this from most everyone at every restaurant I go to - which is a good thing!  But, I'm certainly planning to follow up and see what follow through is like as well).  After some feedback they got different nori, are changing their process for rice (see below), and definitely seem open to ideas.  You may also be interested to know that they can indeed do inside out rolls, and you are encouraged to make whatever roll you'd like out of the ingredients.  We saw one guy make what was dubbed on the spot "The John Roll" - if I remember correctly it had steak, tempura chicken, and salmon (maybe there were vegetables too, but I was too amazed at the meat additions to pay attention after that).

The Story, Setting, & Service:  A friend of ours went to school with one of the owners of Soho Sushi, so we had it on our radar for a while.  We also told them about our connection after we got our food, so a couple of the co-owners did come by and chat with us.  They've been fairly active on Twitter and Facebook as well, so tracking their progress from before opening has been easy for anyone.

The most notable thing about what they're doing is their technology, which their staff uses efficiently to make the speed of ordering quite impressive.  Once you tell them what you'd like, you'll have your food in hand almost as soon as you pay.  It made me wonder how fast other sushi places downtown go at lunch time - anybody ever tried to get in and out of Mr. Sushi in a hurry?  They have a machine that puts the rice on the nori, a machine to cut the sushi, and even just invested in a rice tumbler after hearing concerns about the heat of the rice from some customers and a Metromix review (see the slideshow below for photos of the machinery).

Their space is open and clean - it's where that tea place used to be (I never did go in there) in the mall.  They've got crisp images of Shun knives on the walls - this was pretty cool for us because our main chef's knife is a Shun - and a fountain adds to the Asian feel of tranquility.  The menu board is big and bold when you walk in, and they have clear glass that separates you from the handiwork that goes into creating your rolls.

At $26 for 4 rolls, it's not exactly cheap.  But, they are quite generous with their portions of meat and other fillings, so you'll get more bang for your buck than at other sushi places.  They told us they know that its hard to get full on sushi, so they wanted to try to have larger helpings.

And the owners, both from Dayton, clearly have their eye on something bigger than just downtown Cincinnati.  They're thinking about expanding to other parts of the city, and there was definitely a glimmer in their eye when they mentioned growth.

Lastly, if you're not walking from downtown, street parking can be hard to find, so aim for the $1 city parking lot at 5th and Race, or park under Fountain Square.

The Last Bite:  Soho Sushi is clearly worth a trip, and if you're a downtowner looking for quick lunch options, your choices just expanded in a cool new direction.  If you're a sushi traditionalist, Soho is probably going to drive you a bit batty - the rolls aren't perfectly crafted, and there are no sushi chefs in the first place.  But, if you can get past that and just focus on what's in your mouth, I think you'll have to admit its good.  Who knows whether they'll be able to sustain and expand, but from an outsider's perspective it does look like they're on to something.  Sarah and I will be back, and we're likely to jump on the Soho California roll again because they give you plenty of delicious crab meat.

Soho Sushi on Urbanspoon


Lunch Out @ Balboa's

Sarah first came to Balboa's in O'Bryonville after being lured in by the 1/2 price lunch sign that is hanging across the front railing.  The pizza was good enough to warrant a visit by the two of us one day on the way home from Rookwood, and when we met for lunch last week and were looking for a cheap option, Balboa's was the pick.  It's definitely not perfect, but for an affordable lunch option, it's hard to beat.

The Food:  There is no lunch menu at Balboa's, but with half off of everything except the seafood, the prices are better than typical lunch specials anyway.  I actually read bad reviews after our visit, making me even more glad we stuck with what we knew to be good - the pizza.  We ordered a large with 1/2 green olives and pepperoni, and 1/2 margherita - basil and tomato.  At 18", the pizza seems even bigger than the slight variation from a typical Dewey's (17") or ZZ's (16").  It's the closest thing I can think of to a New York style slice available in Cincinnati, even though it wasn't quite crispy enough to fold (next time we'll ask them to leave it in a bit longer).  Balboa's pizza has a very thin crust, that expands out to a bubbly edge, and the sauce is a bit sweeter than the norm.  Both halves of the pie tasted good, and we had enough leftovers for an additional meal.

Another reason we ate Balboa's twice - we also ordered a large grilled caesar salad, which was a meal in and of itself.  Two full heads of romaine lettuce, lightly grilled, came with caesar dressing, parmesan, and croutons on top.  They bring you a knife to cut up the  lettuce yourself, which can be a bit of a chore, but no big deal.  The dressing was creamy but not thick, and while there was a bit too much for my taste, I think it was mostly a function of us not tossing the salad after cutting it up.  Bite-size croutons were classic and crunchy, and the grill does add a bit of flavor.

The Ingredients:  Nothing noted about local or organic ingredients.  For easy things like the basil on the pizza, it would be great if this was something Balboa's would consider.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Again, the real draw here is 1/2 off at lunch on Monday through Thursday.  But, in addition, they're currently advertising the World Cup games they're showing all summer on 4 TV's at 2 bars.  They've also got lots of space and natural light in the building, with vaulted ceilings and exposed ductwork.  There's also 2 pool tables and another TV upstairs, as well as more seating.  It's a good, clean option for pool, and the service was attentive (there weren't too many people when we went on a Thursday at noon).

The Last Bite:  The pizza at Balboa's is the reason to stop in - Sarah and I agree.  They don't do it by the slice like in NYC, but you won't be disappointed by a whole pie.  For the price at lunch, this is a great place to know about.  If you split up what we ordered on this trip, you could probably happily feed 4 people for $20 - that's not something you can say very often.

Balboa’s Grill and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


Dinner Out @ Orchids at Palm Court

Orchids at Palm Court probably does not need an introduction for many Amateur Foodies readers. Named Cincinnati's #1 Restaurant by Cincinnati Magazine the past 2 years, Chef Todd Kelly (interviewed here by Epi-ventures) has led Orchid's to a clear spot as the restaurant to beat in the Queen City. And if our visit was any indication, stealing their perch is not going to be easy for anyone in town.

The Food: There were a number of things on the menu (which changes frequently) we'd never heard of, and as much as we pay attention to food and eat out, that is always impressive. We spent a while deciding on what to order, and then dove right in.

We ordered four first courses because this portion of the menu really jumped out to us as the most interesting. The Maine Lobster Salad, Braised Pork Belly, Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, and Marinated Yellowtail Tuna. But before any of our orders came, an
amuse-bouche! The salmon tartare - with crispy potato crouton on the bottom, as well as micro greens, ginger, cucumber water, lime oil, and salmon roe - was a great way to get us started. As we discussed the menu with the server, we knew Copper River salmon had just arrived, and it was clear the kitchen was ready to play.

The tuna and foie gras came first. With a nice buttery edge to the fish and sweet potato shavings on top, we had the first of what would be several opportunities to taste truly exquisite flavor combinations. Small pieces of soy sauce-flavored jelly worked well with the smoky Worcestershire aioli, brussel sprouts, and bacon. While they did know it was Sarah's birthday, we also may have gotten some blogger love as a syrupy sweet wine came along with foie gras, which was like a continuation of the foie's flavor. Foie gras was sitting on top of a sour cream pancake and was covered in a rich sauce of pear
mostarda, and small pieces of cocoa nib and dried corn primarily added texture to the dish. We found the foie gras to be good, but not great - not as seared as one would like in a perfect world. This was the "least awesome" of the four first courses.

Next up were the lobster salad - which I didn't realize until I'd had a bite was a play on traditional egg salad - and pork belly. The lobster was topped with a creme fraiche and caviar cream, an organic egg, and parsley, and also had thin strips of
brick paper (like phyllo dough) for added texture. Every bite was moist and cool, and the white wine they paired it with was perfect (I feel like we should mention this was when we started to wonder if they knew we were bloggers - wine pairings were brought without asking, which the server explained at the end of the night as being because of Sarah's birthday. More likely it's because a friend of ours that used to work there called to let them know we were coming - we didn't know this until after the evening). The pork belly had caraway micro greens, more of the soy sauce jelly pieces, cider and miso. When you got a bit of everything at once it was crunchy, oozy, salty, sweet, and chewy at the same time. It was as we were savoring these dishes that we felt like we could taste the season changing from spring to summer in every bite. It also seemed clear to us that this was, indeed, the best restaurant in Cincinnati.

For entrees, we had seared scallops and a prime ribeye from
Niman Ranch (also a supplier for Chipotle). The scallops came with a curry oil that was great, and had unagi (barbecue eel) on its side to go with carrots, microgreens, almonds, and a quail egg and orange on top, all on a bed of potato puree. They brought us a white Bordeaux that was like a Sauvignon Blanc - it was fresh and tingly with a nice balance, and went very well with the sweet scallop. I liked the scallops, but wasn't sure about the fishy flavor the unagi brought - however when I added very small bits of unagi it added to the other sweet things that were happening and wasn't so bad. It was another excellent dish in terms of varied textures, the crunchiness from the almonds was a nice touch. Our steak turned out to be what we thought of as the only normal thing we'd had during the whole meal, and as a result it was the only thing we weren't excited about. Red wine was matched well, but the hedgehog mushrooms and black truffle gnocchi simply did not wow. They'd set an awful high bar at this point. The steak also comes with a lobster mac and cheese that was aromatic for what it was, but was nothing to write home about either. This dish was most happily consumed as leftovers in a never-to-be-matched steak omlette the next morning.

We'd been told we must save room for dessert, so we did box up our steak and move on to the sweet options. There were some amazing desserts to choose from, but we chose the one they suggested "if you're a chocoholic." A macaroon-esque almond cookie was my favorite part of the very rich dessert. Sarah enjoyed the fluffy mouse that was adorned with a homemade Crunch bar, whipped cream, and a raspberry sauce.

Along with our check, the server brought a treat from the pastry chef before we left - trio of candies - a jelly, a macaroon, and a chocolate with peanut butter inside that was topped with gold dust.

The Ingredients: There were a number of sources noted on the menu, but it was hard to get a sense of how many were local. I hadn't heard of many of the producers, and some Googling based on the menu that's online currently (which is exactly or very close to the same) didn't get me much more information. Orchids also notes organic ingredients in a few places, and in general, it is clear they are paying close attention to top notch ingredients.

The Story, Setting, & Service: Our server was a smiler, and he really helped break down our biggest concern - that Orchids would be stuffy and overly pretentious. To be realistic, sitting in a dining room like they have at the Hilton Netherland Plaza, you'll never feel at home (unless you are very, very wealthy) - it's just a matter of whether it feels good to try on such opulence for a night, or if it makes you uncomfortable.

We've gone to the hotel bar a couple times before, and when we've peaked into Orchids its been darn near empty. When we sat down, there were a handful of other diner's present, and since it was just a bit before a Reds game, the full bar made it feel lively. By the time we were done eating, there were only three others at the restaurant, but by that time we were so smitten by the food that the atmosphere was an afterthought.

A beautiful orchid-strewn centerpiece, a cushy circular booth, live piano playing in the back, staff that regularly use their
Table Crumbers - it is the ceaseless attention to detail that takes this from more than an amazing meal and up to an overall special experience. Sarah went to the bathroom, they came by and took her barely used, but no longer perfectly folded napkin, and replaced it before she came back. They were patient with us as we ate slowly and savored every bite, delivering dishes at just the right time, every time. And speaking of delivering dishes - the entrees come underneath dome covers on platters, and the staff take the domes off at exactly the same time. I saw them do it at other tables, so knew it was coming, and was still impressed.

The Last Bite (hereby beginning what will become an Amateur Foodies outro tradition - Sarah and I both always leave the best bite on our plates for last, so this will be the last word on the food, including our favorite last bites): Orchid's is a place that you simply have to go if you love food and want to sample the best. We took the opportunity of Sarah's last day of school/birthday as our special occasion to warrant a trip. It's actually not that much more expensive than most of the other "nice" restaurants in town, and you can even skip the entrees and just do first and second courses to make it more affordable. The combination of a truly decadent room, top notch service, and amazing food make this a place you can't make any more excuses not to visit. I may never forget the Maine Lobster Salad, and Sarah couldn't stop talking about both the tuna and the pork belly.

Orchids at Palm Court on Urbanspoon


Existential Eating #13 Revisited

Last week, we had a contest of sorts to give a caption to the comic below.  Well, congratulations to holly may!  She'll be receiving some olives shortly.  Here's the new version of the comic...

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential       Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Tasty Links #13

1) So I can't eat all the salt I want?!  Funny, it was an Alton Brown cookbook that made me think it was ok.
2) How to properly heat your pan. The link at the beginning to a piece by Harold McGee in the NY Times is worth a read as well.
3) I'm still not sure where to get the chicken wings in Cincinnati, but these look pretty good for another home recipe.

And your video...


Lunch In @ Island Frydays

If you're looking for a change up - a new food option with big flavors has been open on Short Vine in Clifton for about a year now - it's a Jamaican spot called Island Frydays and it does not disappoint.  I had spotted it a while back, but just got to lunch there earlier this week.  Here's a quick post about the food, which I definitely recommend.

The Food:  Lately, I rarely choose what I'm going to order.  Instead, I ask the server/proprietor to give me the best thing on the menu.  Sometimes I'll add that I want the thing with the most flavor.  Sometimes I get a rambling answer, but usually I know I'm on to something when there is a quick, unequivocal response like, in this case, "the jerk chicken."  I often push a little after that - "you're sure?"  When they stick to their guns, you can usually tell you're about to eat something good.  They do ask if you want dark or white meat, to which I replied - whatever has the most flavor.  I started out as a white meat eater, but slowly but surely I've learned that there is no comparison - dark meat is clearly the winner, and they did not lead me astray.

There is a large for $10, but for $8 the small plate is plenty for one person.  Rice and beans, steamed veggies, plantains, and chicken all come stuffed in a styrofoam container for take out.  Let me start by simply saying this is some of the best chicken I've had period, in quite a while.  And it was the best jerk chicken I've eaten in years.  I've had jerk chicken that's been too dry, but this was moist and very flavorful - spicy from the pepper, sweet, salty, and blackened, adding up to well rounded bites every single time.  I usually don't eat the skin, but this was too flavorful to pass up.  The only thing I'd do differently is ask them not to chop it (or to chop it as little as possible) because there were a number of little bites of bone I had to be careful of.  But this chicken was so good, I was intent on eating every possible morsel.

A UC News Record review on Island Fryday's website suggested to ask for gravy on the rice and pinto beans, and it was definitely the right move since they were pretty bland standing alone.  With the sauce, they were quite tasty.  The vegetables included cabbage, green beans, peas, corn, and carrots.  With enough salt and butter to have some flavor, these did not match the chicken's star power, and settle for being unobtrusive.  The plantains were standard - if you want a lot order a side with a small, because it only comes with a couple bites.  I like them more crispy, so I personally wouldn't bother.

I'm excited to go back to try the oxtail and a number of other dishes at Island Fryday's - if they are anywhere near as good as the jerk chicken, I'll be very happy.

The Ingredients:  Nothing about local or organic on the menu.  I was quickly in and out on this trip, but plan to ask more about where they get everything on my next trip.  And the next trip won't be far away.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  This was a quick trip in and out for a to go order, so not much to say on this front.  The staff was friendly and quick, the space was bright with sun, and the yellow exterior seems to glow all the way to the inside.  There are a few seats if you want to sit down and enjoy your meal while you listen to some reggae on the radio.

Just up the hill from OTR, this is a quick hop, skip, and a jump for me at lunch time.  There's no need to call ahead, the food is ready so fast.  I look forward to my next trip to Island Frydays - you should try it too.

Island Frydays on Urbanspoon


Dinner Out @ Jo An Japanese

Most times, you go to a restaurant and find that some of what others have said jives with your experience, and other times not so much. In the case of our trip to Jo An Japanese, it was exactly what we'd been told to expect. Yes, it's smack dab in the middle of an office park. And yes, it very likely has the best sushi in Cincinnati (well, Erlanger, Kentucky actually).

The Food: I should say from the start the we barely even looked at the non-sushi menu. A quick order of sashimi salad (small bits of tuna, salmon, shrimp, and yellowtail mixed in with wakame) tided over our hunger, and it was fantastic. At most places, less wakame with no fish is about the same cost ($6). But we were here on a mission: sushi. Choices are made from a paper sheet where you mark what you want (is this really necessary - why don't they just ask you what'd like and save the paper?) as well as another menu with a front and back for specialty rolls. Here's what we ordered, and what we thought of it. With so many items, a bulleted list seems sensible:
  • Salmon nigiri sushi - As you may recall from our last post about sushi, I've been trending toward the "less is more" approach on sushi. It's hard to pass up all the fancy and colorful combinations that are available, but every time I take a bite where I can't taste the fish, I move one step closer to being an all nigiri/sashimi guy. This salmon was colorful, and had none of the mealiness to the meat that you sometimes get - these were smooth bites, with no tearing through anything needed.
  • Spicy tuna roll - Scallions added a crunch, and overall this roll had a nice texture. It was not too spicy, which is in part why it may be Sarahs new favorite spicy tuna roll in town (it used to be Bangkok Bistro).
  • Spicy shrimp roll - A clean, crisp snap from the cucumber, went well with the spicy mayo that adds a kick. This was the roll that led me to thinking how strikingly well put together Jo An's rolls were, after just eating Bangkok Bistro's sushi.
  • Salmon crunch roll - Texture in food can be so underutilized. From the crunch in our wedding cake to the tempura crunch in this roll - we are really enjoying what crunch can add to just about anything. This roll also had a lot of sesame seeds on the outside, which were very tasty. But, this was one roll where a bit too much rice made it hard for me to taste the fish on a couple bites. That said, the salmon, crunch, and avocado paired so well together - this was my favorite choice of the night.
  • Spicy baked slamon roll - I just mentioned the avacado, and on this roll - where it is sliced thin and laid on top of each piece, it became clear that this tropical vegetable really was delicious. The masago (capelin roe) also added a different texture to this roll.
  • Jo An roll - This was one of those double-wide size rolls where you're not sure if you should (or even could) eat it all in one bite. It was very tasty, and we liked that soybean paper - which held the roll together, but also was barely distinguishable in taste and broke easily as we chose the multiple bite method. With salmon, tuna, yellowtail, avocado, and tobiko (flying fish roe) on top, there is a lot going on here. The plate is then covered with a pattern of spicy mayonnaise and a hoisin-esque brown sauce, and the total package is something you'll want to taste.
In general, we thought all of the rolls had a buttery taste and mouth feel that was quite enjoyable.
A couple of small additional notes. First, they use ginger that is ginger colored, not pink. I always like that, makes me feel like I'm ingesting one less unnecessary substance. Second, I was surprised to learn that the salmon was from Norway. I assumed a top place would use something Pacific. The refrain again: lots yet to learn about sushi.

The Ingredients: No mention of any local or organic ingredients on the menu. I will say that there were some types of fish and roe that I hadn't noticed on a menu before. That's not saying too much, because I still have a lot of learning to do about sushi (in fact, I just ordered this book today), but it is to say that the menu at Jo An is substantial.

The Story, Setting, & Service: Jo An's is hard to find - Google maps on my phone got it wrong the first time. It's totally nondescript - check the barely visible sign in the slideshow below. There was even a janitor vacuuming in the entry of the office building when we went in - everything about this place said "we don't exist." A hot towel is brought when you sit down, which is a nice touch (remember when Delta did that?). The service is straightforward. One of the staff asked if we were food bloggers - that camera can be a giveaway! Muzak/easy listening on the radio. There were a few other folks there when we arrived at about 8:15, and there was only one other person at 9. Not a busy spot on a Wednesday night. On the way out we noticed that they serve a lunch too - $12 for sushi and what they said was a great deal. It's chef choice, so who knows. They also had non-sushi options for $8.

I doubt we'll go back to Jo An's often. If we're going out only for the sushi, then we will. But most times, we like the full package, and Jo An's offers so little in the way of ambiance that it's probably not ever going to get a lot of traffic - especially being in Erlanger. Hopefully the city sushi places will step up their game to make the drive totally unnecessary, but for now you should at least go once.

Jo An Japanese on Urbanspoon


Existential Eating #13

This week for Existential Eating we have a contest.  We'll post the best caption for the comic below (purely our opinion) next week AND the winner will be sent a jar of tasty olives!  Here's a few and then a blank one for you...

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Dinner Out @ Bangkok Bistro

I honestly can't remember how it started, but Bangkok Bistro has been a go to restaurant of mine for almost as long as I've lived in Cincinnati (10 years).  For at least a couple years, I was a more serious regular - going once a week or every two at most.  Over the past few years though, it's become part of a long list of places Sarah and I go sometimes, but not all that often.  But, as with any old standard, I'm always happy when I sit down and order the same thing I've ordered for a decade that is always, always good.

The Food:  There are two regular dishes we always order.  First, the "General Fare" Thai Basil Sauce, which is stir-fried with broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, baby corn, onions, and green peppers (although we remember to ask for no green peppers about every fourth time we go - nothing against Bangkok Bistro, we just don't like green peppers very much). You can get it with any meat, but we always get it with tofu.  Second is Laad Na Noodles, which is a flat, wide rice noodle that comes with chicken, shrimp, and vegetables (same as the Thai Basil, sans peppers).

At some point along the way, we also got into the habit of ordering sushi to start.  In general, Bangkok's spicy tuna roll has been a favorite of ours.  Unfortunately, I think it is suffering in the context of paying more attention to our sushi.  On this most recent trip the roll was not tightly wrapped and had an awful lot of rice.  It wasn't bad, but it's definitely been better.

Thankfully, the entrees arrived and made everything right.  The Thai Basil is the star.  They pack it wish basil and garlic, and no small amount of sugar, and it really packs a punch of flavor.  Tofu is cooked just right, and the vegetables all get a nice coating of the savory brown sauce.  Sarah probably had the quote that hits it most on the end - "there are flavors that hit you all over the place."  Next, Bangkok's laad na noodles are done differently than anywhere I've eaten them before or since.  Most places do some variation on the noodles with Chinese broccoli and a thick brown sauce.  I suppose BB's may be a more Americanized version, but I don't care what you call it, these are some tasty noodles.  Again, no shortage of sugar, and the crunchy carrots add a nice texture to the bites.  As is almost always the case (at just about any restaurant), the shrimp could be cooked less.  Overall, both the Thai Basil and the Laad Na Noodles are trustworthy standbys that I'm always pleased to put in my mouth.

The Ingredients:  There's nothing on Bangkok's menu about local or organic ingredients.  They did add brown rice a few years back, which is a nice, healthy addition.  But, beyond that, nothing I'm aware of.  Whichever is the first Thai place in town to jump on board the local train will probably win my heart for many years to come, so I'm hopeful Bangkok Bistro will be the one.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  As I said above, I've been coming here for quite a while.  My friend Ali, through whom I met Sarah many years back, and I would eat here almost obsessively.  It was about the only place I'd spend $15 an entree when I was 23 and I think it made me feel all grown up to be spending such a large amount.  Ah, the memories.

The service at Bangkok Bistro has been through a phase or two, but there aren't many places in town that I would say haven't.  On this visit, and the last several I can remember, the service has been pleasant and straightforward.  They've got a few folks on staff there who have been there for as long as I've been going, so they must be doing something right.

And as far as setting goes, this is one of the BB perks.  They have a small outdoor eating space in front of the restaurant, which gives you, the diner, a great vantage point to watch the comings and goings of what I call "little Hyde Park Square."  If you go during the day or early evening, you're only a short drive up the hill to beautiful Ault Park - which is a destination in and of itself if you haven't strolled through its gardens, enjoyed its vista views, or hiked its trails.  On a gorgeous night like the one we had, sitting outside as the sun is falling, it's a pretty sweet set up.  Inside, the restaurant is simple and calm, and there is plenty of space, so you never bump into anybody's chair.

If Bangkok Bistro keeps Thai Basil and Laad Na Noodles on the menu, we will always go back.  Every once in a while, we may even try something else.  As far as a consistently tasty Thai place that you can count on, I'd say this is a sure shot every time.

Bangkok Bistro on Urbanspoon


Brunch Out @ 10 West

Other than an April Fool's post on McDonald's, we don't really do chains here at Amateur Foodies.  We're big on local.  So it is with mixed feelings that we'll put up this short post on 10 West, the hotel restaurant of the Marriot in Covington.  And yes, Orchids at Palm Court is a hotel restaurant, but somehow the non-hotel branding plus the fact that it's amazingly good (post from a recent visit coming soon!) make me not feel so bad about posting it.  This one was a trip with Sarah and friends only, so let me publicly state my ghostwriter status now.

The Food:  They have a regular menu, but they also have a buffet for $14.95 - they'll make you omelettes, waffles, or fried eggs on the spot as part of that buffet.  The buffet also comes with coffee, and they made us a carafe of ice coffee at no additional cost.

All the basic hotel options exist, plus lox and cream cheese, lots of meats, different styles of scrambled eggs, pancakes, strawberry fruit smoothies, muffins, danish, and more.  On the extensive side for a typical buffet, but still typical.  As for the taste?  Definitely better than what you'd expect for a Marriott - fresh fried eggs add a nice touch, and in general we walked away happy.

The Ingredients:  Nothing here about local or organic ingredients.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  The reason to go to 10 West is very simple.  It has a stunning view of Cincinnati.  And, with a Restaurant.com coupon, because you can go for a ridiculously low price.  Right now they have a deal on $25 gift certificates that cost only $2.  That's just wrong.

Service was good and attentive - not too many other people there to worry about, so we were a priority.

10 West won't make it into our list of regular spots, but it's a bit of a bummer how few restaurants in Cincinnati take advantage of our awesome skyline.  As a result, just about anywhere with sustenance plus view equals somewhere we might go, especially with guests in town or something - maybe just for a quick drink.

10 West on Urbanspoon


Tasty Links #12

1) Tom Philpott's response to Michael Pollan's piece.  A GREAT take.
2) NPR's Marketplace on food bloggers.
3) How many farmers' markets are too many?  Hat tip: Richard Stewart at Carriage House Farm.

And your video (hat tip: Ezra Klein)...


Dinner Out @ ZZ's Pizza

What actually got me to ZZ's Pizza was a Restaurant.com coupon (hat tip: wine me, dine me - thanks for getting me to pay attention to these deals!) - nothing too big, just a $10 gift certificate that cost me $4.  Since we already wanted to go, that's money in the bank!  As we were heading toward Walnut Hills, I was thinking how this would have to be awful good pizza to warrant bringing the restaurant back into existence - and with the same recipes as the first go round.  Now I know, this is fantastic pizza!

The Food:  We ordered a couple pizzas so that we could sample the goods, and also ordered a caesar salad to get a sense of whether or not ZZ's could be a solid replacement for our typical Dewey's order.  First, we got the Shitake Mushroom Pizza - it has goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, shiitakes, and onions on a sourdough crust with olive oil and basil.  Next, we wanted to sample the whole wheat and honey crust, so we had our regular - pepperoni and green olives.

The salad came out first, and had a light, flavorful dressing that was just a bit tangy.  With grated parmesan on top, and standard crispy croutons, this salad was a pleasant surprise at a pizza place.  But, the stars of the show soon arrived.

Both pizzas were good looking for the get go, and they were as easy on the mouth/tummy as they were on the eyes.  We had red sauce on our pepperoni and olive pizza, and it was very flavorful.  I love Adriatico's spicy sauce, but this had just a hint of spiciness and was more up Sarah's alley.  The crust on both pizzas was done just right too, with a nice crunch but also a good chewiness.  But what was probably most impressive was the balance.  On both pies you could really clearly taste each ingredient, and at the same time the bases (crust, sauce, and cheese) were notably good.  It's all too common that a pizza has too much of one thing, but these were great all around.

They also have a number of interesting ingredient options - including lobster and gouda.  So, I'm not dead set on my regular order quite yet.

The Ingredients:  While there was nothing on the menu about local or organic items, we did learn a few tidbits of information that you may be interested in.  They have whole wheat crust, which is made up the street at Giminetti Baking Company.  It tasted so good, I figured it was 25% whole wheat or so, but they told us it is 75-80% whole wheat - in terms of eating a healthier pizza, that's a significant step in the right direction!  We also noted that the ingredients really tasted quite fresh at ZZ's, which isn't always the case, particularly at pizza joints that tend to stockpile ingredients for the long haul, often to a flavor seekers demise.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  As I mentioned at the top, ZZ's has the unique distinction of opening and the closing again several years later.  Polly Campbell explained this a bit, but the best explanation I've read comes directly from the source - the back of the menu (and also on the About Us part of ZZ's web page).  I'll refrain from repeating the story myself, but will say that one of the original owner's was there when we were, so it's clear they're keeping an eye on things!

The service was solid - one server for a nearly empty weekday night, but he was very nice and had a good sense of humor.  At one point one of the owners came out of the back (the kitchen can be seen through a glass window, but my back was to it).  We got to talking a bit after I overheard him talking about the Taste of Cincinnati.  There was some buzz about how the Taste is not so accessible because of how expensive it is for small businesses.  We tend not to even go because of how often the food is poor and mass produced by mostly chain places, but it was great to hear that ZZ's really enjoyed doing Taste, and thought it was worth it as a small guy.  I am really hopeful that it will become affordable to others in future years so that the event will only continue to grow.

Finally, ZZ's has a small triangular interior and a number of great prints of Cincinnati locations on the walls. They're on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills, just down the hill from where it hits McMillan.  The neighborhood has struggled, so there's not a ton of foot traffic at the store front.  Hopefully, people will learn its worth the trip and local folks will embrace it as well.

I was thinking this pizza would have to be "bring back the dead" good.  And as it turns out, zombies may come back to life after eating this pie.  Adriatico's is solidly in first place in our pizza rotation, but especially for specialty ingredients, ZZ's is either tied or in a close second.  You should definitely go give this place a try.

ZZ's Pizza Company on Urbanspoon


Where are the Best Wings in Cincinnati? (Dinner Out @ Mulligan's)

While this post does contain a review of Mulligan's, this is really an opportunity to ask the question: Where are the best wings in Cincinnati?  If you already know the answer, skip down and write a comment so I can end my quest.  In this case, the search led to a place that met some non-food related criteria (namely a TV with sound to watch the Lakers/Suns, which had the added bonus of being outside). If you'd like to read about a not-so-good restaurant/bar that typifies what we usually won't go to, then keep on reading.  I should also say, since I don't think Mulligan's is attempting whatsoever to be a good restaurant (it's a bar!) the following explanation of a train wreck is not meant to be too haterific.

The Food:  We asked the bartender if the wings were good and he asked if we liked Frickers' wings.  I do like Frickers' wings, which are breaded - so we chose to order half breaded and half "naked."  At Mulligan's, you order by the pound, and we went with 1 pound of each (side note: we decided while 1 pound is 6-7 wings at Mulligan's, with the skimpy wings at BW3s, which we've resolved not to eat any more unless they're free because they are so small those chickens simply had to have horrible lives, a pound would probably be like 20 wings at BW3s).

We were feeling frisky because it was the day before two, count 'em two, momentous occasions - Sarah's birthday and her last day of school.  So, we went nuts and also ordered beer cheese and loaded tater tots.  And then, beer. One redeeming fact about Mulligan's is that they do have about 20 beers on tap, many of them quite good.  We got Bell's Oberon, an excellent summer brew.

The wings all came "naked" and were literally swimming in sauce, but actually didn't taste too bad.  As it turns out, nothing like Frickers' though.  Oh, and the medium garlic is just the medium with a bit of minced garlic mixed in, barely changing the flavor (I know, stunning).  "Loaded" tater tots weren't too loaded with cheese or bacon, and were generally forgettable.  Believe it or not, the beer cheese was the redeeming part of the meal.  It was like a big cup of melted Boursin - only orange, and a bit spicier.

The Ingredients:  If they have any local or organic ingredients, I'm pretty sure it's by mistake.  In fact, I think I saw the Sysco truck pull up as we were leaving (no, not really).  They did give us "Naturally Fresh" blue cheese - and by "Naturally Fresh" they mean "the furthest possible thing from natural and/or fresh, which we can still call Naturally Fresh because what passes for honest labeling in this country is obscene."  I recently sent this to Mark Bittman, who has started a feature on his newly revamped blog called "This #$!% Has Got to Stop."

The Story, Setting, & Service:  As I mentioned above, the story here is that we were seeking out great wings to eat while watching a basketball game. We went to O'Bryon's (the AC was icy cold, and the outside was too smoky), then Balboa's (no atmosphere, there was almost no one there, and the music was bad), then we were on our way to the Oakley Pub or Ichiban (though, no sound their either) when we decided to check out Mulligan's.  It had a nice combo of the game, sound on the TV, and eating outside on a beautiful night.

We were both starving and not in the mood to wait for a server, so we just went straight to the bar, asked if their wings were any good, then went forward with ordering.  The bartender literally ran back to his spot inside after delivering our food to us, and he seemed like a really nice guy.

Their outdoor area is crazy big, and complete with dead trees in outdoor planters, cornhole, and pool tables, it's like a huge college bar smack dab in the middle of college-less Hyde Park.  The clientele is largely made up of young men that led Sarah to say things like "boat shoes plus dip - that's just attractive," and point out people that still had their badges on from work.  Otherwise, it was a healthy, diverse mix of preppies in button downs and khaki pants and preppies in t-shirts, hats, and khaki shorts.

I should say too, I agree with Hyde Park Foodie's review 100%.

As these were definitely not the best wings in Cincinnati, and I think I can still conjure up the unavoidable smell of vomit when I remember first walking into the outdoor space at Mulligan's, I think it is safe to say that I won't be going back.  Hopefully, those of you who go to Mulligan's will receive this post as a sort of badge of honor that yes, you do frequent a place that is clearly a dump, in the same way that I loved my first car dearly - a 1989 Chevy Nova that became charming precisely because it lacked anything approaching classiness.

Mulligan's Hyde Park Pub on Urbanspoon


Existential Eating #12

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Lunch Out @ Deli Seven20

This'll be a quick post for a quick lunch downtown last week.  You will never walk by Deli Seven20 and stumble in by mistake, so when I noticed it hadn't been reviewed on Urbanspoon it seemed like I had to do the city a service.  While it's tucked away in a nondescript office building at 720 Pete Rose Way, it's worth taking the time to find.

The Food:  I've only ever had the sandwiches, but all of my experiences have been good, and the people I've recommended this new school deli to seem to have been quite happy as well.  My favorites are the "ring dang doo" (roast pork loin, smoked gouda, roasted red peppers, and sweet chili mayo on focaccia) and the "genevieve" (roast turkey, brie, and Toni’s jalapeƱo jelly on focaccia).  On this trip, I went for the ring dang doo.  I've been really digging smoky gouda lately - we've made some amazing cheeseburgers on grills at friends' recently - and the sweet chili mayo is quite tasty.  It looks a lot like the sandwiches at Melt we just had, but the taste is all its own.  You won't be disappointed.

Sandwiches come with home made potato chips - both sweet and regular potatoes I do believe!  Oh, and some good pickles as well.

The Ingredients:  Nothing on the menu about local or organic ingredients, and when I asked they said they get everything from their supplier.  For a place that is so clearly interested in high quality flavor combinations, it would be great if they took their work to the next level.  Maybe introduce it slowly for the office park crowd and see if folks will pay the additional cost on an item or two that are well designed and clearly explained on the menu.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Deli720, as I mentioned above, is in an office building down by the river.  The view from the atrium style interior of the building is quite refreshing, like a top notch Marriott or Holiday Inn Express.  Unfortunately, no pool (but there were a few putt putt golf holes).  Seriously though, you don't come to Deli Seven20 for the decor or the atmosphere, you come to get your food and go.  They're always on time with the orders, and the folks are nice as well.

Especially if you work downtown, adding Deli Seven20 to your lunch rotation would be a good bet.  I'm confident you'll be consistently happy with quality food and a very reasonable price.

Deli seven20 on Urbanspoon


Tour: Milk and Honey Farm

Last weekend, on a Mother's Day make-up, we had the opportunity to spend some time at Mary Lou and Tom Shaw's Milk and Honey Farm.  They generously showed us around their property, which includes 13 acres that they use for growing plants and raising animals, and 39 acres of wetlands.  It is truly a special place, and we're happy to share our experience with you.

The Location:  Milk and Honey Farm is located between Mount Sterling and Washington Courthouse.

The Goods:  Milk and Honey Farm isn't currently producing products for public consumption - so the bulk of this post is in "The Story" and slideshow below.  They do what they do for themselves, family, friends, and neighbors.

The Story:  My mom has known Mary Lou for many years, and I met her once quite a while ago at Dragonfly in Columbus.  So, when my mom gave us a quick snippet on the farm - they have dairy cows, 39 acres of wetlands, chickens, and more - we jumped at the chance to go check it out.  We were in for a treat.

These are clearly the kind of people who like to get things done.  While they're technically retired, I walked around all afternoon thinking to myself how this would be way too much work for me!  And from the way they described what they're working on, their are plenty of new projects in the pipeline to keep them busy.

Without going into too much detail, the Shaw's moved into their current property after Mary Lou's mother passed away - she had been living there previously.  Before that, they had lived in a gorgeous house they built about 30 years ago across the road.  Since moving into their current home, they've learned just about everything they need to know about running a farm, mostly because they've figured it out from scratch - talking to friends and neighbors, looking at books and websites, you name it.  Tom told me about one of his upcoming undertakings - building a chicken plucker!  He got plans for the Whizbang Chicken Plucker (and here are other Whizbang books and tutorials, like how to butcher a chicken), and intends to put one together soon.

It's as though they started asking the question "Where does X come from?" and then went about answering that question with a hands on experience.  Where does milk come from?  Dairy cows.  And they're proud of themselves for advancing from hand-milking to an electric bucket milker this year!  Where does butter come from?  Churning the cream from the milk of course.  Could they buy it at the store, sure.  But why not churn it?!  I'm in the picture on the right doing my share of the labor - and after about 15 minutes of churning, we had the best butter I can ever recall tasting.  They also make cheese, yogurt, and kefir from the milk they get from their cows.

If they can do it themselves, Mary Lou and Tom probably have.  At Milk and Honey Farm they've got chickens and bees and a huge garden with everything from hops (for the beer they make) to lettuce (which they were kind enough to share) and much more.  They built a big sun room/greenhouse on the side of their barn that was growing the largest chard any of us could remember seeing.  They have horses and donkeys too.  And at the top I mentioned the 39 acres of reclaimed wetlands - unfortunately over 90% of Ohio's wetlands have been destroyed, so that our aquifers don't properly refill with water and wildlife don't have habitats to prosper. 

Their place is special in large part because of all the smart projects and processes that they've undertaken to get connected with their land and what they put into their bodies.  But, what really brings it all together is Mary Lou and Tom's infectious energy and thoughtfulness.  They answered every question we asked, regardless of how stupid they may have seemed as the asker ("How do you make cheese?" or "What's the purpose of a donkey if it's not going to carry anything?"), and they are quite simply doing the best they can to be good stewards of the Earth.  That is something they have to teach all of us, and something I have been happy to spend more time thinking about since our visit.

A big thank you to Mary Lou and Tom for their generosity!  They're not available to do tours in general (you can tell, they have a lot going on!), so if you want to reach out to them for any reason, please email us and we'll pass the communication along.  Check out some more photos from the trip below...