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Sotto Review

Nada (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-5W) is one of my favorite restaurants ever.  I love the food (high-end Mexican), the atmosphere (also high-end and trendy but not pretentious), the drinks (the Nadarita is one of the best drinks that I’ve ever had), and the fact that you can get all of this at a reasonable price.  Not to mention, they do fantastic take-out.  This is great since now that we don’t go out much anymore (babies do that to you) we have a “fancy” option in-home for a special Saturday night.

So, when it was announced that Chef David Falk was creating an Italian restaurant at the same level as Nada, I was pretty excited.  Well, when Sotto (http://www.SottoCincinnati.com) first opened we didn’t initially get a chance to go (way too crowded) and then soon after found out we were pregnant, so no go on Sotto for a bit.  After nearly two years of pregnancy and simply not being able to go out much with a small baby, we finally landed reservations at Sotto for our 6 year anniversary.  It was basically like waiting for Christmas to come for me, so when it was finally our night out we went in with high expectations and I can happily say that they were fully met and exceeded.

When you first walk down the stairs into what is literally the basement (Sotto is Italian for basement) of Boca (which is occupying the building that formerly housed the Maisonette, which was the longest running 5 star restaurant to ever exist), you are cheerfully greeted by the hostess.  It’s a really rustic-cool atmosphere that has subdued light, exposed brick, plank tables, and silver candlesticks.  If you go back to the restroom area, you can also watch them make pasta through a window.  It’s a really cool atmosphere, I don’t  think I could find one thing I didn’t like about it if I tried.

When our waitress (who was very good) came by, we ordered two drinks called “Amalfi,” which was a simply delicious mix of limoncello, vodka, and a citrus spritzer of some sort that was a cool find for us because we had our wedding blessing in Sorrento, which is part of the Amalfi Coast.  It made the night start off in a fun and fitting way.

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As we made our way through the menu to order, we started the Blue Oven tortano bread with Cretan olive oil.  As Blue Oven bread always is, it was top notch and the olive oil was high end as well.  We then ordered the House Cured Salumi (mix of thin-shaved meats with assorted pickles) that included some prosciutto that may have well been from the mother land it was so good.  Our amazing finish to our first course was the Grilled Octopus (white bean and shishito ragu, breadcrumbs) that had octopus so delicious and tender that I didn’t think was possible to find in the Midwest.

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As our main dishes were the Short Rib Cappellacci (shallot, amish butter, and thyme) and Tagliolini con Tartuffo (tagliolini with truffles).  The short rib cappellacci is simply pasta stuffed with short rib (kind of like a dumpling, but way better) and was not only delicious, but so tender that I think you could have eaten them without any teeth (I’ll remember this when I’m old).  The tagliolini was such a simple dish…basically flat pasta with a cream sauce and pepper.  But the truffle flavor was so well done and defined that it made it a dish I’ll never forget.  I think you see the point here with the pastas…simple, rustic, and flavors that just blow you away.

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For dessert, we had the Ricotta Doughnuts with three sauces and Tiramisu.  The doughnuts were phenomenal, and the caramel, raspberry, and white sauces accompanied them perfectly.  The Tiramisu was some of the best I’ve ever and we were pretty excited when the waitress told us about it (it was an off-menu special that night).  To top it off, we were brought two servings of limoncello to celebrate our anniversary.

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Overall, I’d highly recommend you go and enjoy Sotto as soon as you can.  You’ll probably have to make reservations fairly far in advance if you want to get in on a weekend, but it’s worth it.  We’ve eaten at some fantastic places in Italy and the dishes at Sotto were exactly what they should be: simple in looks and presentation, but phenomenal in flavors.  And in food this simple, you can’t hide or muddle your flavors so you’d better be good.  Sotto is great.  Bravo and thank you, David Falk.

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The Eagle Food and Beer Hall

One of the things I miss most from my “old life” now that we have a young child is dining out.  My wife and I used to go out at least once a week, typically on Saturday nights.  One of our favorite places to go has been Over the Rhine, which is always full of both great food and high energy.  In the prior nearly 10 months, we’ve only gotten to go on two real dates.   Both ended up in…OTR, of course.   The first being at Senate, one of the originals during the initial resurgence of OTR, and the second  at the subject of this review, The Eagle Food and Beer Hall.

There was a lot of hype when Eagle first opened, owned by the same team that gave us Bakersfield.  The legend grew quickly…best fried chicken ever?   Great sides?  Lots of beer?  Cool atmosphere?  Well, it was so hot, we couldn’t get it before our son was born.  And even now, over a year since it first opened, when we first tried to get in, there was a 2 hour wait at 4:30 pm!  So, on our second try, it was a cold Thursday evening before Valentine’s Day and we were able to get seated with barely a 30 minute wait.  Sweet!  The Eagle is exactly what the name proclaims…it’s a beer hall in a building that was formerly a post office, complete with a golden eagle statue near the hostess stand, a block of bronzed post office boxes, and a giant mural of a bald eagle painted on the wall.   It’s a bit of a darker atmosphere, with a large U-Shaped bar in the middle of the restaurant, leather booths, and wood ceiling and wall panels made from reclaimed wood.

What way to start our rare night out than by getting a beer?  Luckily for this guy, they have about 15 beers on tap including my favorite, Rhinegeist.  I ordered a Pure Fury, which is a hoppy pale ale from the aforementioned brewery.  The menu is small and simple, much like Bakersfield’s is.  We went with the chicken sandwich and quarter chicken white meat, along with mac and cheese and spoon bread as sides.

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First, the main attraction…the chicken.  I’m not a huge fried chicken guy, but this is good fried chicken.  We were served a breast and wing with our order, and the free range, antibiotic-free chicken from Amish farms in Ohio was tender, juicy, and just plain delicious.  I’d be shorting my readers, however, if I said it was truly the star of the show.  The chicken sandwich…the freaking chicken sandwich, served on a submarine bun with spicy mayo, house made pickles, and a bit of coleslaw on it…was incredible.  Legen…wait for it…dary (yes, I miss “How I met your Mother).  I wish I would have just had 2 of these things.  I can’t say enough about how good it was.

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The sides were awesome.  The mac and cheese is five-cheese mac-and-cheese, with blue cheese, two types of cheddar, American and parmesan cheeses.  Really nice taste, and served with crunchy breadcrumbs on the top.   The spoon bread is kind of like corn bread, but sweeter (maple syrup in it I think) and less crumbly.  Both were served in an iron skillet, and went with the chicken perfectly.

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This place has a lot going for it…great food, nice beer selection, good service, and ridiculously cheap prices.  Seriously, the chicken is a few bucks more than Kroger chicken.  I actually saw a few reviews on the web saying it was too expensive.  Compared to what…KFC?  Our bill was about $35 for 2 mains, 2 sides, and 2 drinks.  Whatever, just go eat it.  Wait the wait (at one of the several really nice bars around it), and enjoy not only a fantastic meal in a great atmosphere, but one of the best values you’ll ever find eating out.

The Eagle Food and Beer Hall on Urbanspoon

BrewRiver GastroPub

I started this food blog over a year ago because I love eating, I love discovering new places, and I love sharing those experiences with others so they can enjoy and share in the happiness that eating new food brings to me. In the last few months, my wife and I have become first time parents to a beautiful little boy. As amazing as parenthood is (and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!), it has all but killed our ability to go out to any places worth writing about. So, when a couple of friends of ours texted us to meet them out with our 2 ½ month old at a restaurant, we were pretty excited. It had been awhile since we’d been out to eat dinner and we were ready to have at it.
 
After a brief discussing, we decided on BrewRiver GastroPub (http://brewrivergastropub.com/). Over on Eastern Avenue, it’s a place I’d read about but hadn’t gotten to visit before my wife’s third trimester had made it inconvenient to eat out much. By the time we made it there (try making it anywhere on time with a newborn!), the patio had a couple of tables open, so we joined our friends at a table there. The patio is a nice, open area and is an oasis of sorts on that part of Eastern Avenue. Not a whole lot of nice buildings around it, and the building right next store had some raccoons in the siding I think, but whatever. It was a humid-less summer night, there were friends, beers, and food to be had! Not to mention our son was loving checking out the lights and trees around the patio and had a great time with us. The waiter was friendly and had some great suggestions, although he was a bit slow/forgetful at times.
 
There was a solid selection of beer on a board outside. Not one of those places with dozens of taps or anything, but with over 20, that’s more than enough to make me happy. My wife went with a Gnarly Brown Ale from Mad Tree (local), and I had a New Belgium/Odell FOCOllaboration American Pale Ale. I’d never had the FOCOllaboration, but its two breweries from Fort Collins, CO (see what they did there?) that collaborated on an awesome American Pale Ale. Smooth and slightly hoppy, it hit the spot. Since my wife was driving, I also got half of her beer. Yay for me.
 
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When it came time for food, she had the BrewRiver Burger (Irish cheddar, house made pickle, Portobello crisps, tomato, lettuce, local bun, hand-cut fries). I went with our waiter’s suggestion: the Turkey and Goat Cheese SAMich (local turkey, Pesto Aioli, goat cheese, oven roasted tomato, arugula on a farmhouse bread, and upgraded to the truffle fries). The burger was really good…thick and juicy, and the toppings were solid. My sandwich was great. The turkey was tender and seemed fresh, and the goat cheese was awesome. The fries were good, too. My truffle fries also came with truffle aioli (fancy mayo, basically) and was as tasty as it was bad for me. They had homemade ketchup as well, which while being a cool idea was too salsa-y for me to enjoy.
 
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Overall, a great choice for dinner and a drink. The restaurant itself has a nice atmosphere, although there’s not much around to do before or after. That didn’t affect our visit since we were with our son and had no interest or time in doing anything else, but something to keep in mind for those out on a date. I think The Rookwood (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-2F) in Mt. Adams is a better choice for a similar type of place in a much better neighborhood with more things to do with a date or with friends. And, if you want a burger, Terry’s Turf Club (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-6j) has the best burger I’ve ever had anywhere. Still, certainly worth a visit and I’d definitely go again.
 
BrewRiver GastroPub on Urbanspoon

Chuy’s

My favorite Mexican restaurants are easily Nada in Cincinnati (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-5W) and the legendary duo of Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in Chicago (http://wp.me/s3jVIR-235). There are, of course, a myriad of Mexican restaurants, ranging from the gourmet establishments that I just mentioned to the most simple and authentic little holes in the wall, with varying degrees of success. I just reviewed one in the middle of that range called Riviera Maya in Indianapolis (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-6Q) that was pretty good, and I am staying in the same middle ground with my latest review, Chuy’s (http://www.chuys.com/) in Cincinnati. Ok, it’s technically Tex-Mex, but you get my point.

Located in the old Chi-nnati’s Pizza (one of the most underrated places I’ve ever eaten, by the way. The crust was a clone of Gino’s East in Chicago and the quality was very close), this place is huge. We went in fairly early, around 5:00 pm on the day before New Year’s Eve (which was a Monday). It was already starting to fill up, and as soon as I walked in both my wife and I were amazed at how much the place had been changed since it was Chi-nnati’s. It was divided up into different rooms (a weakness of the old place, actually, as it was almost too large before) and the décor has completely changed. Mexican tiles all over the place, including the ceiling, and completely different furniture and colors. I think they even changed the booths! Add in some pictures of Elvis and you have a kitschy place that you kind of have to love. There was music playing in the background, mostly 80’s and 90’s music, to liven the place up and the wait staff was very friendly and lively. Since we arrived during happy hour (4-7 M-F), there was a chips and salsa bar that also included queso, refried beans, and taco meat located in the back of an old car (fake, of course). What was great is that the chips and salsa bar was in the actual bar of the restaurant, which was very quickly filling up with locals (mostly women, actually) drinking margaritas (which are quite good, by the way) and seemingly having a good time.

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As I alluded to earlier, the wait staff seemed friendly and ours was no different, although he did seem a bit awkward at times. However, he gave a great effort to be upbeat and on the ball, recommending the Perfect Margarita (which while these were not as good as the Bayless or Nada selections, was still an awesome margarita) and encouraging us to hit the free chips and salsa bar.
 
The menu was fairly big but not too large…smaller than most “more authentic” Mexican places, actually. The menus include such things as burritos, tacos, house specialties (such as chicken flautas), enchiladas, fajitas, and combos of the above. Both my wife and I decided to go with combos…she ordered Combo #1, the Comida Deluxe (cheese Tex-Mex enchiladas, chicken flautas, a seasoned ground sirloin crispy taco, guacamole, and homemade tostada chips dipped in chile con queso). I decided on the combo #5, the Chalupa and Enchilada (The first item is the Chicken Chalupa, which is a homemade corn tortilla fried and topped with refried beans, cheese, freshly-roasted, hand-pulled chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapenos. The second item was the Deluxe Chicken enchilada, which has freshly-roasted, hand-pulled chicken and cheese with deluxe tomatillo sauce). OK, that was a lot of words to type describing the two combos, and it’s how it was described on the menu. It’s pretty precise, though…the food is solid if unspectacular. Not as heavy as the more traditional Mexican restaurants, not as good as the gourmet ones. The chicken was pretty good…as described, white meat and a good amount of it. The ground sirloin was also good, didn’t seem overly greasy. The tortillas were good (my wife ordered her enchilada with a flour tortilla rather than a corn like mine had, and hers was better than mine) as well.

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Overall, it’s solid, fun, and not too expensive. Our two combos plus my margarita was a “whopping” $25 and change including tax, although the margarita was $4 off because of happy hour (normally $8.95). For the price it’s a great option and a pretty fun evening.

Chuy's on Urbanspoon

On the Road: Riviera Maya Review

Typically when my wife and I drive to Iowa to visit her family for Christmas, we’ll stop halfway on the way out to have dinner at a small-town Mexican restaurant and stay the night at a motel before continuing on the following morning.  This year we went to Chicago first (and ate at Girl and the Goat! – http://wp.me/p3jVIR-6D), so we didn’t do our normal practice.  However, on the way home, we stopped by Riviera Maya (http://www.rivieramayabarandgrillindy.com/) in Indianapolis.

When we first walked in, we were kind of blown away by the just complete over-done décor.  From a faux well in the middle of the dining floor (taking away precious seating) to the random hanging wagon wheel and door with a small porch high up on a wall, along with tons of stonework and colorful Mexican art…this place is crazy.  Add in a live one-man band featuring two straight songs by Allison Kraus, along with Of Monsters and Men, Gnarles Barkley (an acoustic rendition of “Crazy”), and what I believe was this guy’s version of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Civil War” and you’ve got yourself a night.  Actually, I kind of loved it.  When do you get this kind of craziness at a Mexican restaurant?

The menu was pretty typical for a Mexican restaurant.  Other than the décor, it could have been any of those small-town Mexican restaurants that I mentioned at the beginning of the review.   We started out with chips, salsa, and queso dip.  The chops were a bit thick and the salsa tasted like it was from a can.  The queso was standard but pretty good…not too thick, not too thin or runny.  Better than the salsa.

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For dinner, my wife ordered the beef tacos (3 hard shell tacos with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese with a side of Mexican rice and refried beans) and I had the Burrito Gigante (a 10” flour tortilla stuffed with spicy chicken, rice, and beans then covered with cheese sauce; topped with lettuce, sour cream, shredded cheese, tomato, and guacamole).  The tacos were pretty good, but standard.  Nothing to really describe…the most normal taco you can imagine.  My burrito was solid…the chicken was white meat and well shredded.  The rice was well cooked and while the guac was nothing special, it added a nice flavor to the dish.  I’d recommend it as a good choice if you stop here.

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Overall, I’d recommend it.  Fair prices, good service, and a wild atmosphere (I did enjoy the decorations and live music!) made for a good time.  Basically, it’s standard Mexican done with style.

Riviera Maya Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

On the Road: Girl & the Goat Review

My wife and I love “Top Chef.”  As big time lovers of food and dining out, it’s our favorite reality show to watch together.  Most of the contestants are from the coasts…NYC, Boston, LA, and San Francisco (although one of our very own, Megan Ketover from Orchids at Palm Court (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-50) was on “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”).   However, Chicago has been the one Midwestern city with contestants, and even had a winner:  Stephanie Izard.  She won Season 4, and was the first and only female winner until Season 10.  Her first restaurant, Girl & the Goat (http://www.girlandthegoat.com/), opened to very positive reviews, and it made us very excited to try it out.

Our initial visit was over President’s Day weekend in 2013.  Because we went on a holiday weekend (really, any weekend is tough), we could not get a reservation.  So, we decided to just show up at 4:30pm when they open to try our luck.  Being that no one under 70 years old likes to eat at 4:30 pm (to be fair, it’s 5:30 Cincinnati time, so that’s not as bad), we got in pretty quick ahead of the 6:00 pm reservations.  We had a fantastic experience.  Great ambiance, great service, great food.  Unfortunately, I was not writing this food blog at the time, so I did not take pictures or document my experience.

Fortunately for us all, we decided to make another trip to Chicago the weekend before Christmas in 2013.  We did the same drill…arrive at 4:30 and get seated before the 6:00 reservations.  The building itself is nothing special.  A bit outside of the main Downtown area, there are no other hot spots that we noticed (the bar near it is not very good at all).  However, that ceases to matter once you walk in.  The interior is very warm, with lots of wood and high ceilings.  There is a bar on the left, and the kitchen is pretty open in the back of the restaurant.  We got seated at one of the social tables, where 7 people including us were seated.  None of our dining neighbors were very social, unfortunately (yes, Chicago does seem to lack the Midwestern friendliness of other cities in this part of the country).  Even more unfortunately, the server was not all that friendly or descriptive either.  Our first server back in February was not only friendly, but described the food and had a plan on when to bring the dishes out.  This guy had none of that, and just sort of brought things out in the order we ordered them.   Too bad, he really should have been better with food of this caliber.

There is a craft drink menu and of course wine and beer.  Unfortunately, there are only a small handful of draft beers, which was disappointing, and the bottled beers were $7-$9 each.  Too bad, good draft beer pairs well with this kind of food.  We ordered the Goat Blue! focaccia bread (with fig butter and fennel-onion jam) and goat
empanadas (marinated sheep feta, picked golden beets, tzatziki) to start.  The bread was a bit less warm than I had hoped, but was still very good, and the butter and jam were great.  The empanadas were excellent.  The feta and tzatziki complimented the empanadas very well, and the goat meat was fantastic.

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The entrée menu is separated into 3 main parts: vegetables, fish, and meats.  They are small plates meant to be shared.  We ordered the Squash Wontons (with mushroom ragout), Sugo (pappardelle, rosemary, cape gooseberries), and lamb ribs (with marcona almond chopped salad and yogurt jus).  The wontons were great…well cooked, the squash was the perfect consistency, and the mushrooms were fantastic as well.  The Sugo (which generally means “sauce” in Italian) was probably the best of the three entrées.  The tomato based sauce consisted of a blend of goat, beef, and pork.  It covered very well cooked pappardelle pasta, and the added gooseberries added sweetness to the dish that made it work very well.  The lamb ribs were very well cooked, and the rub on them was amazing.  However, they were just too fatty for me to really thoroughly enjoy.  I spent more time picking fat off of my meat than actually eating it.  Plus, by the time I took the meat from the fat, there wasn’t really all that much meat anyway.  That said, what was there was delicious.  While I’ve eaten a lot of lamb in my life, I’ve never eaten lamb ribs, so I’m not sure if it’s a dish typically this fatty.

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Overall, this is a great restaurant.  However, I’d definitely say that our first visit was more enjoyable than our second visit.  Great service makes for a much better experience, and our server was way better the first go-round.  I’d like to think that the service is typically more like the first experience than the second, but perhaps we’ll have to go a third time to find out.  Either way, the food was top notch on both visits. I’d highly recommend it if you are in Chicago.

Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

Mitchell’s Fish Market Review

I usually don’t like to review chains…and that’s because most chains just aren’t very good.  I do, however, make exceptions for certain ones.  I enjoy Yard House (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-3R), and Mitchell’s Fish Market (http://www.mitchellsfishmarket.com/) is another one I’ve always liked.   It’s been at Newport on the Levee forever…since the Levee first opened in 2001.  Mitchell’s is a somewhat upscale (casually elegant?) seafood restaurant that sits on the banks of Newport, Kentucky with one of the best views you could have of the Cincinnati skyline.  I’ve had some great times eating there, with friends, family, and dates with my wife.  As a matter of fact, my wife and I had our first date there, following a great time at the Funny Bone comedy club, so this place has a special place in my heart and always will.

When you first walk in, you can’t help but notice the nice bar on the left of the entrance.  Looking in at the dining area, it’s a spacious room with a couple of dividers, but large and opened up for the most part.  There is a lot of dark wood for the furniture and lower part of the walls, with lighter colors on the ceiling and upper part of the walls.  Large windows which bright it up and afford some diners some wonderful views of Downtown Cincinnati complete the look, and it’s really nice, actually.  There is some outdoor dining, both in the front with a view of the Levee plaza so you can people watch, and in the back where you can relax with the city and river view.

Unlike most chains, the food is where it’s at here.  On this particular visit, my mother in law, wife, and myself sat on the back patio area with the river view.  As always, we started with their sourdough bread, which is lightly buttered and always soft and perfectly warmed.  My mother in law had the Cedar Plank Salmon (balsamic glazed and oven roasted, grilled zucchini and peppers, sautéed asparagus, sun-dried tomato pesto and goat cheese) and my wife had the Chesapeake Bay Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes (Our signature recipe, smashed redskin potatoes, sweet corn sauté).  Both were really good and the crab cakes actually consisted of mostly crab, which is shocking at some places.  Even the smashed potatoes were good, and definitely not a forgotten side dish.  In general, the fish is really good.  I’m particular to the Chilean Sea Bass (certified sustainable, of course!) prepared Shanghai Style (steamed with ginger and scallions, served with sticky rice, sesame spinach, and rice wine soy sauce).  As usual, that is what I ordered and was very pleased with it.  Actually, throughout my many visits to Mitchell’s, I don’t remember ever having a bad meal.  I’ve had the Surf and Turf (surprisingly good steak, by the way), Mahi Mahi, and several other types of fish and have always enjoyed what I ordered.  Their wonderful Sharkfin Pie (Butter fudge ice cream, honey roasted peanuts, fudge, peanut butter, Oreo cookie crust) is out of control and simply amazing.

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Overall, I’d say this is the place to go if you want seafood in Cincinnati.  McCormick and Schmick’s on Fountain Square is pretty good, but I’d go with Mitchell’s without a doubt.  Don’t let that it’s a (small) chain turn you off…this is a quality place and I’d highly recommend it.

Mitchell's Fish Market on Urbanspoon

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