This year I was once again lucky enough to be asked to attend the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic, held September 11-13 in Washington Park. This year’s event proved itself to be a significant increase over last year, with an additional day of tasting and events on Sunday as well as more things to seek out throughout the weekend. I was immensely satisfied with this year’s event. Last year felt like a wonderful local event with a lot of potential. This year they went a long way toward meeting that potential. The Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic felt much bigger and more vibrant this year, and I was thrilled to see our city producing something that seems destined to grow into a nationally recognized event.
A few weeks ago while I was leading a microbrewery tour with Tonic Tours, I started talking with a guy named Dave Reed who was enjoying a pint at Rivertown’s taproom. Turns out he is the beer manager at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse and he invited Charlie and I down to enjoy some beer, check out their food, and see what we thought of the place.
Because I live near Tri-County Mall I have driven by BJ’s a number of times since they opened but something about the name and the location in the mall had caused me to write them off as a cheesy sports bar with too much testosterone and too many chicken wings so I’d never actually been inside. In the end, I may not have taken Dave up on his offer except that my cousin who usually has pretty good taste in beer recently told me that BJ’s has one of the best pumpkin ale’s he’d ever had. I was intrigued to see if I had judged BJ’s too harshly.
BJ’s started as a deep-dish pizza restaurant in 1978 in Southern California. The chain took off in California and in 1996 they added a brewery to their line up and began brewing their own beer to serve in their restaurants. All of the beer served at the Cincinnati location is brewed in the Reno brewery. In addition to the Tri-County location they have recently opened a location in Florence, KY and a BJ’s will be opening in Dayton later this month.
BJ’s has 12 of their own beers on tap, with selections ranging from their standard American-style light beer to a stout and a double IPA coming out later this month. When we sat down with Dave at BJ’s he brought us a flight of their four most popular beers: the LightSwitch Lager, BrewHouse Blonde, Piranha Pale Ale, and Jeremiah Red. All of the beers were solid, approachable, and fairly safe which makes sense given that these are the best selling beers in a fairly mainstream restaurant. There was actually a barely detectable hint of hops in their light beer and I particularly enjoyed the Jeremiah Red. It has a fairly complex malt profile although it may be a bit sweet for most people’s taste in an Irish Red Ale. I wish that we had gotten a chance to try some of the darker varieties of beer as well to see how they compared, but overall I would rate the beer good but not great. In addition to their own beer’s BJ’s also has 12 more beers on tap with everything from Blue Moon to Rivertown’s Hopbomber.
I have to say that the food impressed me a little more than the beer. The deep dish pizza was delicious, a nice amount of toppings that didn’t get overwhelmed by the crust. The seared ahi tuna salad I ordered was amazing, with the tuna cooked to perfection and nicely balanced by the rice-wine vinaigrette and generous portion of avocado. I was actually most impressed by the wide selection items on their menu that fit different diets. They had a surprisingly large number of gluten-free dishes that they apparently even use separate utensils and trays for to avoid cross-contamination. Their low calorie dishes, including the salad I got, were great even if they insist on calling them “Enlightened Entrees.”
Over all the biggest disappointment was that this pumpkin ale I’d heard about from my cousin was not available yet. I guess I will just have to head back in October when the finally tap it and try a few more of their beers before I make a final decision. Over all I would to head to BJ’s for the food first and enjoy the beer as an accompaniment to the meal rather than the main attraction. With easy parking, little to no wait, and plenty of big screen TV’s there are worse choices for a night out with solid food and beer you can’t try anywhere else. If you want to check out BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse a good opportunity is coming up at the end of the month. They are doing a beer and cider dinner September 30th; for $30 per person you get five courses of food with a beer or cider paired with each one. Call the restaurant to reserve a seat at (513) 671-1805. And be sure to check out Episode 30 of Bottoms Up to hear Charlie and I try the beer and get a rundown of each one.
I just received information on a beer dinner featuring Listermann beers at Parkers Blue Ash. I really hope to make this one, as Listermann/Triple Digit have been cranking out some solid beers and the food pairings sound fantastic.
[Note: I just got an email stating that this dinner will take place at 7:00PM.]
Parkers Blue Ash Tavern Executive Chef Josh House is hosting a Craft Beer Dinner in partnership with Listermann and Triple Digit Breweries on May 15, 2013. The dinner will take place during National Craft Beer Week, which runs May 13-19, 2013. This celebration, coordinated by the Craft Beer Program, is an opportunity for craft brewers to commemorate their art and tradition with enthusiasts across the country.
Courses will include First Course: Tuna Tacos (Cucumber Salsa, Jalapeno Crema, Cilantro) with Serpentine Wheat; Second Course: Fish and Chips (Battered Pacific Cod, Crispy Plantain, Napa Cabbage) with Leopold; Third Course: Beer Belly and Pork Rinds (Smoked Pork Belly, Spicy Pork Rinds, Avocado) with Jungle Honey; Entrée Course: Ohio Steak and Potatoes (Ribeye Two Ways, Asparagus, Roasted Beef Jus) with Aftermath; Dessert Course: “Nutty Bars” (Fresh Peanut Butter, Wafers, Chocolate) with Nutcase.
Reservations can be secured by calling Parkers at (513) 891-8300; limited space with capacity at 40. Tickets are $40 apiece. Additionally, Parkers is currently featuring one newly offered craft beer per week as the “Brew of the Week,” intended to encourage new and returning guests to broaden their horizons and try something different. Parkers Head Chef Josh House plans to keep each “Brew of the Week” in mind as he crafts specials each week to be paired with the wide range in craft beers available. The first “Brew of the Week” was the Triple Digit Chickow Hazelnut Double Brown Ale, only available locally by the Triple Digit Brewing Company on Dana Avenue.
About Parkers Blue Ash Tavern’s Chef Josh House: Chef House hails from Miamisburg, Ohio where he began his culinary journey making pizza and washing dishes. He brings with him an extensive background of fine dining, banquet, and hotel experience from Louisville, Phoenix, and Cincinnati. Prior to joining the Parkers team, House was the Executive Chef at the Cincinnati Marriott Northeast where he helped design and implement new menus for the hotels’ restaurant and banquet departments. Before leading the culinary department at the Marriott, House worked at The Oakroom at The Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky’s only AAA 5 Diamond Award winning restaurant, helping design a seasonal menu reflecting the desire of the team to push the boundaries of the local dining scene. While at Kai Restaurant at The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa in Phoenix, AAA 5 Diamond and Forbes 5 Star Award winning restaurant, House began his education in southwestern cuisine with a focus on Native American ingredients indigenous to the area. House also spent time during culinary school working at The Seelbach Hilton Hotel as a banquet cook learning how to execute high volume banquets and writing the weekly brunch menu for The Oakroom before heading off to Arizona to help broaden his culinary knowledge. House looks to seasonal and locally sourced products when creating menu items or specials for Parkers and its award winning brunch, wine and beer dinners, and holiday menu offerings.
About Parkers Blue Ash Tavern: Parkers Blue Ash Tavern is located at 4200 Cooper Road in Blue Ash. They specialize in All-American Fare with a wide selection of beef and seafood dishes, as well as a critically-acclaimed Best of Cincinnati Sunday brunch. Additionally, they recently remodeled their Tap Room and patio and also offer a main dining room or private dining. The restaurant is known for its wood-burning fireplaces and charming equestrian theme.
I’m not going to do a full-scale review of the Yard House just yet because 1) I largely agree with what Tom said in his review and 2) I don’t want to judge a business on a soft opening (especially when I’m eating and drinking for free). I’ll just include a few of my thoughts short format belong, along with a few pictures.
– The space itself is just a tad above average. Very minimalist, with a one story, spread out floor plan. I think keeping it open looks neat, but will lead to crowd volume issues during busy hours, which was not helped at the preview by the music blasting. I like the Lager House’s materials and construction considerably more.
– The view is beautiful of the Ohio River and Roebling Bridge (see below). This is going to be a fantastic place to sit for happy hour once the weather warms up.
– While there are a ton of tap handles, I wasn’t super impressed by the selection. There aren’t enough locals and too many handles are used for macro. I understand that this is at The Banks and caters to a wide subset of the population (AKA: not just beer geeks), but I think there’s considerable room to improve. I think this will happen as the folks responsible for beer buying there get a better understanding of the lay of the land in terms of local beers in Cincinnati.
– The small bites of food I had were fantastic in every case. I’m looking forward to coming back during happy hour sometime when they have half off appetizers and I believe pizzas.
– People talk a lot about what this means for the Lager House. I think the effect with be at worst minimal and at best a benefit to both places. With the Red’s season starting back up, there will clearly be enough demand for both places. Also, I’m a believer that a rising ride lifts all boats. I think the Lager House’s superior beer selection will make the Yard House up their game and I believe the Yard Houses’s eclectic and high-quality food selection will make the Lager House up theirs. Overall, having both is great for consumers. I’m not going to say that the two are equivalent, but if the Lager House was full, I’d be more than happy to walk over to the Yard House for a beer and snack (or vice-versa).
– Overall, I was impressed with not just the Yard House and its food/beer, but with the service, as well. Obviously things were slow because of the crowd size and learning the systems, but it’s nice to see servers new at a place, still chipper and pleasant to interact with.
When I read about Yelp Drinks 2013 I have to admit I got excited. I am something of a craft cocktail obsessive and the chance to check out a few places I’d been hearing about for half price was too tempting to miss. The deal is simple, 20 local bars and restaurants agree to feature three of their drinks at half price anytime before nine during the featured week, which just so happens to be this week. The timing was great for me because I’ve just started doing a second, all alcohol, podcast called Bottoms Up and I thought that featuring some exciting local bars would make for a good show. So last night Charlie, my partner-in-crime and co-host, picked me up and we hit 5 of the bars in 90 minutes. You can listen as we talk to the bartenders and try the drinks starting Friday over on the Charlie Tonic site but here is my rapid fire review of the five locations we hit.
Mayberry:I’ve been wanting to try the gastro pub for awhile now so we started here with the plan to get some food while we had a drink. Oddly enough the menu really didn’t appeal to me. Everything seemed to have pork belly and I know that doesn’t sound like a problem but it just wasn’t what we were in the mood for so we settled on ordering two Blood Orange Martini’s and some Bacon Garlic Popcorn to snack on. The Blood Orange Martini was made with vodka, freshly squeeze blood orange juice, and triple sec. It was an uncomplicated and refreshing drink and the driest of all the cocktails we sampled. Not too sweet at all and if you don’t like the taste of vodka you probably won’t like it. The burnt orange peel was a nice touch.
Japp’s Since 1879: Of course I am no stranger to Japp’s but with it right across the street from Mayberry I couldn’t walk past without trying a drink. Since we were in Over the Rhine I decided to order the OTR Cocktail and it was an interesting experience in having the same cocktail made by a different person. The OTR has vodka, vanilla, fresh squeezed lime, cranberry and rose water. The first time I had it the vanilla and rose water came through and it was a much softer and sweeter take on the old stand by combo of vodka, cranberry, and citrus. This time the lime was much stronger and I didn’t taste any vanilla at all. Sadly, this was the first time Japp’s has let me down.
Taste of Belgium:I’ve been a fan of these addictive little waffles since I first picked them up at a farmer’s market but I haven’t been to their new restaurant yet, in part because I thought that as much as I love the waffles, eating them for dinner seemed a bit much. But it turns out that Taste of Belgium was my favorite food stop of the night. To make up for the disappointing and over-priced popcorn, Charlie and I decided to split a burger. It was delicious and the toppings of bacon, goat cheese and caramelized apples complimented each other beautifully. Not only was the food great but the cocktail here tied for first place of the night. The Rosemary Bistro was made with Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin, house-made rosemary leek syrup, and topped off with tonic water and a sprig of rosemary. The result is a crisp and slightly savory take on a traditional gin and tonic. Two thumbs up for this one.
Below Zero Lounge:The drink here was the most disappointing but the atmosphere was the most fun so I guess it’s a draw. I ordered the Yelptini which has vodka, triple sec, and cranberry juice. Now you may be saying to yourself, as I was, wait a minute isn’t that basically a Cosmopolitan minus the lime? Yes indeed it is and it tasted basically like a Cosmopolitan as well. Nevertheless, a cosmo is a nice cocktail and I managed to forget to take a picture until the glass was nearly empty so it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it. The crowd at Below Zero were unpretentious, talkative, and just plain fun to be around. I admit I was disappointed when it was time to move on to our final stop.
Neon’s Unplugged:I never though I would enjoy a bar called Neon’s but this is where we got the second winning drink of the night. With its long narrow interior, dark wood beams, patrons wearing knit hats, and a dog laying by the entrance Neon’s felt like a pub in a European fishing village but the variety of craft beer and house-made bitters was decidedly modern. We decided on the Smoked Elderflower cocktail and this one was a winner. Something like a smoked gimlet, this drink was made with vodka, smoked fig bitters, St Germain, a splash of lemon juice, Sprite and then garnished with fresh lavender and a lemon wheel. The result was a smokey-citrus taste that was really unique and enjoyable. This is a bar I will definitely be trying again.
If you want to try these or any of the other 55 drinks that are on special during Yelp Drinks you have until Sunday to make it out. If I get the chance I will be stopping by Arnold’s for their Maple and Bacon infused Wild Turkey Old Fashioned.
Also in the interest of full disclosure and because I don’t want everyone thinking that I regularly slam back five cocktails on a work night, except for the first stop Charlie and I shared one of each of these drinks so it’s not as bad as it looks. Drink happy and drink safe!
You can hear Charlie and I try all of these drinks on Episode 2 of Bottoms Up.
First off I am required to give props to my wife for discovering this place via Facebook and pointing it out to me. BrewRiver is a brand new (As in 3 weeks old, they opened July 13th) gastropub about 10 minutes east of downtown Cinci on Riverside Dr. It’s built into what appears to be an old house with a nice large patio (likely the site of a former house) to the side, see:
Once you walk in, the door is on the side next to the patio, you are greeted with a great looking bar and plenty of taps! The taps are filled with a few house brews and loads of guest brews. They have a cool idea of rotating taps for specific breweries. Bells, Great Divide, Founders, Breckenridge and more all have dedicated tap handles that will rotate through different beers. They also have taps dedicated to certain styles: a nitro tap, a sour tap, a Belgian tap, and a “hoppy handle.” If that wasn’t enough beer to guarantee you visiting here then there is the plethora of guest bottles and cans they have as well! You can check out the full list on their excellent website over here.
Let’s get back to those house brews that I mentioned earlier. Now, simmer down folks don’t get too excited, as you can see from the first picture there isn’t enough room here for a brewery. None of the beers are actually brewed onsite, though the owners do plan on opening up a brewery to support the gastropub soon. Currently all of the house beers are brewed down river a bit in Aurora, Indiana. I am not familiar with other Great Crescent products but what they serve at BrewRiver gives me hope to try more Great Crescent products.
On to the beer tasting! They offer a flight of up to 6 brews for $2 per 4 ounce taster (or $2.50 for guest drafts). I decided to just go with 4 and picked the following to do a quick review on:
Island Queen Blonde Ale
Super cloudy wheat color. Taste is a bit maltier than I prefer, almost no hop bitterness.
Pretty clear with a bit of haze and a nice light yellow color. Very balanced malt/hop flavors. Nice and easily session able beer. Also interesting because Felsen has become somewhat of a rarer style.
Calliope India Pale Ale
Beautiful red amber color. Solid hop presence but not overpowering at all. Very nice and solid ipa.
Maker Scream & Stout
Pours a blackish brown. Nice warm bourbon taste with slight bite and lots of sweet malts
I’m not a “foodie” type of person so I’m going to slightly gloss over there food here. I had a great burger with a side of really amazing fries and home-made ketchup. Also the wife got a BLT packed with ultra thick home cured bacon, a slice of which I was lucky enough to get to try. I just want to say the food was amazing and I hope a real foodie type person heads out there soon and covers the gastro part of the gastropub.
So come on Cincinnati get out to this new restaurant for some great food and amazing beer! The sooner more people eat there the sooner they start brewing nearby!