Part 3: Lancaster Redux and Cincinnati
This is the third installment of a three part odyssey surrounding my trip to the Columbus West High School Class of January 1956 reunion. It’s all about the food, what I call Ohio food. It’s different than what you’ve been reading about in this space for two reasons: For one, I’m traveling, and for two, the choices in Ohio are different than those in Northern California, much different.
Since I made the long trip to Ohio for a weekend, I extended the trip on each end for some adventures in Cincinnati, and passed through Carol’s homestead in Lancaster in each direction, as well. The first two parts were posted earlier; The Heartland, Columbus and the Reunion.
Sunday, August 20, 2006 (continued)
“I’mmmm Baaaaack,” I called out as I came through the door. Liz and Bus were in their chairs and Bus said, “Alan will pick us up at four to go to the Logan Country Club for dinner.” Whodathunk there would ever be such a thing as Logan Country Club?!
“You folks had lunch?” I asked. Not really but not much thinking about it. “I’m going to Bob Evans (an Ohio cultural institution) so I can write about it. Want to come along?”
“No, you go ahead, we’ll just have a little something here… dinner’s coming up.” Bob Evans is a mile or so toward town on the ridge above Memorial Drive. Although there was a wait, one for lunch with no preference on smoking, snagged a quick seat at a table near the window in the smoking section. Nobody was smoking, I doubt that anybody would in a Bob Evans.
I knew what I wanted, Fried Cornmeal Mush and a Cup of Sausage Gravy. That is wonderful stuff. The mush (that’s what hoity toity folks call polenta) was fried crisp on the outside and was hot and creamy on the inside. I haven’t been able to get mine crispy like that at home. Now, with this fresh in my memory, I can give it another try. The Sausage Gravy is a white sauce with just the right amount of sausage suspended in its mass of goodness. I’ve never tried to make that at home, but it shouldn’t be too hard with bulk sausage and a béchamel sauce. I ate about half a piece of fried mush with the syrup that came with it to get a sweet start and then spooned the gravy over everything. Man, that was good.
Alan came at four, as promised, and we were off to Logan. We got to the Logan Brass Ring Country Club in 45 minutes, to set a new record for eating dinner early. Surprise, we were the first for dinner. For a country club, the hostess and waitress were beyond casually dressed. The hostess was wearing a tee shirt that said in script across her ample bosom: hear see taste touch smell. Well, I remarked that I liked her shirt. Alan opined that the waitress was breaking into waitressing on the weekends, but hung drywall during the week. Quite apt.
“Enjoy our Prime Rib on Friday” the menu said. Bummer. That’s the second time we don’t have Prime Rib. I ordered an appetizer of Bacon Wrapped Ocean Scallops and the Broiled Sea Bass Special, which came with a baked potato and broccoli. It was good all â€˜round, except the Sea Bass must have been soaked in butter, broiled in butter and then bathed in butter. Hey, I like butter. I like Scotch, too, but I don’t drink a whole bottle at once. I don’t remember what the others had, but Margie had a salad with grilled salmon on top and Alan had the Porterhouse Steak, which looked thin. All in all, it was a good meal and a better experience. Alan picked up the check. Thanks, Alan.
There must be a cooking school somewhere specializing in Country Club Food. There must be classes in meat â€˜n’ two, good substantial food but not fancy, butter, big salads with your choice of bottled dressing, roast beef on Friday, wood tables and chairs, cloth napkins, terrible wine list, mixed drinks with dinner (though not with this crowd).
Monday, August 21, 2006
I was up by 7:15, with a grand plan to drive to Circleville, get breakfast at a local diner and continue on to Cincinnati. Liz had remarked about the wonderful peaches she bought and they were on the kitchen counter in a basket with some bananas, so I picked one out. I peeled it with a paring knife and sliced, a white peach, I prefer yellow, but okay, the bottom was kind of mushy, while the shoulders were almost crisp… it was not too sweet, certainly not luscious. The skin was very thin and not very fuzzy. In sum, all the goodness was bred out of it while bowing to the god of shelf life and handling.
Bus and Liz weren’t up yet, but I said my goodbyes and thanks into the bedroom and left a little before 8. In Circleville I slowed and looked hard for a place to eat breakfast. There was none. No local diner, not even a MacDonald’s or BK or Hardees or anything. No food in Circleville. I continued on, and on, and on. I was getting freakin’ hungry and not only that, I had to pee. I lowered my standards to anything with food and a toilet… well, almost anything… I passed by a Taco Bell and KFC. Finally, a Burger King appeared in Wilmington, I quickly found the men’s room and a croissantwich. It was not a yum, just a burp and an empty bladder.
On the recommendation of our tour guide and the family o’ four from my Great American Ballpark Tour, I went to the Montgomery Inn on the river, for lunch. It was after 2, so I sat at the bar and ate a pulled pork sandwich. The pork was good; the slaw was good. Carol makes better. The Montgomery is one of those dark wood and beveled glass places crammed with sports memorabilia, and probably seats 300. It’s the kind of pretentious place that has $2 Valet parking for its huge parking lot right in front of the door. The menu and the service were overblown and disinterested, respectively. This is the kind of place the family o’ four junior executive talker dad would love.
Great American Ball Park is a lot like PacBell, but less interesting. It covers much more land, so instead of going up, it goes out. The concourses and men’s rooms are huge. It’s a great place to watch a game, which I did on Monday evening. I had terrific seats; directly behind the plate, second row of an upper deck box, just above the press box. Not knowing how long it would take to get there and park (no time), I got there plenty early. I grabbed a Bud, sat in my seat in the virtually empty ballpark and got the lay of the land. Settled, I went out for a Hot Dog. That was okay, except the onion dispenser thingy was not working, so I took the top off and reached in and got some onions. I ate the hot dog at my seat and then saw a guy come to sit near me carrying some chilidogs marked Skyline Chili. Oh boy. I found the Skyline Chili stand on the third base side of the upper concourse and ordered a chili five ways. Not here, they only had chilidogs, so I got one of those. The bun and whitish hot dog were only about four inches long. They put the bun in a V shaped metal thing for assembly, dog in the bun, chili over that, some onions, and then a heap of shredded yellow cheese. Looked awful. Tasted Great. Shockingly, neither the chili nor the cheese came out of the bun and slopped up my hands.
About the third inning, I needed another beer and contemplated a good time to go get it. Suddenly, there in the aisle to my left was a beer vendor! They sell beer in the stands (for a 50 ¢ premium), 3 lite varieties and Bud. Curiously, the vendor also had Mountain Dew. Was this livin’ or what?
And it was a good game; Rich Aurillia hit a 3 run blast to tie the game in the eighth, and Royce Clayton knocked in the winning run. (Those names familiar, Tom? Both are former Giants.) And it was warm; I brought layers, but needed only my Ohio State National Champions tee shirt. My tab for “dinner out:” Ticket $19, Parking $12, Bud $6, Hot Dog $3.75, Skyline Chili dog $3, Bud bottle from the vendor $6.50. Pretty good.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
The Ramada Inn free buffet: some fruit, scrambled eggs from a vat, small cheese Danish, OJ, coffee. Like I said, free.
I planned for an afternoon at the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Museum (CAC), including lunch at the Museum. That was not to be. Closed Tuesday. So I had an afternoon to fill.
I went out into the not too hot shade and reconnoitered. Several tables of diners were sitting outside of a glassy restaurant across the street named Bella. It looked sort of Californiaesque. I guessed they would have small plates and designer pizza and salads. That’s okay; I could kill a couple hours in there.
I was seated inside, where it was actually cool; and the cool granite tabletop abetted that feeling. The restaurant was crowded with mostly youngish Cincinnati businessmen and women doing deals in twos and threes and fours. Everybody was talking but it was not really noisy, just a busy restaurant on a nice day. I ordered the Not So Usual Shrimp Spring Rolls to start, a Caesar Salad with Tuna and a glass of Hogue Riesling. Outside, beyond the al fresco dining area, the restaurant was reflected in the window of the closed CAC.
The spring rolls consisted of two large shrimp, tails on, each wrapped in a wonton wrapper, coated with cornmeal and deep-fried. They were nice and crispy on the outside and juicy and shrimpy on the inside. They were presented atop bed of blanched, sliced celery and fennel with a very spicy red sauce and the plate was squeeze bottle decorated with a jazzed up equivalent of mustard and ketchup. Quite good. It cried out for bread to quell the spice in the mouth from time to time… pity I had to ask for it. The Caesar salad was a good straight Caesar with a lovely, thick, seared tuna fillet on top and the anchovies, plump and juicy, were served on the side on a crisp bread. I scattered mine around the salad for an occasional anchovy surprise bite. The tuna was delectable. I doubt that there was a raw egg in the dressing, but it was good, nonetheless. I enjoyed the people watching at lunch there and managed to kill about an hour and a half.
The Cincinnati airport has 8 gates. I asked the security lady if there was a restaurant on the concourse. No sir, there isn’t. In the public area, I found the restaurant/bar called Damon’s, specializing in ribs. There was a row of tables and two rows of booths in tiers up from the far wall, which was covered by three immense TV screens tuned to ESPN (poker and then Little League World Series), NFL Network (Panthers vs. Jaguars rerun) and CNN (whatever). I took a seat in the first row of booths and ordered a Bass Ale, which came in this very tall mug, I think he said it was 40 ounces. Wow. It’s called the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport, but the service folks are very Kentucky. My waiter, an earnest kid in his early 20s, asked if I had stayed in Cincinnati. When I said yes, he said, “I went there once… too busy for me.”
I ordered a plate of Buffalo Wings, breaded and very deep-fried, with a dish of hot sauce (real good and hot) and BBQ sauce for dipping. The wings were not good, way overcooked, but they were necessary to fuel me for the long ride home. The beer was very good and held its own in washing down the wings.
At Chicago’s O’Hare I had two hours before my flight to San Francisco. I got a Snickers bar and a small coffee and wrote until my iBook battery thingy turned red.
What about Ohio food?
I had an agenda. White Castle, Bob Evans and a surprise, Skyline Chili. This is stuff peculiar to the Midwest and not available in San Francisco or California.
The choices in Lancaster are limited to franchise chains and Lancaster folk are thrilled to get the biggest, newest, latest. “Do you have one of those?” In every case the answer was no, which made me feel good and them feel proud.
In Columbus and Cincinnati, I was committed to two hotel meals and one night at the ballpark. I didn’t have time to look for fine dining. But my cursory observation is that there is more quality and diversity in the restaurants within walking distance of our Russian Hill flat than in both cities combined.
The best? Schmidt’s in German Village. The worst? Montgomery Inn in Cincinnati. Good eats? Breakfast at First Watch and lunch at Bella in Cincinnati.
Am I being snooty about it? I choose to live where I live for many reasons, not the least of which is the food; restaurants, farmers markets, specialty stores and so on. Everything from a Pho place on Polk for $5 a person to Gary Danko (Zagat #1) at North Point and Hyde for $150 a person. People don’t choose to visit Ohio for the food; there are other reasons.