We’re just back from our what-has-become-annual Ohio trip. This one marking the happy occasion of Carol’s Mom’s 90th birthday, a memorable event, indeed.
As usual, the Ohio food scene — at least that which we experience — is a mixed bag, from soup to nuts (Carol’s sister DeeDee’s Barley Soup to the Delta Airlines Nuts) and various grades of good in between, as you shall see.
Our first real food experience after airport and airplane and road food was Carol’s brother Alan taking us to Rhapsody, the restaurant of the Culinary Arts School at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, a town about 30 miles southeast of Lancaster. Situated on the Town Square, Alan thinks its wonderful and has taken many people there over the years.
We entered a very nice room with exposed brick walls and high ceilings. Jazz wafted softly from a piano in the back of the room. The food and service were good — hell, very good — but definitely student work, ambitious and just about perfect, but not quite. For example, we ordered an Ohio Cabernet from the wine list. When the wine steward brought the bottle, it was Cabernet Franc — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I expected Cabernet Sauvignon, the more familiar varietal. She said, “Well sometimes we have Cabernet Sauvignon and sometimes Cabernet Franc, so we just say Cabernet.”
I started with the Deep Fried Farmstead Cheese Balls appetizer with a creamy blue cheese dip. Can’t go wrong there. A bite through the crispy crust revealed a warm and tender, but not melty, cheese center. Yum. Carol had the Lime Cucumber Rolls with Peanut Butter Dip. Yummy again. We’re off to a fine start.
As an entree, I ordered the Beef Tenderloin with truffle mashed potatoes and creamed Swiss chard. The beef tenderloin part was great, cooked just as I had ordered. But the mashed potatoes, artfully formed into mounds were way too much in proportion to the meal and the creamed Swiss chard was thin and kind of gray – not a good food color. Nonetheless, everything tasted good.
Carol had the Duck Breast served with Hush Puppies.
For dessert, Carol and I shared the Apple Strudel and Alan and Tilly shared a plate of the Beignets, presented as a huge pile of the incredibly rich pastry. He ate three, I ate one and he still took six home. Although not a critical home run, we had a great time and left well satisfied.
The next evening, we were invited to the home of Sue, Carol’s roommate in college, now living about a mile from Carol’s sister DeeDee in Baltimore, Ohio. I was looking forward to visiting Sue for a couple of reasons. I wanted to take pictures of her vast lawns and she promised that her son-in-law, Larry would grill “the world’s best hot dogs.”
Larry is pretty interesting, as he is way into beer, cars, doo wop vinyl and barbecue. Dee Dee and Ed had met Sue a couple times, but not Cathy and Larry.
We started with wine and cheese in the living room and as the day’s heat dissipated, moved out to the grill and Larry’s cooler of beer. I didn’t count how many brands were in there… more than a few. Larry grilled and talked, Eddie drank beer and talked and I kept out of the way and drank some beer. The girls were inside. It turned out to be quite a spread of the usual summer barbecue fare; hot dogs, bratwurst and Italian sausages, potato salad, slaw, and baked beans. But the hot dogs were truly exceptional – Buckeye hot dogs, made by the Ohio Packing Company in Columbus, Ohio. (You can look it up, but they don’t ship to individuals.) Larry had charred them up good and proper and they were maybe the best hot dogs ever in a soft white bun, slathered with yellow mustard and washed down with Blind Faith IPA. Woo Hoo.
So I got my lawn pictures, Dee Dee got Sue interested in Baltimore, Ohio society and we were well fed in the bargain.
All the Hale sibs and spouses met at Bob Evans for a farewell breakfast before we headed off from Lancaster to Cincinnati Monday morning. I like my Sausage Gravy — not over biscuits as offered on the menu — but over Corn Meal Mush. So I had my annual Bob Evans meal, this time with a side of hash browns, to boot.
Ohio Route 22 is a direct shot from Lancaster to Cincinnati and used to be the main road to get there. It’s a nice drive with little traffic and the kind of scenery you don’t get on the Interstate — OK, farms and corn and soy bean — but it is a lovely way to traverse the great midwestern heartland… just don’t get impatient with a farm truck here or there. We kept our eye out for a place to eat lunch, and passed the very photogenic Kim’s Classic Diner but didn’t stop to eat.
Just past Wilmington, we aim to get off of Route 22 to take I-75 into Cincinnati and avoid the suburban traffic. Just before we got to Wilmington… OMG, there’s Skyline Chili and there are cars in the parking lot! I stopped there five years before when I came to Ohio for my high school reunion, but last year when we came, it was closed and shuttered. I made a U-turn at the next light and we doubled back and went right in for my Ohio fix of Cincinnati Chili.
I ordered the Extreme Chili, Five Ways, figuring it wouldn’t really be extremely hot in a fast food restaurant. I was right. It had some heat, but was just right for me. Yum.
A little further down the road, in Wilmington, we spotted a house with a barnstar on the porch. We’ve seen a few of them and I wondered what the heck they are, so I took a picture and looked it up on Wikipedia:
A barnstar (or barn star) is a decorative painted object or image, often in the shape of a five-pointed star but occasionally in a circular “wagon wheel” style, used to adorn a barn. These are most commonly seen in German-American farming communities. Having no structural purpose, they are mainly used for their general aesthetic appeal and are even considered lucky, akin to a horseshoe mounted over a doorway
A massive Memorial Day street party was going on in Fountain Square and on Fifth Street making it very difficult to get to our Cincinnati hotel, but get there we did. After dumping our gear and freshening, we ventured out into the fray. Way too hot for us old folks, so we ducked into Bartini Martini Bar for a cool drink and some hot black truffle fries. Yum.
Lounging in our room at the Netherland Hilton, we decided against going to the Reds game and instead taking a nice leisurely dinner at Via Vite on Fountain Square. We ate there last year and were very pleased with the room, service and food. At the risk of falling into a rut, we made a reservation for 7:30.
In San Francisco a cadre of star bartenders has emerged to create cocktails that complement the restaurant’s food. They cost about the same as a glass of good wine and we have found ourselves, on some occasions, going the cocktail route rather than ordering wine, depending on the restaurant. That trend hasn’t yet reached Ohio, so at Via Vite we ordered a nice bottle of Nebbiolo D’Alba. Some very nice bread with olive oil and vinegar got us started.
Note: I recently discovered that I can go to the web and get actual restaurant menus. (I couldn’t resist including their overwrought language like this.)
My appetizer was veal and ricotta meatballs with a tomato confit much like I make at home (Veal and ricotta meatballs “alla Cibreo” with Parmigiano Reggiano). The light, bright meatballs couldn’t have been more different from Carol’s carpaccio, (Carpaccio of cured beef bresaola with arugula, citronette and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano) but each was a fine beginning to our meal.
My main course was fettuccine with Alfredo sauce, bay scallops and cauliflower (Housemade fettuccine in Alfredo sauce with Scallops and Cauliflower Florets). That sauce with scallops is hardly unusual, but the addition of cauliflower was brilliant. It was broken into tiny florets and cooked so the crunch and distinct flavor was retained. A floret or two appeared in almost every bite, so each contained a crunchy delight. The serving was midwest-sized, but I could eat only about half, saving room for the chocolate strawberry dessert. Yum and double-yum. (Chocolate Panna Cotta with fresh strawberries and Chambord reduction)
Carol had the spinach ravioli (Spinach and ricotta ravioli with Vermont butter and shavings of Italian black truffle). She gave me one — in exchange for a small pile of fettuccine — and I have to say it was lovely to look at and to taste.
So there you have our Ohio food adventures. No recipes here, just some ideas and stories. But stay tuned, there’s much more coming including food for a long celebratory weekend at Sea Ranch.