Friday, February 29, 2008

Courtyard Café

Courtyard Café
1211 Main St.

As there were only a handful of vegetarian options at last year’s Taste of Cincinnati, I’m pretty sure that over the course of the weekend I tried everything on offer, and the choice that really stood out for me was the Black Bean Burrito from Courtyard Café.

That it has taken me this long to finally get around to reviewing this groovy, laid-back little place is embarrassing, especially when I kept being reminded of it each time I lunched there, or passed by on my way to Shadeau Bakery.

Located in historic Over-the-Rhine, Courtyard Café is one of the founding members of the Main Street bar area, serving downtown office workers delicious home made lunch specials during the week, and catering to the music-loving populace with live shows at the weekend.

While there isn’t a lot of vegetarian choice on their menu, what they do offer is really good. There are a couple of appetizers: pretzel bread with cheese for dipping, potato wedges, salads and truly lovely shredded coleslaw to name a few, and on the sandwich menu they offer a nice veggie garden burger. It’s the black bean burrito, however, that keeps me coming back time and time again.

It’s a simple dish of black beans and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with more black beans and diced tomatoes, and it tastes so, so good. I can see why it has won awards, as it is superb. The dish comes with a side of tortilla chips, plus salsa and sour cream for dipping or adding to the burrito, but I think it could benefit from some greens.

Service is always friendly but a little uneven. On a recent visit I ordered a side salad starter and my dining companion ordered their famous potato soup (sadly, not vegetarian). While my friend got his soup before our main meal, for some mystifying reason my salad came at the same time as my entrée and I was forced to juggle the two dishes. Not a big deal for me and the lettuce enhanced the wrap, but it was still odd.

On another visit the coleslaw I had ordered came out as a starter but my friend’s soup arrived with our meals. Still a third visit found my coleslaw arriving with the burrito but sans tortilla chips. When I asked the server if the coleslaw was a substitution for the chips she said no, and then tried to tell me that the tortilla chips didn’t come with the meal. After checking the menu, she apologized and brought some out, telling us that the kitchen assumed that the coleslaw was a substitution, which is an easy enough mistake and again wasn’t a big deal.

As the name suggests, Courtyard Café has a beautiful patio area for outdoor dining when the weather is fair, and there is a fire pit for added warmth on chilly evenings. Another plus is that they keep the music to a reasonable level (live music nights are exceptions, of course), and the televisions are on mute with subtitles, each tuned to different genres: news, sports, and entertainment. They’ve got a nice selection of draught beer on tap, and their jukebox is pretty damned good too.

Open 11 a.m.-midnight Monday through Thursday and from noon-1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Courtyard Café is a nice, friendly, neighborhood eatery that deserves the accolades it has received over the years.
Courtyard Cafe on Main on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 22, 2008

Caffe Barista & Deli

Caffe Barista & Deli
231 W. Fourth St.

One of the things I really miss when I come home from England is the abundance of little deli-groceries dotting the town. They seem to be on every corner, selling pantry basics whilst serving up hot and cold meals to go. They are perfect for nipping in and out quickly when you only want one or two things and don’t want to fight the crowds at the supermarket. Unlike their American cousin, the bodega, you won’t pay over the odds for staples like bread, milk and eggs at English corner markets.

Situated at the corner of Plum and Fourth in downtown, Caffe Barista & Deli reminds me of the beloved corner market, and this cheery little deli has one of the tastiest veggie wraps in the city. The made-to-order sandwich consists of hummus, Amish cheese, veggie yogurt cheese spread, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, red onion, green pepper and shredded carrot, enclosed in your choice of spinach, sun-dried tomato or wheat wrap. The wrap comes with half a kosher pickle and a bag of chips (your choice) for $4.50. It’s pretty much the chippity-chomp.

The veggie wrap

The deli also offers a veggie sub that is similar to the wrap but substitutes spinach-artichoke spread in place of the Amish cheese and hummus, and served on a whole wheat sub bun. If you crave something warm in your tummy, they also do freshly made pizzas – a 7” veggie runs $5.50 or go all out with a 12” for eleven bucks. The deli also boasts daily hot lunch specials that look very appetizing and are a hit with office workers, but unfortunately for me these are never vegetarian.

I like Caffe Barista; not only do they sell meals to go, they also stock an array of deli staples like mac’n’cheese and pasta salads, plus essentials like fruit, olive oil, and dairy products, as well as a small selection of soups, boxed helper-meals and snacks. Unlike the English corner market, there are no green grocer items (fresh veggies), nor do they sell “rags & fags” (newspapers and smokes), but they do offer a selection of bottled wine along with domestic and imported beer – chilled too! There is also a small dining area with a sprinkling of bistro tables and free wi-fi, so you can nosh and surf simultaneously.

They are open from 7a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays and from 7 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays, which is better than those places around town that cater strictly to the 9-5 crowd, but it would be nice if they remained open a little later for those who live in downtown or work there after “normal” business hours. Perhaps that will happen when Middle Earth finishes the Parker Flats.
Caffe Barista & Deli on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Symphony Hotel Bed & Breakfast

The Symphony Hotel Bed & Breakfast
210 W. 14th St.

When a friend told me about an exquisite restaurant located just around the corner from Music Hall, I knew I had to give it a try. As their name suggests, the restaurant caters to the symphony crowd, serving prix-fixe five-course meals on evenings when the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra holds performances at Music Hall.

I called up a couple of foodie friends to gauge their interest, and as they were also intrigued, we made reservations for Saturday evening. My girlfriend and I were excited to be able to dress up smartly for the occasion, dipping into our stash of antique rhinestone jewelry for a hint of sparkle. It’s not often that we find an excuse to splash out, but The Symphony Hotel is just the sort of place that calls for a bit of glam. Since we were not attending a show afterwards we booked our reservation just a little later than most diners, who like to be finished and out the door prior to the concert, and it worked to our advantage. We were able to absorb the ambiance of the pre-show crowd, and when they were gone we were treated to an audience with Chef David Buchman, who previously spent six years as sous-chef at The Maisonette.

We were admittedly somewhat worried that we’d find The Symphony Hotel to be a little stuffy, considering the well-heeled clientele, but our fears were unfounded, as the staff were warm and unpretentious – a welcome change from other higher-end establishments. In fact, we felt as though we were dining in a friend’s house, aided in part by the house itself, which was built by renowned Cincinnati lithographer Peter Ehrgott in 1871 and whose son, Louis, taught piano, voice and music theory there in addition to running a boarding house for music students. The home has been lovingly restored to its former grandeur and decorated in celebration of its rich, musical past. It’s easy to locate from the street too – just look for the treble clef signage out front.

Chef David creates a special menu each week, which is posted online each Tuesday prior to weekend service, and you can phone ahead with your entrée selection. He does his best to source locally grown items, and vegetarians can rest easy knowing that there is something for them during each course of the meal. On the evening we visited, the soup course was a Tuscan white bean with rapini; creamy and flavorful, it was a nice hearty choice for a chilly winter’s night.

The salad selection was red cabbage with walnuts and sultanas in a red wine sauce. It was so tasty that we found it difficult not to scarf it down quickly, but we did our best to savor every delicious bite. The lemon thyme sorbet that followed was perfect for cleansing the palate in anticipation of the outstanding entrées still to come. The Symphony offers a choice of four entrées, one of which is always vegetarian. My eggplant parmesan was heavenly, stacked layer upon layer into a tiny tower of delight, surrounded by a bed of sautéed French green beans. My dining companions ordered sautéed crab cakes with Creole mustard and roasted red peppers in a rich wine sauce, and Amish chicken breast with avocado, Swiss cheese and tarragon, both of which garnered rave reviews.

The dessert course was a choice of orange cheesecake with chocolate caramel sauce, banana foster or fresh fruit. Since there were three of us we decided to order one of each to share. All three were out of this world, but the banana foster was the hands-down favorite, and went well with our after dinner coffee.

After we had polished off the remainder of our bottle of wine (they also have a full selection of mixed drinks if you prefer) Chef David kindly took us on a tour of the lovely old house so we could view the hotel and all its finery. Each room is nicely appointed with antique furniture and a musical theme, plus all the amenities of a modern hotel. Most are en-suite, although a few do have shared bathrooms, and while the extended-stay facility hosts a full kitchen, the décor didn’t have quite the same attention to detail as the other rooms. We couldn’t view all of them, however, since several were occupied by weekend guests. It is good to know that the hotel has been able to maintain a steady clientele for the past ten years, much of it via word-of-mouth.

We really enjoyed our evening of “poshing it up” at The Symphony Hotel Bed & Breakfast and are already making plans for a return visit to introduce more friends to its delights. I am more than pleased to be able to recommend this locally owned and operated restaurant to vegetarians, who can get a splendid five-course meal for under $40. Drinks cost extra, but the gracious service, historic surroundings and warm ambiance are priceless, and that’s music to my ears.

Symphony Hotel on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 14, 2008


600 Washington St.
Newport, KY

Entering Pompilios Italian Restaurant is like stepping back in time: the restaurant, celebrating 75 years in the same Newport location, still retains a lot of Depression-era charm and character. From the tiled floors and diner-style tables and chairs, to the barroom with its gorgeous, hand-carved back bar – built of cherry wood by the George Wiedemann Brewing Company in 1886 – you get a real sense of history everywhere you look.

And there’s a lot to look at. If you enjoy people-watching you won’t be disappointed, because Pompilios is bustling seven nights a week. If you are waiting for a table, be sure to check out the hallway between the dining room and bar, where you will see photos taken during the week that scenes from Academy Award winning film Rain Man were being shot in the restaurant. Remember the famous “toothpick scene” where Dustin Hoffman’s character knows exactly how many toothpicks spill out onto the floor of a restaurant? That’s Pompilios, and they have the box of toothpicks on display, along with autographs of the cast and crew. The restaurant was also used during the making of the 1993 movie Airborne, starring (a then-unknown) Jack Black.

In addition to their cinema celebrity, Pompilios also has the distinction of being the first Kentucky establishment to obtain a liquor license after the repeal of prohibition. It is their delicious, home-made Italian specialties, however, that garner the highest accolades and guarantee repeat visits.

Vegetarians are well catered to at Pompilios. They offer six vegetarian appetizers – including absolutely spectacular Toasted Ravoli, homemade cheese ravioli that’s lightly breaded and deep-fried. Go ahead and throw the diet out the window because you’ll want more. They also offer Eggplant Parmigiana as a starter, and a deliciously fresh Mozzarella a la Caprese (mozzarella, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil with fresh basil and capers). I could make a meal of just starters and be happy, but that would mean forgoing their outstanding entrées.

Their vegetarian marinara sauce is made with the freshest ingredients and tastes divine. You can get it on your choice of seven types of pasta; on cheese-filled tortellini, four-cheese manicotti, or their Half & Half: cheese ravioli served with spaghetti.

Pompilios also offers several vegetarian specialties including Vegetarian Ronaldo (black olives, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic sautéed in olive oil and tossed with angel hair pasta and feta cheese), Rigatoni with Fra Diavolo (spicy alfredo sauce tossed with rigatoni pasta) or my personal favorite, Bow-Tie Putenesca (tangy sauce of plum tomatoes, olives, garlic and peppers tossed with bow-tie pasta). Some putenesca sauces sport chopped anchovies - but not here, making it a good choice for vegans on the lookout for something a little different. It’s got a nice kick to it, so if you aren’t a fan of spicy foods you may want to avoid it.

The restaurant has also received plenty of honors at Taste of Cincinnati, and three of their award-winning entrées are vegetarian: Linguini Primavera (sautéed garden veggies in a garlic cream sauce, served over linguini), Eggplant Parmigiana (layers of breaded eggplant baked in tomato sauce and layered with parmesan and provolone cheeses, served with rigatoni) and Three-Cheese Tortellini (cheese-filled tortellini and garlic-roasted vegetables in a three-cheese cream sauce). All specialties come with a cup of soup or a tossed salad. I’d opt for the salad, as I don’t believe their homemade Italian dressing can be beat. For something that looks so delicate, it’s absolutely bursting with tangy flavor. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Although the service at the restaurant is very efficient, many of the staff have worked at the restaurant a long time and can come across as aloof. We jokingly tell friends that “at Pompilios, you get service with a snarl.” Not entirely true, but not entirely false either - it just depends on the luck of the draw. There are a few Lunchlady Doris’s there that frown upon indecisiveness and waffling. You’ve been warned.

When the weather warms, request to be seated on their patio, which a lot of people don’t seem to know exists. I’ve had friendly arguments with friends (and long-time customers) who insist that Pompilios doesn’t have alfresco dining. These same folks are astonished to learn that not only is there a patio with a small bar, there are also Bocce courts, where leagues play Monday to Thursday from May to October. Pompilios is full of surprises like that.
Pompilio's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Grille at Palm Court

The Grille at Palm Court
Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
35 West 5th St.

Originally opened in 1931, the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza is a true French Art Deco masterpiece. According to Historic Hotels of America, “the hotel’s main lobby and mezzanine areas feature a half-acre of rare Brazilian rosewood, extensive use of German silver and a stylized Egyptian décor reinforced with delicate floral motifs. There are also exquisitely detailed frescoes, ceiling murals, and an original Rookwood fountain.”

Some of the more famous visitors to the hotel include Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bing Crosby and John and Jackie Kennedy, according to the walking tour and pocket history guide available in the lobby. The guidebook doesn’t mention football players, but I remember spending a weekend there in (I think) 1985, when the Dallas Cowboys were in town. When we learned the team would be staying there, my family booked rooms in the hotel because my brother, a die-hard Cowboys fan, was determined to fill his autograph book with player signatures. Not only did he achieve his goal, he even managed to get the autograph of Coach Tom Landry when they rode an elevator together on the morning of the game. Despite the 50-24 loss to the Bengals, my brother’s feet didn’t touch ground for weeks afterward.

Dining at the hotel’s Palm Court restaurant usually elicits that sort of “floating on air” feeling too, especially if you visit during one of their famous brunches. The price may send you crashing back to earth, but it’s worth every penny. The Palm Court is divided into two sections: Orchids is the exuberantly art deco area of the restaurant, while The Grille is a bit more relaxed and casual.

If you don’t want to drop a lot of cash but would still like to revel in the opulence of this landmark hotel, stop by weekdays between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. for the pasta bar & buffet. Vegetarians have a nice choice of made-to-order pasta dishes, which includes a selection of vegetables and three types of pasta and sauces. They always offer at least one vegetarian sauce - usually a tangy marinara, as well as a classic alfredo and a third sauce that changes daily. Tell the chef which ingredients you would like, and he prepares the dish while you watch. I’ve never been let down by my selections, but the chef is happy to let you taste-test the sauces if you are unsure.

Also included in the deal are a small salad and fruit bar, a buffet counter that more often than not includes two vegetarian side dishes – usually steamed vegetables and either a risotto or wild rice mix - and a dessert bar. At $14.50, it’s a little pricier than other downtown lunch establishments, but the food is better than average and the atmosphere is top-notch. We like to bring out of town guests here for the wow factor. It never disappoints.

I’ll admit that since my last visit the restaurant has restructured somewhat and the choice isn’t what it used to be. The fruit platter was much smaller and the salad bar option has been narrowed to two types of salad greens with only cucumber and cherry tomatoes for garnish. One the day we visited, the dessert bar had a choice of two types of cheesecake, and two varieties of brownies and cookies. Even though the dessert selection is half what it was in past visits, it was still ample.

The one area in which I think The Grille at Palm Court needs to improve on is their service. To give the benefit of a doubt, maybe we’ve been seated in poor visibility locations, but the service we’ve received on the past few visits wasn’t up to scratch. On our most recent visit, our waiter ignored us to the point that we had to go in search of someone to remove our used dishes and refill our drinks. Twice. On top of that, the rolls and butter didn’t make it to the table until we were nearly finished with our entrées. I dislike suggesting that we were snubbed because we were not wearing power suits, but the thought has crossed my mind.

I also consider it rude for waiters to ask if I would like change back when paying with cash; a good server will always bring back the change unless instructed otherwise. On this occasion, where our total was $31 and we paid with a Benjamin, the waiter REALLY should not have asked. Even if the service had been exemplary I don’t think it would warrant a 220% tip. And yes, he looked at the crisp bill before he asked.

Paying with cash also made us feel a little like we were in the middle of a “Life Takes Visa” commercial, as it took over ten minutes for the waiter to make change. I realize that most of the executives dining around us were on expense-account lunches paid for with a company credit card, so there probably wasn’t a huge amount of cash in the coffers, but it was still a bit of a shock that an establishment with such a storied pedigree could have that much difficulty scraping up the required sum.

Service issues notwithstanding, the restaurant is a wonderful place to dine – especially if you are an art history buff. This grand old dame is breathtaking.
Grille at Palm Court on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Empire Buffet

Empire Buffet
572 Clock Tower Way
Crescent Springs, KY

Empire Buffet bills itself as "the most elegant buffet in Kentucky." I haven’t been to every buffet in Kentucky so I cannot vouch for that claim, but the atmosphere is certainly a step up from the usual. The substantial space is partitioned into several smaller sections, which gives the restaurant a cozy feel, and unlike the majority of local buffets, it has a number of screened booths which lend an air of privacy. Nicely decorated in honeyed tones, the ambiance is warm and inviting.

When I asked to order from the menu, the friendly and enthusiastic hostess tried very hard to dissuade me and pushed the buffet option. Upon learning that I am vegetarian, she personally took me around the buffet and pointed out the vegetarian-friendly choices. Her insistence that I opt for the buffet raised my suspicions that either the ala carte food wasn’t very good, or ordering it would throw off the kitchen’s rhythm and ability to keep the 160-item buffet fully loaded. Even though the vegetarian choice on the buffet was small, I relented, figuring that I’d be able to find one or two things I really liked.

Whoever coined the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" must have had Empire Buffet in mind. The restaurant is an amalgamation of cuisines - Chinese, Japanese, American and Italian - none of them done very well. Of the approximately 15 vegetarian items on the buffet, only the hot & sour soup proved a winner with me. I might have enjoyed the mei fun rice noodles a bit more had they been warm, but they’d obviously been sitting for awhile. The egg foo yung and fried bananas were too oily, the buttered potatoes limp and lifeless, and even the items that were halfway decent (sautéed garlic green beans, buttered mushrooms, lo mein) were greasy tasting. The spring rolls were vegetarian, but plunked into the same pan as pork egg rolls, which didn’t sit very well with me.

Likewise the Japanese hibachi option, where you choose your items and have a chef grill them up while you wait. When I asked the chef about cleaning the hotplate prior to preparing a vegetarian dish, he didn’t seem to understand and couldn’t answer my question, so I walked away without giving it a try. I also perused the sushi bar but came back empty-handed.

As far as American and Italian cuisine, the only vegetarian items on the buffet were cheesy potato casserole and pizza, both of which had orange pools of grease on top. I steered clear.

The restaurant has a salad bar – amply stocked but nothing special. There is also an extensive dessert bar filled with vegetarian no-no’s like Jell-O and marshmallow fruit salad. They also offered profiteroles, much to my amazement. I knew they wouldn’t be any good, as profiteroles are made to be eaten immediately, but I tried one anyway. Filled with a thick, eggy custard instead of fluffy cream, it was horrible.

We were lured to the Empire Buffet by a Reach Magazine advertisement with money-saving coupons, but we felt our money would have been better spent elsewhere - anywhere else. My husband summed it up best: "I think I’d prefer a lot less choice and better tasting items." I wholeheartedly agree.
Empire Buffet on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 3, 2008

West Side Chili Parlor

West Side Chili Parlor
6520 Glenway Avenue
Green Township

As a vegetarian, I have always felt a little “left out” of the whole Cincinnati chili phenomenon. I’ve always wanted to understand what all the fuss was about, but figured that the chances were slim to none.

So imagine my surprise when I read The 3-Way Highway a few months ago in Cincinnati Magazine, in which writer Jack Heffron traveled the 6.2 mile stretch of Glenway Avenue, visiting each chili parlor along the way. It was an entertaining and informative article, and I was suitably intrigued to learn that West Side Chili offers a vegetarian chili option. I knew I had to give it a try.

This weekend I finally made the trek to the little chili parlor, located in a small strip center near Bridgetown Road, and now I understand Cincinnati’s fascination with the various chili ways - West Side Chili’s vegetarian chili was delicious. Made with textured vegetable protein (TVP), it has a “meaty” consistency that looks just like “real” chili, and was very tasty indeed.

Having never experienced the multitude of chili “ways,” I felt a little out of my depth when trying to figure out what to order. 3-way, 4-way, and 5-way may be old hat to most folks, but I had only the vaguest of ideas what those ways were. I decided to just go for broke and get the 5-way to cover all the bases, since the young girl who waited on us didn’t seem to have a clue how to describe the various choices to an outsider.

Cincinnati-style chili is layered; you start with a thick spaghetti (or a thin macaroni like perciatelli) and top it with chili, then layer with onions and black beans, and finally smother with finely shaved cheddar cheese. At West Side Chili they even offer it a sixth way - dubbed the Glenn Way - with diced hot dogs. As the dogs aren’t vegetarian I didn’t try it, but my husband did and thought it was a logical addition. I opted for the spicy version of the chili, which in a nutshell was chili that had been hit with a couple of healthy squirts of hot sauce. It lit me up enough to make my eyes water. Oh yes, I was a very happy girl.

The restaurant lists an assortment of starters featuring their vegetarian chili, including chili cheese fries, West Side deluxe nachos, and quesadillas. They also offer two different veggie-chili burritos as well as a low-carb 5-way salad that substitutes a bed of crisp lettuce in place of pasta, and if you really don’t want to go the chili route you can opt for a veggie burger.

As we sat at the small lunch counter perusing the menu we noticed how good the fries looked, and ended up ordering a basket of them as well. Hand cut and golden, they were fantastic. I can hardly wait to return and give the vegetarian chili-cheese fries a try. Next time I think I will also try to save room for a root beer float. Yum!

West Side Chili is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights and until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, perfect for those late night cravings.
West Side Chili Parlor on Urbanspoon