Thursday, September 25, 2008

McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant

McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant
21 East 5th St

Let me begin by stating that I do not eat seafood. I know there are vegetarians who dabble in seafood but I am not one of them. Because of that simple fact, I’d never bothered visiting McCormick & Schmick’s even though it is an easy walk from my office.

So imagine my surprise upon stopping in for a drink after work one Friday with my husband, we learned that the restaurant has a terrific bar menu during happy hour. Obviously most of the offerings are seafood related (fish tacos, salmon bites and etouffee, to name but a few), but there are a few vegetarian items worth mentioning.

The bar menu is broken down into three price categories: $1.95, $3.95 and $4.95. Luckily for vegetarians, our selections fall into the $1.95 range. There’s spinach & artichoke dip served with tortilla chips, waffle fries with gorgonzola cheese dipping sauce, cheese quesadillas, and fried zucchini with pomodoro sauce. Not the healthiest of offerings, sure, but very tasty and filling nonetheless.

At less than two bucks each, we opted to try several selections just to see what they were like. We had wrongly assumed that each item would be a scaled-down version of a “regular” menu item, but each was a full-sized order. McCormick & Schmick’s doesn’t skimp - the portions are very generous. I ordered the cheese quesadillas and fried zucchini, while my husband opted for the mahi cakes and cheeseburger, and we split an order of the waffle fries. We were hard-pressed to finish even ONE item each, let alone the entire table of pure gluttony spread out before us.
The waffle fries with gorgonzola cheese dipping sauce. YUM.

I was particularly impressed with the cheese quesadillas. Normally I find them to be barely passable as a foodstuff, but at McCormick & Schmick’s they were not only edible but nicely so. Whereas most restaurants simply grill a slice of cheese between two flour tortillas, here they include diced tomato and green pepper inside and a thin ribbon of sour cream on the outside, which makes a nice change. Another plus is that the dish is served with a side of savory yellow rice and thick’n’creamy black beans. I had concerns that the beans may have been cooked with a ham base, but our server checked with the kitchen and gave them the all clear. Unfortunately on a return visit the black beans were garnished with bacon, so it's probably best to leave them untouched.
Fried zucchini (left) and cheese quesadillas

The bar area fills up quickly during happy hour, which runs from 4-6:30 p.m. M-F. If you are lucky you can get a booth along the bank of windows facing Fountain Square, or there are a few bar tables near the door. Of course you can also sit at the bar and admire the Tiffany-style lamps overhead (sporting Bearcats, Bengals and Muskie logos) but seating there is crowded and a little uncomfortable. Still, sitting at the bar does have its advantages, as the bartenders usually have some witty banter going and you never have to worry about an empty glass.

Speaking of glasses, there’s a $2.50 minimum beverage purchase per person; easy to fulfill with their drink specials. Michelob Light is on draught for $3 a pint and their house wines run $4 for a 5 oz. glass, $5.25 for an 8 oz. glass or a bottle for $20. There are a number of discounted cocktails on offer as well. At McCormick & Schmick’s, they take happy hour seriously, and the packed bar is a testament to their success.

One more noteworthy tidbit – the restaurant resumes happy hour pricing in the bar from 9:30-11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, as well as Sundays 4-9 p.m. after Bengals home games.

McCormick & Schmick's Fresh Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gajah Wong

Gajah Wong
3937 Spring Grove Ave.

UPDATE 2009: This restaurant has closed.

A few weeks ago I met up with fellow blogger Food Hussy for a taste of Indonesia at Gajah Wong in Northside. I arrived just after their 5:30 p.m. opening time and walked into something of a time warp. The rustic dining room had a dusty wood-meets-Nag Champa incense smell that reminded me quite a bit of the hippy shop where I worked in college. The rattan chairs, goddess statues and miscellaneous, organic retail wares strengthened the groovy vibe.

We chose to dine outside in Gajah Wong’s patio area; a surprising oasis, especially considering the restaurant abuts a busy gas station near the corner of Spring Grove and Hamilton Ave. White pebbles, potted herbs and mature, leafy trees are interspersed with stone statues and twinkling fairy lights to create a calm welcoming impression. The pleasant atmosphere is capped off by a fabulous tiki-bar serving up a nice assortment of cocktails.

I was delighted to see Pimms #1 Cup listed on their drinks menu – I love Pimms and usually keep a bottle on hand from May to September because I think it is the perfect summer cocktail. It’s traditionally made with fizzy lemon, crushed mint, English cucumber, strawberries and slices of lemon and orange. The Pimms at Gajah Wong substituted Sprite for the fizzy lemon, but I’ll let that slide since it is difficult to source Schweppes Bitter Lemon soda, although a better substitution would be ginger ale since the sweetness in Sprite is a little overpowering. Still, I give them kudos for offering it, and had I not been driving I’d had ordered seconds.

I’d never had Indonesian cuisine before but a look through their online menu listed tofu so I figured I’d be in good hands. Their appetizer menu lists two veggie options: Gado Salad, consisting of mixed steamed veggies, tofu and egg; and a Vegetarian Indo Roll filled with tofu, lettuce, vermicelli noodles, carrots, cucumber and cilantro, served with peanut sauce on a bed of shredded cabbage. I opted for the roll and was pleasantly surprised that it was served fresh and cold. I was expecting a deep-fried spring roll, so it was a nice change of pace and an excellent starter for a warm summer evening.

Gajah Wong’s menu can be a little confusing for first timers. As someone unfamiliar with the food, I was unsure about choosing a sauce for the vegetarian option on the entrée list, and the server wasn’t very forthcoming with descriptions and suggestions. The vegetarian option is fried tofu ($15.50) served with a choice of sauce - there is Gudeg (jackfruit cooked in coconut milk, palm sugar, bay leaves and spices), Jave Kare (an exotic mix of blended chilies, nuts, spices and herbs pureed and sautéed with coconut milk) or Sambal Goreng (a mild sauce of sator nut, galangal root and java spices). The menu also lists a non-vegetarian fourth sauce (Adhun), which includes shrimp paste.

Since I’d never tried any of them and wasn’t getting any help from the server, I blindly chose the Jave Kare because it listed Java chilies - which the restaurant grows locally from imported Indonesian seeds - because I figured it would have a little bit of a kick to it.

How wrong could I be? Very. The dish wasn’t the least bit spicy and tasted strongly of coconut milk. I found it disappointingly bland. The entrées come with several traditional Indonesian sambals (dips) on the side, and luckily one of them packed some heat. Unfortunately they only serve a small amount of each sambal selection, which wasn’t enough to punch up the flavor of my dish to an acceptable level.

Each entrée comes with a side of yellow rice and a mixture of vegetables. My rice looked as though it had been compressed inside a cat food tin, but Food Hussy’s rice was hidden beneath a cone-shaped banana leaf, and when the cone was lifted off the rice retained it’s pointy, triangular shape. Fun!

Neither of us much cared for the vegetable mixture, which looked and tasted as though it had been cooked to the point of no return. I can’t even identify what vegetables they were because it was all a bit of a mushy mess. Maybe that is the way they are supposed to be, but I wasn’t impressed and left mine virtually untouched.

The restaurant offers a nice selection of desserts. Pictured is a slice of Kahlua Cake.

I thought the presentation of our dishes was more interesting than the actual food itself, but perhaps I chose unwisely. I’d like to revisit Gajah Wong and try something different before I completely write them off, but first impressions give the restaurant good marks for creativity and visual interest while the food is pricey and unremarkable.
Gajah Wong West on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hurricane Ike's aftermath

We are ok. Unlike three-quarters of the Cincinnati area, we never lost power. The winds kicked up after noon on Sunday and whipped the area to and fro - tearing the roof off the Delta Airlines hanger at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, ripping shingles and siding from numerous homes, downing trees and power lines, and wreaking general havoc on the region for around six hours.

I had driven up early Sunday morning to visit my mom in rural Warren County. We had no idea there was a threat of bad weather and it wasn't until we went outside around 1:30 p.m. to gather some vegetables from the garden that we realized that it was more than just blustery. I decided to cut the visit short and try to get home, but downed trees and power lines prevented me from going very far. I went back to Mom's and hunkered down until the bad weather subsided around 6 p.m.

Mom lost several trees and is without power, but she is ok. I tried to talk her into coming home with me but she was having none of it. She has kerosene lanterns and plenty of raw veggies from the garden and bottled water to keep her going.

After leaving her house I took lots of back roads and finally worked my way to I-75. I saw plenty of downed and uprooted trees along the way, and traveling south on the highway was eerie - restaurants and stores were dark and their parking lots empty, damaged billboards hung in tatters, wind-whipped debris was scattered everywhere, and even the rest areas were closed due to lack of power. Along I-75 the only power I saw was Children's Medical Center in West Chester.

By the time I reached Norwood there were signs of power here and there, and the downtown business district was well lit. Arriving in Newport, the queues at area drive-thru's was crazy-busy. Not a parking space to be had at Frisch's and Donatos, and the drive-thru for McDonalds was at least 20 cars deep. Heck, even Arby's was hopping.

Kroger was a nightmare to navigate, but at least they were open. I felt sorry for the checkout clerks - every lane was open and six people deep. I noticed that most of the license plates in the parking lot were from Ohio.

Our street lost quite a few trees; one landed on a house and damaged the porch and windows, another landed on a car. Luckily there were no injuries. Some homes lost guttering and some shingles, but all in all we were very fortunate.

Downed limbs

Newport police officer assesses storm damage with a resident.

A tree landed on a home in Newport's East Row, damaging the porch and blowing out upstairs windows.

A tree limb rests on a Volkswagen in our neighborhood.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cadillac Ranch

Cadillac Ranch
38 Fountain Square Plaza

After the bad experience we had at Cadillac Ranch last year I was very wary of ever darkening its door again, but beer is a strong motivator – especially when the beer is Christian Moerlein and there’s a keg-tapping on hand for the new Oktoberfest marzen.

I decided the keg-tapping was the perfect excuse to revisit the restaurant and see if they had updated their menu to include a vegetarian option. To my surprise, they now offer a couple of veggie-friendly items on both the appetizer and entrée menus.

The restaurant’s happy hour was already underway when we turned up just after the five o’clock whistle blew, and the large outdoor patio filled up fast. We told the hostess we were there for the keg-tapping and were seated in a "reserved" area near the front bar. We assumed that the tapping would take place there, and it wasn’t until AFTER the ceremonial tapping that we found out that we should have been seated at the back bar, which is where the party was. By the time we found out that we were in the wrong area, the place was jam-packed with revelers and our dinner had arrived, so we stayed put and missed out on some of the fun.

The appetizer selections at Cadillac Ranch are your basic deep-fried bar food; fare like cheese-stuffed jalapenos, onion rings and mozzarella sticks, and although the soup & salad menu boasts seven different types of salad, the only vegetarian one was a simple garden salad of mixed greens with cucumber and tomato for $8. But hey, at least there IS one.

There are now two vegetarian entrées available at Cadillac Ranch – a nice revelation considering there was absolutely nothing the first time I visited. On the burger menu there is a portabello burger listed, and they also have a roasted vegetable pasta for $12.95. Because I had walked to the restaurant after work and was still wearing my "good clothes," I declined the portabello burger since they can be rather messy and opted for the pasta dish. It was ok – nothing earth-shattering, but not bad. I thought it was a little skimpy on the roasted veggies and heavy on the oil, but since I wasn’t really expecting much I wasn’t dissatisfied.

The real star of the show should have been the Moerlein Oktoberfest brew, but there’s where the major disappoint was. Last year’s Moerlein Fifth & Vine Oktoberfest beer was really nice, but this year’s offering was a little flat and lacked the sparkle of others in the Moerlein family. It was smooth enough and had a lovely amber color, but something about it tasted wrong to me. Oddly, it also gave me a pounder of a headache later that evening - and I’d only had two pints, which in my world is enough for a mild buzz but not enough for a hangover.

It was the lack of a vegetarian option on Cadillac Ranch's menu that spawned the idea for this blog, and a year later I have to give Cadillac Ranch their due – they listened to customer feedback and added a couple of vegetarian-friendly items to their menu, so they are back in my good books, for whatever that's worth. That they also offer the full range of Moerlein beers on draught is a nice plus, and their happy hour is extremely popular and worth a repeated visit.

(apology for the lack of photos, they accidentally got deleted from the camera)
Cadillac Ranch on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 8, 2008

Antioch College Alumni Fundraiser

On September 12th from 7-10pm, the Cincinnati Antioch College Alumni Chapter will be holding a fundraiser to raise money for the [Antioch] College Revival Fund a 501(c)(3) and the Non Stop Liberal Arts Institute of Yellow Springs, OH. The event will be held at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine.

There will be several exciting presentations at the fundraiser. Antioch College's Archivist Scott Sanders will be showing his famous presentation of 150 years of Antioch College in 60 minutes or less. Also being shown are the Antioch Adventure I & II student films from the '60s and the '80s.
Other features of the evening include a raffle and silent auction where participants could win Antioch College memorabilia, photographs, and tickets to Know Theatre of Cincinnati's coming productions.

The event will be in Know Theatre's “Jackson Underground” bar area and will include a full bar and complimentary wine and snacks.

In June of 2007, the Board of Trustees of Antioch University voted to suspend operations of Antioch College due to a large deficit and dropping enrollment. Since then, the Antioch College Alumni have been rallying to raise money to save the school. Currently the college is dark, but actions are being taken to negotiate with the University and the beginnings of an independent Board of Trustees for the college are in the works.

The Non Stop Liberal Arts Institute is the movement that is keeping Antioch's faculty, students, and institutional memory alive. Antioch College's former Faculty are currently holding classes in coffee shops and homes around Yellow Springs. Classes started on September 2nd, 2008. They are currently being supported by the College Revival Fund.

The future of Antioch College is in the hands of it's Alumni and supporters. Major funds are needed to re-open and continue to support this ground breaking and infamous college that has changed so many lives.

For more information please contact Alexandra Kesman at or by calling 513-680-3345.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Wine Over Water - September 20, 2008

A one-of-a-kind event, Wine Over Water is a wine tasting held over the Ohio River on the Southbank Purple People Bridge with stunning views of the Cincinnati skyline.

This annual charitable event is hosted by the Newport Citizens Advisory Council (NCAC), a citizen’s group dedicated to improving the community of Newport for residents and visitors alike. Proceeds from this year’s event will benefit the Brighton Center Food Pantry.

Participants will enjoy sampling a selection of international wines as well as offerings from some of Greater Cincinnati’s preeminent boutique wineries. This delightful evening of wine, hors d'oeuvres and live music is designed to engage a diverse audience of residents from all around the area and build a sense of community while supporting a good cause.

Southbank Purple People Bridge Newport, Kentucky (located on the East side of Newport on the Levee)

Saturday, September 20, 2008
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door
Ticket price includes commemorative tasting glass
Please bring a picture ID, as you must be 21 to be admitted to the event