Sunday, February 22, 2009

Arnold's Bar & Grill

Arnold's Bar & Grill
210 East 8th Street

If walls could talk, Arnold’s would have quite a lot to say. Built in 1848, the building originally housed a barbershop, while the building next door was a feed store with a stable and carriage house in between. In 1861 Simon Arnold opened a tavern in the same room that continues as the oldest bar in the city of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati's oldest bar - since 1861

During Prohibition a kitchen was added to the tavern with the second floor living area turned into dining rooms, and 1976 saw the addition of outdoor dining when the stable area was converted into a fantastic courtyard. Throughout the additions and changes, however, the building has retained much of its original character and charm, right down to an upstairs bathtub that was allegedly used to make illegal gin before repeal.

The restaurant has an impressive variety of options for vegetarian diners. Notable appetizers include fried green tomatoes, eggplant bruschetta and tri-a-dip (a trio of house-made dips with homemade taco points and crustinis). Of course there are also salads; choose from a simple house or Greek salad to wild field greens with strawberries and sprouts, or roasted root vegetables served chilled over greens and topped with goat cheese and figs, all priced under $10.

There are seven vegetarian entrées on the menu - and that’s in addition to two hero sandwiches, a couple of wraps and burritos, and the build-your-own burger option, which includes both a veggie burger AND a portabello mushroom selection. Then there’s the traditional American comfort food combo of grilled cheese and tomato soup. Whew! Arnold’s certainly has the bases covered for us, and I’m not even finished yet.

In the mood for pasta? Try the veggie lasagna or a signature dish called Greek Spaghetti which has been a menu favorite for over 50 years. On the day we visited it was a featured special and was described by the waitress as “linguini in a light garlic butter sauce served with a choice of toppings that include olives, tomatoes, sautéed onions, bell peppers and mushrooms for $7.95. Everyone who tries it loves it!” I was intrigued.

Greek Spaghetti - an Arnold's specialty since 1957

I’ll admit to having second thoughts when it came out – it doesn’t look especially appealing - but after the first bite I was sold. The sautéed vegetables didn’t overpower the delicate sauce, nor did it have a greasy feel; quite an accomplishment given the amount of butter and olive oil comprising the dish. I’d certainly recommend it, although I probably won’t have it again for awhile, not because it wasn’t fantastic, but because I’ve made a vow to work my way through all the vegetarian selections on the menu. With such an abundance of choice, I’ll be busy for quite some time.

The walls may not talk, but they certainly tell a story

Arnold’s has a full bar and a decent selection of red and white wines by the glass, but if you really want to do it Cincinnati style, splurge on a bottle of locally produced wine from Burnet Ridge to go with your meal. It will not disappoint.

Hours vary: lunch is served M-F from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner service runs until either 10 or 11 p.m., depending on the day. Keep in mind also that Arnold’s offers live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so reservations are recommended.

Arnold's Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Pepper Pod

The Pepper Pod
703 Monmouth St.
Newport KY

It doesn’t get much more old-school than The Pepper Pod. In business since the 1970’s, this grubby little greasy-spoon diner is open 24 hours and attracts a clientele ranging from old-timers in trucker hats to families on a budget to Southgate House refugees and the late night, post-bar crowd leaving the Levee.

Since the smoking ban hasn’t drifted south of the river, upon entering the restaurant the first thing non-smokers are likely to notice is the smell. This isn't the most salubrious environment; even if no one is actively puffing away the fug lingers as if to say, "hey, you can't get rid of me so easily!" The photos of old Newport hanging on the walls aren't simply yellowed with age, after all, there's a generous coating of nicotine adding to the patina.

Grab a booth and marvel at the authentic wall-mounted jukeboxes; there’s one at each four-top along the right hand wall, and although they are no longer hooked up to a central sound system, it’s fun to flip through the song listings for a trip down memory lane. Scanning over the red and white perforated labels, I’m guessing that the last time the jukeboxes were updated was sometime around 1987, when 7” singles were still in demand. The restaurant still has a working jukebox at the front of the restaurant – a 21st century version using CDs instead of 45’s.

The jukeboxes aren't retro, they're the real deal

There isn’t much for vegetarians at The Pepper Pod, but then I don’t expect there to be. Any diner serving “home-style cooking” isn’t going to be veggie-friendly, so if you go, be prepared for your options to be sorely limited. Me? I got the grilled cheese sandwich platter with coleslaw and fries. At under $5, it's a bargain. Other than that, vegetarians are limited to a couple of breaded and fried items (mozzarella, pickles), a side salad and a couple of breakfast items. Hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

The grilled cheese platter: cheap 'n cheerful is the way we roll

Pepper Pod Restrnt on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Amma's Kitchen

Amma's Kitchen
7633 Reading Road

The lunch buffet at Amma's Kitchen is a delightful introduction into South Indian vegetarian cuisine. That's right - I said the words "vegetarian" and "buffet" in the same sentence. There are plenty of Indian buffets around town, and they all seem to offer at least a few vegetarian items, but at Amma's it is all vegetarian, all the time. Even more astonishing: on Wednesdays the entire hot bar is completely vegan!

The restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside the space is cheerfully decorated and bustling. For those unfamiliar with South Indian cuisine, the friendly staff is knowledgable and happy to guide first-timers through the myriad choices. Unlike North Indian cuisine, famous for it's curries, fried vegetables and reliance on dried spices like garam masala, South Indian relies moreso on coconut for flavoring and is generally non-greasy, roasted and/or steamed.

I don't mean to suggest that Amma's doesn't serve any North Indian items - there are currys and a few fried items on the menu - but don't count on finding naan (unleavened flatbread) or papadums (fried lentil crackers). Instead, there are delicious dosas (thin rice crepes filled with a variety of stuffings), vada (lightly spiced lentil donuts) and idli (steamed rice cakes).

The buffet changes daily, but expect a couple of rice dishes, several lentil-based and vegetable dishes, soups and a nice selection of desserts, along with the dosas, idli, and vadas. On the day we visited I fell in love with the chana palak (chickpeas in creamy spinach) which is similar to chana saag but with more spinach and a lot less salt. Likewise the heat-packed rasam soup, with its heavenly mixture of tamarind, tomato, pepper and spices, rocked my world. It was quite possibly the best soup I've ever had.

The buffet lunch is packed with delicious vegetarian and vegan fare

Now I'll be the first to admit that I am not a fan of beets. My husband loves them - especially Scandinavian-style pickled beetroot - but until today I was sure that I hated this particular root vegetable. Enter the beet halwa, a scrummy dessert of shredded beetroot simmered with cream, sugar and cardamom and topped with slivered almonds - and color me impressed. I went back for seconds. Surprisingly, my husband didn't like it. He took one bite of mine, shook his head and opted instead for a small dish of kheer (rice pudding).

Amma's lunch buffet is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and until 3 p.m. on weekends and holidays, and their a la carte dinner menu is available from 5:30-9:30 p.m. All menu items are vegetarian, and dishes containing dairy products are clearly marked.

If you can't get there for the lunch buffet but are interested in trying an assortment of the more popular menu items, Amma's offers several affordably-priced dinner specials that include bread, rice, soup, appetizer, crepe, curry and dessert. It's a nice introduction to this fantastic vegetarian restaurant.

Amma's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 9, 2009

Buca di Beppo

Buca di Beppo
2635 Edmondson Road

There are many pleasant surprises at this family-style Italian restaurant chain, the first of which is a tour of the kitchen on the way to the dining room. I suppose the tour is to highlight the reservation-only table in the kitchen for those into that sort of thing, and it’s a nice departure from the norm.

The décor can probably be summed up as TGIF-Italian: hundreds of framed photos and posters of famous (and infamous) Italians compete with LPs, tsotchkes, and a vast assortment of holiday rainbow-lights. You won’t find plastic, easy-clean tablecloths here; they are the real, red checkered deal, complete with obligatory garlic and tomato stains. The recessed ceiling in one of the dining rooms looks like a wine cellar – the empties backlit to eye-catching effect. If you make a reservation with a large enough party, you might find yourself seated at The Pope Table, where photos of the Supreme Pontiff decorate the space, highlighted by a bust of Il Papa encased in plexiglass. My husband reckoned that the table was “a little creepy, as if you were in an episode of Futurama and you had John Paul II’s head in a jar in the middle of your eating area.”

The wine cellar ceiling

There is plenty to keep the eye entertained

The whole restaurant screams kitschy and fun, even the restrooms. I won’t ruin it, but be sure to check out the photos and ephemera on the walls, as they are good for a laugh.

There are other nice touches as well: children are given chef hats to wear, which doesn’t sound like much but every kid we saw was chuffed to bits to have one. One little boy donned his hat and told one of the chefs that he wanted to be a chef when he grew up, and the chef replied, “You know what, being a chef is the funnest, most rewarding job I have ever had. People see food as security and comfort, and I love preparing food that is going to make people happy! It’s a great feeling.” My husband and I both thought it was sweet of the chef to take the time to chat with and encourage his seven-year old fan. It’s something I don’t see very often in the restaurant world, especially at chains, and it made a positive impression.

Reserve this table for a chance to dine with the Pope!

The front of house service is also friendly – our server was efficient, friendly and accommodating. We had never been to Buca di Beppo before and our server patiently guided us through portion sizes along with the daily specials. Lunch portions are single servings but very generous, and dinner portions are served family-style to share. They come in two sizes: small (serves 2-3) and large (serves 4-6). I chose a lunch portion of Ravioli al Pomodoro (cheese-filled ravioli in marinara sauce) and a side salad, and Steve opted for a bowl of Italian wedding soup and the daily special of baked garlic chicken and fettuccini alfredo.

I was startled by the size of the salad. For $2.49 I was expecting a small helping of greens and maybe a tomato wedge or some shaved carrot. How wrong could I be? This was a super-duper helping of romaine and iceberg – in truth a meal in itself – and although it was skimpy on the extras (one each green and black olive, and a single pepperoncini) and heavy on the red onion and dressing, I found it addictive. Usually I don’t care much for salad drowning in dressing, but this balsamic vinaigrette tasted delicate enough to pull it off with panache. Steve enjoyed the soup - it's chock full of spicy sausage so is off-limits to vegetarians, but he was impressed with the complexity of flavors in each spoonful.

That pepperoncini looks lonely in the side salad

The Italian wedding soup - not vegetarian

Steve and I are rather picky and often let down by the stuff that passes for bread at area restaurants, but Buca di Beppo’s bread is worth mentioning because the thick slices of warm, crusty bread are better than average. Another nice touch: the butter pats are soft upon arrival and easy to spread, and we made quick work of the entire basket. I tried to wheedle out of the server where they get their bread (it is not made in-house) but she didn’t know and neither apparently did the general manager. I’m guessing Breadsmiths.

Ravioli al Pomodoro doesn't photograph well

Italian cuisine is usually very vegetarian-friendly, and Buca di Beppo is no exception. There are a couple of salads, a brushetta appetizer (I saw our server glide past with a “small” portion for a nearby table, and let me tell you, it’s huge) and several entrées: aside from the aforementioned ravioli al pomodoro, there is fettuccini alfredo, spaghetti marinara, cheese manicotti, cheese-stuffed baked ravioli, eggplant parmigiana and margherita pizza. The marinara sauce is tangy and deftly seasoned – not too garlicky, not too salty and just the right balance of oregano and basil. Although I am loath to admit it, I thought theirs was on par with my own homemade sauce, and I may take a leaf from their cookbook and try petite dicing my tomatoes next time. There were five raviolis in the dish, each approximately two inches long and half an inch thick. It may not sound like much but it was more than I could handle, especially after the salad and two baskets of bread, which is even more fabulous when piled with marinara sauce.

The special of the day: a little too cheesy for my husband

We visited Buca di Beppo early in the day when the restaurant was fairly quiet, but as it began to fill up the noise levels increased and I can only imagine what a full house must sound like. Still, plenty of restaurants suffer from high decibel levels and it’s a minor issue compared to the quality – and quantity – of the food and service we found here. All in all we were pleasantly surprised by this Minneapolis-based chain and are already planning a return visit with my brother’s family. I can hardly wait to see my niece and nephew in little chef hats.

Buca di Beppo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Recipe: Curried Cauliflower & Potatoes

I haven't been to any restaurants this week thanks to the weather, so I thought I'd post the curry recipe I whipped up this week with items I had on hand. It's easy to prepare and leftovers can be nuked for lunch the next day. Yum!

Curried Cauliflower and Potatoes
Serves 6

1 1/2 lbs red potatoes, cubed
2 tsp mustard seed
2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ginger (grate fresh ginger if you have it but powdered is ok in a pinch)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 Cups cauliflower florets (approx. one head)
1 Cup water
2 tsp McKays chicken-style seasoning (or a vegetable bouillion cube)
1 Cup peas

The potatoes are hiding beneath the cauliflower

1. Cube potatoes. I like mine with the skin on, but if you don't it's ok to peel them first. Soak potatoes in water until ready to use.
2. Heat mustard seeds over medium heat until they begin to pop (about 1-2 minutes). Add the oil, onion, garlic and ginger and cook until onions soften.
3. Add all spices and stir until fragrance intensifies.
4. Drain potatoes and add to the pan along with cauliflower. Stir well.
5. Boil the water and stir in McKay's seasoning until it dissolves into broth. Add broth to the pan. Cover and cook until potatoes are tender, about 15-20 minutes.
6. Remove lid and add peas, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed.

Serve with pilaf rice and naan bread.

I love getting the chance to use our Balti dishes