Saturday, September 26, 2009

Preview Party: Kings Island's Halloween Haunt 2009

Kings Island Amusement Park
6300 Kings Island Drive

We hadn't been to Kings Island in several years and had never experienced the amusement park's Halloween-themed weekends, so when we got invited to attend a preview party on opening night, we jumped at the chance.

The weather on Friday was dismal and rainy; not exactly theme park weather, but we decided to go ahead and make the drive to Mason anyway, on the off chance that the weather cleared.

The view from the International Restaurant

The 2009 Halloween Haunt preview party was held in the park's International Restaurant and included an impressive mix of hors d'oeuvres, salads, entrees and desserts, which unfortunately for me contained precious little for vegetarians. I knew going into the party that this would be the case though, since the invitation helpfully listed the party menu. I figured I'd just fill up on salad, fruit, crudites and cheese, which is exactly what I did. Admittedly, I also took full advantage of the open bar, which came back to haunt me several hours later on the Backlot Stunt Coaster (formerly the Italian Job).

Candelabra ice sculpture

The party rooms were decked out with black tablecloths and candleholders and a shedload of fake spider webbing. Staff were made up to look like zombies, vampires, and other assorted undead. It was all very well done. The restaurant will be offering an all-you-can-eat Fright Feast on select nights for $13.99 but vegetarians should know that they will be relegated to side dishes and salads.

A hearse awaits at the front gate

An explosion heralded the opening of the park to the general public, so we drained our glasses, finished nibbling on chocolate covered strawberries and headed out into the fog. I have no idea how many smoke machines the park utilizes during Halloween Haunt, but they certainly did the trick. By the time we left the park several hours later the fake fog encompassed the park, parking lot and spilled out onto Kings Island Drive.

Everyone's dying to get in

Luckily, the rain dried up just prior to the park's official 7 p.m. opening time, and I tried to get in some shots before it got too foggy or the rain returned. There are six indoor attractions which open with the park, and five outdoor ones that begin an hour later when night has fallen.

The park is decorated with tombstones, caskets, skeletons and the undead

With guide map in hand and "RIP" VIP lanyards around our necks, we set off to sample the haunted offerings. The lanyards gave us front-of-the-line access to all Halloween-themed attractions, and we took full advantage, with only slight twinges of guilt for all those waiting patiently in the queues.

Our favorite Halloween-themed indoor attraction: CarnEVIL

By far CarnEVIL was our favorite but not recommended for anyone with a clown phobia. Thrill-seekers don 3-D glasses and enter a clown-infested funhouse, where the walls are painted in day-glo op-art style and glowing bubbles rain down upon you. We couldn't get enough of it! I won't ruin the surprises - just be sure not to miss this attraction.

An eerie fog rolls in around The Diamondback rollercoaster

Our friend Laura was on a mission to ride The Diamondback, one of 18 regular season rides in operation for Halloween Haunt, so we groped our way through the fog, dodging monsters and patrons alike and got her on the ride. Afterward we nipped over to catch Hot-Blooded, one of two Halloween-themed live shows, where we were highly amused by the unique use of songs like BTO's "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" and Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time." Apologies to the guy sat filming the show in front of us because we could NOT stop laughing. This musical revue has adult themes of S&M and sapphic vampire imagery, so best not to bring granny or the kids.

Night falls and the fountains are fiery red

As the night progressed and the fog machines did their work, we found it more difficult to navigate through the park, which was teeming with mostly teenage patrons and a host of scare-mongers, but the fright-themed attractions are lit with red neon skull & crossbones, making them easy to spot through the gloomy murk.

All Halloween-themed attractions are lit with red neon skull & crossbones

Contrary to what we had thought, the scary attractions are not rides - they are spooky walk-throughs, so even those who don't like thrill-rides can enjoy Kings Island's 2009 Halloween Haunt. It was a great night.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Green Dog Café

Green Dog Cafe
3543 Columbia Parkway
East End

The newest restaurant from Mark & Mary Swortwood (original owners of the Brown Dog Cafe in Blue Ash and Tinks in Clifton) features locally sourced ingredients and plenty of vegetarian, vegan and even gluten-free selections, all prominently marked on the menu to alleviate questions and concerns. The aptly named Green Dog Cafe takes the green theme seriously; the space was created using sustainable materials and renewable resources where possible. The restaurant is located in a newly built shopping plaza near the Delta Avenue intersection.

Green Dog Café

From the stylish mix of Scandinavian fixtures and fittings to the tranquil turquoise walls and splashes of bold-colored paintings, the Green Dog radiates a fashionable, well-heeled vibe, but the lack of soft furnishings makes for a very shrill atmosphere. The seating is a mixture of booths, four-tops and long communal tables, and plenty of windows make the space bright and inviting.

The serene color belies the noisy din when the restaurant is busy

Scandinavian-inspired lighting

Orders are taken at the counter and diners are given a laminated card with a number on it. Grab a booth and stick the card into a wire rack on the table for easy viewing and a t-shirted member of staff will deliver your order. Ours didn't arrive at the same time; my friend's BLT sandwich came out before our appetizer of fries with honey curry mayonnaise and spicy tomato-banana ketchup.

Order at the counter and your meal is delivered to your table

The fries were wonderful. The Idaho potatoes are hand-cut to 3/8” thickness and fried in small batches to crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside perfection. They are possibly the best rendition of vlaamse frites I’ve had in America, and the creatively flavored dipping sauces were amazing.

Stainless steel containers keep the fries warm through the meal

Burgers, wraps and sandwiches are served with one side; choose from a salad, kimchee, brown rice or corn chips. My friend’s kimchee was a delicately pickled mix of shredded vegetables that packed a bit of heat. He found it so tasty that he wished they sold it in take-home pint containers. So far, so good. He enjoyed his BLT but didn’t think it was worth the $12.50 price tag.

The BLT with a side of kimchee

I opted for the “Hey Perro” black bean wrap and side salad, and this is where the meal really nosedived. The salad was a standard mix of organic baby greens with a lovely acidic dressing, but the wrap? Bland, bland, bland. I would not order this item again because the balance of ingredients was way off mark. The filling included very little of the advertised corn salsa and tomato salsa, the avocado and manchego fresca were virtually non-existent (each appeared in exactly one bite), and there was dreadfully little flavor to the beans. The wrap came loaded with unseasoned brown rice however - which costs pennies to the pound - and a hefty $11 asking price. I realize that gratuity is already included in the menu prices, but since you order at a counter, seat yourself and have your meal delivered by a member of the kitchen staff, I think it’s a bit rich to charge a fee for this.

Too much rice, not enough flavor

Possibly I simply chose the wrong item. The restaurant also offers a veggie burger ($11) and a couple of rice bowls ($9.50-$10), and I’ve heard wonderful things about the fresh-made guacamole ($9.50) and lemon hummus ($13) starters, but based on my experience with the wrap, I’m not eager to revisit, which is a shame because their wine list is intriguing. The Swortwood recipes are undoubtedly of high standard and quality, but if the kitchen doesn’t bother to get the balance of ingredients right the meal is a failure.

I had high hopes for Green Dog Café and really thought it would become a regular haunt, but maybe it comes down to the fact that I am not part of their target demographic, even though I am environmentally aware and a committed vegetarian. To me, $17 seems steep for a tasteless wrap and an order of fries, tip or not. Perhaps the ladies-who-lunch won't bat an eyelash, but I doubt the broader appeal, and seriously wonder if the restaurant can attract the locavore crowd who, for the most part, are already going to know how and where to source quality, local ingredients to prepare at home for a fraction of the cost.

Green Dog  on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


1000 Delta Ave.
Mount Lookout

Chef Julie Francis is the epitome of locavore – her Mount Lookout restaurant, Nectar, is the place to go to sample the best of the local food chain. She is perhaps the area chef most committed to buying from local farmers and uses a variety of cooking techniques to bring out the best of the tri-state's locally raised ingredients.

Nectar at night

Because Nectar grooves in harmony with the seasons, Chef Francis’ ever-changing menu will be different from the one we had on the evening we visited, but vegetarians can rest safe in the knowledge that there is always at least one vegetarian appetizer and meat-free entrée on the list.

Rather than dine in the sparse modern dining room, which gets noisy when filled, we opted to sit at a table in the peaceful courtyard and enjoy the summer evening with glasses of sparkling wine.

The Mediterranean Meze was the big winner in the appetizer lottery. Containing house-made falafel, chipotle hummus, feta, spicy harissa, garlic yogurt and pickled vegetables, it was worth every dime of the $12.50 asking price. The chipotle hummus was possibly the best I have ever had. Smokey and sexy, it was the Greta Garbo of hummus. I thought the falafel was a bit too crispy though - they reminded me of overbrowned hushpuppies.

Mediterranean Meze

L to R: harissa, hummus, pickled veg, falafel and garlic yogurt

Steve’s dandelion greens salad was a hit or miss appetizer. He found the greens to be on the bitter side, but liked the strong marriage of beets, blue cheese, bacon and apple, finished off with fresh sherry vinaigrette.

Dandelion Greens salad

The vegetarian entrée on the night we were there was layered ravioli. Roasted heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, Swiss chard, and chevre basil-corn sauce were served enveloped between layers of house-made red chili pasta. It was much more robust than perhaps I naively anticipated, and I ended up leaving a little of it so that I could leave room for one of Nectar’s famous desserts.

Layered Ravoli

Steve chose the Turner Farm pork belly with German potato salad, local chard, and blackberry compote, and was underwhelmed, to say the least. At $22.50, it was one of the most expensive items on the menu and wasn’t nearly as tender as it should have been, and he had to cut out a fair amount of gristle. He reckoned he would have been better off with the beef sirloin from Indian Hill’s Green Acres farm, which our friend ordered. It came with Southwestern succotash and roasted poblano peppers with goat cheese tucked inside a tamale, served with red chile sauce. The menu also offered wild salmon with black rice cake, a vegetable stirfry and coconut curry sauce. Either option would have been better than the failed pork belly.

Turner Farm Pork Belly with German potato salad

Green Acres Beef Sirloin

Wild Salmon w/ black rice cake and local vegetables

Although I only managed a photo of my dessert, all of the sweets we sampled were heavenly. Be sure to leave room.

Pecan-date bar with blackberries and mango sorbet

Nectar uses ingredients from the following local producers: Sallie Ransohoff, Shady Grove Farm, Thistlehair Farm, Walnut Ridge Acres, Farm Beach Bethel, Turner Farm, Greenacres Foundation, Fishback Farm, Maple Grove Farm in Lebanon and Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese. Chef-owned restaurants that take the utmost care in choosing ingredients and suppliers usually aren't cheap, and Nectar is no different, but it's a fantastic way to explore the local bounty.

Nectar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Take the Cake

Take the Cake
4137 Hamilton Avenue

A rather unassuming storefront belies the gaggle of goodies inside

Owners Doug and Melissa have a good thing going. Their groovy little restaurant in Northside, Take the Cake, is a perfect blend of savory and sweet. Leave your diet at the door, because as their name suggests, desserts feature prominently. Step into the restaurant and the first thing you see is the glass cabinet showcasing a mouthwatering display of sugary goodness. We arrived in time to get a good look - five minutes later and we would have been elbowing through the crowd for a glimpse.

Communal seating gives diners the opportunity to make new friends

The menu changes daily but always features a couple of vegetarian options; call first or check out their website to find out what's cooking. On the day we visited, the vegetarian specials included:
Spinach Tomato Quiche
Green Curry & Tofu Soup with Jasmine Rice
Mediterranean Salad
Tomato/Green Chili/Cheddar Bread Pudding
Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Bisque

It isn't often that I'm spoiled for choice when dining out, and because everything sounded so good it was with some difficulty that I arrived at the decision to try the bread pudding. Let me just say this: if everything they make is as delicious as that bread pudding, they really do take the cake. Rich and decadent, the pudding reminded me of a thicker, creamier version of the Mexican cornbread my Mom makes, the difference being that we'd never thought to drizzle homemade tomato bisque over the top. I simply cannot convey in words how magnificant it was. With an undercurrent of cheddar and a pleasant jalapeno sting, this dish is unabashed comfort food.

The tomato/green chili/cheddar bread pudding - a hearty hunk of heaven

Locally sourced Amish chicken salad with golden raisins and spicy pecans and greens

It's a good idea to order dessert when you place your lunch order because the sweets can disappear quickly. Everything is made daily from scratch, and no trip to Take the Cake is complete without sampling something from the showcase. My friend and I both honed in on the three-berry cobbler, but in the spirit of research I opted for a sinfully rich chocolate brownie after my friend nabbed the cobbler - before he'd even decided on his lunch order.

Scratch-made three-berry cobbler

Let's look at that again - nom nom nom

Chocolate brownie is chocolaty

The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, is open Tues-Fri 8 a.m.-6 p.m. and from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays. Be sure to follow them on Twitter - every Tuesday they tweet a magic word that gives 10% off your bill if you mention it.

Take the Cake on Urbanspoon