Say Cincinnati and two things come to mind, the 70s sitcom, WKRP and he-man sports, Bengals, Bearcats and Reds.
Like many small and medium-sized American cities Cincinnati is enjoying a food-forward renaissance.
When we loaded in Miami MacGyver was thrilled. Our scheduled delivery in Texas was close enough to attend the Formula 1 race in Austin. But a few hours out we were diverted to Ohio. Cincinnati. Still MacGyver wanted to watch the race live so we parked the truck, and instead of race tickets, we bought hotels and a tasting weekend.
The Hilton App told us Friday’s best deal was downtown at the Hilton Netherland Plaza a gorgeous example of French Art Deco which opened in 1931. The hotel has seen a lot of turmoil, the Great Depression, World War 11, the growth of the manufacturing economy and its collapse and the struggle back through the rebirth of the downtown.
Checked into the BEST hotel room I have ever stayed — the junior suite in 1907 has two complete bathrooms — hers and his. Shower, sink and toilet. No sharing necessary.
Cincinnati has always been a player in the evolution of America. Founded in 1788, steam navigation brought the city its first economic successes including making it Porkopolis the country’s chief hog packing center. It played a key role supplying Union Army troops and slaves escaping the south on the Underground Railroad passed through. It’s been home to well-known corporations including Proctor and Gamble and the Kroger food empire.
On Friday night, Orchids at Palm Court, the Hilton’s AAA Five Diamond restaurant and The Bar at Palm Court were bustling and it wasn’t just the old, white, moneyed set. Guests were also young, visible minorities and tattooed. The earliest dinner reservation we could get was 8:30.
Executive Chef Todd Kelly presents an innovative, and rich-tasting, menu that is as good as anything we’ve eaten in other great food cities, like New York, Vancouver and Sydney.
Reviews recommended the Maine lobster salad. MacGyver confirmed it was tasty. My appetizer was the bone marrow tortellini. Both, tender and al dente, the handmade mouthfuls of stuffed dough were soaked in broth. He had the sea scallops and I had the lamb loin.
Factor in the price — $11-$13 for appetizers and $33-$36 for our main courses — our meal was not only delicious but it was a fantastic value. It came with extras, an amuse bouche, an egg shell filled with Raclette cheese custard, fresh bread with housemade butter, a between-courses taste of sea bass, and a finale, a chocolate macaron with fig cream and a chocolate stuffed with creamy caramel.
The service is knowledgable and attentive. The menu was explained, recommendations were made, the server answered questions and gave us her opinions. When the meals arrived we did not hear MacGyver’s hated words: And who is having the scallops. They knew. That is our mark of excellent service.
The location, the soaring ceilings, the beautiful table service, the jazz floating over from the bar area, made it a meal-to-remember.
Saturday, at the recommendation of the hotel Concierge, we turned Sabine, our motorcyle, south across the Ohio River to Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Sitting across from Rising Sun, Indiana, it too owes its life to the mighty Ohio River. First settled in 1764, by William Hodges, the village on the river front is now a well-known bikers’ weekend destination ruled by a string of Canine mayors.
Tragedy struck last year when the General Store with its sweeping porch, opened in 1842, burned down. The Scalded Hog is the place to eat in Rabbit Hash. The location made the meal a winner. We had a pulled pork sandwich and bean soup and listened to the local band the Compound Fractures.
For dinner, even though my Mother-In-Law makes the best caramelized and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, we chose the Shark-Tank-made-famous Tom+Chee for its grilled cheese sandwiches. Bacon-lettuce-tomato-cheddar on wheat berry for me. Chicken-grilled onions-tomato-sweet hot mustard-garlic seasoning-parmesan garlic chips-pepper jack cheese on wheat berry for MacGyver. Both were surprisingly good. The tomato soup was disappointing. The Bananarama, grilled banana and gouda donut was tasty. But my favorite was the Caprese salad with its juicy, crunchy Romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, motzarella in a balsamic vinaigrette.
We didn’t try the Skyline Chili — is this a joke? I read Cincinnatians eat more than two million pounds of chili a year — and we didn’t try the Graeter’s Ice Cream.
Our last stop was recommended by driver friends from Indiana. As big as an Ikea or a Costco, Jungle Jim’s International Market has two locations in the Cincinnati surburbs. It is my Disneyland or Ferrari World. Carrying 150,000 products in 200,000 square feet, I walked almost a mile around the store.
There’s a whole island of BBQ rubs and sauces, including the Aw Shit seasoning line, ten feet of sprinkles for cakes and cupcakes, a wall of Pez. Kaviar creme from Germany, canned dolmades from Greece, Marmite from Australia.
In the frozen meat section, ground Kangaroo and ground camel, Gerber’s Amish chicken, duck bacon, quail eggs. Fruits and vegetables. The best croissants I can remember eating are stocked from Ohio’s Blue Oven Bakery. Blue Oven’s ten-grain mild sourdough sells out early. A 20-foot aisle of Indian rice, another aisle of Thai rice. Natural foods, gluten-free foods and pastured eggs. One display case of butter, buffalo milk butter, sheep’s butter, goat’s butter, butter from Belgium, from the Czech Republic, truffle butter. A tank with swimming tilapia. Frozen dim sum. There are so many aisles of wine and beer from around the world there’s a map.
Jungle Jim’s is a must-see destination. And so is Cincinnati.
The Hilton Netherland Plaza, $188.65 per night including three taxes. Our Gold Hilton Honors status resulted in an upgrade to a Junior Suite. We parked the motorcycle across the street for $17.
Dinner for two at the Orchids at Palm Court was $160.68 including two glasses of wine and tip.
One large salad, one bowl of soup, two grilled cheese sandwiches, one grilled banana and gouda donut at Tom+Chee was $29.80 before tip.