As we went into the second year of the pandemic, vaccines and boosters allowed us a bit more normalcy and the safer ability to go out in public. More local restaurants opened for eat-in dining, and some regrettably closed forever. Although my dining out was still very limited, I took advantage of the times I had to dine at some of my favorite restaurants and some new ones. I made some pretty good stuff this year too in my World’s Smallest Kitchen.
There is nothing better to open the year with than Cherry Thing-a-lings from Schmidt’s Bakery in Batesville, Indiana, to celebrate Presidents’ Day. It doesn’t help that they’re a cherry flavored version of my favorite and least healthy doughnut, the iced fried fritter. The pandemic made them available by direct home delivery last year, preventing the trek to wait hours in a usually super-cold ,early morning line in years past. We’re only a few weeks away from that time again this year.
Sadly, Ice Cream Icon Jim Aglamesis passed away this past year, but his delicious Greek family legacy lives on at two of Cincy’s most fabulous ice cream locations. Two of my favorite restaurants closed for good this year – Grande Finale in Glendale, and Commonwealth Bistro in Mainstrasse Village in Covington. There will be no more mushroom crepes, Thanksgiving salmon, or Ma’s Pumpkin Pie (deemed the best in Cincinnati by my father, a self-proclaimed pumpkin pie connoisseur). The location is so historic and charming it would make a great backdrop for a new chef willing to either reamp a Grand Finale 2.0 or open with a new concept. Although a tragedy, I do understand why Commonwealth closed. They were not a restaurant that lent itself for carryout during the pandemic. They had charming, well menu-ingredients-and-specials-educated servers who made you feel like you were the only ones in the restaurant. Their pastry chef was super-brilliant, and it was the first place I tried rabbit. Everything on the menu made you moan in food-gasm.
Another sad loss was the pastry chef at my local coffee shop Mad Llama who made the sausage, cheese and hot pepper stuffed kolache/koblasnick. They were indeed a treat, even though short-lived.
I tried some new things this year. I started the year with a roundup of all the green and red versions of zhug sauce. It’s a spicy pepper-based puree from Yemen that’s good by itself as a veggie or pita dip, or on grilled meats. It’s now a staple in my pantry. I tried peanut butter flavored whiskey, which I decided was just meh, even after I mixed it with sugar free Frosty Root Beer to make what I called the Frosty Squirrel. It took me from Spring to December to finish that few small airplane sized bottles I had. I also finally got to try Henry Bain sauce from Louisville, invented by an African-American cook at one of the city’s high end white man’s social clubs. A deeper, fruitier version of A1, it has also become a staple in my pantry, when I can find it, which is not as often as I’d like on this Yankee side of the Ohio River. As a comparison, I tried Indianapolis’s St. Elmo Steaksauce, which I though was too sweet and IMO is not a great balances of flavors.
While in Alabama, I tried red and green muscadine grapes, and spicy boiled peanuts from a farm stand. Both grapes have lots of seeds and have some interesting musky wild grape flavor.
During restaurant week at Nicola’s, my BFF Ramona introduced me to stuffed castelveltrano olives, which are superb, and hard to find.
For the Lunar New Year, I tried Bahn Chung Vietnamese sticky lunar new year cake filled with mung bean paste from the Francis International Market in Northside on Colerain Avenue. While I had high hopes, sadly, it was not my jam.
I tried the over-the-top fab Hanky Panky appetizer at Maury’s Tiny Cove on the West Side, and washed it down with a salty pickle juice-spiked Maury-tini. I got to see this West Side icon, where the movie Carol was filmed and where over three generations of Cincinnatians have gone for a nice celebration dinner.
I was lucky to be given samples of two new legacy products made by new Crystal Chili, from the legacy recipe of the old Newport chili parlor, and a new goetta called Rhinelander, even though goetta is from Northwest Saxony/Westphalia, not the wine making Rhineland. Both are made by A & J Foods, a contract brander who uses the Worthmore chili factory in Northside in the old Bruckmann Brewery plant.
I found a supplier of sugar free authentic Dutch black licorice. It’s fairly expensive, but really good, salty, black licoricy, and sort-of healthy.
I tried cannolis from Del Gardo’s in Covington for the first time – with two flavors for my annual Easter family get together and they were super crunchy, creamy deliciousness.
I also tried burgoo for the first time at a Barbecue Exchange outside of Orange, Virginia, after visiting James Madison’s Montpelier. I waited in line for about 45 minutes, but it was totally worth the wait. It was deep tomatoey, tangy and had lots of the three meats – pork sausage, beef brisket and chicken.
There were some great new additions to build on our food heritage. Innovative pastry chef Doug Faulkner brought us – through a pop-up at Dojo Gelato in Northside – several new flavors of Virginia Bakery’s indulgent invention the Schnecken. Doug brought us such new flavors as bourbon raisin, blueberry, and even a savory version, which was my fave – mushroom schnecken. About a decade ago Doug operated THE BEST café and bakery in Northside on Hamilton Avenue called Take the Cake. It had a great counter to linger after breakfast and brunch and catch up on all the latest news and gossip.
Some of my favorite restaurants and dishes of 2021 are: the amazeballs Hungarian mushroom soup at the National Exemplar in Mariemont; the spicy, crunchy General Tsao fried chicken sandwich and apricot slaw at the relatively new Governor in historic downtown Milford (they also had a fabulous Nashville fried fish sandwich for Lenten Fish Fry season); and always the bakla jan eggplant and tomato chutney/salsa/vegan chili from the Pickled Pig will be my favorite use of eggplant in Cincinnati.
I became familiar with the awesome riverfront outdoor restaurant, Cabana on the River – meeting family there twice to celebrate the summer – once after my niece’s soccer game, and another after Paddlefest.
It also wouldn’t have been summer without Flubb’s sugar free ice cream with three drive up locations in Fairfield, Hamilton, and Ross. Their sugar free pistachio and sugar free blueberry cheesecake made my July.
I have met my brother, Tom, in Dayton for lunch several times. Since he works at UD, we meet at a place down the street from campus called Ladder 11. It’s a sports pub inside an old fire station that has some of the surprisingly best food in the area. At our December meetup, I had a cup of their gumbo while I was waiting for him. And it is now the Best Gumbo I’ve ever eaten. It had a rich, hearty tomatoey broth with a bit of spice, lots of well cooked veggies including non-slimy okra, hearty slices of smoked sausage and chicken, which were juice and not dried. It barely needed my obligatory splash of hot sauce.
Out of town I had some great dinners. In Bon Secour, Alabama, I had the best fish dinner in the world. I continue to proclaim Gulf Shore seafood is the best in the world – look out Croatia and the Mediterranean! I also went to my standard Winchell’s Oyster House in Mobile, Alabama, and found that mixing Oysters Bienvielle and Oysters Rockafeller produces the best love child. For my milestone birthday cake, I had Cuban pastellitos de guayaba at Las Floriditas, a Hemingway-themed speakeasy in downtown Mobile. I couldn’t have chosen a better birthday cake, and there were some leftover for coffee the next morning on the beach watching the sunrise.
It’s rare that I get fed when I do a book lecture. But in November, I spoke at the Opry Barn in Metamora, Indiana, and was treated to a dinner of Guiness Stew, and the best Irish soda bread I have ever had! It was a great dunker in the stew.
In Pittsburgh, I had some great Hungarian food at Huszar’s Restaurant. I had creamy Bakony chicken , pickled creamy cucumber salad, and creamed onion soup. I washed it all down with a shot of Jaegermeister wanna-be Unicum. I also had some great Polish pierogi at S & D Polish Deli in the Strip. It may have helped that both of these gnoshes were bookended by viewing some great art.
There were several new openings this year that now fall into my regular faves. Bee’s Barbecue FINALLY opened a bricks and mortar in the heart of Madisonville. Although its carryout only, it’s down the street from my house and my office, so a lunch time getaway is always on the table. Before their opening Bee’s BBQ was a Sunday-only popup at Dutch’s Market on Erie Avenue. Their Texas smoked Lockhart sausage is my jam and their brisket and specials continue to rock my world.
Gulow Street opened in a small historic corner building in the Little Penzlin area of Northside, where my first Woellert ancestors and their family and fellow villagers from Penzlin, Mecklenburg Germany settled before the Civil War. August Gulow, was a cousin of my great great grandfather who was President of the Cumminsville Turners, the neighborhood tailor, and a Cincinnati City Councilman. His son, August, Jr. would become the first physical instructor for the Cincinnati Police Force. I gave the chef/owner a great photo of August Jr. in his Victorian man-tard exercise outfit. They I think have the best salmon salad sandwich in the City, second only to my cousin Ken’s salmon salad.
Fillo Greek Pastry and Café which opened in August in Over-the-Rhine is a GEM of our city. They handmake traditional Greek Pastries including savory pitas like spanakopita, pumpkin filled, and a version with tomato, onion and olive, that’s like a pizza wrapped in flaky puff pastry dough. Everything they have is super-delicious.
I had Birria tacos from the Mexican province of Jalisco for the first time from another neighborhood haunt – Jorge’s food truck, parked at the gas station on Erie at the confluence of East Hyde Park, Fairfax and Madisonville. Now birria tacos are the height of popularity for all Cincy lovers of Mexican food.
The Syrian restaurant Olive Tree opened up as one of the inaugural restaurants at the fabulous new Oakley Kitchen, the brain child of Eli’s BBQ’s owner and bud, Elias Leisring. Their Syrian chicken with Aleppo pepper hot sauce, and their maamoul fig stuffed pastries are deliciously addicting.
The things I made myself in the Worlds Smallest Kitchen by the World’s Tallest Chef, were pretty amazing. I continued making my savory streudels filled with the Indian carrot salad halwa. I found a regular farm supply of kohlrabi at the Hyde Park Farmer’s market to make my spiralized kohlrabi baked ‘fries’. I made my sugar free pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and made a sugar free and gluten free version of my grandma’s date filled Princess Squares. My traditional Thanksgiving Oyster dressing this year was the best, as I used veggie flavored Ritz cracker crumbs over the regular saltine cracker crumbs. I also made my now standard squash casserole, lifted from the Mary Mac Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia.
I am lucky to be part of a food group that poses as a crime game solving club. Every time we meet to solve a Crime Box, we have an international food theme. We’ve done Italian, German, and are about to do a Greek night. We have the world’s most skilled and scientific cookie baker, Anne, who makes THE BEST snickerdoodles in the world. And New York-Italian chef, Kim, makes the best eggplant parmesan I’ve ever had and her first time making sauerkraut balls yielded the best I’ve ever tasted. She say’s, “it’s just another type of meatbawl.” My shiksa sister made some pretty awesome potato latkes too. She also made a great love child, crossing a jalapeno popper with Hanky Panky for her daughter’s Baby Yoda themed birthday party. She called them Yoda Ears.
My BFF Jeannie made some spectacular cauliflower soup and a great vegan pasticchio. Her partner, Harry, made some great Cincinnati Vegan lentil chili. And it wouldn’t have been Christmas without Sandy Hamilton’s beautiful orange-flavored, dark-chocolate dipped Springerlie cookies. What a treat!
Of course one of the best things I had this year was Mom’s home made Goetta, which all of my siblings got for Christmas. Its delicious, has the perfect ratio of pinhead oats to meat, and is made with tons of love. Mom calls it her ‘spicy’ version because she uses the spicy Bob Evans pork sausage.
Here’s to a happy, healthy, delicious food-filled 2022 for you !!