Full disclosure: We didn’t eat at Skyline Chili. In the way that a New Yorker would insist that getting an egg cream is a more valuable experience than seeing some dingy old Statue of Freedom, Grace’s father, Gil, didn’t want to show us Cincinnati from the eyes a Fromers guide. So we’re sorry Graeters Ice Cream, we’re sorry Skyline, but secretly we’re sorry not sorry because Cincinnati served up some of the finest food we’ve ever had.
We slept in on our first day. The dogs, our Hildy and the Phipps’ Zelda, a big old Chocolate Lab, became fast friends. They deftly switched roles between “Tom and Jerry” and “Madonna and Britney" circa 2003 VMAs. The evening of our first full day in Ohio, Grace’s Dad took us to a Reds game, the third of a four-game series against our very own Dodgers. Much like Noah, the Dodgers came from Brooklyn out to The Coast only to recently find their footing. On the way, after winning the first two games, a Reds fan remarked on our Brooklyn/Los Angeles gear and asked if we’d let them have one. Turns out we did. We got creamed, but enjoyed the stadium and a new Midwestern sausage experience, the “hot met”. Later, we had a midnight snack at The Eagle, in the hip “Over-The-Rhine” neighborhood. We had fried chicken with jalapeño honey and it was delicious. The chicken was frankly inconsiderate, considering that we have to go through life knowing that it exists and not always eating it. We quickly realized that our trip to Cincinnati was going to be a bacchanal celebration of the town’s cutting-edge dining and drinking. Things could be worse for the next few days.
It’s all over now, Baby Blue.
It was our second day that took years off our lives - and not in the way really good plastic surgery does. Being so close to Kentucky, it’s pretty easy to jam over to the greater Louisville area and tour local distilleries. It’s the Bourbon Trail, and it’s more like a highway, easy to get on and hard to get off. We chose the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the States. It was allowed to stay open during Prohibition as one of the few manufacturers of “medicinal” whiskey, something that your physician could prescribe should you need it, medically, of course. There were also a few wineries allowed to stay open, because SHOMER SHABBOS. So, in the event you were having a dinner party in the 20s, you had better come down with the flu and a communion. We lucked out into the “hard hat” tour, which took us deep into the caverns of the factory, showing us everything from the multi-thousand-gallon corn-mash stills all the way to their experimental still, which looks like something H.G. Wells would’ve designed. When we passed the massive, bubbling, yeasty mash cookers, which incidentally is Grace’s new nickname, we were invited to taste the mixture. It’s basically alcoholic corn soup. Everyone on the tour stuck a finger in the pot and licked it, while Noah took the liberty and opportunity to stick a whole cupped hand in. The experience would not be unjustly likened to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but the Umpa Lumpas are charming elderly Kentuckian tour guides.
Bubble boil, toil and trouble.
Straight to the source.
Objects in cask may appear larger than actual size.
Obviously, there’s a proper tasting after the tour, and we left a little light on our feet, carrying a few gifts for home and the road. Back in town, we hit a local tobacconist, Carousel, deep in the heart of Cincy. We met the proprietor, Arnold, and collected samples from no fewer than a half-dozen blends before his wife called wondering why he wasn’t home already. He’d stayed open an extra five minutes for us. We had to jump on the line and confirm that we were neither imaginary nor two coeds wasting his time. Grace got a beautiful yellow meerschaum pipe and Noah got a briar piece with a flat bottom so it can stand up all on its own, just like him.
His and hers.
That night we supped at Salazar, where we ate a petting zoo variety of meats in various stages of chopped, pureed, grilled and mashed. It was marrow-buttered toast, a pot-de-creme-styled chicken liver and a rib-eye that was cut more like a filet mignon, with a dollop of truffle-butter almost the size of an ice-cream-scoop. After all that, the only option we had was to sit on a porch and smoke pipes, alternating between the mysterious “Brindley’s Mixture” and “Bob’s English” tobacco blends. Noah would like to think the “Bob” in the later is Bob Hoskins, because it’s a roasted, stumpy cut that’s full of a deep, intense flavor while never being overpowering. RIP.
The following day we visited Grace’s Dad at work at the Kroger offices (ironic, isn’t it?), getting a tour of jauntily decorated cubicles in Bizarro-OFFICE SPACE before heading to lunch at a joint called The Anchor. It’s a sea-foodie restaurant with a lobster roll and soft-shelled crab sandwich that would make a New Englander hire a local realtor. Afterwards, we strolled down Vine Street, which unlike Vine Street in Hollywood, is somewhere you’d actually want to be. We grabbed coffee from a favorite spot, “1215”, where they sell gourmet shit, that shit that Bonnie would never buy, without making you feel like an asshole in Kansas City. We went to Maribelle’s that evening, and asked to sit at the long table aside the exposed kitchen. This is a table where even the most interesting conversations fade away to grunts of indignation we can only feel when we want to eat a thing forever, and ever, and ever. From the table we got to watch as burners and ovens and gentle, still-growing herbs are dexterously handled by a team of Cincy’s finest. It was dinner and a show. The deal is, we eat whatever they give us. Martha, the head chef, provided us an unrelenting tasting menu. The meal was six courses, including a creamy leek gazpacho, a crispy trout accentuated with young corn sprouts, and a pistachio-cum-blueberry “trés leches” that might’ve had three milks, but was the grande fromage. Their “Saint Agatha” cocktail satisfied Noah’s love of grapefruit and mint, while the “Queen City” included one of Grace’s favorites, Watershed’s gin, something practically unavailable outside the municipality of its namesake. It was legitimately one of the best meals of our lives.
Saturday was spent at “City Flea”, a takeover of Washington Park in the middle of downtown (also on Vine Street) by local merchants, thrifters, food-trucks and kids playing in fountains. It’s so fucking wholesome it makes you think you’re in Canada. We thought we got away with tolerance and harmony by wearing Blue at a Reds’ game, but this is Ebony and Ivory. Literally the entire city is playing, eating, shopping and laughing. Grace managed to spend $27 on what will amount to an entire new glassware set for her bar and a new wardrobe. $40 bought Noah a working 1948 Smith-and-Corona typewriter in its own carrying case. It even came with an extra ribbon. We hit Street-Pops for icy treats, ranging from bourbon to basil to hibiscus, and then it was off to Party Source, just across the Kentucky Border. It's the largest liquor store in the country. We rolled into the parking lot and we knew what it must’ve been like for our ancestors to see Lady Liberty’s Crown as they pulled into Ellis’ Island. It was a homecoming to somewhere we never knew we’d been from. Party Source is big enough to house every kind of novelty-flavored vodka, let alone the rarest of the rares, the deepest cuts of whiskies and all accouterments. It’s Kentucky’s version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. They have a distillery on-site, in the parking lot. They apparently have a wine-tasting bar and brewery in the back, but we could never get that far because there’s a whiskey bar midway through the store. At this tasting bar, you can get single shots of whiskies, mostly bourbons, that you can’t, nor will you ever be able to, buy by the bottle. These are vintages which Party Source may get only a few bottles of, stick in a case, and doll out for a few bucks to vetted customers, curated by professionals. You think bypassing that velvet rope at da club is schmancy? Convincing the guy at Party Source that you’re capable of handling a 20-year-old bourbon called “Pappy’s” is the true sign of balling.
The good leads, the Glengarry leads.
A Rabbi, a Priest and Gracie walk into a liquor store…
Some staples for hitting the road.
Continuing the cocktailing of the day, we hit Japp’s, which may be the oldest bar in Cincy, opening in 1879. It’s got the tin roof and the brass bar. Currently owned and operated by Molly Wellman, she is the smiling-human-woman version of her bar. She’s equal parts old fashion pin up, and cool multi-business-owning Suicide Girl. She’s a badass in that she may let you stay over, and she may even cook you eggs in the morning. But it’ll be a fritata. We started our drinks with something aptly called a “Marlboro Man”, obviously Noah’s new favorite cocktail. It has Molly’s own tobacco-infused bitters and involves a flaming Absinthe rinse. The night’s specials, up on the board, were all named after 90s rock hits. Grace had a “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life”, which was anachronistically topped with beer and Noah had a “Come as You Are”, that included tequila, mint, grapefruit and was basically his favorite thing ever. We finished the evening with a Ramos Gin Fizz as good as you’d have in The Big Easy.
Japp’s Menu. Which one doesn’t belong?
Ain’t no rinse like an Absinthe rinse.
The only time Third Eye Blind and Nirvana have ever been on the same bill.
Tomorrow we hit The Road again. The South is taking us, well, South, to Texas. It’ll be a lot more of the same in terms of the tripping, the destinations and jerky. Having had this respite was like a real vacation a true slice of Midwestern luxury, with some haughty gourmet thrown in next to familial comfort. We’d come to Cincinnati to see family, Grace’s dad, en route to meeting up with the rest of the clan down South in Texas. We would’ve been content hanging with him at their comfy house, snuggling dogs and watching Louie. Without a skipping a beat, we tore deep into Cincinnati, a city that turns out to have the eat-and-drinkability of New Orleans, Austin and the Bougie, clichéd hipster enclaves on The Coasts. The deliciousness of this town is only buttressed by the fact that its residents work for a living, have Winter, and actually deal with lots of folks who aren’t just like them. It’s an inspiring town, rife with liberal history, art and education. More influential than where it’s been is where it is, the vibrancy with which it is obviously growing and staying youthful, peppy and yummy. Y’all can keep Austin Weird. Let’s keep Cincy Tasty.