Tuesday, February 14, 2012

These Aren't Your Mother's Belgian Waffles

Unless of course your mother is from a small city in Belgium called Liege.

What was once tucked aside in a temporary space at Findlay Market has now grown into a regional phenomenon. With a full service Belgian bistro in Over-the-Rhine, the now permanent setup at the crossroads of the Market house at Findlay, and a new concept store in Columbus, a daring Belgian has delivered a European treat to our city in astonishing fashion. From the shores of the Meuse to the shores of the Ohio, he has transplanted a simple idea with wonderful results right here in our fair city. A once cast-aside breakfast item made as cold and lifeless as the Eggo boxes it graces, Jean-Francois has thrown out our preconceived notions about breakfast foods, and with it our ability to enjoy anything short of this criminally delicious Belgian treat.

The Taste of Belgium Bistro was opened this past September after more than a few years of what the local news outlets could only describe as the "feeding frenzy" that seemed to accompany Jean-Francois and his delicious waffles everywhere he went. From the opening of his cozy nook in Findlay Market in 2007, people could just never seem to get enough of the true nectar of Belgium (with Chimay coming in a very close second). It was with the establishment of this bistro on the corner of 12th and Vine that Cincinnati's demand for Belgian waffles began to be satiated. And this past Sunday, after a record-breaking win for best brunch without actually serving a Sunday brunch, hungry and hungover weekenders can now enjoy true Sunday brunches that will make many of us rethink our old Sunday go-tos.

So you think you've had belgian waffles, do you? While you may have found some deliciously gridded pieces of doughy goodness stacked five deep drowned with the compliments of the good Mrs. Butterworth appetizing, it's unlikely that you've enjoyed real Belgian waffles. Until now. The key behind Belgian waffles in the sense and execution of the Belgian style comes from the Waffle Patriarch's home town of Liege, Belgium, nestled  along the banks of the Meuse river. The keys with these waffles are a hybrid of brioche bread dough and chunks of pearl sugar. What makes these distinct is the special waffle iron and higher temperatures at which it is cooked. While the inside remains fluffy and soft, the pearl sugar begins to not only melt, but actually carmelize around the outside, creating a crunchy and sweet shell around the warm treat. In Belgium, this is the most common waffle, generally served in the classically European paper wrap and meant to be taken to go.

Taste of Belgium Bistro has an excellent setup perched right at the entrance to OTR. A roomy bistro with a huge beer and wine list, you can actually watch many of the cooks ironing (waffling?) away right from the entrance. Plenty of seating and expansive views of the bustling Over-The-Rhine make this the perfect place to relax on a beautiful Sunday morning. The service too, was, and always has been, incredible. The waiters and waitresses here make it priority one to learn their customer base and be as gracious and hospitable as possible. Both Jean-Francois and his crew of talented young men and women take time out of their day to greet and converse with all of their customers.

Now on to the brand-new brunch menu. Although winning MetroMix's Best Of Cincy: Brunch last year, until this past Sunday, they have't actually served brunch in the classic Sunday sense of the word. While a waffle is the clear show horse here, there are a sampling of many other delicious breakfast items to help you fight off the cobwebs on a Sunday morning. This Sunday we knew we had to be down there for what was sure to be a sold out show on the waffle irons. I, of course, fell back to my ways of the one-trick pony. Going with the simple but delicious waffles described above topped with fresh strawberries and cream, I decided I needed at least a little bit of salt and grease in my morning, so I sprang for the goetta as a side- cooked perfectly crisp and a great contrast to the sweet waffles and tart berries. The real winner of the day was Jean-Francois' take on a classic- the goetta hash. A hearty bowl of goetta, sauteed onions, and peppers was thrown a curveball from across the pond- the whole dish came together on a terrace of fryer-fresh crispy frites. A truly astounding assortment of everything you really want in a dish. Heart-stopping in taste and cholesterolic extravagance as it was, it is well worth the trip downtown just to partake.

My dining companions of the morning went with something that their unlearned palates found soothing and comfortable- the McWaffle. A mighty belgian waffle packed with an over-medium egg and crispy canadian bacon, it was the perfect breakfast sandwich- sweet and salty, filling but not putting bricks in your stomach for the rest of the day. Accompanying my waffle was a classic doppio espresso with a single sugar cube. And, as an aside here, at no fault of their own, the whole no drinking mimosas before eleven on Sundays should have some wiggle room, no? But any other day, the bistro does have some fantastic orange juice that should naturally be accompanied by a strong Brut. Their crepe is also a delicious breakfast bite, with the 'Nati being my personal favorite. And if you stop down there during the week, be sure to have some time set aside for the Belgian Breakfast of Champions- a waffle with the Taste of Belgium pilsner. The true breakfast delight is the ability to be in and out with fantastic food that fills, but doesn't weigh you down, satisfies but doesn't stuff. And for around $15 plus tip for each of us, we couldn't ask for a better way to start our week out right.

More to come on this and hats off to Jean-Francois!!

  Taste of Belgium Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Authentic Mexican- Vine Street Style

It's OTR, so that means it's time for me to get on my soapbox

When it comes to Over-The-Rhine, I really can't express the excitement and general energy that pervades the entire district. Having been re-founded son the backs of a few enterprising young men and women, to say it has come a long way would be nothing short of an understatement. Of course new restaurants always catch our fancy, but whether it's Mt. Adams or the downtown business district, there's just never the same level of excitement that surrounds a new opening in OTR. Now, this isn't to say that there aren't restaurants of equal merit in these other areas, but it carries an entirely different meaning. With every door swing of Senate and newly-tapped keg of wine at Abigail Street, it's not simply commerce, but an infusion of life and vigor into the once-blighted area. There are very few areas that have seen such wildly different ups and downs over the last hundred fifty years- but out of this dynamism has grown a powerful character unto itself, unrivaled and unmatched; entirely unique and surprisingly powerful in bringing about the kind of change that the whole city can expound off of.

The newest kid on the block is of course Bakersfield OTR. Brought to us by the (in)famous Lanni brothers, this little slice of the honky-tonk SoCal town of the same name brings authentic mexican food paired with some of the finest bourbon and tequila this side of the Mississippi. Driving past the "Coming Soon" sign (which, god knows, has been there far too long), you can't help but to salivate just a tad over a tagline that reads "Tacos, Tequila, and Whiskey." The Lanni boys, of Currito and SoHi fame, have now decided to step away from the slick fast-food in and out style and have opted for a much more laid back and true dining experience. 

Here's the premise- basically in the 50's and 60's a bunch of drawl-laden Texas natives moved into a small town in Southern California and started a hybrid honky-tonk musical genre known as Bakersfield Sound that stressed the pedal steel guitar and intense vocals. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are the quintessential Bakersfield boys of the age. Here it is; think flamboyant rhinestone gilded nudie suit meets spaghetti western. Then add bourbon- a ten-gallon hat full of it.

So the restaurant is nestled on Vine St just across from Senate and a couple doors up from Lavomatic. In classic arterial neo-OTR loft form it has grand ceilings and exposed ductwork, with unabashed brick walls. To really kick in the Southeastern Arizona communal feel, the Lanni's have provided a picnic table for at least 12-15 and a couple of old wooden casks to lean the ol' snake-skins against. The bar is a sky-high assortment of top-shelf bourbons and tequilas, but they also provide $2 draft nights and $3 shot specials that alternate throughout the week. My drink of choice on opening night was the waiters no-hesitation drink of choice, the Red-Headed Stranger. A barrel aged bourbon with a dash of cayenne pepper garnished with a tart candied piece of ginger, it was a spicy contrast to the chips and guacamole we were enjoying for our appetizer. Fryer fresh tortilla chips with a healthy portion of guacamole second only to Nada came out nearly immediately and gave us some time to skim over the rather succinct menu. Simple and to the point: Couple salads, couple sandwiches, six or seven tacos. Real mexican street food, a la carte. This takes to heart the words of the late Mr. Jobs "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." One orders two or three (or 7) different tacos from a list. These two or three bite tacos are served on 4" tortillas hand made everyday by a tireless crew of white college kids (adds to the authenticity). Preferably, a group orders a couple of everything and enjoys the tapas feel. A great meal that doesn't leave you wanting for more, but doesn't weigh you down either.

A kindly couple behind us immediately struck up conversation and we began falling all over ourselves about OTR and how amazing it was for the area. Clearly at least a couple bourbon's deep, they recommended the Pastor, a marinated pork taco with a liberal topping of pineapple for a soft citrusy finish. Great flavor, but I found that the pork was a little tough and chewy. My favorite (which we would continue to see rounds of these coming) was the Short Rib. A braised short rib topped with cheese, white onion, a dash of cilantro and a radish to finish. It was truly perfect. An explosion of spiced short rib flavor, you immediately think you must have this marinade all over your face and wonder to yourself- How could so much flavor be contained in this fluffy hand-made tortilla. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I finished that with just a tad of the green avocado-based sauce, too late to realize there really wasn't much of anything that could be added to it. High marks were also given to the fish taco (hold the lime on that one) and to the cochinita pibil-  another pork braised dish with a strong pickled onion and habenero glaze.  With a couple drinks, 4 or 5 tacos a piece, and the appetizer, brought the bill to just under $25. With our server's well-deserved tip we were out of there for an even $35 each.

All in all it was a great time, and will be a perfect addition to this thriving quarter of the city. Mexican food is easy and cheap, Americanized and made slutty by Margaritas and Chi Chi's. Bakersfield OTR pays homage to American Mexican, but an authenticity all its own. More importantly however, it raises even further the high standards of what we have come to expect from OTR, and has us chomping at the bit for the next bite of culinary expertise to grace our fine city.

Note: Addendums will be made for tequila down the line- spelling and grammar be damned in that one

Bakersfield on Urbanspoon