Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bravo Cucina Italiana at Rookwood

Notable Italian cuisine 
and service at a moderate price

The Bravo Cucina Italiana Dining Room
      Dining at new restaurants in their infancy can be a dicey situation.  When we received an invitation to join the new Bravo at Rookwood for a gratis dining adventure during one of their training sessions, we promptly accepted.  Who wouldn't?  We tossed our hesitancy aside and slid into one of their comfortable booths in the open dining area decorated in a grand Italian-type manner with rich woods and bright warm accents.

Calamari Fritti

      From the Appetizer Menu came the chef's choice of Calamari Fritti.  Served with creamy horseradish and pomodoro sauce, the calamari was tender throughout with a seasoned and light batter.  We found the horseradish sauce particularly nice and felt this dish would hold up to fine dining standards.  It's reminiscent of Brio's version, which is another brand also owned by the same company.

Soup and Brussels Sprout & Almond Salad
      It was our choice from the Soup & Salads Menu.  Eric chose the Italian Wedding Soup served in a tureen with a lovely thick broth.  I went with the Brussels Sprout & Almond Salad at the recommendation of our server.  The mixed greens with shaved Brussels sprouts, candied almonds and Parmesan worked well together with a lemon garlic vinaigrette.  We felt this was a must dish at Bravo.  

Eggplant Parmesan
      Again, we chose from the Chef Specialties.  Eric loves eggplant and I do not.  He typically orders it when on a menu and found the Eggplant Parmesan there.  Two large, breaded "filets" were served atop a bed of linguine and topped traditionally with mozzarella.  It was like having perfectly cooked fish and was an idiosyncratic way to prepare it.  

Grilled Tilapia with Crab & Shrimp
I wanted something lighter, ordering the Grilled Tilapia with Crab & Shrimp.  Wonderfully seasoned with a slightly spicy rub, the crab and shrimp were diced and mixed in a cream sauce on top.  The seasonal vegetables were sautéed excellence.

Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding

      It was server's choice for the dessert and we were hoping it would not be a bread pudding.  Ding, ding, ding!  The spin of the wheel landed on the dessert of the day—Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding.  Like a warm molten cake, it was accompanied with vanilla bean gelato and caramel sauce.  When done well, even overrated concoctions can win one over.

      We would have never guessed that this was a pre-opening dining experience.  It appears everything was operating on all cylinders and ready for a long run.  

Bravo Cucina Italiana on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mad Men: 6 more episodes and already it’s “Uh-oh”

We hope its best days aren’t behind a TV classic

     Yes, we’ve praised Mad Men up one season and generally up even more the next.  I wasn’t certain about season 6 since it got off to a rocky start until “The Crash” episode.  The second half of the last season just started and a tiny wretched crack of the English language showed up and in an episode written by no less than series creator Matthew Weiner.  One of Peggy’s copywriters was trying to fix her up with his wife’s brother.  I cannot remember the line exactly, but it went something like this as he explained the situation to another employee, “Peggy is having dinner with my wife and I.”  Neil and I were stunned.

     People don’t make this mistake when it’s a singular object such as “Peggy is having dinner with me.”  It only happens when it’s a plural object where the proper names are used.  Perhaps this reflects an almost narcissistic regard on the level of the royal ‘we’ from Americans nowadays.  As Neil says, “It’s big I, little you.”  Mad Men has never been about the post-Millennial self-regard – practically self-obsession – of the current culture.  Instead, it’s been about an ambitious, ascendant culture coming out of the superficially optimistic Eisenhower years and moving through to the shame or expediency, depending on your point of view, of Watergate.  The most attractive aspect to me about Mad Men has been its literacy.  What a shame that Weiner couldn’t be bothered about such an important element as the show nears its close.

John Hamm as Don Draper 
     That disappointment aside, it seems pretty clear that there will not be a transcendent moment for Don Draper.  His best years may be behind him in forging a new identity and life for himself before the first episode and then in his gorgeous control of narrative through the theme of nostalgia at the end of season 1 in “The Wheel,” which was about the Kodak slide carousel.  
"It's Not Called the Wheel,
It's the Carousel"—Don Draper
Peggy Olson, Don’s secretary then protégée then colleague, had a moment of potential romantic transcendence that was thrown because she didn’t realize she’d left her passport at the office.  The job always comes first with Peggy.  She may disparage Joan Harris, but she hasn’t had to balance family obligations and sexual entanglements with a professional life to the same degree, though she doesn’t know this.  The best episode of the series came about half way through in “The Suitcase” during season 4 because it most fully examined the complex ties between Don and Peggy, which is the most important relationship.

Peggy Olson and Don Draper
    I hate to think that the complacency of the educated, suburban, white men that make up most of the characters has seeped into the creators’ practice.  The improper English aside, the episode began with yet another example of the rampant sexism redolent of the era.  I was hoping we’d move a little beyond that or that it could show up later, but unfortunately not.  Whether we see further examples of the racism and homophobia it’s dealt with in the past remains to 
Watching the 1969
Landing on the Moon 
be seen.  One of the ironies of Mad Men, which also seems extraordinarily pragmatic, is that although the characters spend their professional lives presenting gleaming, manicured surfaces to sell the American Dream, they possess very little connection to what was happening historically and what eventually moved the culture in a different direction, even as that direction has been re-navigated over the last four decades. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

National Grilled Cheese Day

Celebrate Sunday, April 12th 
with $3 off at Panera Bread

      The Grilled Cheese Sandwich began its lofty climb to comfort food stardom during WWII when it became a favorite of the Allied Troops. Shortly thereafter, homemakers and schools followed by making it a mainstay in their menu planning. It's made a resurgence in recent years as gourmet versions have appeared on menus with some restaurants building their entire business around the iconic meal, like Cincinnati's Tom + Chee.

Mozzarello with Fig Jam
on Sourdough and
Tomato Basil Soup
      We've been on the bandwagon a few times serving our own interpretations at parties and family gatherings. Our favorites were Mozzarella on Blue Oven Chocolate Cherry Bread for a holiday party a few years ago and Mozzarella with Fig Jam on Sourdough paired with Tomato Basil Soup at our wedding celebration.  There's nothing more comforting than that!

      Panera Bread is celebrating this Sunday, April 12th with an in-store promotion. Stop by your local bakery-café on April 12 and save $3 on any Grilled Cheese sandwich.

Choose from the all-time American classic Grilled Cheese sandwich, get cheesy with the Fontina Grilled Cheese, or feel young with the Kid's Grilled Cheese.

Classic Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Organic sliced American cheese grilled on our freshly baked All-Natural White Bread.

Fontina Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Vermont white cheddar, fontina, reduced-fat chive & onion cream cheese spread and a four cheese Italian blend grilled on our freshly baked, thick sliced All-Natural White Bread.

Kid's Grilled Cheese Sandwich
A kid-friendly classic made with organic American cheese grilled on our All-Natural White Bread.

To find participating Panera Bread bakery-cafes in your area, visit

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The World of Suzie Wong's on Madison

There's nothing mysterious 
about this straightforward Asian cuisine

      We didn't see Nancy Kwan (Suzie Wong in the movie) posing at the bar as we met the Food Hussy and husband Larry for dinner.  We chose Suzie Wong's after some back and forth suggestions, landing on one that we had not reviewed and Heather had not reviewed since its opening in 2009.  Heather recalled a couple of memorable dishes, which made a good basis for us to begin our dual review. You can read her dual review at

Fire Cracker Calamari
      We started with the Fire Cracker Crispy Calamari, which is a good choice to share with its Thai pomegranate dipping sauce.  All was good until I ran across a couple of rubbery pieces.  Entrées were next and I was going to go with one of Heather's suggestions, the Malaysian Chicken in a Claypot.  She couldn't remember the spiciness as she only had a bite of it so when I quizzed the waiter, I passed my choice on to Eric.

Honey Garlic Chicken
Pineapple Chicken
Instead, I went for the moderate Honey Garlic Chicken.  The menu said it was stir fried, but I thought it tasted and looked like it had a batter on it.  Not bad, but a little on the heavy and sweet side with minimal garlic oomph. Larry ordered the Pineapple Chicken presented in a quarter pineapple wedge with what tasted like a newer take on sweet and sour chicken.

Malaysian Chicken in a Claypot
Eric went for the Malaysian Claypot, which he found had a pressing bitterness to it and put him of more than the heat of the dish.  The hit of the evening was Heather's Bi Bim Bap, and isn't that how it should be for the Food Hussy?  It was a winner on all accords from presentation to taste.  A signature Korean dish, it was served in a clay pot of crispy warm rice layered with sautéed vegetables and Gochuchang (chili pepper paste) over sliced beef, all topped with a fried egg that serves to fuse the elements together.

Bi Bim Bap

      Suzie Wong's occupies an elegant space in one of the most architecturally inspired areas of the city.  It fits in nicely, but sometimes dining out is more about the company than the meal and that was the case for us that evening.  The conversation was more exciting than the overall meal experience.  If only we could have fallen for Suzie like William Holden did in the movie.

Suzie Wong's on Madison on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Andrea Levy’s "Small Island", Jayne Anne Phillips’ novels

Excellent writers who 
unconsciously disappoint in some works

Andrea Levy
     Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004) won the Orange Prize, which is given to female writers (yes, lots of controversy about that from a wide swath of political stripes, but I’m not going there) and then the Orange of Oranges (the British really get into that best of best mentality because they had the biggest empire of all until relatively recently).  It’s set before, during, and immediately after World War II in England and Jamaica – a proud dominion of the British Empire, at least during that period.  It was highly recommended by a number of those “books to think about reading” guides so I thought I’d give it a try.

     Levy writes in the voices of the four main characters – a white English couple in London (Queenie and Bernard) and a black Jamaican couple (Hortense and Gilbert) that immigrates to England.  She captures the rhythms, dialects, and vocabularies of these characters impeccably.  The sequences focusing on the males – one in Jamaica as the war starts, the other stuck in India after the war officially ended, but before he could be demobilized – are remarkable because they offer such original insight to that period and the vastness of the Empire’s culture in the early twentieth century.  However, most stay at home Brits would never have given it much of a second thought.  Levy shows and doesn’t editorialize about this attitude in her prologue featuring Queenie, the white, lower middle class Englishwoman from the countryside.  

     Levy’s historical research reveals some long buried details concerning life in England during the war.  One major episode centers on the bullying aspect of American culture – namely in terms of race relations concerning people of African or Caribbean descent – on the ordinary English as three characters go to a showing of Gone with the Wind (1939), which I remember my Nana saying played throughout the war.  The balance of democratic power had already shifted to the American empire and that is displayed throughout Gilbert’s sections.  

The Characters in the BBC Version
     Where I had problems with the book was in the character of Hortense because she’s such a stuck-up, insecure pill.  I wanted her to get her comeuppance though, by the time she did, I felt a greater empathy for her.  It didn’t look like a long book at first, but it was a slog to get through because of that character.  The story ends in 1948 with a situation that had me wishing it had been the beginning with flash-forwards to what might happen to these people in twenty years during the Swinging Sixties or thirty years later during the Brixton riots.  I would, however, read another of Levy’s novels.

Jayne Anne Phillips

     I’ve found myself rethinking Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams (1984) and Shelter (1994) while reading them.  They’re filled with beautifully rendered yet endless descriptions of locales as well as character driven scenes that don’t advance the plot.

Both end with sequences that needed to show up much earlier because they engender consequences that are not presented, which left me wondering what happened next.  On the other hand, Black Tickets (1979) is one of the half dozen best short story collections I’ve ever read.

   It may seem cruel to hold certain writers to account (usually the excellent ones) and think about editing or revising their work, while letting some of the dreary ones get away with mediocrity.  The difference is that I won’t read a second book by one of the mediocrities.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Peller Estates Winery Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake

It was a great, 
memorable experience

Peller Estates Entrance
     Neil and I have toured the Peller Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake a couple of times in the past few years.  The tour hasn’t really changed, which is fine because the spectacular vineyards have retained their beauty and that’s the point of the tour for us.  Although there is a charge, there’s also an equal credit in the wine shop.  Ice wines put the 
region on the international wine map in the ‘70s, but the winemakers have developed many fine white and reds since and those are now attracting most of the customers from around the world.

     On a number of occasions, we said how much we’d want to go to the restaurant at Peller Estates.  It was expensive so we thought it should be a really special occasion.  Last summer, after we tied the knot, Lisa generously took us there.  
Main Dining Room
The dining room was elegantly appointed and bright and looked out on a long terrace with views of the vineyards.  The surroundings complement the food because they are beautiful without calling attention to themselves. 

Ontario Berkshire

     Neil had the Ontario Berkshire prosciutto with strawberry, split garden beans, salted cheese curd, and chiffonade romaine lettuce.  It didn’t look that special, but tasted fabulous and Neil would order it again if we returned.  
Niagara Heirloom Tomatoes
Lisa’s choice was the Niagara heirloom tomatoes with goat feta, house made basil cracker, basil pesto, and balsamic salt.  She thought the tomatoes were incredible.  I started 
with the Pomodoro, which was duck confit on black truffle linguine with pancetta, pine nuts, and fresh oregano.  It was a generous portion and complexly flavored with a spiciness that was surprising. 

Beef Short Rib and Cheddar Croquettes
     We shared an order of the beef short rib and cheddar Croquettes.  These could have been an entrée.  The meat was melt in the mouth tender and the mashed potatoes had the texture of a savory marshmallow, accompanied by a mustard aioli sauce.  This is one of the best dishes I’ve had anywhere in the last two years.  The palate cleanser was frozen ice wine with champagne and strawberry basil syrup.  It was so awesome that we adapted it for a party later.

Wild Boar Loin
     For the entrée, Lisa and Neil both had the charred Wild Boar Loin with bitter greens, which were stronger than Neil expected and needed to be combined with the pommery mustard purée, and blackcurrant au jus.  The meat was extremely tender and the tomatoes sweet.  It was balanced 

Pan Roasted Lake Erie Pickerel
beautifully.  I had the pan roasted Lake Erie Pickerel, which was perfectly flaky, with poached lobster, confit peppers, roast garlic, and creamy polenta.  

Pastry Gourmand
     We shared the Pastry Gourmand.  This consisted of four desserts featuring chocolate, strawberry, raspberry, and a cheesecake.  Gorgeously presented, they looked like a composition that Kandinsky forgot to paint.  There was enough for us to taste each one.  We also had a glass of complimentary champagne (and I had a glass of wine) so we were certainly full, which is something that might reassure prospective diners.

    Service was friendly, attentive, and attuned to our needs.  There were a couple of tag team service moments and they were handled smoothly and correctly.  The hostess was somewhat inexperienced for a restaurant at this level.  Otherwise, this was an outstanding experience at a world class dining destination. 

Peller Estates Winery Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The 39th Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville – Get There Soon

The Roommate – 
A hilarious, dark, friendship comedy 

     Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has pushed and broadened the American dramatic repertory over the past forty years in the annual Humana Festival of new plays.  It runs through April 12 this year.  It’s an internationally known venue for theatergoers to feel the pulse of where American drama is right now and where it may go in the next five years.  I highly recommend it.  Some caveats:  it’s selling very well this year, though patrons waiting for seats the evening we went were able to see the show; purchase the parking pass, which is for the multi-story lot attached to the theater building, because ATL is caddy-corner from the massive Yum! Center on Main Street; although specific scripts may not be your preference, the productions are unfailingly world-class.

Alex Hernandez and Kamal Bolten
in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity*
     We haven’t reviewed some of the great shows we’ve seen there in the recent past:  The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (2012), Girlfriend (2013), and The Brothers Size (2015).  The reason for not writing about them was because we saw them the final weekends of their runs so it seemed beside the point to rhapsodize about productions our readers wouldn’t be able to see for themselves.  (So, instead, we’re doing so years later, which probably makes even less sense).  One of ATL’s secret weapons is that the management is able to hire top national acting talent.  Those performers may not be stars now, but they might be in the future, and many are recognizable for their movie and television credits.  Even more uniquely, ATL can hire incredible casts of ethnic diversity.  Chad Deity required actors that could convincingly portray professional wrestlers and they did so in a mesmerizing production.

Roommates Robyn and Sharon**
     We were hoping to see another play that had sold out so with Lisa’s suggestion we then chose Jen Silverman’s The Roommate.  I’m glad we did because it’s a complexly layered work, which is far richer in performance than any summary would lead a viewer to presume.  We meet Sharon, a fiftysomething semi-retiree living in Iowa City, as her new roommate Robyn is about to move in.  With this act, unusual for a middle-class, home-owning, middle-aged woman, a relationship is set in motion that will change both women.  Robyn – smart, elusive, brittle – is the yin to the caring, loquacious, and seemingly naïve Sharon’s yang.  I refuse to say anything about the plot beyond this because the three of us were riveted from the first interaction between these initial polar opposites.

Jen Silverman
     Silverman’s intertwining of plot development through character revelation is almost a textbook example of classic playwrighting technique.   Her impulse was to see two ‘badass’ female characters.  She begins with an interesting and somewhat innocuous inciting incident and then ratchets up the audience’s emotional involvement through intriguing characters, hilarious dialogue, and a plot that becomes increasingly strange and suspenseful, though it never strains credibility.  Mike Donahue has directed some of Silverman’s other work and that experience results in a crisp, perfectly paced production.  Since they’re in the arena shaped Bingham Theater, performers have to keep moving so that all four audience banks can see them.  Donahue and the actors achieve this choreography so subtly that I didn’t consciously register this happening until about three-quarters of the way through (and I’ve seen and performed in arena spaces).  The final image is simultaneously funny and chilling.  

Margaret Daly (Sharon, front)
and Tasha Lawrence (Robyn, back)**
     I think this would be a very attractive script for many companies because it’s one set, realistic, and both an audience pleaser and thinker.  It also provides two terrific roles for mature actresses, though I doubt anyone could top the initial interpretations by Margaret Daly as Sharon and Tasha Lawrence as Robyn.  Initially, they had me thinking, ‘oh, I know someone who looks, sounds, or acts just like her’ and then, as the play progressed, I thought, ‘these are originals.’  Daly’s sweetness and emotional fluidity serve her beautifully, especially as things darken.  There’s a scene where she conducts a sales call that, as Lisa pointed out, reveals both Sharon’s and Robyn’s dreams.  Lawrence’s physical grace visually seduces and her cool attitude compels the audience to hear her secrets.

    The sound design and original music by Daniel Kluger provide an atmosphere that could simultaneously stand in for cicadas and other night sounds in the Midwest as well as the jungle.  We had a couple of quibbles with some details in the script, but after discussing them, we worked out why they still made sense.  Full disclosure:  we talked about the production for over an hour on the ride home, which is a testament to its quality.

*photo by Alan Simons
**photos by Bill Brymer

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Peter and the Starcatcher at The Playhouse

Children’s Theatre with an Adult Kink

     I told Neil it would be a day or two before I could write up a review of Peter and the Starcatcher at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.  He shrugged, then said, “Oh well, that’s fine,” and that about sums up this production.  Adapted by Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s 2006 children’s novel – and a very long one at that – it plays like children’s story theatre.  There weren’t many children at the evening performance we attended, but it does seem like something that they’d enjoy, except for the length.

The First Act*
     The plot basically acts as a prequel to what most of us know about J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904).  The first fifteen minutes were extremely busy with the cast rushing about the stage, pushing large props, and breathlessly narrating an involved set up with two different ships and all sorts of action above and below deck that I kept misinterpreting.  Ben Brantley was highly impressed by the sinking of one of the ships in the Broadway production, but I couldn’t even remember which ship sank.  The problem was that Artistic Director Blake Robison’s direction wasn’t focused.  

     The second act was much stronger in terms of explaining the story through a series of tableaux and musical numbers.  Actually, the first act is a complex adventure story that never seems to go anywhere, while the second act was a musical pantomime with running gags, extended bits (one of them could have been trimmed, which is again a symptom of directorial sloppiness), and moments of real wonder, capped by a poignant final image.

Restrepo (far left), Vanoy (middle) and Story (second from right)*
     The cast was strong with each member of the ensemble getting the chance to shine.  Tom Story was highly energetic and amusing as Black Stache, the main pirate.  At times, he seemed to be channeling Eddie Izzard.  Joanna Howard 
Molly and Boy*
was strong as Molly Aster as was Noah Zachary as the Boy.  Nick Vannoy was stalwart and funny as Alf and it was good to see him again after a couple of years ago at Actors Theatre of Louisville; plus, he studied at NKU.  José Restrepo has one of the most incredible tattoos in addition to a witty, clear acting style as Smee.  I could point out each of the actors.

Black Stache and Boy*
     It’s a family show that behaves like one of the second string Disney/Pixar movies like Monsters University (2013).  It’s enjoyable, but it feels like a retread that doesn’t capture the magic of the original or, in this case, the Barrie source material.  Perhaps Mr. Robison should consider presenting a classic and re-envisioning it, rather than jumping on the bandwagon for something new that, frankly, has been overrated.  

     What is it with yakky Cincinnati audiences lately?  Why can’t they refrain from sharing their opinions or confirming what was said on stage?  There was a twenty-five minute – yes, the length of a TV sitcom – intermission during which the management could make some bucks selling even more liquor to loosen more tongues, every last person could use the restroom, and yap on endlessly.  Maybe some of them should start a blog instead like we did.  

*photos by Sandy Underwood
Peter and the Starcatcher runs through April 4, 2015.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sunday Brunch at The Littlefield

Currently our favorite Cincinnati Brunch scene

The Littlefield in Northside
      It's rare that you meet the perfect storm at a restaurant these days, or ever.  One where the waitstaff is energetic and knowledgeable, an atmosphere that feels like you're visiting a longtime friend's house, patrons that actually want to interact with you, and food that is so creative and delicious one can't stop thinking about it. We've had a few of those aha dining

Monday, March 23, 2015

Revolution Rotisserie & Bar in OTR

It may not be revolution-ary, 
but it is worth crowing about

Revolution Rotisserie & Bar on Race Street in OTR
      Findlay Market seems to be a jumping off point for some of Cincinnati's recent restaurants.  Revolution Rotisserie & Bar in OTR is the latest installment.  

Half Bird with House Made Sides
Starting with simple rotisserie chicken (hence the name from the revolutions on the rotisserie), the menu builds from there.  We experienced the Half  Bird that comes with a choice of