Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Making the Best of a Day Off in Cincinnati

In my years of traveling on business, I rarely get a day off in an American city. Overseas, I would stay 2 or 3 weeks so the weekends were mine, but here in the US, I typically go home. Well this week was a bit different. I had a Tuesday in Cincinnati with no work to do so I just putzed around. Technically I was in Kentucky which is on the south side of the Ohio River but it all runs together. My first thought was, “What the hell is there to do in Cincinnati?” Rachael Ray and Giada De La Rentis have never had this town on of their getaway shows for the food network and I’ve never in my life heard a sentence begin with the words, “Next time you’re in Cincinnati, make sure you go…” Well, since my only other option was to sit in my room and stare at the great view of the interstate, I did a little research and off I went.

Before I tell you about that, I want to tell you how I choose restaurants on the road. Sometimes I’ll find them from magazine articles or recommendations from friends, but often they come from a website called Urbanspoon. It is the best restaurant review site for cities I have found and I look at them often. Like many others, it is driven by those who use it and they rank places very conveniently. You can certainly look up a whole city’s top 10 rated fine dining restaurants but you can also get a more granular search if you’re looking the best burger on the east side. You can search by price, type of food and/or part of town. It is that feature that I have come to rely on because at the end of a long day, I don’t want to drive 25 miles across town for a great steak. If that’s what I’m in the mood for, there is probably one closer.

It was Urbanspoon that lead me to breakfast at The Greenup Café.

A little nook in Newport, Kentucky, it would be quite easy to miss this place. In fact, I drove right past it once and had to turn around to find it. The sign is small. It is billed as French Bohemian breakfast (whatever that is exactly). The menu is small but eclectic featuring slight twists on traditional breakfasts, such as Pancakes with Maple butter and several daily quiche specials. Personally, I chose “The Morning After”.

Now I didn’t have a hangover but the breakfast sounded good. Two sunny side up eggs atop crisp hash browns with Goetta sausage gravy on the side and bacon. Unless you come from the Cincinnati area, you probably have never heard of Goetta sausage. I certainly had not. It is usually a pork sausage (sometimes beef) that is cut with oats to stretch the meat. It was brought to Cincinnati by German immigrants and is quite popular. In my European travels, I had many sausages and meat dishes made in this fashion. If this style is frugal with meat, it is not lacking in flavor. The spicing of this Goetta (pronounced “getta”) was perfect and there was no hint of oats in the flavor. I liked this a lot and I’m going to try to find it somewhere back home.

The rest of my midday was spent at the Newport Aquarium. While Louislovesfood is completely dedicated to culinary adventure, I have to admit, this place impressed me. With the bright and shiny Florida Aquarium in Tampa and my years of scuba diving, I was expecting to be unimpressed. That was a mistaken assumption. Not only do they have all of the requisite fish tanks with every fish you can imagine, there are numerous glass underwater tunnels with beautiful creatures swimming all around you. You really do get the sense that you’re swimming with the sharks.

There are other things besides fish, too. Near the frog display is the kids play area. Kids can only look in fish tanks so long before they need to spend a bit of energy, so they have a place where they can kick off their shoes and crawl through the maze of tunnels and tubes. Around the corner and past the otters is the Lorikeet feeding area. For a buck, you can get a cup of nectar that will make the birds sit on your hand and drink from it. A little “Alfred Hitchcock” to me, but most of these kids have never seen that movie.

The real treat of the day was dinner. Also in Newport is a little Italian place called Pompilios. Never heard of it? Of course you haven’t. But you’ve seen it. It was featured in the movie Rain Man. Now I haven’t seen the movie in years so I don’t recall the details but I recognized the checkered floor and the bar used in the scene. I will have to go back and revisit the movie now. Pompilios is a true neighborhood restaurant featuring from scratch everything. They make their own sausages and pastas and that’s always a winner in my book. I have never been to a restaurant that makes pasta that I didn’t just adore. Still somewhat content from my breakfast many hours earlier, I wasn’t up for a heavy Italian dish. Fortunately for me, the cannelloni portion was modest and just right. Rolled fresh pasta tubes filled with veal, beef and sausage and topped with the best Bolognese sauce I have ever tasted (and I love my version of Bolognese).

The freshness of the pasta is so clean and pure while the meats are tender and perfect. If I had an Italian grandmother, this is how she would have made it. I enjoyed my meal so much, I may go back tonight and that breaks one of my cardinal road rules about trying a new place every night. In chatting with an old friend after dinner, she asked how Pompilios stacked up next to my all time favorite restaurant, Al Forno. It took me a minute to formulate that answer. While both are Italian, that is their only similarity. Al Forno, in Providence Rhode Island, is bit more upscale and certainly more pricy. Pompilios is classic Italian fare in a family setting. Both are classy in their own right.

Now I don’t expect any blog readers to hop a plane to get to the greater Cincinnati area based on these recommendations. I respect that. But this day turned out far better that I could have imagined. If you do find yourself passing though this town on one of the 3 major interstates at either breakfast or dinner time, you would do far worse than to drive 10 minutes off the highway into Newport Kentucky for a meal. I certainly will.

I had a nice day off.