For the last three years, organizers have put together a downtown event called, "The Big To Do," where hungry foodies can taste samplings from a number of participating restaurants. We've attended the event all three years and it's gotten better every time.
Here's how "The Big To Do" works: attendees purchase tickets at the Aronoff Center box office. On the back of the ticket is a list of all participating restaurants. Stroll through the streets downtown, arriving at any on the list. A representative will take your ticket, mark off the restaurant name and serve you a food sample.
The first two years were relatively expensive: you had to pay $20 for the right to visit ten restaurants. The small samples you got were arguably not quite worth $2; some places were skimpier than others. This year, they've slashed the price to $10 for eight restaurants. Response to the change was obviously positive as we noted significantly more attendees this time around.
Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse700 Walnut St.
We started our evening on 7th Street at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse. Jeff Ruby's offered a "Chili rubbed beef tenderloin burger shot" sample. When we arrived, we were led back to a sectioned off room across from the restrooms. On a table were two large bins filled with individually wrapped mini-burgers crowned with a Jeff Ruby Steakhouse-branded sticker. The buns were soft and fresh, and the beef and onions were tender with a delicious sweetness. It tasted like a higher-end barbecue beef sandwich. Afterward, we perused the photos of Jeff Ruby with celebrities hanging on a wall near the bathrooms.
Bootsy's631 Walnut St.
Our next stop was another of Jeff Ruby's restaurants, Bootsy's. On the menu here was a "House Made Asian Pastrami with Coconut-Scallion Griddle Cake and Spicy Kewpie Mayonnaise." There were a lot of people in line for this one, and I could see that the staff was having trouble keeping up with demand. After several seconds standing in line, we realized there were actually two lines, one for drinks and another for the food, so we quickly veered appropriately.
I was taken aback by the beautiful presentation of the Bootsy's sample. The vibrant, deep red of the pastrami contrasted well atop the golden pancake. The meat bursted with flavor, so tender was it that it nearly melted in my mouth. I don't know much about "Kewpie" mayonnaise, but the yellow sauce added a slightly vinegar-spiked kick to the meat. The comparatively mild, slightly sweet pancake served its purpose of counteracting the stronger-flavored ingredients. If this was the caliber of food we could expect from the other participants, we were in for quite a treat.
Nicholson's625 Walnut St.
The next restaurant we hit was Bootsy's next-door neighbor, Nicholson's. I adore this place for its renowned fish and chips and its heavily-spiked bread pudding. A charming kilted man greeted us at the door, pointing us back and behind the central bar. A table was set up there, behind which two servers offered up a crustini topped with smoked salmon mousse and a red caviar called, "Topeko."
I'm quite a seafood fan, and my nose immediately picked up the fishiness of the mousse. I was concerned how long the samples had sat out, because the mousse had apparently had time to form a slight crust on top. Usually, a strong fishy smell means the seafood has gone slightly south, so I muttered a few short prayers before taking a bite. The flavor was bold, with a strong salmon aftertaste. The caviar was good, but unfortunately made the sample a little too salty. My girlfriend, who is not a seafood fan, strangely liked it better than I did. She detected neither the fishiness nor the saltiness. Her piece did come from a different platter, so perhaps hers was fresher. It wasn't my favorite sample so far, but I'll always be back for Nicholson's fish and chips.
Via Vite520 Vine St.
We continued toward Fountain Square, past the crowds of trendy folk hitting the Mynt Martini bar, over to Via Vite, another hip Italian restaurant. A striking young blond in a red dress quickly sized me up in my cargo shorts and tennis shoes with, "Are you here for The Big To Do?" I grinned and nodded, to which she replied with a smile and a point up the stairs in the back.
Reaching the top veranda, we entered a small room where we were served a container of penne pasta with a vibrantly orange, meaty Bolognese sauce. We believe this is the same dish Via Vite offered the first year of "The Big To Do." That was fine by us, since we'd enjoyed it so much. The pasta was perfectly al dente, a rather surprising feat given that it had been warming in a steam table pan over a Bunsen burner. The sauce was rich, meaty and filling.
Palomino505 Vine St.
Across Vine Street we went, inside the Macy's building, up an escalator and into Palomino. I've never eaten a full meal here, but I did remember Palomino from previous "Big To Do" outings. Theirs were typically among the skimpiest of servings and this year was no different.
On the menu, Palomino describes "Italian style meatballs (plural) with rich tomato sauce topped with citrus cheese and toasted pistachios." Sounds fine, but what we got was quite different. First, each person only got one meatball, slighly larger than what you'd find in a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti. It was topped with a little tomato sauce, but no cheese or pistachios. The server was very adamant that we present her with our ticket before we had the privilege of ingesting anything. While the meatball wasn't entirely unfortunate tasting, I wondered aloud if it might have come from the freezer. Did this lone meatball truly represent the quality of food one would expect from Palomino? I didn't think so. So why serve it?
Boi Na Braza441 Vine St.
Out the door, we continued south until we hit Boi Na Braza. The Brazilian steakhouse concept has always seemed compelling, but it's simply not in my budget to fork over $50 a person for the all-out meat-fest. I may change my mind one day. After all, this month they offer a $50 gift certificate for $25 on their website. Boi Na Braza had one of the best, meatiest (and spiciest) samples the first year of "The Big To Do," but they've stumbled subsequently. In a truly mystifying move, the restaurant has opted to serve a dessert item the last two years. What we got this time was a plastic shot glass of "strawberry cream topped with Creme de Cassis." By the meat gods, why? The whole point of "The Big To Do" is to expose people to your food and entice them to return for a full meal, no? How does a steakhouse serving what amounted to a swig of strawberry yogurt achieve this end?
JeanRo Bistro413 Vine St.
My tongue now thick with strawberry, we headed a few doors down Vine Street to JeanRo Bistro. Ever since my girlfriend and I returned from a trip to Paris, she's wanted to eat a meal here. "It reminds me of France," she smiled as we stepped through the door. JeanRo's sample was a "warm local potato salad with 22-month Mountain Ham." Red potatoes always seem tastier than other variations, and this was no different. The perfect marriage of a delicate, mayonnaisy sauce and the bacon-like ham made for a delicious, surprisingly light, refreshing potato salad.
Local 127127 W. 4th St.
Our final restaurant stop was the new Local 127, housed in the space formerly known as Pigall's. Once inside, we hiked up a short flight of stairs to the uber-trendy bar and lounge, where we were served a crostini topped with "Smoked Golden Trout with Creme Fraiche and Herbs." The trout was superb: very fresh tasting, with not a hint of fishiness, a pleasing smoky flavor well balanced by the light Creme Fraiche. If I were one of those people who felt comfortable in trendy restaurants, Local 127 would be among the top of my "must" list. Their sample made me want to come back.
The clear winners in this year's "The Big To Do" were Bootsy's, Local 127, JeanRo and Via Vite. Give these restaurants a try, especially Bootsy's, since the menu and concept will soon be changing per Jeff Ruby. If you've never tried "The Big To Do," we highly recommend doing so next year. More information is available on the official website.