For years, our Valentine's Day tradition was to splurge on a room at one of Cincinnati's fancy hotels (The Cincinnatian, the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, 21c Museum Hotel, Renaissance, etc.) and to spend an evening at an expensive restaurant. Past hits included The Palace, Abigail Street, Sotto and Scotti's.
This year, I decided to forgo the flowers and the room, instead investing in a romantic, food-themed weekend:
- Day 1: an evening at Mita's, a Spanish and Latin American restaurant by Chef Jose Salazar featuring tapas and large plates
- Day 2: a home-cooked meal (I made the appropriately colored Savannah Red Rice)
- Day 3: an evening at Cinque Ristorante, the new Italian restaurant in Montgomery brought to you by the same folks who own Nicola's, a restaurant for which I'd tried and failed to make Valentine's Day reservations over the course of several years.
There are two aspects of fancy restaurants I don't like: the price (of course) and the unspoken requirement that I should dress up for the occasion. It's the clothes that bother me the most; I'd gladly pay top dollar if it meant the opportunity to wear jeans and not feel like a tie is slowly cutting off blood supply to my brain. Fortunately, neither Mitas nor Cinque is that formal, though I would recommend business casual attire or a respectable pair of black jeans.
Mita's sits at the corner of Race and W. 5th Streets., in the new 84.51 building. Its warm, sweeping, contemporary design snakes patrons around the building's several base columns with tables aligned around a prominent, semi-circular partition. Intimate, high-backed booths run along its perimeter.
The restaurant's menu offers about ten small plate items as well as a variety of cheese and meat plates, ceviches, soups and salads, and a handful of main courses. Our plan of attack was to order two small plates and an item off their Embutidos (salt-cured meats) section, choosing among three of Spain's signature jamón ibérico variants.
We began with an order of "Empanadas de res con pique" ($8), two crispy empanadas filled with beef short rib served with a side of vibrantly verde cilantro-chili pepper sauce. We were pleasantly taken aback by the light hand with which they were fried --they didn't taste heavy, harboring a satisfying, richly meaty flavor melding with the masa shell. The pepper sauce was bright and acidic, further lightening a dish that could easily have weighed us down.
Our second small plate was the vegetarian "Coliflor asada, aceitunas avellanas, granadas" ($8), grilled cauliflower mixed with manzanila olives, apricots, hazelnuts and an herb puree. The grilled aspect of the dish evoked a flavor as satisfying as any meat dish, with a playful dance of sour olive and sweet apricot and herbs.
Our meat plate was quite the splurge: I chose for us the $30 jamón ibérico de bellota, which is perhaps the most famous of Spain's storied cured hams. To achieve its intensely nutty, melt-in-your mouth flavor, pigs are fed an exclusive diet of acorns, producing a product quite unlike any cured ham we'd ever tasted. Was it worth $30? Perhaps, at least for a single try.
For our entrees, my girlfriend chose the "lomo saltado" ($36), a meat and potato stir-fry dish we'd come to love during our Peru trip years ago. This version came with wagyu sirloin resting on a bed of toasty yucca, turnip and celery strips and a sweet potato puree topped with wisps of jalapeño. I chose the "pozole verde con mariscos" ($35), a seafood version of the classic Mexican stew with hominy, shrimp, lobster, squid, red snapper and avocado in an electric-green broth of tomatillo and cilantro.
We loved the lomo's crispy yucca coupled with the perfectly cooked wagyu sirloin. And while my girlfriend is no fan of seafood, she enjoyed the refreshing flavors from my hearty bowl of pozole, which evoked pleasant memories of another great pozole at Mazunte Taqueria, served with a side of similarly addictive, salty and cumin-dusted tostadas.
Mitas was such a hit for us that my girlfriend said, "maybe we should go to expensive restaurants more often," to which I nervously replied, "if only we could afford such a habit."
A day after my successful, well-received home-cooked meal of Savannah Red Rice, I treated my girlfriend to our final Valentine's Weekend meal at the newly-opened Cinque, the Italian eatery in Montgomery owned by Nicola Pietoso, who also owns the Over-the-Rhine restaurant bearing his name.
Having successfully navigated the slick, snowy roads of this winter's only major snowstorm, we were greeted with a seat inside Cinque's fresh, new dining room. The name, "Cinque," is Italian for "five," a nod to the fact that this is the Pietoso family's fifth restaurant. Not typically open on Sunday's, the restaurant had made an exception to offer its special Valentine's Day menu, which featured some of Cinque's signature dishes along with one-time-only fare.
The special, $55-per-person menu offered us each a choice from their abbreviated appetizer, main course and dessert offerings. As we perused the menu, a complimentary basket of Cinque's wonderfully crusty, warm and smokey bread was served with butter. I'd heard about Nicola's legendary artisan bread baskets, and indeed Cinque's is equally delightful.
Happily munching the fine bread, I chose the classic cioppino seafood stew appetizer, while my girlfriend opted for the goat cheese salad.
The salad was deceptively simple, with fresh greens topped with a truffle vinaigrette and pistachios surrounding a centerpiece of toasted, French Bucheron goat cheese. The luxurious ingredients made every bite a sinful adventure. My cioppino was a hearty stew of squid and fish bites in a silky tomato broth, topped with that amazing bread.
Our selected entrees included two classics also available at sister restaurant Nicola's: my girlfriend's potato gnocchi resting on a bed of four-cheese fondue, truffle oil and chives and my classic tagliatelle alla bolognese, a family meat sauce made famous at Nicola's.
We didn't know we really liked gnocchi until we'd tried them toasted, as they're prepared at Cinque. Our initial impression of the tiny dumplings years ago was that they are a dull, gluey alternative to pasta. But in their toasted, light and pillowy form, gnocchi transform into something truly magical, truly memorable. Cinque's gnocchi were the hit of the evening.
My delicious, seemingly bottomless bowl of tagliatelle was certainly no slouch, offering a complex, stick-to-your-ribs sauce clinging to perfectly al dente, homemade pasta. There was so much food that it warranted a pair of to-go boxes.
We ended the night with a heart-shaped red velvet cake layered with decadent cream cheese frosting. The cake was appropriately spongy (dare I use the word, "moist?") and came garnished with mint and a heart-shaped chocolate. To further layer on the pounds, we each received a complimentary, chocolate-dipped strawberry.
Cinque Ristorante dazzled us with a lineup of classic Italian dishes and flavors that inspired the kind of romance one expects from this very special day.