I had to be persuaded to do the Taste of Cincinnati this past Sunday, but I'm glad to have endured the crowds.
After quickly perusing the list of restaurants this year, I'd seen a great deal of the usual generic Cincinnati fare: P.F. Chang's, Montgomery Inn, Melting Pot, La Rosa's and Max & Erma's. Been there, done that. What's the point?
But my girlfriend opened my eyes to some new possibilities: Vitor's Bistro, a restaurant touting it's "award-winning" french toast; Keystone Bar & Grill, with it's "Buffalo Springfield" Mac & Cheese; and J. Gumbo's with its Bumblebee Stew highlighted some of the lesser-known hopefuls.
This is our third year at Taste of Cincinnati and the event was as crowded as I'd ever seen it. Moving with the slow-moving current of people, I sometimes felt as though I were on a subway train during rush hour. Oh, that's right: we Cincinnatians aren't supposed to know anything about mass transportation...
Our first stop was the Keystone Bar & Grill booth to try their Buffalo Springfield, a spicy Mac & Cheese mixed with buffalo sauce, bits of bleu cheese and chicken. It was a curious blend that was as surprisingly tasty as it was creamy. If this was the kind of food I could expect this year, then I was in for a treat.
Our next stop was J. Gumbo's for their Bumblebee Stew. This was a vegetarian selection of corn, black beans and onions in a spicy sauce, served over rice. It was effectively light and pleasing after the much heavier mac & cheese selection, cleansing our palate for what was to come.
We began noticing passers-by with what looked like a large chocolate sundae. I soon found the source: the Vitor's Bistro booth. Ladies and gentlemen, this was no sundae. What Vitor's served was a generous, thick slice of Texas toast encrusted in what looked like Frosted Flakes and dipped in a cocoa batter. It was then topped with banana whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup. This was perhaps the best so-called "french toast" I'd ever tasted, more a rich, filling dessert than a breakfast staple.
Swooning from our french toast overload, we recovered long enough to venture further down Fifth Street to the Bella Luna booth, filling up on their sweet potato gnocchi. The restaurant had decided to make it a sweet dish, a subtle coating of maple syrup serving as one of the few seasonings. We thought it was perhaps the least successful of the samples we tried, lacking much flavor beyond the hint of maple. Perhaps if Bella Luna had made it a savory dish with a simple marinara sauce, it would have been more enjoyable.
I next tried La Petite France's Mushroom Escargots, which I thought were quite tasty and not the least bit overcooked (a feat I find surprising given that these little buggers simmer over a bunsen burner all afternoon). However, their buttery, clam-like flavor prevented my girlfriend from eating more than a single bite.
Other tasty notables included Mama Vita's delicious ravioli with vodka sauce (you could really taste the vodka!); Behle Street Cafe's crab cakes; and the coconut/pineapple Lost in Paradise Cake from Indigo Casual Gourmet Cafe, served in a half coconut shell.
The biggest disappointment of the afternoon was the absolute lack of Latin-American fare. Where were the tacos, the burritos, the gorditas, the tamales? If ever there were an event that called for simple, well-made Latino street food, this was the place.
Still, this year's Taste of Cincinnati packed enough unique offerings to leave us enthusiastic for next year's lineup.
Price: Cheap (under $11 per person)