When Local 127 opened, there were a lot of things said. Politics were heavy and tempers ran high. David and I were mostly oblivious to the craziness that was going on during those initial few weeks; our encounters with Steven and his staff were friendly, and the menu certainly looked appealing. Our first visit was in Fall 2009, and what a visit it was! Our chef's table experience was a wonderful way to end our afternoon of downtown apartment hunting.
Since then, things have settled down a little. We've been back to Local 127 and specifically sought Steven out a few months ago—shortly after Local 127’s one year anniversary—for his thoughts on the restaurant's beginnings, progress, recent changes, and future plans.
And of course, we had the pleasure of dinner at Local 127 too. Actually, between the chef's tasting menu Steven and his sous chef Kyle offered, I think we probably stuffed ourselves with at least 3 dinners between the 2 of us. We have no regrets.
Cheesy grits house-made house smoked hot sauce, bacon crisps, crunchy shallots and fresh herbs.
Can you tell us some more about fried chicken Wednesdays?
“It's a little twist on traditional fried chicken. We brine it and slow cook it in a full oven at an exact temperature, soak it in buttermilk and double batter it then fry it up to order. Some nights we will get a handful of orders, sometimes we get a lot. It’s always a fun evening.”
Steve smiles as he recounts an eventful Wednesday where one of the kitchen's many ovens emitted a loud "BOOM" during prep—blowing the doors open and shattering china—requiring the gas lines to be inspected.
"Needless to say, we were not opening for dinner service that night. We called our reservations, sent them champagne and apologies, but we had all this chicken left to cook. We didn't want it to go to waste, so we took it up to Neon's in OTR, threw it on the grill and had a blew-up-the-kitchen party. We try to make sure that nothing goes to waste if we can help it, and our food management supports the restaurant’s fair prices. Maybe some product we get in isn’t good enough to serve to a guest, but it still makes a great [staff] meal."
Our inviting bite: 14-hour sous-vide pork belly, caramelized onion, house-made white cheddar cheese foam (really rich and really good), and potato soup.
How have some dishes evolved? How long does it take to “perfect” a dish?
“I wouldn’t say a dish is ever actually finished evolving here. We start with a dish, and we like it, but they change as we go. Once we put it on the menu, for the next few weeks we're constantly tweaking. We're used to cooking spontaneously, which contributes to that.
“Our Chicken dish has gone through changes, though it’s always been two-ways. The potato skins are also constantly evolving and are very different from what we served our first week.”
chicken two ways
I inquired about the menu section entitled “for the daring,” which is a selection of cured meats, and unusual cuts. It varies from week to week, but you might encounter chicken heart, liver mousse, or another daring selection.
chicken liver mousse with Riesling jelly
A daring selection: chicken heart
What are some popular menu items?
“Our cured and pickled plates were unexpectedly popular. I think one of the reasons is that the German heritage that is here really makes the cured and pickled plates appealing.”
We noticed Steven spending a lot of time attending to guests, and asked about the change. For the past six months, Steve has been spending some more time in the front of the house, interacting with guests.
"Though I still check into the kitchen regularly, I started wearing my formal apron now. It's sort of like a tuxedo t-shirt." He says with a grin, dropping off a cured and pickled sampler at our table.
(above) Smoked ruby trout with pickled onion, fresh herbs olive oil and lemon juice; brined hickory smoked chicken, sous vide pickled radishes and celery leeks; pork and chicken liver terrine with picked green beans; chicken liver mouse with riesling jelly and pickled pears; loma (pork loin) with bread and butter pickles; 6 month copa with pickled banana peppers; 9 month copa with pickled watermelon rind; aged mountain ham with candied watermelon rinds (below).
We enjoyed a sparkling moscato with our pickled plates, the refreshing bubbles complementing the variety of flavors in front of us.
I forgot to record what was in this soup, combined table side. David remembers the following: candied onions, Parmesan broth...and tasty.
I commented on how much I liked the texture the crispy wild puffed rice on the scallop dish we enjoyed next.
“Usually when something is missing from a dish, it's something crunchy or fresh herbs. Crunch is the only way you can hear food; it becomes part of the whole dining experience.” Steven says.
Pan seared sea scallop, turnip and tomato puree, braised lentils, browned butter, crisp puffed rice with celery leaf
Potato gnoccis with Parmesan cream, house-made sausage, pork and mushroom and crispy potato chips.What are your thoughts on the general environment after opening the restaurant?
“There's always two sides to the story. Usually, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. We're here to respect the history of a famous building that's had 5 different restaurants in it, in a great city that has tremendous potential in the agricultural belt. All the things I had been looking for. I'd been looking for about 7 or 8 years.”
Warning, Pork overload! the Porkopolis, featuring Navy bean with dijon and shallot, and pork multiple ways, including ossabaw cross—a heritage hog from Virginia—tenderloin, short rib and baby back ribs, cooked for 18 hours low and slow in their own fat.
“Some people had started to take sides, and we went through a variety of ways of handling it. In the end, it was a very driving force for us. We are here to cook. And if there were people that were hoping we didn't succeed, it drove us that much harder."
The restaurant opened fairly quickly—exactly 39 days to the day they started prep to the day they opened. At one point in time Steven had 8 people in his loft in OTR on air mattresses helping them prepare for opening and those first few weeks of service.
Despite the positive attitude, the start was a little rocky. At one point, Steven said, there were more negative comments on Urbanspoon than people who had eaten at the restaurant. A fraudulent Facebook page was put up for the restaurant, saying offensive things about the Cincinnati community, supposedly on Local 127’s behalf.
“I've opened restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., Miami Beach, New York City, Las Vegas. I'd never seen anything like it,” said Steven, shaking his head with a wry smile.
“Our goal became to fight for the truth. Don't worry about the haters—anyone out there that had a preconceived notion about what we were doing here. Our goal became to convert them. And quite honestly, we started out giving out chocolate chip cookies our opening week, as a sort of peace treaty!
"We're here to cook good food at a fair price and be a part of the city, support the farmers, the local economy and environment. I wanted to be a part of this type of restaurant, wanted to get connected with cooking of farm to table style, I think partly because as a sommelier, wine kept drawing me to the birthplace of the grapes, and I think food should have a sense of place as well. Many of the great food stuffs—our ham, for example—have such a connection with place.”
“Great food has to come from great farmers who care about what they’re raising.”
Apple crumble: caramelized apples. Oat crumble, bourbon ice cream and caramel gastrique.
Steven revealed his thoughts on the dark, flavorful graham crumble and one of Local 127’s signature desserts:
“Don't be afraid to pursue that deep mahagony color and flavor from thorough toasting. The flavor gets much more intense. The complexity is amazing, and it really takes that to another level. Cheesecake is a custard. What many people may encounter as cheesecakes are overcooked. We chose to make it in a jar, in a water bath, and watch it carefully. As soon as it starts to come off the side of the glass, you've overcooked it.”
Buttermilk panna cotta. Sour plum puree, little crumble, and buttermilk panna cotta put in whipped cream can to create a panna cotta two ways.
David commented on the unique flavor sour plum puree featured with the panna cotta dish lends to it.
“We're big fans of acids here. Acid is a great way to lift flavors up without over salting. One of the biggest strengths I have in the kitchen was my wine tasting training. We try to make sure all dishes have a balance of flavors—sort of like a conductor writing a music score—too much cymbal and it's out of whack. Ingredients change within the season, too, which is a challenge. We do use lots of salt in our sweet food. Growing up, I never understood why people put salt on their melon. Now I get it.”
How do you select the ingredients you use?
“We have a lot of house-made ingredients, but, for example, also have 15 different types of vinegar back there. We taste our vinegars and our cooking wines just like we do like we do wines by the glass. Cheap vinegar tastes like cheap vinegar. They're caustic, hot, bitter, sour. We’re very particular, and it makes a big difference.”How have you seen the city change since you’ve opened?
“In the year and half that I’ve been here, OTR and downtown are much more vibrant. I've been living on 14th and Main. I spend a lot of time in the whole area, walking, riding my bike, taking advantage of a lot of the new bars and restaurants that are opening up.
“Vine street is becoming more and more alive every day. Our walk-in traffic has been much more than we anticipated, especially once we realized we were off the main traffic pattern.
“Cincinnati is an amazing city with a lot of potential. And while we appreciate all the customers and businesses that have supported us so far, I think that the people that live in the areas surrounding Cincinnati don't support downtown as much as they should, and they’re really going to miss out on a lot of the great changes this city is undergoing.
“A lot of the suburbs have become a lot of little villages. The city's center was where it all started. It was the center of commerce, center of travel, center of migration. And if they allow downtown to dry up, it’s like allowing your heartbeat to dry up.”What can you tell us about the changes with Tonic on 4th’s location?
“Bringing Tonic back over here has brought a lot of energy back to this side of the restaurant. A craft cocktail bar of that size was a little too ambitious, and it was becoming evident that it wasn’t going to continue to support itself.
"Quite honestly, I should have done it six months ago. Now it's more intimate, it's smaller. The craft cocktail program is available in the restaurant as well, and we'll probably have the entire menu available up in the new Tonic loft space. Tonic's old location is now an event space, and we can handle from 10 to 300. We'll be trying to host events of all types in the future, including live music.”Any final thoughts on the progress and evolution of the restaurant?
“I think a lot of the negativity is now water under the bridge. I think most people realized that we want what's good for Cincinnati too. We're not in it for the money, not in it for the fame. We're here for the direct connection to hospitality and making people happy. It's a very tough business to be in if you're not in it for the right reasons.
“We believe that hospitality is bringing someone into your environment and making them feel comfortable and welcome. Over a year and a half later, if the place were to close tomorrow, we would have felt like we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.”