Travel, Etc. --> A Visit To Cincinnati And The New 21C Hotel
A Visit To Cincinnati
And The New 21C Hotel
The 21C Museum Hotel and Dinner at Metropole, plus Lots of Other Cincinnati Sites
Three years ago, we wrote about visiting the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, and last week, we had a chance to visit their latest outpost in Cincinnati, with thanks to the generosity of my employees for a Christmas gift card. The 21C is a collaboration between Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson - think the Brown Forman alcohol empire, who designed and executed the novel Louisville hotel concept, incorporating an art museum, a first-rate restaurant, Proof, and a 90 room boutique hotel. They've done it again in Cincinnati. They have renovated a turn of the century hotel, creating 156 rooms and 2 floors plus of gallery space, along with one of the city's hottest new restaurants, Metropole, conceived by the executive chef, Michael Paley, who established Proof at the 21C in Louisville.
Knowing that there was plenty to do in Cincinnati, and armed with our gift card, we spent the 4th of July weekend exploring the town's attractions and the menus and amenities at the 21C. We began with a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. While the neighborhood surrounding the zoo seems a little "iffy," the zoo itself is a great experience. Not better, just different and much older (established in 1875) than the Indianapolis Zoo, it had been 20 years since we had visited. And, they have certainly kept upgrading the experience. Being Great and Lesser cat lovers, we especially enjoyed "Cat Canyon," with impressive cat habitats. The "Night Hunters" exhibit was especially fun because you saw the hunters in a reversed environment of darkness during the day.
We were also amused with the primate habitat, and chuckled at the large orangutan who covered himself with paper when it started drizzling. The grounds and landscaping were as impressive as the animals and at 66 acres, it is large enough to not have strollers bumping your ankles all the time. You really have to love zoos to be willing to go without a small child.
After light rain shortened our visit to the African habitat, we landed at the 21C. From the valet parking to the attentive (and hip) check-in experience (their front counter is plexiglass held up by tiny plastic figurines, just like the unique art floor installation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and by the same artist), the service was as exemplary as the 21C in Louisville...this hotel really understands customer service. Unfortunately, the 2nd floor gallery was closed for a reset, but there was plenty of other art to view on the first floor and common areas, as well as a large installation on each floor.
And whereas the ubiquitous penguins are red in Louisville, they are yellow in Cincinnati. And part of the fun is the way the guests move them around....none slept in our room this time.
Particularly moving was an installation on our floor that featured what appeared to be ID portraits of Iranian women in burkhas, with superimposed transparencies of the same women in western clothing. We were a little surprised by the bravery of the Iranian female artist who attached her name, clearly a work of art that could invite reprisals in the Arab world.
Fittingly, the 21C is located next to Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center, an ultra modern building built 10 years ago to house rotating exhibits of contemporary art.
Or, as a docent explained, there are no permanent exhibits because all of the art is "no more than 15 minutes old." An interesting and fun visit, where the docents encourage you to touch and interact with the artwork. Pretty hip...there was an installation filled with the old clickable View Masters of our childhoods...and a collection of goofy plywood movie props that encouraged you to interact and take photos or a video. There are four floors of artistic experiences...some of them a little strange, but all of them interesting.
After a glass of wine on the rooftop deck, dinner Friday evening was at the Metropole at the 21C, where Chef Michael Paley has been experimenting with food cooked in a wood burning fireplace. We began with choices from his house made charcuterie bar and selected a 7 hour sous vide cooked egg, Finocchiona (house made salami) and a St. Angel French triple cream cheese, served with toasted whole grain bread, chutney and fire roasted grapes. Wow...a little different from the charcuterie from Proof, but really good. The wine list is extensive, but not overblown, with typical restaurant markups. We began with a couple of quartinos (quarter bottles) of Taburno Falangina from Italy, a bright, but rich white at $14, and shared a bottle of Orin Swift Abstract over dinner, a Rhone style blend at $72.
Linda chose the string roasted chicken that we didn't quite understand until the next afternoon when we saw whole chickens suspended with string, roasting over a blazing wood fire. Her three large pieces, served with wax beans and roasted garlic could have been a delicious dinner for two. Tender and tasty, it made me initially wonder about my choice of the grilled sirloin. But it proved to be more tender and juicy than any sirloin I've ever eaten. Served with roasted fingerlings potatoes, fire roasted onions and wild mushrooms, the dish was excellent.
Saturday dawned with driving rain that led us to spend an hour or so in Metropole drinking coffee, reading the NY Times and having the best breakfast item that wasn't even on the menu! We had noticed the fried egg and bacon sandwich on a homemade potato roll on the room service menu, and requested it. And it was even better than it sounded, and by hotel breakfast standards, a serious bargain at only $8 each.
The morning rain drove us to indoor attractions, the first of which was the Newport Aquarium, just across the river in KY. Like zoos, we love aquariums, and I have to say that Newport compares favorably with the best we've seen in Monterey and Tampa. It is an amazing place with plenty of sharks, alligators, tropical fish, a penguin encounter, and best of all, an incredible jellyfish exhibit. Plexiglass tunnels wind through an underwater habitat filled with rays, sharks and fish of all kinds. Be forewarned, on a rainy Saturday, it was kind of crowded!! Small-child tolerance is required.
Our second stop was the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a large Smithsonian-related museum that we didn't know existed until friends recently told us about it. It is a beautiful building and a sobering stop that reinforces the reality of a very dark part of American history, and leaves you wondering what part you might have played had you been placed with the moral imperative to which the members of the underground railroad rose. At the same time, it is encouraging that we had citizens who risked their own lives to do the right thing and help slaves to reach freedom. It also emphasized the dilemma faced by the framers of the Constitution, who knew their compromise laid the groundwork for future conflict. Not pretty, but important history and everyone should visit it.
Linda's visit to the 21C spa for a massage late that afternoon left her limp as a dishrag and we spent Saturday night watching movies and eating Metropole room service in our very comfortable room. Dinner was excellent, and included the much touted (shared) bison burger with onion marmalade and aged cheddar, along with the burnt carrot salad with avocado and goat cheese (trust us). Luckily, we had brought along a bottle of Norton Privada, a Bordeaux blend, that proved a perfect match. All in all, a weekend getaway that we can recommend, and if you leave at 7:30 AM on Sunday morning, you can be in your kitchen drinking coffee and reading the newspaper at 9:15...and still have a full day at home.
On a final note, visiting Cincinnati for the first time in 20 years really adds a counter point to how far Indianapolis downtown has come. Being in a downtown as dingy and not particularly walkable, like Cincinnati's, makes you appreciate the exceptional renaissance of Indianapolis' downtown.
July 17, 2013