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Local 127: Pickled in Time

Note: On October 29, Local 127 announced that Steven Geddes was stepping down. Kyle Johnson replaces him as executive chef.

Some chefs plant a rooftop garden. Steven Geddes bends time.

The Colorado native was certainly not the first chef in Cincinnati to source locally, and Local 127 was not Cincinnati’s first high-end restaurant to emphasize regional cuisine. Still, after stints in Miami, along the California coast, and most recently Las Vegas, Geddes’s Midwestern detour proved revelatory. He quickly recognized that the Ohio Valley’s abundance meant much shorter supply lines and a diverse growing season, and that this fortunate trick of geography could form the key elements of a supple, responsive menu informed by seasonality and freshness.

He’ll be the first to back away from buzzwords like locavore or farm-to-table. “Good chefs do this stuff anyway,” he insists. He’s equally quick to call attention to exceptions. Trout, with its tricky musculature, is grueling to butcher in-house, so his kitchen buys its filets from a carefully vetted national supplier, along with commodities like coffee and chocolate. Nonetheless, the restaurant’s name, a reference to its previous address on West Fourth Street (before its move to the former The Bistro space on Vine), came to symbolize the bullseye Geddes likes to talk about, the center of a moving target. Outer edges will expand and contract with the seasons, but Geddes always tries to chase flavor from within as narrow a window as possible.

Even if Local 127 owed its initial success to geography, it has sustained that success because of time itself. Between the cures and the brines and the smoke and the braises and the pickling, it’s striking how much of Geddes’s cuisine plays the long game. Almost every dish at 127 features an element started hours, days, or even weeks ago. I am not even taking into account the chef’s exacting insistence that everything—from the ketchup to the cheese spread—be homemade. Clearly labor intensive, Geddes’s emphasis on deep prep allows him to defy the boundaries of what’s possible in a small kitchen where seemingly every dish involves “hurry up and wait.”

This temporal balancing act is crucial. Smoking allows the restaurant to build stark flavors without the use of too many heavy sauces, and the emphasis on curing offers the chef a range of textural options while de-emphasizing the need for too many spices. Sous-vide cooking, wherein food is vacuum sealed and slowly poached in temperature-regulated water, forms a key part of Geddes’s repertoire, allowing food to be brought to a precise temperature without taking up precious kitchen real estate. The dividend of this time investment is a cuisine that is not so much cooked as it is cultivated.

Perhaps the best exemplar of this careful cultivation is Geddes’s “cured and pickled” combo, which features selections from what he calls his “ongoing master class in nose-to-tail butchering.” More common charcuterie stars like cured coppa may sit alongside goat belly, smoked duck necks, or even porchetta di testa, a cured meat made from a pig’s head requiring delicate knife work and considerable patience.

One option from the combo, the smoked trout, was stunning. Cured and smoked to gently expose the fillet to a brooding saltiness, the fish is briefly cooked to set the protein structure. This soft fish has a smoky background that harmonizes nicely with the more assertive flavor of freshwater trout. Tender bites dare you to guess the exact moment fish could be too salty, but the intoxicating smokiness lets you lumber toward that threshold without ever crossing it.

The pork belly was also a surprise. Shimmering off-white strips of meat arrived seemingly at the precise temperature that the flesh was beginning to melt away. And while the flavor was subdued, the texture occupied a delicate porcine sweet spot between pâté and bacon, where meat can be cut with almost no pressure from a utensil, and needed only a few chunks of diced pickled apple and red wine syrup to support it.

Local 127’s signature entree, Porkopolis, remains a constant on an otherwise fast-changing menu. It was envisioned as both a nod to Cincinnati’s heritage and a quirky take on pork and beans, one of Geddes’s favorite meals to prepare at home. Over time, the dish has taken on a life of its own. Specifics will change seasonally, but Porkopolis merges various textures—nuanced ham, pork belly, crisp bacon—with supporting players from white beans to wheatberries to turnips to a tomato jam. The constant evolution is part of what he calls “The Alchemy of Chefing,” recognizing that a need to adapt is balanced against a desire to intervene as little as necessary.

Not for nothing does Local 127’s website count “All Grandmothers” among the staff’s inspirations. Exhibit A: meatloaf, another menu constant. Here the hidden complexity highlights much about what works at 127, when one or two unorthodox steps nudge a family recipe toward something stark and downtown. Beef and pork are combined and ground with a special curing salt, pressed like a terrine, and finished with a pan sear. This allows the exterior coat of homemade ketchup to deepen and caramelize, resulting in a bolder, uptempo dish—dense from the pressing, strikingly bright from the salting, but still comforting and rich.

A similar minimalist ethic shows up in the striped bass. Despite a dramatic presentation—slightly convex and skin up—the arrangement never overshadows the virtuoso work happening just a few feet away in the kitchen. The bass is pan-seared and prepared with just a touch of herbed oil and surprisingly rich soubise—a creamy and thoroughly modern offspring of Bechamel, the often gritty mother sauce—allowing the lean fish to open up and spread out.

In addition to a robust draft beer selection and inventive cocktail menu (the seasonal mojito is a treat no matter what time of year, and it’s always refreshing to see bartenders squeezing fresh limes into tall cocktail glasses), two features on 127’s happy hour menu deserve special mention. The smoked burger, which comes served with fries cut from Kennebec potatoes (prized for their ideal starch ratio), along with a special beer, is a great deal at $14. Like a good piece of sushi, the rich meat dissolves in the mouth no sooner and no later than it has to, and the homemade roll smartly conforms to the patty size. Another choice, duck confit poutine, with rich shards of duck leg set among fried potatoes and Geddes’s whimsical white-cheddar cheese foam, is as indulgent as it is original.

Be warned. The conclusion of your dinner will be spent fighting with your friends over the last few luxurious bites of sour cream cheesecake. The dessert’s mason jar presentation sidesteps the need for the support of a thick pastry crust, and allows a thinner dusting of graham cracker to create the mildest textural counterpoint. Still, the jar promises that the battle will be loud, messy, and contentious, fought within a narrow circumference filled with tangy custard and piquant cherries. Flecks of mint, even if slightly bitter, add a bright blast of flavor to the dark notes of the preserves.

Of course, if you chose to sidestep this, there will still be a chocolate chip cookie presented with your bill, one last reminder of Geddes’s range. Warm, with barely crisp edges and deep bittersweet chocolate chunks, it is one more sign that Local 127 remains a key part of a food scene just starting to live up to its promise.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue.