Although pasta is the heart of Khora’s menu, very little of what’s served there conforms to our expectations for this ingredient. When I talked to Chef Kevin Ashworth, I mentioned to him that the restaurant doesn’t really feel Italian. “It’s not Italian,” he says, quite emphatically. Other restaurants in Cincinnati, after all, are already doing that cuisine impeccably. What Khora is doing, he explains, is something different.
That difference can be hard to define, but Ashworth calls the restaurant “Midwestern” in inspiration. There are elevated takes on some very homey cuisine: a French onion dip served with spicy potato chips and caviar; a twice-baked potato, served alongside a delicious roasted mushroom with black shaved truffle that almost overshadowed the steak it came with; and, fittingly, a take on Cincinnati chili with a lamb ragout and a smoky gjetost cheese instead of the usual mountain of fluffy cheddar.
Khora is the brainchild of Ashworth (who grew up in Anderson Township) and Louisville’s celebrated chef Edward Lee, best known for 610 Magnolia, where Ashworth was the executive chef for many years. The name Khora comes from Khorasan wheat, grown for centuries in the Middle East, and the menu is built around older varieties of grain, most of which became rare after the advent of large-scale industrialized farming. The restaurant features such unfamiliar ingredients as emmer, red fife, and einkorn, all heritage grains with their own unique textures and flavor profiles.
That said, if the menu didn’t specify the grains each dish was using, one could easily eat at Khora and have no idea there was a concept at work. A talk with the chef, though, makes it clear how certain dishes were created in response to the character of each grain. My favorite dish at Khora is the red fife and coffee mafaldine. Ashworth was inspired by a grain that Italians traditionally burn in the field, giving it a deep color and faint bitterness. As a substitute, he adds a dash of powdered coffee to the dough, and then creates a rich sauce using Calabrian chile and oyster mushrooms. Ashworth says that he was trying to re-create the feel of gochujang, the fermented Korean spice paste, without actually using it. It isn’t exactly fusion because it doesn’t feel like anything has been smushed together, but it is something absolutely new and it feels totally welcoming, satisfies an elemental hunger, and also exists between clear categories.
Several of my favorite dishes felt this way—uncategorizable, but never too intellectual or strange. This is friendly food, done at an extremely high level of skill. I loved touches like the curry vinaigrette served on the salad, along with little cubes of roasted sweet potato, which added texture and balanced the spices in the dressing; or the sweet-and-sour pickled salad of apple, fennel, and celery served beside the Atlantic black bass. And of course, the Cincinnati-style chili, which luckily doesn’t try to duplicate the classic flavors, but creates its own tart and more Middle Eastern variation (the pumpkin seeds get my vote for a sixth “way”).
The special virtues of the grains themselves, I think, are most apparent at the beginning and end of the meal, with the dinner roll and the dessert. Dinner rolls are generally things you serve to keep hungry diners from getting impatient as the meal is prepared. The roll at Khora made me stop what I was doing to appreciate it. Made in house by Pastry Chef Megan Ketover, it is easily the best roll in the city. The flour used is einkorn, one of the earliest varieties of domesticated wheat. Aside from the delicately chewy texture and glossy surface, there were so many dimensions to the flavor—nutty, sweet, a hint of anise—I kept looking inside the bread to see if additional ingredients were tucked away in there. But it seems to just be the flavors inside the flour, freshly milled for Khora by Sixteen Bricks.
Ketover’s dessert is just as good, and you can tell that she has fully embraced the challenge of using these grains, which cannot be easy for a pastry chef, where consistency is paramount (small-batch milling often results in all kinds of frustrating variations). The chocolate caramel tart is an absolute masterpiece: subtle, varied, and full of textural surprises, from the toffee puffed grains to the lovely crisp cocoa nib bark, which reminded me of traditional Mexican chocolate, with its hints of cinnamon and its more crumbly texture.
The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone in the restaurant community. Khora opened in October. To make up for the decrease in diners, they pivoted to things like take-home kits for pasta and dessert, along with carryout, using a much-reduced staff. It has to hurt to plate such beautiful food into a takeout tray. Sometimes this does affect the results; the fries that came with the burger had steamed inside the plastic container. Luckily, the burger is unbelievably good, with a creamy brie sauce and onions caramelized with sherry. Even as takeout, you can taste how special it is.
When I spoke with Ashworth, the sun had come out after weeks of deep freeze. There was some hope in the air. By summer, Khora’s outdoor space will have opened, and maybe the crisis will be lifting. As Ashworth says, there are “so many places we love that we don’t want to see disappear.” Khora is still very new, but there is every sign that it could become one of those places.
Khora, 37 W. Seventh St., downtown, (513) 977-2800