In a neighborhood where shiny industrial condos rub shoulders with John Deere tractors, a military surplus store, a mattress outlet, and a vegan bakery, it’s safe to assume that anything goes. Which is why I shouldn’t have been totally staggered by a $12 Manhattan in Northside. Co-owner John Ford ages his Bulleit rye and Dolin sweet vermouth in rugby-ball sized oak barrels for a month at a time. A fitting technique that involves much patience, as the restaurant itself has also been years in the making.
I’m sitting at the bar of the Littlefield—the brainchild of a small group of friends connected loosely by Cincinnati’s art world. Co-owner Matt Distel, who has curated art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the CAC, and The Carnegie in Covington, frequently socialized with artist Chad Scholten as well as art patron Mike Berry. The three, along with their fellow Northsider Ford, spent four years hatching a plan. The group eventually found a modest 1,500 square-foot space on Spring Grove, just south of Hamilton Avenue, and Scholten completed most of the remodeling himself. The minimalist, wood- and earth-toned space was designed specifically to accommodate local artists’ work on a rotating monthly basis.
The drink takes a second to get used to. So many Manhattans begin with a burn and ease into the sweetness of the cherry, but Ford’s creation plays out backwards thanks to the barrel aging, with a balanced mouth-feel from the get-go that slowly simmers into soft harmony. Distel describes the owners’ bourbon philosophy as “Anything we can get our hands on.” There’s little bravado behind this statement, as it’s next to impossible to source certain types of interstate spirits. Many Kentucky classics are simply not available north of the border.
Despite these sourcing challenges, at least 70-odd bottles behind the bar look awfully familiar. The Elijah Craig 12-year has a classic profile—vanilla-sweet, and straightforward—great for a single it’s-been-a-long-day shot. Basil Hayden’s, my long-time favorite for sipping, is smooth with a spicy rye finish that adds just the right kick. Ford and his staff make for excellent beverage sherpas, willing to guide you into unexplored territory. On one visit, I tried the Death’s Door White Whisky, which evoked the floral sweetness of añejo tequila. The George Dickel No. 12 is a value pour often overlooked by the trendier spots in town.
Distel freely admits that much of their success is due to luck. The group knew that Shoshannah Hafner, the former chef-owner at Honey, was looking to get back behind the stove. Her casual consulting (pot pies were a menu requirement) quickly morphed into a full-time gig.
“This was always meant to be a bourbon bar,” Distel explains. “And, even now, we still think of it as more of a bar than a restaurant.” So the menu was meant to be limited, and aside from the pot pie mandate, had one main rule—to support and celebrate the bottled flavors up front. Hafner, who appreciates good bourbon, threw herself into the task. The menu is small but full of surprises that assert themselves regardless of what you’re quaffing. A faint hint of curry powder deepens the moody cauliflower fritters. I almost missed the subtle spice within the schmear of crème fraîche, but a sweet crunch of minced shallot holds everything together. The lamb meatballs are a more substantial starter; skewered golf-balls of mild, peppery ground lamb get a faint crust from the final sear.
While there’s plenty of starches in liquid form, the bread is—please trust me here, gluten-phobes—mandatory. The ciabatta, courtesy of Sixteen Bricks bakery, is flat, with a soft, bubbly crumb. It could have been served alone, but sings with Hafner’s intensely sultry bourbon-spiked browned butter studded with blue cheese. You’ll also want to order the brisket. Applewood-smoked then braised, the meat maintains just enough fat to stay soft, and the earthy, smoky-sweet flavor comes with a patent-leather char to remind you of the caramelized nuances in your glass. As for the pot pies, Hafner jokes that she wanted guests to be comfortable drinking both before and after eating one. To that end, the pie is indeed lighter than most, more like a hearty (read: lots of white and dark meat) soup than a fricassee held captive within a flaky crust. Mine could have used some extra herb, perhaps thyme or dill, but Hafner’s cuisine is head-and-shoulders above much of what’s available in Northside.
If the Littlefield’s savory options merely hint at bourbon, the desserts scream it. A fluffy piece of banana upside down cake was soft and luxurious. Sassy with bourbon and caramelized banana, it came topped with curried coconut caramel corn and a mango puree, a multi-culti flavor combo that tasted surprisingly natural together. Less subtle, but more decadent, was the bourbon-drenched flourless chocolate cake—an enormous, fudgy wedge of boozy dark chocolate that clung to my fork as I dispatched it. The only disappointment was the bourbon pecan pie. It was rich and saucy, but the architecture was slightly off-kilter; the crust was only half-filled with pecans, and the remaining pastry had a salty aftertaste.
It will be interesting to watch how The Littlefield weathers the winter. Ford says he’s excited to experiment with homemade ciders, and Hafner’s knack for elevating comfort food bodes well for cold, snowy evenings. Despite the fact that the restaurant will lose more than half its seating once the chill arrives (the outdoor patio can seat a horde), I have a feeling that the eclectic neighborhood will catch on. A few well-stocked shelves of bourbon have a way of attracting a crowd.
3934 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, (513) 386-7570, littlefieldns.com