There can be a sameness to new restaurants, with their poutine and their short ribs and beet salads — delicious though those dishes are. The way out of the rut? A restaurant with the cuisine of a different part of the world that hasn’t yet become over-familiar.
A restaurant like Maize OTR, which combines tropical and South American flavors with the feel and service of a trendy OTR restaurant It makes for a fresh experience.
Venezuela inspires most of the menu, though foods of Puerto Rico, home of Angel Batista, co-owner with Louisa Reckman, come into it, too. Maize, meaning corn in Spanish, describes the central ingredient in some of Venezuela’s most important dishes, like the arepa and its cousin. But Venezuela is Caribbean, too, and plantains are the other staple. Fried, mashed, cut thin or served sweet, they show up in many dishes.
The space, the former ZBGB across from Taft’s Ale House is bright and lively, with a front bar room full of high-top tables, a back room of lower tables and the open kitchen. There are bright colors and paintings, but it stops short of kitsch. Latin music suggests dancing and festivity.
If you’re feeling festive, get a few drinks. If you’re not feeling festive, get a few drinks and you will be. They are fantastic, made with tropical fruit flavors like guava, guanabana and passion fruit. They’re all remarkably refreshing, light but not silly.
I especially loved the dulce y amargo (sweet and sour) with tequila, guanabana and serrano pepper, and the ligero y refrescante (light and refreshing) with guava, lime and ginger to remind you of trips in the direction the equator. Not a mention a good mojito.
There’s also a Venezuelan specialty called el ritual, with a wedge of lime you dip in fine-ground coffee and brown and bite into before downing a shot of rum. Your mouth will be confused at first, but it all resolves into harmony.
There are so many great drinks and appetizers that a good option might be sitting at the bar and exploring just those two sections of the menu. Tequenos are crispy fried fingers filled with that white, fresh South American cheese, served with cilantro sauce. It’s the drizzle of honey that makes them special.
There’s elote, the corn dish everyone is loving these days. Here it’s served as it might be on the street, a roasted ear with lots of cheese and mayo and cayenne. Messy, rich, a little spicy.
Guasacaca Gruesa looks like guacamole, but this Venezuelan version includes lots of other vegetables, like olives, zucchini and eggplant. It’s served with plantains, cut the long way and fried, which are called mariquitas and are great dippers, slightly sweet with a snap and crunch.
They come with the ceviche con leche de tigre, too. That’s a simple, fresh mixture of raw red snapper, shrimp and mango marinated in lime juice. And chicarrones de pollo is chunks of bone-in chicken of no recognizable cut, fried and tossed in a red pepper sauce.
You can order arepas or cachapas with your chosen filling, including shredded pork, beef or chicken. The arepas are fat corn cakes, grilled and split in half and filled, while the cachapas are more like pancakes. The arepa reina pepiada is filled with a generous amount of green chicken and avocado salad. It’s a little too fat to eat like a sandwich.
The Venezuelan dish pabellon criollo has been given a restaurant treatment, the rice and black beans topped with shredded beef, formed into a circle, a sweet fried plantain is on top, and a sprinkle of fresh cheese.
It’s garnished with foam and microgreens. None of that disguises the hominess of this dish, which is delicious and filling but not especially highly-flavored. The Churrasco con chimi is a very good version of steak with chimichurri (which, come to think of it, is on some of those other trendy restaurant menus).
The skirt steak has a brawny chew, and is very flavorful, with a robust hit of garlic in the green chimichurri sauce. It’s draped over yuca fries with a puree of carrot.
We had good service: anything you don’t understand they can explain. Though, one night there was a spill of rice and sauce right in front of my friend that was never wiped off. And, I’m sorry to say it’s pretty loud, especially in the back room. I didn’t get a chance to sit at the sidewalk window, where you can order from the bar, but it’s in my future.
Where: 1438 Race St., Over-the-Rhine
When: Tuesday and Wednesday 5-10 p.m., Thursday, 5 pm.-midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers to share: $5-11, arepas and cachapas $9-11, entrees $16-24
Vegetarian options: several appetizers, a tofu and avocado filling or a black bean and cheese filling for arepas, salads, yuca fries, mofongo
Miscellaneous: Accessible to disabled. Will open for brunch soon
Reservations: They take walk-ins, but reservation recommended. They use Reserve online
by Polly Campbell – Cincinnati Enquire