DAYTON EATS: Battle of the Bartenders hints to wonderful things to come on spring, summer local restaurant menus

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Buckeye Vodka Battle of the Bartenders crowned its eighth champion this month with much fanfare.

Liz Valenti, Wheat Penny Oven & Bar chef and co-owner, and her hugely talented kitchen team were named the new champions for their truly excellent cocktail, “Stop and Smell the Roses” made with rose hip, black tea and cardamom infused vodka with punt e mes (an Italian vermouth), housemade orgeat, lemon, grapefruit, Earl Gray tea and rose water topped off with a sea salt foam.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

The drink was conceived by bar manager Thomas Morris and the wonderful dish accompanying it — an herb salad with cold poached shrimp, pickled cherry and pistachio gremolata garnished with slivers of Fresno chiles was executed by the kitchen team of sous chef Hannah Cranmer and chef Nicholas Cheng.

The eighth competition of the Buckeye Vodka Battle of the Bartenders featuring 10 restaurants was held Wednesday, March 8, at The Steam Plant in Dayton. This was the first time for the battle since 2020 when it was held just before the COVID-19 shutdowns.

“This was the ultimate team building project. Collaboration, inspiration and hard, rewarding work. I am so proud of our entire Wheat Penny family,” said Valenti of the win.

It’s the third win for Wheat Penny and the first for this team.

The staff joins an impressive list of past Battle of the Bartenders winners:

2020: Roland Eliason, The Winds “Gold Blooded”

2019: Carolyn Porter, Wheat Penny “Dutchess of Earl”

2018: Brock McKibben, Wheat Penny " Merchant’s Wife”

2017: Bill Castro, El Meson “Tamiami Miami”

2016: Nikolaus Hunt, Coco’s Bistro “Coco’s Ruby Slipper”

2015: Amber Brady, Lily’s Bistro “Rosemary’s Babee”

2014: Dustin Wade, Meadowlark “The Root of All Evil”

The People’s Choice prize went to an equally tasty winner who joined the ranks.

The cocktail from Smiths’ Boathouse restaurant in Troy, “Down the Rabbit Hole” was conceived and mixed by talented bartender Nicole Wilson.

The carrot based cocktail had wonderful layers of flavor to it thanks to a cilantro infused vodka, passion fruit puree, fennel, honey, chili powder and a dash of Tabasco topped with a green tomato foam.

Sound weird?

Yes, to us too, but the resulting cocktail was absolutely delicious.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Other runners up for the top prize were Carvers Steaks and Chops with a hibiscus based cocktail and Rip Rap Roadhouse with a coconut and raspberry martini.

Just as good as the wonderful cocktails being served up was the accompanying food which hinted at wonderful things in store on menus at local restaurants this spring and summer.

The lamb burger from Meadowlark was simple and straightforward topped with a whipped feta, pickled red onion and lettuce on a homemade roll. It was savory and bright with the promise of spring and paired with a refreshing cocktail made with shaved ice, vodka, fresh lime juice, absinthe, orgeat and a saline and MSG solution that helped make the flavors pop to yield a summery treat.

The Last Queen in Enon brought its tender, flavorful chicken curry with them. This dish used to only be available during certain days of the week, but owner Adrian Shergill shared that it is now on the menu daily due to overwhelming popularity.

The popular English pub that opened almost a year ago in April has a new menu with several new sandwiches and salads that look worthy of a try, but it will be hard to pass up that wonderful curry that dances with flavor and is clearly something the restaurant is becoming known for.

Carvers brought a pairing with them that seemed perfectly suited for a decadent breakfast. The hibiscus splash cocktail will be added to their menu until Easter for $14. Conceived by bartender Ashley Hake it is a vodka based cocktail mixed with hibiscus syrup, lemon and lime juice, mango puree and ginger beer. It paired with Chef Drew Ballard’s mixed berry beignets stuffed with fresh raspberry compote, nestled in with fresh housemade caramel and more raspberry sauce. It was a lot of sugar, but a delicious treat. The beignets will also be on the menu through the Easter holiday for $14.

Chef Maria Walusis from Watermark in Miamisburg had a wonderful ceviche made with honeydew melon, tropical fruit, mint, tomato, cucumber, jalapeno, citrus zest and juice with wonderful plump pieces of shrimp. The labor intensive dish was a welcome taste of summer that she shared took 38 pounds of fruits and vegetables to make.

Another summery appetizer was a housemade strawberry salsa with candied basil and pineapple guacamole with housemade honey lime tortilla chips from Rip Rap Roadhouse that would be perfect to enjoy on their large patio area as the weather warms.

My favorite cocktail without question was Smiths’ Boathouse. It paired so nicely with a simple Vietnamese spring roll with julienne vegetables, vermicelli noodles and marinated and steamed shrimp with fresh herbs and a sweet and spicy passion fruit soy dipping sauce. The pairing was a delight and a reminder that a visit is in store to see what other things the kitchen and bartending team are doing.

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

My favorite pairing of the evening was Wheat Penny’s winning inventive showy floral creation “Stop and Smell the Roses” with that shrimp and pickled cherry and pistachio gremolata they served it with. I am hoping both make it to the restaurant’s menu at some point as it was a truly exceptional marriage of dish and drink. I was very happy to see both restaurants recognized for the exceptional flavors they executed on.

And this wasn’t an easy competition to win.

The entries across the board were impressive with a lot of time and attention put into what was being served and the competition was as stiff as the drinks being served.

The event was buzzing all evening and the food and beverages being served up were beautiful reminders that spring is almost here and that new dishes and flavors like many of these will be rolled out at local restaurants to greet guests and the seasons ahead.

Dayton Eats looks at the regional food stories and restaurant news that make mouths water. Menu updates, special dinners and events, new chefs, interesting new dishes and culinary adventures. Do you know of new exciting format changes, specials, happy hours, restaurant updates or any other tasty news you think is worth a closer look at? E-mail Alexis Larsen at with the information and we will work to include it in future coverage.

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