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Thursday, April 7, 2016

French Fry Heaven



I recently had the chance to sample a new restaurant in Cincinnati. One that's redefining how to do french fries.




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French fries span the world in various incarnations. In the United States though, they’re most commonly found as a side dish. From fast food restaurants to upscale joints that give them a more refined designation, fries are typically found complementing the main course or underneath your car seat if they came from a drive-through window.  A new restaurant in Cincinnati is challenging that idea though, elevating the fry's traditional role as nothing more than a snack or secondary item and making it the centerpiece.


French Fry Heaven is the brainchild of Scott Nelowet, the "CEOFG" of the company. He was inspired by Europeans selling thick-cut, fried twice Belgian style fries with toppings other than just ketchup. The company launched in Jacksonville, Florida in 2011 and has been steadily expanding their concept ever since. To date they have 11 locations across across ten states, the Cincinnati franchise being Ohio’s first.

I'll admit, when I first received an email inviting me to a preview of French Fry Heaven before its grand opening, I was skeptical. These kind of “social media invites” go out all the time (and yes Panera, I still don’t care about your seasonal bagels) and I don’t consider myself a food critic. I’m not pretentious about my food. Locally I’ve had the pleasure of eating at Sotto and Boca, but I’m not above the Waffle House or a gas station hot dog. However, I was intrigued by the invitation. I’ve been a longtime fan of Skyline and Gold Star’s chili cheese fries, but they’re always a complement to a cheese coney (or two). I liked the idea of french fries being the main focus and I always like the idea of something new coming to Cincinnati. I also read up on Scott and his story of founding the company. He seemed like a good guy. So I accepted the invitation and on April 6th, my girlfriend Laura and I found our way to French Fry Heaven on Calhoun St. for a preview of what they had to offer.

The store occupies the former Five Guys location and has been redone. Lime green chairs pair with wooden tabletops and the kitchen is right up front with the customers. In many ways it's set up similar to other "fresh casual" restaurants such as Chipotle and Jimmy Johns. The menu on the wall offers up several pairings of french fries and toppings as well as a full vegetarian menu. Everything is made fresh (and it shows). Any dish can also have fries substituted for chips or a baked potato and chicken fingers are also offered. Hanging on the walls are images of potato farmers with angel wings on their backs.

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Laura and I met up with 5chw4r7z and Ms. 5chw4r7z. Scott introduced himself and warned us that the first round of guests had left in a food coma. A tall and friendly guy, you can tell Scott is incredibly passionate about the business he's created and the concept he's developed. He spent the entire evening kneeling down at tables and talking with everyone.

Samples of the various dishes started rolling out and Scott even took care to make sure several vegetarian options landed at our table.

We were able to try things such as "Chipotle Chicken Taco" served over potato chips:

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"Bruschetta" served over potato chips:

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The "Taco" served over fries:

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A vegetarian option, "Buffalo Cheese," which featured cheese curds, buffalo sauce, and ranch:

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"Virgin Taco," without the meat:

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"Garlic Chicken Parmesan:"

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"Pizza" topped with pepperonis:

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"The Ball Park," essentially a baseball stadium meal all in one bowl:

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My personal favorite, a dish that was essentially a double decker sandwich. Tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, and bacon served over french fries:

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One of the employees remarked that I should check out what an actual dish looks like, rather than just the samples. A few nearby customers were kind enough to pause their dining and let me photograph their dishes. Toppings and all, a typical dish such as "Buffalo Chicken" weighs in at about a full pound:

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Pizza:

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The last dish we tried was Poutine. A Canadian delicacy hailing from the province of Quebec, it features cheese curds and brown gravy served over french fries. I've always heard about it, but had yet to try it. Not typically a fan of gravy, I passed on another helping, but others at our table remarked that it was good:

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Bob 5chw4r7z with the stack of empty sample trays, absent of the fries we devoured:

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The last course to be sampled was dessert, which is unsurprisingly also comprised of french fries. "Funnel Fries" combine the classic amusement park treat of Funnel Cake with the restaurant's centerpiece. To quote 5chw4r7z: "I'd probably never stop eating them if someone kept giving them to me."

He's right, they're fantastic:

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The final consensus was positive. A bowl of french fries isn't something I could eat everyday, but what French Fry Heaven offers is unique. Although "Shepherd's Pie" and "Pizza" weren't my favorites, they were still good. "The Ball Park," "Bruschetta," and "Cheeseburger" were near the top of my list. Then there's the "funnel fries" which are the French Fry Heaven's equivalent of delivered manna.

I had the chance to speak with Scott several times throughout the night. He pointed out that there's an "easter egg" hidden in the restaurant's aforementioned wall hanging photographs. I didn't catch it, but Laura did. He also mentioned how Cincinnati became a location choice and how it's beginning to serve as a "hub" for his growing business. Eventually they'll start offering delivery and every night they'll be open till 3 AM. At the heart of UC's campus, they already had a crowd wandering in for a "soft opening." Their grand opening is tonight:


Just beyond Nippert Stadium, I imagine that this place will become a favorite for those who've been enjoying the beer at UC Football games and FC Cincinnati matches. I appreciated that Scott had taken the time to truly connect with everyone in the place. Not only those of us who had been invited to the event, but every customer in the room. You can tell he genuinely enjoys what he does and the food he serves up is pretty damn good. His company is also committed to charity and accepts "anyone's belief or lack there of." Every company has a mission statement, but Scott proves that the last portion of his company's is heartfelt: "make a significant positive impact on the world."

Sometimes, you just need a bowl of french fries.

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- Scott Nelowet, founder and CEOFG of French Fry Heaven. 

French Fry Heaven's Cincinnati location is located at 206 Calhoun St. Their website is here.

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