If you ignore taste, eschew appearance and focus solely on smell, then Cinners, a Cincinnati-style chili lounge in Lincoln Square, appears to have nailed Cincinnati chili. The dim, rat-packish lounge doesn’t resemble the chili parlors that are all over Cincinnati (for one thing, those chili joints don’t serve alcohol), but the room emanates such a distinct aroma of spices—cumin, cocoa and cinnamon among them—that you can close your eyes and believe you’re in the Queen City.
Unfortunately, when you open your eyes, you’re back in Chicago eating dishes like “Chili muffs,” dry corn muffins with a layer of chili baked into them, and “Cinner Dip,” a cream cheese-chili-cheddar dip. In these dishes (which aren’t found anywhere in Cincinnati, by the way), the chili stays in the background. And that, it turns out, is where it should stay. Because when it comes to the three-, four- and five-ways, where chili is the star of the show, everything falls flat. Owner Tony Plum claims he’s using the same recipe that launched Cincinnati’s legendary Empress Chili, but this stuff is way too dry to be deemed the real deal. Whereas true Cincy chili is more of a spicy meat sauce, this chili sits on top of the traditional spaghetti noodles like crumbled hamburger. And it wasn’t just the consistency that disappointed; the chili doesn’t have Cincinnati’s complex spiciness. On the coneys it somehow worked better (perhaps it was the hot dog that added a much-needed ounce of oomph). Still, as chili in general, this stuff is bland and unappealing. And as Cincinnati chili, it’s an abomination.