Bistro done right

L ily’s Bistro came on the scene a few years ago and right away became an Oregon District fixture. Owner Emily Mendenhall is from restaurant people—her family owns Blind Bob’s, another Oregon standard. Mendenhall’s vision for what Lily’s would be, according to the website, seems well realized: “We feature seasonal, eclectic American comfort food + […]

Eclectic American comfort food
and top-notch cocktails at Lily’s


You can’t miss with Lily’s free-range fried chicken and a side of macaroni and cheese.

By Paula Johnson

Lily’s Bistro came on the scene a few years ago and right away became an Oregon District fixture. Owner Emily Mendenhall is from restaurant people—her family owns Blind Bob’s, another Oregon standard. Mendenhall’s vision for what Lily’s would be, according to the website, seems well realized: “We feature seasonal, eclectic American comfort food + drinks with menus that are updated daily. Our vibe is ‘nice dining,’ which to us means updated interpretations of good food in an unfussy and
welcoming atmosphere.”

I have enjoyed Lily’s “unfussiness” frequently for lunch on the charming patio, and for the Sunday night family-style Fried Chicken fest. (If it’s not patio weather, I prefer dining in the room where the bar is located. It’s a lovely warm shade of a greenish blue that just feels enveloping in a good way, and is generally a little quieter than the adjacent entry dining area.)

So I already had a grounded idea of what to expect when PIP (Palate In Progress) and I stopped in on a recent Tuesday. Fortunately for us, Tuesday is half-price wine night. Our server Dayne pointed us to a selection of bottles offered at great prices. We went with an Azul Tempranillo for an incredibly reasonable $15.50, knowing that we could have it corked to take home. We knew we wouldn’t finish the bottle, because cocktails.

Ask Amber
Lily’s always seems to be winning Dayton cocktail throwdowns, and there’s a good reason for that: Amber Brady. Anybody who loves a good cocktail already knows Lily’s reputation as a place to get one, thanks in large part to Amber. She’s Lily’s head mixologist and one of the most creative and talented folks behind any bar. I did what everyone should do, whether you are a cocktail aficionado or a newbie: Ask Amber. Tell her what flavors you favor, what kind of mood you’re in, what you don’t groove on, and let her recommend. I sneaked up to the bar between server visits to have a cocktail convo with her. After hearing my specs, Amber recommended the Marsh Lily: gin, clement creole orange shrub, crème de violette, fresh lemon, and Scarborough bitters. It arrived, pale lavender with crushed ice frosting, a delicate flower floating on the surface. Delicious, sophisticated, elegant—I could keep going, but you get the picture. Full points awarded to Amber for a spot-on recommendation and execution.

We began the food portion of our evening with Lily’s version of Pulled Pork Nachos ($10.00) topped with pimento cheese sauce, pico de gallo, and green onions. I nearly shied away, having reservations about the pimento cheese, but it worked well dappled over the generous hunks of tasty pork. PIP and I both really loved this dish. We also tried a satisfying Kale salad studded with goat cheese ($9.00), and the daily Bread Basket ($4.00), which featured challah and a curry butter.

Pick The Chick
PIP was a veteran of Lily’s fried chicken and wanted it again. During the week the Fried Chicken ($18.00) is chef’s choice of two pieces of local, free-range fried chicken. It was served alongside a creamy heap of macaroni and cheese with thin-slivered ovals of sweet buttery carrots, cauliflower, and purple onion. There was absolutely no room for improvement on that plate, and we both ate every bite and gnawed the bones.

I chose Cioppino, the famous classic San Francisco fish soup stew hybrid hailing from the Genoa region of Italy. Some versions include shellfish, others no. Lily’s did, which I prefer, but all versions feature a thick rich tomato broth redolent with flavors of carrots, fennel, celery, and garlic, splashed with white wine, and accented with herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, and black and cayenne pepper. This result is not spicy in a hot way, just deeply flavorful. Where Lily’s departs the classic presentation, and much to their version’s detriment, is that they served it with the challah featured in the daily bread and butter basket instead of a crusty hunk of sourdough. The sweet soft cakiness of challah is antithetical to the rustic savory kind of bread this soup demands, and was a big disappointment. Had I known that would be the bread accompaniment, I’d have ordered something else.

It was the only false note of the evening, highlighted by attentive and knowledgeable service, and well executed, inventive, really tasty dishes. We closed with Lily’s award-winning chocolate cake, which has topped diner’s polls for several years, according to Dayne. Rich and dense with a slight chili pepper kick and a bitter deep chocolate taste, I can see why. Setting aside the one aberrant misstep, I can also see why Lily’s is and should remain a Dayton favorite.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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