Cincinnati's palate defies definition.

Local fine dining options have exploded in recent years, but some cling to the familiar. As a result, cutting-edge preparations by top chefs in Tristate kitchens often appear on menus next to more familiar "fallback" meals.

Clearly, it's difficult to classify the palate of a community where diners rave about espresso-rolled, seared wild boar one weekend and contentedly slurp down three-ways at a chili parlor the next. But that's what Cincy set out to do.

We looked to the northern suburbs, Northern Kentucky and Mount Adams for answers. We found three of the region's top chefs/restaurateurs intent on their mission to delight and expand the local palate and willing to weigh in on exactly what that means.

Tempting Taste Buds

"I think more people are taking a chance and doing better food in Cincinnati," says Chef David Cook (pictured, left) of Daveed's, "and I think it can only make Cincinnati a better food town."

Filet mignon, chicken "” Cook refused to pen them on the menu when he opened Daveed's at 934 in Mount

Adams 11 years ago. The former executive sous chef of the Maisonette was eager to expose Cincinnatians to more exotic tastes.

"When I first opened, I would never have put a filet mignon on my menu. I said, "¢Absolutely not. No chicken, no filet mignon, we're not doing it. We're going to be different,'" Cook recalls.

Today, the menu features a filet mignon, complete with haricot vert, potato, whole grain mustard and demi-glace. Cook admits that chicken dishes have also made an appearance in recent years.

"My goal was to bring big-city dining to a row house such as Daveed's in 1999 and try to be more upbeat and cutting edge to a certain extent "” to try to, I'm not going to say "¢educate' the diners of Cincinnati, but just to give them an option of different foods and service," Cook recalls.

It's not that Cook gave up on his ambitious food preparations, but that diners liked familiar fallback dishes listed next to them.

Shawn McCoy (pictured, right), executive chef and owner of the Brown Dog Café in Blue Ash, feels Cook's pain.

McCoy is notorious for his more audacious meat selections, which have included wild boar, venison, rabbit, a duck charcuterie (with foie gras sausage and pâté), and even kangaroo. He's had some hits and misses, with wild boar and the duck assortment being some of the more popular.

"I wanted to have this reputation that you could come in here and get something you're not going to find anywhere else," McCoy says. "I'm always torn between wanting to be something that is like, "¢Wow, I've never seen that done,' or be really memorable, as opposed to selling food."

However, McCoy has discovered ways to make offbeat meats more approachable. For example, when rabbit is showcased on a plate, some diners just see the oh-so-cuddly backyard visitors and pets. Serve it incognito in a tortellini shell and the dish flies out of the kitchen.

This creative presentation allows McCoy to share his passion, but not all customers will be converted. The dishes aren't exactly contenders to appear on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, but many are still out of the comfort zone for Cincinnatians, who McCoy can predict pretty well after about 40 years in the business.

"You have to have a steak for people, and on a Saturday, it doesn't matter what steak it is," he says. "I don't care if it's shoe leather with molasses, it's the steak, and people come in on Saturday and they eat a steak."

It's a mixed bag as well in Northern Kentucky, where restaurateur John Whalen says dressed-up versions of the basics definitely have a place on the menu along with trendier dishes.

Traditional With a Twist

Whalen, owner of John Phillip's Restaurant & Bar in Crestview Hills, says he relies on some familiar dishes, but his customers also embrace trends like sushi. His big sellers include chicken crusted in lemon panko crumbs and the ubiquitous steaks.

For the most part, it's traditional with a twist.

"Nobody's invented a new animal. It's beef, it's chicken, pork. It's what you do to it," Whalen observes.

"I pull out some of my old menus from 25 years ago, and we've incorporated some of those dishes, and they're still just as popular as they were back then."

Certainly options are increasing for diners.

His restaurant, located in the Crestview Hills Town Center, attracts those seeking a good meal as well as shoppers who stop in for a bite.

"Now, people don't have to go where they used to have to go "” downtown or to the river. If you live out here you come here and get just as good a steak, just as good a lobster, just as good a fresh fish," Whalen says.

His location also allows John Phillip's to attract business from airport travelers and those staying in nearby hotels.

Craving Local Fare

The eastside, where Cook is considering opening a restaurant, is, as he says, "more comfortable, it's approachable, and people are looking for a better deal with food and trying not to spend as much."

McCoy agrees. He says diners in Blue Ash want simple, well-prepared options. Previously, as chef at the Academy in Hamilton and Wildwood Pub in Fairfield, McCoy came to know the tastes on the westside as well as to the north. For the most part, he says, it's a steak-and-potatoes area, where his simple chicken picatta was popular.

Diners in Greater Cincinnati are fond of local dishes. They enjoy the wealth of local food options at events including Taste of Cincinnati and Greater Cincinnati Independent Restaurants Week.

"I think [local tastes] have changed quite a bit," Cook says. "Eleven years ago there weren't as many options for special, local independent restaurants that are currently up and running now."

Cincinnatians have also welcomed spots that use local ingredients.

"We buy as much product as we can from the farmers' market, that type of thing, so we try to support the local farmers," Whalen says.

After continuous questions about where he purchased certain ingredients and requests to take home samples, Cook was inspired to start a line of sauces, called Fatty & Skinny.

His local following has literally gobbled up the line, which includes salsa, wing sauce and hot sauce.

So Cincinnatians enjoy local products, occasional avant-garde dishes, and of course, steaks. At festivals, they sample baby back ribs, pad Thai noodles and chicken wings. Tasty dishes, to be certain, though not the most adventurous.

But in Cincinnati, that's just the way the smiling yellow bakery cookie crumbles.