A New Take On An Old Favorite

One of the great things about the current American foodie culture is the willingness of young chefs to reimagine classic dishes in new ways with new ingredients. Hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, chili, and macaroni and cheese — among countless other staples of the American diet — have been recreated in inventive and delicious ways.

So when we visited Ambrose and Eve for dinner last night and I saw Beefaroni on the menu — that’s right . . . Beefaroni! I to try it. Beefaroni, plopped out of the can with the smiling face of Chef Boy-ar-dee on the front, warmed on a saucepan on the stove, and served in a bowl with perhaps a sprinkling of Kraft grated Parmesan cheese on top, was a favorite food of my youth. With tiny, chewy logs of pasta, a curiously sweet tomato sauce, and miniscule shards of some kind of meat, all served piping hot, Beefaroni was a perfect, simple “stick to your ribs” meal. Plus, it had a great commercial featuring throngs of excited kids sprinting home for dinner while singing “we’re having Beefaroni, beef with macaroni. . . . ”

Our waiter described the Ambrose and Eve version as what Chef Boy-ar-dee might have come up with if he had gone to culinary school. After I got over the jarring concept that Chef Boy-ar-dee might not have gone to culinary school, notwithstanding the fact that he sported a chef’s hat and called himself a chef, I found the Ambrose and Eve version to be an excellent successor to this favorite of my youth. It featured excellent rigatoni rather than doughy pasta logs, a very delicate sauce that was chock full of finely minced beef, and a generous topping of Parmesan cheese that promptly melted into the sauce. My only complaint was that it was served with a fork rather than a spoon, which I could have used to more effectively scrape the sides of the bowl in order to consume every scrap.

When we left the restaurant, I half expected to see the kids from the ’60s commercial running toward the restaurant, and I found myself wondering when a brave foodie chef is going to tackle coming up with a modern version of Whip ‘n Chill.

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When A Restaurant Goes Downhill

Last night Kish and I went out to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. JV at a Grandview restaurant that, at one time, was among the better restaurants in the Columbus area.  We hadn’t been there in a long time, and boy . . . the years have not been kind.  The meal was mediocre at best, and we came away shaking our heads and thinking that we wouldn’t be surprised to hear in the near future that the place is closing.

crash-996-1499798871This once-hot restaurant is heading downhill faster than a mountain biker who missed a hairpin turn.

The telltale signs were there from the beginning of the meal.  First, the place was almost deserted — in contrast to its glory days, when getting a table was almost impossible.  Initially, we thought it was just a late-arriving crowd, but it turned out to be a never-arriving crowd.  Second, the service was indifferent.  We had a perfectly pleasant young woman take our order, but she ignored us for long stretches of time — even though she didn’t have many tables to worry about.  She also committed the unforgivable sin:  when I specifically asked for something, she promptly forgot about it, and I had to remind her about it when she came around again after I had eaten about half of my dish.  Good restaurants know that attentive service is a key part of the dining experience.  This restaurant, unfortunately, just wasn’t paying attention.

And finally, the food wasn’t very good.  This particular restaurant was once a kind of a foodie place, where you could anticipate getting interesting, fresh, well-prepared food.  Last night, I ordered a pasta dish, and the pasta tasted like it came out of a box, the marinara sauce was bland to the point of total flavorlessness, and the meatballs tasted like they might have been frozen and thawed for the night.  I finished about half of it and then decided that my taste buds had suffered enough.

I’m quite confident I won’t go back to that place, but I found myself wondering about the arc of a restaurant.  What changed?  Has the original restauranteur lost interest, or given up the reins to someone who thinks scrimping on the food and service is the road to profit?  Whatever the reason, this restaurant looks to be in death-spiral mode.  The unpleasant experience also made me appreciate restaurants that have consistently maintained high quality food, service, and ambiance over the years — like two of my favorites, G. Michael’s and Indian Oven.  Fortunately for fans like me, they’ve been able to avoid the downhill arc.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XIII)

Some restaurant locations just seem star-crossed.  A new place opens up at the spot, seems to do well for a time, then closes, the building stands vacant for an extended period, and after a few years you’re trying to remember how many restaurants have actually operated in the space.  So it is with a building at the corner of Spring and High in downtown Columbus, which once was a Wendy’s, and at one point was a nice tapas-type place with a bar and outdoor seating.  Hey, has it been anything else?

Well, now the building houses Haveli Bistro, an Indian restaurant.  Hope springs eternal!

JV and I visited the HB yesterday for lunch.  The place was jammed with a lot of people who were angling for the buffet, and we had to wait briefly to be seated.  It seems that diners have two options — a lunch buffet, upstairs, or ordering from a very limited lunch menu, downstairs.  Because of the wait for the buffet, we chose the downstairs option, which allows you to choose from a non-vegetarian platter, a vegetarian platter, and a biryani platter.  The specific items on your plate depend upon what’s being served that day, as disclosed on a typed sheet at the front counter, and it doesn’t appear that you can choose your spice level.  (At least, we weren’t offered that option.)

JV and I went for the non-vegetarian platter, which turned out to be two chicken dishes, a chicken “lollipop,” rice, and two pieces of naan, with a dessert.  The food was served on a kind of cafeteria platter that reminded us of the Swanson frozen dinners of days gone by, except that the platter was plastic instead of foil.  (No “TV trays” in sight, however!)  I’m not sure of the specific names of chicken dishes, but they were good and served at a moderate spice level, and the chicken lollipop was tasty and not overly breaded.  I finished them all.  The dessert was a kind of vermicelli disk soaked in a sweet liquid.  I’m not a dessert guy so I tried a bite and decided I’d pass on the rest.

Lunch at Haveli Bistro isn’t really comparable to lunch at Indian Oven, with its full menu and terrific service, and my allegiance to IO as the best Indian restaurant in town, and one of the best Columbus restaurants, period, is unyielding.  Nevertheless, the Haveli Bistro is a nice option for people downtown who have a taste for some ethnic food.  Will the HB be able to exorcise the ghosts of restaurants past?  Stay tuned.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XII)

 

New buildings are going up all over downtown Columbus, and I’ve been hoping that we’ll be getting some new restaurants along with the new office and residential space. So when I saw that The Goat was open for business — even though the building it occupies is still seriously under construction — the Jersey Girl, the Origamist, and I decided to stroll down South High Street and pay it a visit.

Although the space surrounding the restaurant is a beehive of construction workers, scaffolding, and other equipment, the interior space at The Goat is finished and very pleasant, with high ceilings, an open, airy feeling, and lots of room between the tables and chairs. It’s reminiscent of a New York or LA bistro. The only downside we noted is that there were TVs everywhere, with the sound on, which was distracting while we were trying to carry on a conversation. I think there are too many TVs in America, period, but unless a restaurant intends to be a sports fan hangout — and the menu at The Goat doesn’t suggest that is the business model — it’s got to limit the idiot boxes to the immediate bar area. If I were running The Goat, I’d follow that approach and ditch a lot of the TVs. As it is, the place seems to be neither fish nor fowl.

As for the food, the menu is limited, but interesting.  I got the buffalo chicken wrap, which came with some very tasty fries.  The chicken was very tender and flavorful, and the wrap made for a substantial meal.  The only downside was that the wrap was chock full of iceberg lettuce, even though there was no mention of lettuce in the description of the dish on the menu.  This is another pet peeve of mine — a menu should disclose all ingredients in a dish, and diners should be entitled to rely on finding only what is listed when their order comes.  I hate iceberg lettuce, so I used the fork to shovel as much of it as possible out of the wrap.  Without the lettuce, the wrap was very good.  The Jersey Girl raved about her soup, and the Origamist liked her wrap, too.

I’ll go back to The Goat, which is a pretty nice setting for lunch, but I’d like it even better with fewer TVs and more information on the menu.

The Keep

23_the_keep_restaurant_bar_columbus__hotel_le_veque-1500x1001Last night Kish and I and Mr. and Mrs. JV had dinner at The Keep, one of Columbus’ newest restaurant options.  It’s located on the mezzanine level of the Hotel LeVeque, smack dab in the middle of downtown Columbus.

Given the name, I thought The Keep might have a medieval castle theme, with a wait staff carrying crossbows or broadswords.  There was no jousting or armor plating visible during our visit, however.  We first had a drink — well, actually two, since none of us were going to be driving home — at The Keep’s bar, which was packed with people and hosting at least two separate holiday parties.  We knew we were in a cutting-edge spot when we learned that the people next to us were both out-of-towners who had arranged their first meeting via Tinder.  The bar offers lots of different cocktail, wine, and beer options, as well as a limited bar food menu.  We skipped the food, since we were going to be eating at the restaurant next door, and enjoyed our drinks and the lively, bustling urban vibe of the place.

The restaurant is a few steps away from the bar.  It is modeled as a modern French brasserie, and — to this uneducated wine fancier, at least — it has a very solid selection of French wines, as well as domestic labels.  Given the brasserie setting, I felt compelled to start my meal with the French onion soup, which was good and served piping hot, without the overload of bread and cheese that you frequently get with that order.  You could actually eat the soup without having to use your spoon to saw through an inch-thick layer of bread and cheese and having the soup splash out of the bowl as a result.   My entree was the Guajillo pork cheeks, served with black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn nuts.  It was very tasty, too.  As JV observed, the portions are kept to moderate size, so you can be a member of the Clean Plate Club without having to waddle out of the joint, groaning with a mixture of satiation and discomfort.  The reasonable portion size also left room for Kish and me to split a really good dessert consisting of a kind of miniature spicy Bundt cake with ice cream.

The ambiance of The Keep restaurant is appealing and has definite brasserie elements, with a central dining counter area and tables and booths spread around.  One other thing:  as we looked around, we realized that we were by far the oldest folks in the room.  That was true in the bar area, too.  How often are fun-loving 60-year-olds the senior citizens in a downtown restaurant?  Maybe the younger crowd is attracted by the brasserie setting, or the central downtown location, or the prices, which I thought were very reasonable.  In any event, it was nice to know that we oldsters had stumbled upon a hip place where the cool kiddie set hangs out.  We’d go back, if they let us in.

The Random Restaurant Tour (IX)

Yesterday Kish and I met for lunch. We try to get together for lunch about once a week, where we can eat in peace and talk without an aging dog hoarsely barking at us to give her people food. We try to pick a spot somewhere between home and the office, and we’re always game for something new.

Yesterday we checked out the Blind Lady Tavern on Mound Street. It was a bitterly cold day, with a sharp wind that chilled to the bone. It felt good to finally reach the Blind Lady, which has a warm, welcoming ambiance complete with a cool pressed tin ceiling and a single room shared by the bar and lots of wooden tables.

After my walk through the arctic wind tunnel, I decided to warm up with the fried chicken sandwich and chips. The sandwich was excellent, with fried chicken that was crunchy but moist, with a nice sauce and tasty coating that wasn’t overly breaded. I also want to commend the chips, which looked to be homemade and were crisp and blessedly not over-salted. I left nothing behind. And because I knew I would be venturing back out into the brutal chill, I decided to end the meal with a cup of very good coffee that was served piping hot in a huge cup that was just begging for a shot of cream. All in all, it was a completely satisfying meal. Kish got the blackened fish sandwich with an enormous pile of greens and also said her food was very good.

According to our pleasant waitress, the Blind Lady — the name of which refers to the blindfolded depiction of Justice, in deference to the nearby Franklin County courthouses — has been around for two years, in a building that has housed the Jury Room lounge and other courthouse-related spots. We can attest that it is now a first-rate place to have a beagle-free lunch.

Max Void

The original Max & Erma’s restaurant, a German Village landmark for 45 years, has closed.  It wasn’t killed by lack of traffic or any of the other issues that often put restaurants out of business — it was the building in which Max & Erma’s is located that apparently was the real culprit.

The company that owns the restaurant announced that the building “can no longer maintain the standards our guests deserve,” with one of the principal problems being the lack of an ADA-accessible bathroom.  The company says it had “thoroughly explored available options, but both costs and covenants have proven to be to prohibitive.”  This isn’t surprising for anyone who’s been to that quirky brick building — a building which lent some of the quirkiness to the Max & Erma’s ambiance generally.  It was filled with little nooks and crannies and abrupt turns, and if you had to use the facilities, you had to navigate a narrow flight of steep stairs that took you into the basement.  The original structures in German Village just weren’t built for wheelchairs, walkers, and other devices that are commonplace in modern America.

The closure of the restaurant leaves a kind of weird void on Third Street, because most of the people who live in, or visit, German Village expect to find a bustling Max & Erma’s, where they can get a cheeseburger and a beer and check out the quirky wall decorations.  Forty-five years is a really long time by German Village standards, taking the original M&E’s back to the early days when the rehabbing wave was first washing over the neighborhood.  Two of our friends had their first date at the original M&E’s back in the ’70s and liked to have a meal there when they came to Columbus for a visit.  Now they won’t be able to do so.

We’ll miss the original Max & Erma’s, but German Village being what it is, the inevitable question now is:  what’s going to go into that building now?  With the closing of M&E’s and Caterina, a few blocks closer to downtown, we’ve got vacancies in two prime spots on Third Street.  If the ADA issues can be resolved, we can always use another pub, restaurant, or shop.