The Random Restaurant Tour — XXX

We just got some significant restaurant news in Columbus — the long-empty space that once was occupied by the Deepwood restaurant, directly across from the Columbus Convention Center, is going to become a huge new Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

8-oz-strip-steak_medWhat’s the big deal, you ask?  After all, there are Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses spread across the land.  So who cares if one comes to Columbus?

The answer is this:  with the addition of this new steakhouse, there will be four premium steakhouses in the core downtown Columbus area — Mitchell’s, the Hyde Park Grille, Jeff Ruby’s, and now Ruth’s Chris, all within easy walking distance of each other.  And if your taste runs to Brazilian-style steakhouses, there’s one of those in the core downtown area, too.

The better question is why Columbus seems to have such an appetite for steakhouses.  Do Midwesterners just crave a good steak as a matter of course?  Or, as I suspect, does it have something to do with the hotel and convention and business traveler activity in downtown Columbus, and the notion that travelers looking for a place to have dinner figure a top-end steakhouse is a good, safe option — especially if they are traveling on an expense account?  If Ruth’s Chris is coming to an area that already is well-served with steakhouses, they must think there is a demand for even more dry-aged beef.

As a steak lover, I’m all for steakhouse options, but four seems like too many.  Whatever the reason for the steakhouse overload, I’d like to see some new restaurants that give us a bit of a wider range in the downtown dining options — like a really good Chinese place, or an Ethiopian joint.  Steak is great, but diversity is even better.

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The Random Restaurant Tour — XXIX

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While Kish and I were up in Maine, I got some unfortunate news from Columbus:  the Scotsman shared a Columbus Underground article announcing that Jack’s Diner would be serving its last meal on Thursday or Friday.  That meant I’ve missed the chance to grab the double cheeseburger special — with crinkle-cut fries and a chocolate milkshake, made with real milk and real ice cream, pictured above — for one last time.

Jack’s, located in Lynn Alley only a block from the Ohio Statehouse, has been a downtown dining staple since 1942.  It’s been a fixture in the lunch rotation for me and many other Vorys lawyers ever since I started at the firm in the ’80s.  You always saw the same regulars perched on the counter stools and in the booths at Jack’s, and everyone seemed to have their own favorite order from the unchanging menu and daily specials that offered classic American diner fare.  Some of the wait staff had worked there for years, and they would remember your face and your order.  It was a special place that always made you feel like home.

According to the Columbus Underground article, the demise of Jack’s was caused by the ever-ongoing construction around the Rhodes Tower, with its dark, looming scaffolding that has interrupted vehicle and pedestrian traffic.  If that is the real cause, it’s a ridiculously high price to pay for an ugly, featureless modern office tower.  Joints like Jack’s don’t come around every day.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XXVIII

How many good barbecue joints should a downtown area have?  The correct answer is:  you can’t have too many.  I’m pleased to note that Columbus has added another BBQ option with Buckeye Chili & Smokehouse, which joins Pecan Penny’s and Smoked on High in the downtown/near downtown area.

Yesterday the Unkempt Guy, the Bus-Riding Conservative, and New Granddad and I legged it over to BC&S to check it out.  It’s located a few blocks east of the Ohio Statehouse and is an easy walk from Gay Street, even on a hot summer’s day.  In fact, some might argue that walking to a barbecue place is a good idea under any conditions, to help the hungry patron build up even more of an appetite.

Buckeye Chili & Smokehouse has a compelling menu and poses a tough initial choice for the arriving diner:  chili, or barbecue?  Once I decided barbecue was the way to go, I zeroed in on the mac and cheese with brisket option.  The UG and I both got it, and it was an inspired choice on our part.  The brisket was tender and juicy, the mac ‘n cheese was creamy and had just the right cheddary bite to it, and we added a little smoky barbecue sauce to complete the flavor sensation.  The result was absolutely delicious, and the UG and I also remarked that the portion size was just perfect — substantial enough to be filling, but not the kind of overwhelming amount of food that you find at some places.  We both could be members of the Clean Plate Club without feeling like we’d made pigs of ourselves — although of course pigs would fit right in at a barbecue place.

The New Grandad went for a pulled pork sandwich with onion rings, which he polished off with alacrity, and the BRC tried a pork slider special with mac ‘n cheese as the side and gobbled down his food as well.  The service was splendid, the manager checked in on us to make sure we were enjoying our meal, and as we left he came out after us and gave us all a 10 percent-off card we can use on our next visit.  And there will be a next visit, for sure.  We need to make sure that the Buckeye Chili & Smokehouse is properly welcomed to downtown Columbus, and there is chili that remains to be tried.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XXVII

I freely admit that I’m a sucker for New Orleans cuisine.  So when Dr. Science and the G.V. Jogger suggested that we check out a new joint that specializes in Creole and Cajun cuisine last night, they didn’t need to twist my arm.  Our destination was Way Down Yonder New Orleans Finest Restaurant, located a few miles south of German Village on High Street in the Great Southern Shopping Center.

downloadW.D.Y. easily passes the crucial “menu test” that I automatically apply to any restaurant that serves New Orleans food.  The menu test is as follows:  when I look at the menu, are there so many obvious, mouth-watering traditional choices that it’s impossible to make a selection?  After a few minutes of careful analysis, I was still debating between the Louisiana crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, and fried catfish with mac ‘n cheese and dirty rice.  After Dr. Science gently reminded me that red beans and rice is a core component of any New Orleans restaurant, that’s where I landed.  Dr. Science went for the gumbo, which comes with actual crab claws, and the G.V. Jogger tried the crawfish etouffee.

Way Down Yonder offers red beans and rice in medium and large portions, and I’m glad I decided on the large.  The dish checked all of the crucial red beans and rice boxes — a deep, rich sauce with a good spicy kick to it, plenty of sliced sausage, well-cooked red beans, and just enough white rice to allow for mixing.  It was excellent.  The cornbread it comes with is excellent too — slightly sweet, with a crunchy top, and baked to a perfect consistency, so that it holds together when picked up to be eaten but also is easily crumbled to mix in with the entree.  Way Down Yonder offers an impressive menu of desserts, but I didn’t try any because after polishing off every last part of the red beans and rice and cornbread, I was full to the brim.

“Way Down Yonder New Orleans Finest Restaurant” is a mouthful, but that’s appropriate because so is their food — a flavorful, tasty, mouthful of some of the best regional cuisine the U.S. of A. has to offer.  I expect that we’ll be heading back down south for more.  Having tried the red beans and rice, I feel the fried catfish calling.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXVI)

The original Max & Erma’s restaurant was located only a few blocks from our place in German Village.  It closed more than a year ago, and now the space has been “repurposed.”  By day, it hosts a co-working venture, and as the cocktail hour approaches the space transitions to a place called Wonderbar that features food from Pierogi Mountain.  The other day, Kish and I dropped by with the Columbus Featured Artist to check out the new spot.

The bar itself will seem familiar to anyone who went to the old M&E, because they’ve kept many of the fixtures and oddities that made the old M&E bar memorable.  And yet, there is a decidedly different vibe.  Whereas the M&E bar was a place where regulars camped out for the night, Wonderbar seems to attract a much younger, more diverse crowd, and the bar area itself seems a lot more energetic and more fast-paced.  Many of its patrons appears to see it as a good place to stop for a beer or cocktail on their way to somewhere else, so there’s lots of movement and coming and going.

If you’re interested in pierogis or other food from Pierogi Mountain, you order from a window to and take a marker to your table to be served when the food is ready.  The three of us decided to share a sampler of every kind of pierogi, and I also got a dish of shredded chicken, dumplings and gravy.  Pierogi Mountain says its pierogis are great drinking food, and it’s not hard to see why:  if you want to establish a solid consumed-food “base” before going all in on a few drinks, you’re not going to do much better than doughy morsels stuffed with potatoes, cheese, and other goodies and topped with sour cream.  The chicken dish I got was in the same belly bombing vein. It was substantial stuff that all went down pretty well with a Wonderbar brown ale.

I have no idea how the co-working venture is going, but I’m glad to see the old M&E spot open again and contributing to our neighborhood nighttime options.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXV)

At any given moment, there’s always a hot restaurant in town.  It’s the place that has gotten some favorable press, that has a certain distinctive buzz about it, that everyone is itching to try.  In Columbus, the restaurants don’t come any hotter than Service Bar, which has been getting great press — including a recent rave from no less than the New York Times.  Last week, Kish and I decided to check it out.

Service Bar is part of Middle West Spirits, located just off Fifth Avenue in the zone between the northern part of the Short North and the southern edge of the Ohio State campus area. It’s in a bright, fresh space, with room for a row of tables, a long common table, a private dining room, and a bar.  The wait staff is terrific — friendly, professional, and knowledgeable.  A fine wait staff is a pretty strong sign of fine dining to come.

When we were deciding on an appetizer, we looked down at the row of tables where we were sitting and every one — without exception — had ordered the “cheesy poofs.”  These are a mound of colossal pork rinds served with pimento cheese spread that you slather on.  Our waiter said they seem to be a favorite for patrons, so we gave them a try.  They were greasy and cheesy and good, but the order was just too much food for the two of us, and we wanted to save room for our entrees.

We both ordered the Mongolian glazed short rib for our entree, and here the meal really hit its stride.  The short rib was meaty and luscious, topped with an interesting assortment of mini cucumber slices and other items, and surrounded by dollops of a delectable sauce.  The challenge was to carefully assemble each forkful to feature meat, the different flavors and textures of the toppings, and a healthy dousing of the sauce, and when you successfully met the challenge the taste combination was incredible.  But to take the whole dish a step further, the meat was accompanied by three “bao knots” — moist, doughy, chewy morsels of bready delight that were a perfect complement to the meat.  I think I could probably eat a thousand bao knots and never think of the words “low carb” again.

After a main course like that, we had to get dessert, and went for the carrot cake with our after-dinner cup of decaf.  The cake was light and delectable, served with a schmeer of meringue, some crunchy items, and a delicately flavored ice cream.  It ended the meal with a bang, and was the kind of dessert where you find yourself surreptitiously scraping the plate multiple times just to get a final taste before you reluctantly allow your server to take it away.

Service Bar lived up to the hype, and then some.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXIV)

In my book, meat loaf is under-appreciated from a culinary creativity standpoint.  There’s room for a little flair in the choice of ground meats to use, and also in the amount, and kind, of bread crumbs to add to the meat mixture.  Depending on the deftness of the preparation, the consistency of the meat loaf can vary widely, from moist to dry and from almost crumbly to a dense, almost impossible to cut brick.  And when you put a slice of meat loaf into a sandwich and think about the different toppings you could add, the possibilities become almost endless.

Saturday afternoon Kish and I took in a film at the Drexel and, because we got there a bit early, we decided to see whether we could find a place for a quick bite to eat.  That’s how we stumbled upon Newfangled Kitchen, a practitioner of the meat loaf arts located in the same block as the Drexel.  The NK offers different kinds of sandwiches, salads, and soups, but the meat loaf sandwiches are appropriately placed at the top of the menu.  In short, the NK gives the meat loaf sandwich the respect it so richly deserves.

All of the meat loaf sandwiches looked good, so I asked the counter person for her recommendation.  She said The Fang is the most popular meat loaf sandwich option, because people love the Fang sauce, but her personal favorite was the Southern Melt because of the pimento cheese.  I’m not a big pimento cheese fan, but I really like grilled sandwiches, so I went along with her suggestion, but hold the tomato.  It turned out to be an excellent decision.  The marbled rye was crisp and crunchy, the meat loaf was succulent, and the melted pimento cheese and red onion gave the sandwich a very hearty and much appreciated zing.  Kish and I split a bottle of diet Cheerwine, a kind of cherry cola that fit perfectly with the Melt.

It’s hard to believe that the Fang sauce could make a better sandwich — but when you find a place that takes a meat loaf sandwich seriously, you’ve got to try all the options just to be sure.  It’s nice to know that, in the future, we can get to the Drexel early and enjoy a little meat loaf artistry to fortify us for the art film to come.