The Random Restaurant Tour (IV)

Last week the Jersey Girl and I continued the random restaurant tour by leaving the friendly confines of downtown Columbus and heading north to the Italian Village area.  Our destination was a converted brick barn called Cosecha Cocina.

Italian Village is one of the areas of Columbus where the redevelopment wave is rolling along at tsunami-level strength.  Every time I visit, there is a cool new restaurant, brew pub, or breakfast joint in the neighborhood.  That’s because you can find two key components of redevelopment there:  inexpensive buildings that can be refurbished into cool spaces for your use, and a population of people in the immediate vicinity ready to frequent your establishment.  In the case of Italian Village, businesses can draw upon both the downtown crowd, who need only drive, walk or bike a few blocks up Third, and the flood of people moving into new condos and apartment buildings in Italian Village.

Cosecha Cocina is a happy addition to the Italian Village ‘hood.  It definitely satisfies the cool building requirement, with its cavernous internal space and outdoor eating area, and its menu of traditional and modern Mexican fare will keep that flood of people coming back.  During our visit the Jersey Girl and I split some brussels sprouts — served piping hot with melted cheese — and I tried the pork meatball torta with esquites, a traditional Mexican street corn dish, on the side.

The fact that brussels sprouts and meatballs are on the menu at all tells you that Cosecha Cocina isn’t your Daddy’s kind of tacos and enchiladas Mexican restaurant.  Another clue is the quality and delicate flavoring of the food itself.  The pork meatball torta, which features chipotle tomato sauce, cilantro, black beans, avocado, and cheese and is served on airy, crunchy bread, was succulent and a reminder that Mexican food doesn’t have to be overpowering on the spice scale.  The brussels sprouts were terrific, and the esquites corn salad was a perfect, light accompaniment to the meal.  The Jersey Girl, who tried the chicken tinga tacos, raved about her food, too.

The zone of lunch places for the lucky workers in downtown Columbus continues to expand, limited only by their willingness to get out and try someplace new.  With options like Cosecha Cocina only a bridge and a few blocks away, the incentive to experiment with a new lunch spot keeps growing.

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The Random Restaurant Tour (II)

Yesterday the Unkempt Guy, the Bus-Riding Conservative and I ventured a few blocks north and east of the firm.  We were heading into what is now called the Warehouse District.  As the name suggests, it’s an area of old brick storage buildings — some rehabbed and occupied, some not — and surface parking lots, tucked into the corner of downtown between the old fire station museum and CCAD.  For a part of downtown, it’s definitely off the beaten path.

It’s the kind of area you would never see unless you had a specific reason to visit — and yesterday we did.  Our destination was the Warehouse Cafe, a small breakfast and lunch place located on Fifth Street in the corner of one of the rehabbed warehouse buildings.  Its space is very cool, with the charm of old wooden warehouse floors and big windows.  Be sure to check out the great, multi-story staircase just inside the front door that heads straight up into the guts of the building.  To our amazement, the Warehouse Cafe has been quietly serving good food there for 15 years.

You order at the counter from the offerings on a pre-printed menu and a chalkboard, pay up front, and then have a seat until someone on the friendly wait staff brings your order to your table.  I had the Warehouse burger and some piping hot crinkle-cut fries, the UG polished off a reuben, and the BRC enjoyed an Albanian panini.  We all liked our very reasonably priced food and also appreciated the vibe of the Warehouse District, which seems to be home to lots of small firms and start-up businesses with compelling names.

Don’t be surprised if the Warehouse District becomes the next big focus of downtown Columbus development, but be sure to check out the Warehouse Cafe when you are scoping out the real estate.

The Random Restaurant Tour

I’ve worked for 31 years in downtown Columbus, but there are always new places to discover.  Until we moved to German Village, and I started walking to Main Library from the firm to pick up books after work, I had no reason to walk down the section of State Street between 4th and Grant.  But when I did, I discovered a restaurant called Cafe Illyria.  It looks like it’s been there for a while, but I’d never even heard of it.

Yesterday the Jersey Girl and I checked it out.  As the sign indicates, it’s a breakfast and lunch joint, with a pretty extensive set of lunch options.  (It’s also got a dedicated group of regulars, which is a good sign.) I got a gyro — if you go to a place called Cafe Illyria, you’ve obviously got to try the gyro, right? — and fries and a Diet Coke, and it was really quite good.  Reasonably priced, too.  The JG and I agreed that we’ll be back.

The Cafe Illyria experience also made us wonder:  how many other lunch places that we haven’t tried are within reasonable walking distance?  We don’t know, but the JG and I vowed to go to some new places every now and then.  We’ll call it the Random Restaurant Tour.

Momo Ghar

Fruitful experience has taught me that Dr. Science knows all the best food places.  So when he suggested that we drive up to Morse Road yesterday, to try a place that serves authentic cuisine of Nepal and Tibet, I went along willingly.  And that’s how I discovered Momo Ghar, which promptly vaulted into my top 10 restaurants of Columbus list.

First, a word about the setting.  Momo Ghar is located in one of the endless number of strip malls on Morse Road, inside the Saraga international grocery store.  Momo Ghar is one of several independent food venues in the store, tucked into a tiny space back by the fresh fish section.  If you want to eat there, you need to arrive early or late, because there are only five or so counter seats and two tables.  Dr. Science and I got there a little after 1 p.m. and waited for a minute or two before seats at the counter opened up.

Momo Ghar’s menu is focused on dumplings, which are either served doused in sauce, as shown above, or on a platter with sauce for dipping.  The dumplings are steamed using contraptions on the stove, while the sauce merrily bubbles and simmers in the large pot located to the left of the cook in the photo above.  The proprietress said she makes the sauce every day.

We got three orders of dumplings — pork, chicken, and potato — and while we waited for them to steam up we gladly sat at the counter, taking in the sights and smells.  Three orders is a lot of food for two people, but Dr. Science was confident we could polish it off, and of course he was right.  We ate with greedy abandon and barely avoiding skewering each other with our forks as we shoveled the dumplings onto our plates.  The dumplings are fabulous — moist, savory, and delectable — but the sauce is a stone-cold killer that has to be tasted to be believed.  I’m not sure what’s in it, but it is an explosive combination of heat and flavor that bursts in your mouth like Fourth of July fireworks.  My heartfelt advice to anyone who goes to Momo Ghar is: for heaven’s sake, don’t scrimp on the sauce!

This food was spectacular, so I wasn’t surprised when Dr. Science said as we left that Momo Ghar has one of the highest Yelp ratings of any restaurant in Columbus.  And this morning I learned even better news — Momo Ghar is supposed to be opening up in the North Market some time this fall, within easy walking distance from the office.  Until then, I’ll be looking forward to introducing my office mates to the wonders of that fabulous sauce.

South Village Grille

When a new restaurant opens in your neighborhood, it’s always fun to visit for the first time — to take in the ambiance and setting, scan the totally unfamiliar menu, and try a dish that might, if things go right, become a special favorite.

Last night Kish and I went to the South Village Grille, which has been open for about a month.  It’s on Thurman, in the spot formerly occupied by Easy Street, which was a favorite of ours.  But where Easy Street was a classic neighborhood joint and good brunch and burger place, the South Village Grille has a different aim:  according to the hostess and our waiter, it’s looking to recreate a kind of New York bistro setting, with food (and cocktails) made from scratch.  The interior is open and airy — a far cry from the Easy Street days, when just about every inch of wall space was cluttered with things like Frank Sinatra’s mug shot — with cool light fixtures.  And large mirrors on the walls. I’m not sure exactly what New York bistros are supposed to look like, but this design was both intimate and visually appealing.

More important, the food was appealing — in fact, it was terrific.  Kish and I started by splitting six enormous raw Chesapeake Bay oysters, topped with a tasty Thai vinaigrette sauce of the chef’s devising, and then I went for the hanger steak and fries and Kish had a wedge salad and the short rib.  My steak was great — cooked just right to medium rare — and Kish’s short rib was moist and tender.  She raved about her wedge salad, too.

We closed things off with strawberry shortcake (it is summer, after all) that featured a crisp shortcake biscuit, ice cream, a kind of creme fraiche sauce, and spicy, seasoned strawberries.  I can attest that it tasted as good as it looks.

I’m pretty sure we’ll be adding the South Village Grille to our list of dine-around favorites.

Restaurant Closing Time

Sometimes, notwithstanding our wishes and hopes, we just can’t change or escape the basic laws of economics.  California restaurants are learning this lesson — one that so many other businesses have learned in so many other settings for so many years.

A number of California communities, including San Francisco, have decided that they should legislate substantial increases to the minimum wage, so that the minimum wage will reach $15 — a number that was picked not through the guidance of the invisible hand of supply and demand, but because it sounds goods when politicians promise it.  Basic laws of economics will tell you that if you increase the costs for a business, the business has only a few options:  either absorb the increase by cutting costs in other areas (or accepting lower profits), or increase their prices to make up for the extra costs, or recognize that you just can’t make the economics of the business work and close your doors.  In California, a number of restaurants have decided that the latter route is the only viable option.

o-restaurant-worker-facebookIn the Bay Area, at least 60 restaurants have closed since September, and as a result a number of line cooks, car valets, dishwashers, table bussers, and waiters — the people who were supposed to be helped by the $15 minimum wage initiatives, incidentally — have lost their jobs.  These results in the San Francisco area, where wages for starting workers are higher than in less affluent parts of the state, are leaving some Californians who aren’t living in economic dreamland wondering what the effects will be when a statewide minimum wage takes effect and inland areas, which already have higher unemployment numbers and where starting pay is correspondingly lower, are affected.

This restaurant closing effect shouldn’t be a surprise.  Many restaurants run on very thin margins as it is, trying to find that magic balance between quality food and reasonable prices and cool ambiance that diners are looking for.  They don’t have big profit margins that can simply absorb higher wages.  If minimum-wage legislation substantially increases their costs, most restaurants just don’t have the option of jacking up their prices because they know they are going to lose their more cost-sensitive patrons.  And there really aren’t many other areas in which restaurants can make up for increased labor costs.  Tinker with the quality of the food, or the ingredients, or the portion size, and you’ll likely end up losing your more discriminating patrons — and many restauranteurs who are passionate about food probably wouldn’t want to change how they prepare dishes, anyway.  So the logical option, unfortunately, is closing.

In short, the five-star joints, where there is less price sensitivity and where the wages may already be higher, will survive, but many of the more basic restaurants will struggle and close.  The cause-and-effect relationship is so predictable that a recent academic study found that every $1 hike in the minimum wage brings a 14 percent increase in the likelihood that a 3.5-star restaurant on Yelp! will close its doors.

The people who are advocating for large increases in the minimum wage no doubt are well-intentioned, but their efforts ultimately are misguided because you simply cannot ignore, or legislate away, the laws of economics.   How many times do we have to see this play before people start getting the plot?

Small Plates

Last night the Marquette Warrior and I had dinner at a restaurant called Amada.  It’s one of those tapas places that offers a number of “small plate” options that the diners can share.  (In our case no sharing occurred because the MW is a strict vegetarian and I go for meat options, so we didn’t quite fulfill the restaurant’s intent.)

Tapas restaurants have a good aspect and a bad aspect.  The bad is that there are lots of choices, so you end up carefully scrutinizing the menu and spending a long time thinking through your order.  The good is that you end up with very tasty food that is always well presented and served in moderate portion sizes.  The result is a fine meal where you don’t get plates groaning with food, and after you’ve cleaned your plates — which both the MW and I did, with relish — you rise from the table feeling satisfied but not uncomfortably stuffed.

We’ve got a problem with food waste in this country, and some of it results from unconsumed food left on plates that were overfilled at the outset.  At tapas places, that isn’t an issue, which is another advantage to the tapas model.