Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Refectory, Columbus Ohio

I’ve been to Lola with Symon’s “Iron Chef” ideals, Handke’s with his Bocuse d'or credentials, and Rosendales with his Culinary Olympic feats…none of them can even hold a candle to the tastes and textures produced by Richard Blondin at the Refectory. Additionally, I’ve been to Michelin starred bastions of haute-French such as Alex, Le Cirque, and MiX with their $150+/pp menus and can honestly say that while their Christofle silverware and ability to source incredibly rare and complex ingredients is commendable and impressive the food isn’t THAT much better than the succulent flavors at the Refectory. I had high expectations walking in the door and left with almost every one exceeded…The Refectory is, hands down, the best dining experience I’ve had in Ohio.

Arriving early in a late celebration of my sister’s birthday we were greeted by the owner himself and quickly escorted to our table in the corner of the main dining hall. Set in an old church I was amazed by the brightness of the heavily wooded room and impressed by the vast expanse of multiple different dining areas and settings as we walked through. Patrons, mostly elderly groups of 2-4, were quiet and respectful and classics from Chopin played lightly overhead. Napkins were unfolded and water was quickly poured as our server appeared with the menus plus wine and cocktail list. Declining wine the specials were offered and orders were placed with the server promising to return soon with bread.

In order to not taint my review with negativity, I’ll get my two gripes out of the way first. Number one, the timing of the meal was excessive with my sister waiting nearly an hour between her soup and her main, but part of this was my fault for ordering three appetizers in a “tasting menu” style as opposed to a single appetizer and a main. My second complaint was the pseudo-French accent utilized by many in the restaurant. Yes, I realize this is a French restaurant, but sir and ma’am are just as appropriate as “Monsieur” and “Madame” and the accent is entirely unnecessary. Aside from that, service was flawless and the setting was divine.
Prior to the bread, in wonderful fine dining fashion, a decadent amuse bouche was sent from the kitchen which consisted of a sublime chicken liver pate drizzled with basil infused olive oil and heirloom tomatoes. While I tend to prefer my liver in foie gras form and my sister isn’t generally a fan of “meat flavored jello,” the flavor was excellent and both solo and on bread the texture was exemplary for chicken. Speaking of the bread, warm and fresh country wheat bread with hints of rosemary and thyme was wonderful and consumed excessively with the soft unsalted butter.
For our first course my sister chose the Butternut Squash Veloute with crispy bacon and yukon gold potatoes while I opted for the Shrimp Tian with portabella duxelle, carrot crudite and a truffle vinaigrette. Served excessively hot, my sister’s soup was excellent, but the bold flavors of the squash left little hint of the bacon and potatoes which were undetectable in the creamy puree. While delicious, this dish certainly was the least impressive of the night. My Tian, similarly, was my least impressive choice…and considering its incredible taste that speaks volumes. 4 fresh shrimp, halved and served cold over a bed of chopped portabella’s mixed with a creamy vinaigrette and topped with a whimsical carrot slaw was a wonderful starter and a mere glimpse at what was to come in terms of contrasting tastes and textures.
Approximately 20 minutes passed and I was next brought something I didn’t expect; the best presentation of sweetbreads I’ve ever tasted. Better than dishes 3-4x its price in Vegas and Cleveland, the Veal sweetbread lasagna with celeri root and whole grain mustard Bordelaise was exquisite. Three large pieces of flawlessly pan-seared sweetbread covered with an herb sauce with hints of cinnamon and mustard, plus two flawless noodles and crispy white celery root. The price of the dish said appetizer but the portion said entrée anywhere else. Considering this can be had for half-price at the bar during the week, I’ll be back.

Fully enthralled by the sweetbreads, another 20 minutes passed before we were each served a honey and apricot sorbet palate cleanser. Better than Jeni’s splendid sorbets and a totally unexpected treat this only served to further amaze me with the Refectory…that is, until 20 minutes later when we were wowed once again.
For my sister the trio of veal, rabbit sausage, and lobster ravioli with morel sauce and for myself the Coquille St. Jacques with Scallop Mousseline, leek fondue and 'Bonne Femme' sauce. Having never tasted rabbit before, my sister was very impressed by the flavor and texture and I had to agree that it was a stunning representation. My sister also noted that the veal was delicious and tender while the lobster ravioli was large and tender, but not quite on par with the version at Worthington Inn. The Coquille, essentially a scallop and egg quiche covered with a buttery garlic and leek reduction, was once fantastic and almost a seafood custard in texture. Having never tasted a Coquille before, I must admit it left me wanting more.
Satiated but not “full” in a bad way, dessert was up next and once again came with surprises…in this case a third dessert complementary from the owner in celebration of my sister’s birthday. For myself, the menu left no question – Brioche pumpkin bread pudding with Mascarpone Ice Cream and Butterscotch Sauce and for my sister the Opera Gateau with chocolate covered coffee beansCrème Anglaise and chocolate sauce. From the house? The warm pear tart with pistachio Frangipane and pistachio Ice Cream (as originally made by Paul Bocuse himself.)
Starting with the Opera, all I can do is be impressed. Like Tiramisu without the rum, but with more chocolate the dish was fantastic…fantastic enough that I got a sliver and listened to my sister moan about how amazing it was for the rest of the evening. Next up, the tart…and more ‘wow.’ Beautiful in presentation and better in taste – a light pastry crust was thinly pressed to the plated and then layered with thinly sliced pears that were dusted with cinnamon and sugar and pan fried. This masterpiece was then surrounded with an artistic array of colors with flavors including raspberry and pistachio and topped with a small ball of flawless ice-cream…had the meal ended with dessert I’d have been plenty impressed…however there was something better.

In a city with many subpar bread puddings I only hoped the Refectory could do right and thankfully my hopes were met…met to the standard of the second best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted anywhere. Succulent cinnamon and nutmeg, dense and textural pumpkin brioche, sweet golden raisins, and a caramel sauce to die for all perfectly balanced by the best vanilla ice cream I’ve ever tasted…there was no way to eat this slow enough and yes, I used my finger to get every last drop out of the ramekin. While I call this the second best I’ve ever tasted (better than Keller, Lagasse, or Wynn’s mother,) I imagine that if it were set on a table directly next to Nancy Olson’s from Gramercy Tavern I’d be hard pressed to make a choice.

After dinner I had a wonderful cup of coffee; a rarity in Columbus since most restaurants seem to rely on Stauf’s mediocrity for their beans, and the bill was delivered while we sat and chatted about the amazing quality of the meal we’d experienced. A total with tax and tip of less than $130 was a bargain when compared to similar experiences in bigger cities and the server stopped by to tell us about the weekly bistro menu and half priced appetizers…possibly the best dining bargain in Columbus…even the owner himself stopped by to thank us for coming in.
Sure The Refectory is not on the same plane with Alex or Le Cirque and the multiple canapes, petit fores, and madelines but the price was less than a third and frankly you don't always need 18k gold bathroom fixtures, silverware handcrafted in France, and lobster so rare it can only be caught off the coast of Italy. All told, I went into The Refectory with great expectations and had all of them not only met, but bested. In a city that many deem a "chain restaurant haven," the the tastes, flavors, and presentation were all immaculate and I couldn't have been happier with the experience at The Refectory. I will most certainly be back in the future.

No comments: