Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Worthington Inn, Worthington Ohio

Looking at a list of Columbus' best Restaurants, one often sees "The Worthington Inn," yet it is rare to meet anyone who has actually been there. Similarly, walking down the streets of Worthington, one sees any number of beautiful old houses and unique shoppes, but if you aren't paying attention you won't even realize that one of the city's true gems is sitting in an old home right on High Street. While many gush about Cameron Mitchell's offerings or whatever new Steakhouse has most recently chosen to open its door on 'The Cap' or near a mall, The Worthington Inn stands as a relic of the past in a city that has grown up too fast. The food, however, is anything but 'old.'

Walking in the door, note the sign. "This property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the US Department of the Interior," and be prepared for creaky floors, low lights, heavy interior design, black tie servers, and a simple air of class and elegance without a hint of pretense like you receive at M or Rosendales. Also be prepared to be one of the youngest people in the building as the average age of patrons is likely somewhere around 65. Wooden chairs, white tablecloths, tiny candles, and solid silver service pieces only add to the class.

In such an old building with clients that have clearly been dining there for years, one might expect a menu of the expected.....alas they would be wrong. With a focus on local greens and ingredients plus light sauces instead of heavy flavors, the menu runs from tried and true steaks and tenderloins to Poke style Ahi, Blue Crabcakes, and Lobster Ravioli in citrus broth.

To begin, the breadbasket contained a crusty white bread that was served with the most delectable butter I've tasted outside of Rosendales Citrus and Saffron. Garlicy with a hint of tart, the spread was soft enough to put a thin layer on the crusty bread and absolutely wonderful. I ate way too much bread, but honestly, I don't regret the choice. Best bread basket in Cbus? Quite possibly.

For appetizers, my family and I opted for the Blue Crab Cake with Spicy remoulade sauce, arugula, blood orange and Cajun shoestring potatoes and the Poke Ahi Hawaiian-style with soy-ginger marinated tuna tartare, avocado salad, local micro greens, sweet peppers and wasabi.

The Crabcake was a hit with my mother and Aunt, but seemed a tad too bread-laden for myself. What truly made the dish shine was the incredible blood orange remoulade sauce. Spicy yet sublime and just strong enough to picque the taste of the crab; it was only the first of many suprises from the incredibly talented sous-chef. The Tuna tatare was presented very uniquely, but unfortunately just couldn't stand on its own when compared to similar offerings at M at Miranova or Bobby Flay's Mesa Grille (the two best of the multitude I've tasted.) While tasty and fresh, the avocado salad and microgreens simply overpowered the tuna.

For our mains, my Aunt and I selected the Lobster Ravioli with grilled half Maine lobster tail and petit vegetables in a citrus-basil broth, my mother ordered the Local Pork Tenderloin with Dried cherry and Marsala sauce, braised red cabbage and spiced sweet potato salad, and my sister chose Herb crusted rainbow trout with crab, pancetta and fingerling potato hash with arugula and sweet pepper-champagne coulis.In a word, the Lobster Ravioli was mesmerizing. "Better than the version at Il Mulino in NYC" is not something I say often about any dish, but I say it with no reservations in this case. The lobster was cooked perfectly and fell from its shell while the raviolis (stuffed with a light cheese and more lobster) bathed in a citrus broth that tasted so good I asked for a 3rd basket of bread to soak up the rest. The peas were fresh and the tomatoes yesty. I would go back for this dish alone.

While not a big pork fan, I also sampled my mother's dish and was awed by the complex taste of the root vegetables and the sweetness of the tenderloin. Once again, the sauce made each component of the dish stand out boldly and enhanced the composition without hiding anything about the myriad of flavors. The one flaw of the evening, however, was my sister's bland and relatively uninspired trout. While a plain fish by nature, the dish simply lacked much taste, and even extra salt didn't help too much. Well presented and once again with a marvelous accompanying sauce, I think the dish could use a tad more zest and a little less potato. With the incredible sauces and unique presentations, dessert was a must and once again the Worthington Inn showed a flair for fusing the old with the new and creating a masterpiece.

Spiced Carrot Cake with Brown butter cream and grilled pineapple sorbet was my aunt's option and given that it was her birthday the cake was served with a simple candle and well wishes from the staff. While i personally do not like carrot cake, my aunt loved the dish and the brown butter cream was great. The Pineapple sorbet, IMO, was bland and certainly not on par with anything Jeni has done with fruit recently.

My sister, still sad with her trout having tasted my Ravioli, opted for the Flourless Chocolate Torte with carmel and chocolate sauces, fresh raspberries an house-made caramel-coffee ice cream and hit the jackpot. The cake was dense and moist while the sauces brought out the undertones of bittersweet dark chocolate in perfect balance. Strangely, as good as the cake was, it was only the second best item on the dish. While the pineapple sorbet may not have met Jeni's quality standards, the Coffee icecream has now replaced both Jeni's and Wolfgang Puck's Spago option as the best coffee icecream I've yet to encounter. Sweet yet bold, creamy yet not heavy.....amazing.

My mother and I, both indecisive, opted to order and split the Warm apple crepes with roasted cinnamon apples, butterscotch-caramel sauce and bourbon-pecan ice cream and the Foster's Cheesecake of House-made vanilla cheesecake with macadamia nut crust, caramelized bananas and a banana-rum sauce.Simple in presentation, yet unique in flavor, the cheesecake was far lighter than any I've tasted recently and sweet without being overdone. The bananas were perfectly fresh and coated with a brulee topping while the rum sauce's bitterness brought everything to a sharp point. While delicious, my only complaint about the dish would be that there was too little banana and that the banana's definitely stole the show.

Similarly to the cheesecake and the torte, the apple crepes were presented simply yet flavored boldly. Strong cinnamon and butter permeated the plate and the whipped cream evened everything out nicely. Again, like the torte and cheesecake, the main item was not the star of the show.....the icecream was incredible. Salty pecans and a buttery burbon undertone, especially when eaten in a bite with the crepes were perfect. All things considering, perhaps the Wothington Inn should consider a small icecream shoppe next door? Its certainly better than Graeters across the street.

Service was perfect, reservations were simple, and the whole evening was wonderful. Noise was not an issue, nor was attitude or pretense like at many of Columbus' well thought of options in the Short North. Service was prompt and attentive and the atmosphere was great. While I wouldn't consider it a great choice for a loud or very large group, this is the kind of restaurant that deserves more than 5000 words; its the kind of restaurant where you feel welcomed and special and a place where you could be comfortable dining with your mother, your best friend, your grandparents, or even proposing to your girlfriend. These sorts of places are rare and definitely overlooked far too often.

Northstar Cafe, Columbus Ohio

At some point in the future I'll have to return to find out if the veggie burger lives up to the hype, but for now I will call Northstar a good bet for a quality breakfast in Columbus. That said, it'd still be a "3 star" establishment in my mind. Why 3 stars you ask? Because it is the best bet for breakfast IN COLUMBUS, a city seriously starved for breakfast of any sort. In a bigger city, I rather doubt Northstar would be a blip on the foodie map. Allow me to explain...

On a beautiful April Ohio day (AKA cold and rainy) my sister and I decided to see if Northstar lived up to the hype it has been generating since it opened. While I'm no stranger to pretentious cafes and delis, I find the concept a tad strange considering Northstar's Short North location and emo/artschool crowd. The price is right, the music is right, but something about the 'scene' is wrong considering the bright lights, slick design, and healthful but limited menu.

To begin, "Quick Casual" generally isn't my cup o' tea, so I was a bit taken aback by the order and sit/wait style seen at places like Panera. The free magazine rack definitely helps, though. Additionally, arriving early on a Saturday morning while most college kids are still asleep made the place far less annoyingly crowded than on your average weekend afternoon/evening.To begin the meal, my sister and I ordered and split a Pecan and Date Morning Glory Muffin. Dense, nutty, and heavy for sure. Worth $4? Not so much. My sister opted to try the delectable Belgian Dark Chocolate Cocoa (actually worth the $4, by far the best cocoa I've had in Cbus) while I fed my 80-hour-workweek-schedule-induced caffeine addiction with multiple refills of the delicious and bold Brazilian Medium Roast coffee.

For our meals, obviously the Cloud Nine Pancakes. Ricotta, Banana, Real Butter, and Ohio Maple syrup? Sign me up! While certainly not on par with offerings in other big cities, these cakes were airy yet filling, flavorful yet healthy, and very well presented. The bananas were cut a bit thick, IMO, and more fruit would have been nice, but overall these cakes definitely top anything else in our anemic local breakfast repetoir. $9 for a stack of 3 is a tad steep when compared to something like Griddle Cafe or Doughboys in Los Angeles, but certainly better than an equally priced belly bomb at IHOP.

On the way out the door, mostly out of curiosity and gluttony, we picked up a "Day Old" cookie for a buck. Carmel, Peanut Butter, and topped with whole salty peanuts......this thing stole the show for sure.All told, Northstar is a very solid dining option and while I certainly commend them for bringing a healthier option to the land of TeeJays, Bob Evans, and IHOP, the hype is somewhat undeserved.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spagio, Columbus Ohio

Went here with my mother, aunt, and sister for a quick lunch on my Aunt's birthday. A mild Saturday in mid-April, this was my only weekend off during the laborious intern year stint in the ICU.

To begin, with a name like Spagio it seems as though the idea of Spago may have had some influence on the Italian/Pac-Rim fusion menu and as options were available for both brunch and lunch ( the menu was all over the place. As we already had dinner reservations planned at the Worthington Inn for dinner, we settled on a soup, bread, and two Pizzas for the four of us. Great choices all around.

The bread was crusty and refilled without additional requests, but not overly exciting; just what you want in an Italian Sourdough. The lobster bisque, a must for me at any restaurant with it on the menu, was actually one of the best I've had. Somewhat spicy, not overly buttery, with a hint of chives and chunks of whole lobster. While not as spectacular as the option once available at the now departed Fisherman's Wharf, it was certainly far above average.

The Pizzas were hit and miss; one hit, one miss. My mother and Aunt settled on the Tomato Basil Pizza w/ extra virgin olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and fresh basil. While good, the the cheese was a bit overpowering and the tomatoes not quite in season. A little more basil or perhaps some oregano likely would have helped. The wheat crust was perhaps a poor idea in this dish, but for my money, I'd recommend Marcella's version instead. My sister and I opted for more adventure and were generously rewarded with the Brie Pizza w/ sweet apple butter, French brie cheese, pears, and candied walnuts. Somewhat salty, somewhat sweet, and entirely delicious. The sweet and nutty flavour of the walnuts contrasted perfectly with the creamy and sublime brie while the applebutter and pears provided just the right amount of texture and tart. I'm not really sure if this was the best dessert pizza I've ever tasted or the most unique tasting "normal" pizza I've ever had, but either way I'd recommend it strongly.

While the dessert case looked marvelous, we'd already purchased a beautiful cake for my aunt's birthday and weren't feeling entirely gluttonous with reservations already made for later in the day. Service was prompt and pleasant and the coffee service was wonderful. Seating was comfortable and the artwork, while kitchy, was tasteful and clever. I particularly enjoyed the funky pig cutting through the wall and the interesting option to hang Dale Chihuly's dirty napkin in a glass case.While certainly not 'fine dining,' I'd definititely head back for some pizza, coffee, or dessert and i'd love to taste Mediterranean Pasta or Croissant French Toast.