Saturday, October 18, 2008

Handke's Cuisine, Columbus Ohio

Perhaps I’ve been eating out too often and perhaps my standards have become too lofty…but dining out in Columbus has been relatively unimpressive recently aside from Kihachi. Don’t get me wrong, I love our local dining scene as a whole, but I do believe recent trips to New York and Vegas have jaded me. That being said, after 18 straight days of gastroenterology service my family was in town and I wanted to get out and relax…having heard great things we settled on Handke’s prior to a trip to the Agora V. Nothing like classic French before indie art.

Reservations were made for 5:30 and our party of three was greeted graciously by the affordable and friendly valet before heading down the first of two staircases to the wine cellar that houses Chef Handke’s kitchen and dining area. On the way down to the dining area one is greeted by beautiful stone work, heavy woods, and the myriad awards won by Handke’s across the globe; an impressive collection to say the least. Arriving downstairs we were greeted by the quiet and elegant dining room and the host who led us to our seats. For the first one hour of our meal we were the only patrons in the house.

Quickly upon seating our waitress Julie stopped by to deliver water and menus and later returned with the specials du jour. While friendly and attentive, it was clear that Julie was relatively new as she fumbled occasionally and had to be reminded for things such as tea refills for my aunt and additional bread servings for the table. Soon after orders were placed we were delivered an amuse bouche of Duck Confit with peppers on toast. Crispy with perfectly cooked and marinated duck and mild peppers this dish definitely gave me great expectations for the meal. Dinner rolls were next served, fresh and individual, a suitably hearty French bread with an airy and buttery texture and ample “soaking” capacity for sauces.

Appetizers were ordered by myself and my mother and we opted for the two soups of the day, a Pumpkin Cinnamon Soup with Chives and Creme Fraiche and the Lobster Bisque Chantilly. Both dishes were served warm, but were clearly dished out of stock pots (the kitchen was visible from our seats) as opposed to individually prepared. The Lobster Bisque was good, but in my opinion a bit oversalted and over-seasoned…certainly not “bad” but not on par with that at Lindey’s or Spagio. Contrary to the Bisque, the Pumpkin Soup was fantastic with a little bit of sweetness and a little bit of spice that contrasted well with the smooth and velvety pumpkin texture…per usual, crème fraiche makes everything better.

Appetizers clear we sat and talked for approximately 15 minutes before the main courses arrived. It was around this time that we really realized how quiet the dining room was…too quiet in fact as we were treated to a relatively unprofessional discourse between two kitchen staff about the (expletive) candidates in the upcoming election. Thankfully our waitress soon stopped by to deliver our meals and when told of the unpleasantness she informed the staff members…no apology was offered, but at least they stopped. Service issues aside, onto the main event…

For mains my aunt selected the Grilled Black Angus Beef Tenderloin Steak, Maitre d' butter, Savory Gorgonzola Bread Pudding, and Parisienne Vegetables while my mom opted for the Roasted Marinated Lightly Smoked Pork Loin Steak with Smokey Haricot Verts & Sweet Potato Mousseline. While I do not eat beef, my aunt’s steak was huge and she loved it. The vegetables were sweet, buttery, and perfectly done…the bread pudding…read on. Mom’s pork was excellent, though perhaps a bit overdone for my taste, while the mousseline was wonderfully decadent with flavors of cinnamon and spice balanced by a salty and buttery smooth potatoes.

For my main I selected the nightly special; Grilled Bison Tenderloin and Foie Gras with Shitake Pinot Noir Demi Glace, Poached Asparagus, and Savory Gorgonzola Bread Pudding. Bison, Foie, Shitakes, and Bread Pudding on the same plate? Bliss. Smokey, thick, and cooked perfectly medium the bison was flawless and without an ounce of fat…except of course for the well seared slice of foie gras gracing its top and the sweet demi glace beneath. Three separate layers, three totally different tastes and textures, yet all melding together to a wonderful whole that was even greater than the sum of its parts. Cooked tender and lightly seasoned, the asparagus was good without being intrusive. The bread pudding, a hearty brioche with hints of cream offsetting a potent and tangy gorgonzola - All I can do is say “wow, why didn’t I think of this before?” It was divine and a reason alone to visit Handke’s.

Per usual, dinner out always necessitates dessert and once again Handke’s food didn’t disappoint. While I wasn’t especially sold on their “Zagat’s #1 Crème Brule in North America” ordered by my mother, the brown sugar flavor was definitely a different angle on a classic dish. Rosendale’s was better. My aunt, always indecisive (and gluttonous) opted for the dessert symphony consisting of petite versions of many of Handke’s classics – the Creme Brule, Chocolate Terrine, Cheesecake, Berries in a Basket, Apple Strudel, and Drunken Pears. While each was delicious, the drunken pears and berries in a basket were most certainly the show stealers from the options I tasted with the pears giving me a whole new appreciation of marinating with wine.

My dessert, once again the nightly special, was a delectable Grand Marnier Soufflé with Raspberry Coulis. Without overstating I can definitely say that this is the best soufflé I’ve ever experienced with strong hints from the cognac and orange shining through the wonderfully airy cake and a potent yet sweet raspberry reduction served warm over top. Large in portion and light enough to leave me satiated without feeling stuffed I was very happy with the selection.

Sure Chef Handke has won awards across the globe, but the fact of the matter is that the master isn’t often in the kitchen and while his chef de cuisine is undoubtedly a talented man, I’d certainly love a chance to eat when the chef himself is in the kitchen and the restaurant in a little more lively. Aside from the small service issues the meal was excellent and definitely amongst the best in Columbus. Without the “hipster” quotient of High Street I’d strongly recommend Handke’s as a great place for a romantic evening or a dinner with family and friends and all would place Handke’s in the ‘hidden gem’ category with Wothington Inn, just not quite as magnificent.