Saturday, April 11, 2009

Banana Bean Cafe, Columbus OH

Weekend rounds on a Saturday with my family coming into town and my first day off in 21 days scheduled for Sunday...yeah, I was excited - I hadn't seen my sister since New Years and hadn't seen my mother or Aunt since the end of February. Sitting on the 8th floor of the hospital finishing up my notes for the day I dialed up Banana Bean -

"Hi, do you have any reservations available this morning?"
"Hang on, let me check." ::2 minute pause:: "Thank you for holding, how many people?"
"What time?"
"We can only do 12:30 or 1:00"
"Okay 1:00 then"
"Name and phone number?"
"Okay, we'll see you at 1:00pm"

Quickly I made my way out of the hospital and met up with the family near Lennox, fired up the GPS, and made our way to the new location on Greenlawn. Arriving in front of the stark building I must admit I was a tad confused....there were five cars in the lot and no sign. Garmin, don't screw with me damnit, I'm hungry. Looking closer, however, I saw the banner....apparently this was indeed the place....with five cars....for our reservations that took over 2 minutes to make....for a specific time....perhaps there was an alternate lot, I thought....then I walked through the doors and....nope, two tables of 2, one table of 4, and a few employees. "Reservations for Mike" I announced. I only wish they'd have told us we were 15 minutes early and we'd have to wait at the bar.

Taking our seats upstairs I originally wasn't sure what to make of the place - clearly an old dive-bar recently converted I kind of liked the vibe and the music, while not my cup o' tea, was ambient and appropriate. Water was filled and menus offered by our server Sara who appeared to be either hung-over, tired, or as though she just got bitched out by her boss. After a few moments she returned to take drink orders - water, hot tea, two OJs - and to inform us that the grouper and plantains were not available. A few moments later the drinks were delivered - admittedly with some flare as a huge selection of designer teas were presented in a large wooden chest. Orders were taken and we were left to chat.

After a few moments I noticed an odd look on my mom's face and before I could inquire what was wrong Sara happened to return and my mom simply stated "I don't want to complain, but this is the worst orange juice I've ever tasted." With a confused look the waitress stated "Well, it’s not the fresh squeezed - we sold out of that." ......okay now, I understand selling out (a lie, we later found out when the owner came out to apologize and instead stated that their shipment was simply 5 hours late) but don't try to pass off Tropicana as Fresh Squeezed. It is interesting that after this unfortunate instance and the apology (not requested, but appreciated as Sara offered none) it was like Sara's twin replaced her (or the owner told her to correct her attitude) and her attitude improved significantly - she even smiled!

After approximately 10 more minutes the dishes began to arrive - the first being my appetizer portion of Cedar Key Shrimp & Grits, Smoked Bacon Etouffe, Creamy Goat Cheese Grits. In a word, sublime....honestly, after this I would've accepted Dick's Last Resort quality service. Four HUGE fresh Shrimp that were flawlessly broiled, wonderfully tender yet toothsome grits, savory goat cheese and smoky yet sweet bacon - call me crazy but I'd compare this preparation favorably to the vastly more expensive polenta at Spiaggia and Lola.

Next up we received our mains and sides, each presented piping hot from the kitchen and quite attractively plated for a "cafe" or "diner." For sides we selected two breads - the grilled Sourdough (decent, but it certainly isn't San Francisco) and Cat’s head Buttermilk Biscuits that both my sister and I have deemed the best buttermilk biscuits of all time. Served with all natural grape preserves at only $2 an order the biscuits were a steal and an absolute must order with their buttery-soft texture and mild hints of bacon. Yum.

For mains my mother selected the salad featuring Caramelized Apples, Buttermilk Blue Cheese, Candied Walnuts on Mesculin with spicy orange vinaigrette and I must admit it was better than expected considering the season. The apples were pan-roasted and tender, the walnuts wonderfully cinnamon sweet, and the Mesculin very fresh. I personally did not appreciate much orange to the vinaigrette, just a mild acidity that worked well with the sub-average blue cheese. A good salad, but if I were Banana Bean I'd switch cheese mongers....perhaps Blue Jacket?

For my sister, the Eggs Del Mar - 2 Poached Eggs atop House–made Creole Cornmeal-Dusted Crab Cakes and Seared Spinach & Roasted Tomato Hollandaise. While my sister quite liked this dish, I must admit that for myself it fell somewhat flat - especially since I don't like Hollandaise and my first reaction to the dish was "wow, the Hollandaise is pretty good." While nothing on the dish was "bad" per-se, the crab cakes were very bland and 50/50 filler-to-crab while the eggs were overly poached (firm) and relatively flavorless. Once again, better product sourcing and farm-fresh eggs could have definitely helped.

As my Aunt selected the item I'd had the most interest in, I skeptically opted for the Softshell Po Boy -Cornmeal-Dusted, Whole Soft Shell Crab on Grilled French Bread, With Shredded Lettuce, Ripe Tomatoes, and Remoulade and was quite impressed. A whole Soft-shell was quite expertly prepared and quite possibly "fresh-never-frozen" given its quality. The bread was wonderfully crunchy on the exterior with a soft and doughy interior and the Remoulade was appropriately spicy without ruining the nuances of the sweet crab. Too early in Ohio for local tomatoes I must say the ones served with the sandwich were far from "ripe" and thus discarded. Overall, possibly the best sandwich in town.

For my Aunt, the Bananas Foster French Toast with Fresh Berries of the Season and Captain Morgan Rum Sauce was the selection I'd originally considered....and a single bite made me glad I opted for the Po Boy. Absolutely slathered in sauce that tasted faintly of rum and a non-descript berry, the bread was crispy and eggy on the outside yet largely dry and boring within - overall a description of something that should've soaked for at least another couple minutes. Atop the dish were some wonderful bruleed bananas (the highlight of the dish) and Strawberries - 50% of which were large and flavorful and 50% of which were under-ripe. All told, for a dish that had so much promise my taste buds and those of my aunt echoed "Hello, flavor?"

Feeling relatively full yet mostly content our waitress cleared the plates and offered coffee and/or desserts. Never one to pass up dessert without at least seeing the menu I must admit all the options sounded rather enticing - but only one made us say yes - the Chocolate Cayenne Bread Pudding with Chipotle Crème Anglaise.

A fan of all things Bread Pudding and still looking for a Columbus version aside from The Refectory that truly shines I must admit that Banana Bean fared quite well with its unique take. Large pieces of chocolate brioche were absolutely scrumptious while the interplay of creamy sweet and spicy hot danced on the palate. Similar bruleed bananas to those on the French Toast added a contrasting fructose sweetness that proved a nice foil to the heat while plump raspberries added some crispy texture. If I had to fault the dish in any way, honestly, it would be the chipotle which added an unnecessary smoky flavor to the otherwise smooth flavors.

All told I liked Banana Bean's food and would compare it favorably to many good brunch/lunch places in the Midwest (The incredible Bongo Room excluded) but dishes were largely big hit or moderate miss and the service was spotty at best. Pricey for the quality I think part of the issue is sourcing - as noted with the below average berries, tomatoes, eggs, and cheese – while part of the issue is simply attitude. Perhaps I'll return when the local produce is better and before some items are sold out.....or after they are delivered - and when the place isn't so damned packed that I have to make reservations.

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