Friday, July 31, 2009

Spiaggia, Chicago IL

I’d almost given up on “haute Italian” before my May trip to New York. After less-than-amazing experience for excessive prices at Valentino, La Botte, and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles/Santa Monica and vastly better quantity/quality experiences at “mid-range” Italian places in multiple cities I’d begun to think that perhaps “fine dining” should be reserved to French, American, and Mediterranean cuisine – thankfully my trip to New York brought me back to my love of Italian with sublime meals at Scarpetta and Alto. Having had a great experience at Café Spiaggia on my previous trip to Chicago and traveling with my family who loves Italian I decided that our one group splurge meal for the trip would be at the main house overlooking North Michigan Avenue.

Speaking with dining room manager Chad Bertelsman before our arrival I was provided a copy of the updated menu and although I’d heard comment from others that Spiaggia’s price vastly outstripped the quantity and quality of its food the dishes on the menu and the reputation of sublime service sold me that it would be worth the expense…unfortunately I was wrong…while the food was wonderful and the view sublime, the service was bad and actually offensive.

First off, while Chad himself suggested he would be looking forward to greeting us the experience and service I received was anything but "welcoming." Chad never presented as he was called to manage the café that evening – and clearly his guidance was missed as the entire staff seemed to have their nose in the air from the moment we arrived - the hostess actually "greeted" us with her back to us before sauntering off to see if our table was ready. Seated eventually at a beautiful window seat our server Erin literally stood there almost GLARING at my family after stopping by the fourth time (in less than 10 minutes) to see if we were ready to place orders. After orders were placed she never once returned other than when casually walking by once and saying "is everything good?"

Additional service issues marring the evening seemed to occur from the moment we stated we weren't wine drinkers – from there on it was as thought our $400 bill didn't matter. Most notably, while we're on the subject of price, my aunt ordered the crab salad as an appetizer and the lobster spaghetti. Without explanation Erin simply stated "I'll make that your main" and increased the price by $15 without indicating that would be the case. Next up on the hit list, the incessant reaching across people to fill water (once, lifting the glass and actually managing to spill ~1/8 to 1/4oz of water onto my uovo ravioli.) Finally, the largest offense was when the waiter behind me elbowed me hard in the back of the head while assisting the other table. I saw stars, literally, and received and ancillary "oh, sorry about that" as condolences. While "mistakes" do happen, it certainly is not like the tables were jammed together.

Service issues aside and the fact that communicating this to the restaurant and Chad himself has led to not even an apology – but rather denial, I will state that the food was impressive, albeit pricey. Beginning first with a presentation of breads including Ricotta Rosemary, Ciabatta, Cheese Sticks, and Whole Wheat served with a wonderfully creamy butter and an amuse of Tuna Crudo with summer Radish, Mani Olive Oil, and fresh Microgreens each subsequent dish displayed a degree of expert craft, great presentation, and top quality ingredients.

Arriving first, our selection of antipasti and pastas –

#1) GAMBE DI GRANCHIO CON FINOCCHIO, CIPOLLA DOLCE E FAGIOLINI Warm Dungeness crab with baby fennel, sweet onions, green beans and 2008 Manni Per Mio Figlio extra virgin olive oil. Ordered by my aunt this dish was well prepared with delicate and flaky crab perched atop a buttery toast, crisp green beans, and an amalgam of fennel and onions – adding a wonderful degree of texture and nuance was a dab of Per Mio Figlio Olive Oil from Manni – incredible.

#2) RISOTTO NERO CON POLIPO E PESTO GENOVESE Organic Acquerello risotto with octopus terrine and bone marrow finished with squid ink and Genovese pesto. Ordered by my sister this dish was certainly not plentiful, but the flavors and presentation were certainly attractive. Flawlessly prepared risotto, but no better than that at Alana’s in Columbus and served with less than 1/2 ounce of octopus, 1/2 ounce of creamy marrow, and accented by the salty ink and tangy pesto I can’t say there was much to share, but what I did taste was pleasant.

#3) RAVIOLETTO DI CRESCENZA E TARTUFI NERI CON FAVE Crescenza cheese and Umbrian black truffle filled pasta with fava beans. Ordered by my mother this single long noodle was well prepared al dente and stuffed with an admixture of truffle and creamy cheese. Adding a degree of texture were the fava beans which were very well prepared and added a meatiness to the dish without overwhelming the delicate flavors inside the pasta shell.

#4) UOVO IN RAVIOLO CON GUANCIALE E PISELLI Organic Yuppie Hill Farm egg filled pasta with guanciale, Pecorino Romano and fresh peas. Having tasted a similar dish at Osteria Mozza I expected a lot from this dish but was unfortunately underwhelmed. While certainly good I simply found the flavors to be lacking compared to Batali’s version and the Farm Egg was nowhere near as creamy (or plentiful) as the duck egg at Mozza. Additionally, clearly annoyed by the water splash, this version was more expensive than that at Mozza.

#5) Ostensibly the reason for my visit, GNOCCHI DI PATATE IN SALSA DI RICOTTA E TARTUFI NERI Hand rolled potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce with Umbrian black truffles was actually worth the price of admission. Having tasted and been wowed by Café Spiaggia’s gnocchi in the past these pillows of potato were of a similar texture – literally melting in the mouth. The gravy, additionally, was absolutely transcendent with the creamy and smooth ricotta accenting the sexy essence of the truffles – a truly beautiful dish that is rivaled only by Keller’s gnocchi preps at TFL and Bouchon for best all time.

#6) Moving onto our main courses, three of us opted for secondi while my aunt got the previously mentioned up-charged pasta. Entitled SPAGHETTI NERI ALLA CHITARRA CON ARAGOSTA, AGLIO NUOVO, PEPERONCINI DI CALABRIA E MENTA Hand crafted squid ink spaghetti with lobster, spring garlic, dried Calabrian chilis and mint the dish reminded me somewhat of the incredible lobster spaghetti at Scarpetta and somewhat of the lobster risotto at Valentino – but smaller in portion and less tasty than either. Salty and savory with just a hint of heat tempered by the mint – but certainly not $42.

#7) My sister’s main for the evening, SALMONE IN CROSTA DI ZUCCHINE CON POMODORI GIALLI Olive oil poached Neah Bay king salmon with baby zucchini, Italian yellow tomato and basil was a relatively standard fish preparation utilizing clearly fresh and invariably unfrozen salmon lightly poached on the outside and nearly raw on the inside – paired with sweet zucchini and sweeter tomatoes heavily accented with fresh chopped olive oil both my sister and I thought this amongst the best Salmon we’d ever tasted.

#8) A selection off the tasting menu, LONZA E PIEDINI DI MAIALE CON LENTICCHIE DI CASTELLUCCIO E MOSTARDA DI CIPOLLE Wood grilled Becker Lane Berkshire pork loin and crispy trotters with Castelluccian lentils and onion mostarda was my mother’s selection – and a good selection at that. While not as delectable as the pork options at either Batali’s East or West coast flagships this perfectly prepared loin was well complimented by the creamy onion compote and al dente lentils. As my mother does not enjoy trotters I was able to eat this item in whole and can only say that it was by far and away the best pork I’ve had outside the pig’s head dish at The French Laundry. Creamy, smokey, fatty – glorious.

#9) The final savory and the most expensive item on the menu was selected by myself - GAMBERI ROSSI E POLENTA AL FORNO CON ERBE CIPOLLINA RICCIO DI MARE E CAVAILE Wood-roasted Santa Barbara spot prawns with yellow polenta, sea urchin, Italian Osetra caviar and chives. While not exactly what I expected from the description this dish was absolutely fantastic – albeit quite petite. Six medium prawns and three cubes of polenta – polenta blended with creamed uni and fan fried crispy then topped with approximately 30-40 eggs of caviar – once again, flawless execution from a clearly intelligent and ambitious chef.

Having been elbowed in the head mid-mains I have to say I was rather surly when our waitress finally returned to offer dessert. Clearly oblivious and myself not wanting to make a scene I accepted the dessert menu and left it up to my family to decide whether to stay or go. Browsing the menu they each found an item that sounded appealing and thus we stayed. Dish #10, therefore, was TORTA AL MASCARPONE IN SALSA DI CAFFE ILLY with Chilled Mascarpone cheese torte with espresso sauce and it was ordered by my sister – a tiramisu addict. Attractive and well presented this dish was nearly a panna cotta in texture and was topped with a glorious chocolate gelato and lying atop a puddle of espresso cream sauce. Good, not great, but my sister liked it.

#11) PANNA COTTA DI LIMONE CON BISCOTTO DI POLENTA with Lemon panna cotta with polenta cookie and Meyer lemon vodka. Ordered by my mother this dish was the most intriguing of the desserts and the combination of tart/bitter alcohol flavors worked beautifully with the superbly sweet panna cotta. While the polenta cookie didn’t add much, its lemon tones were quite well paired with the rest of the dish.

#12) SEMIFREDDO DI CIOCCOLATO CON CREMA D’ARANCIA E ZAFFERANO Semi-frozen Valhrona chocolate mousse with orange and saffron was ordered by my aunt and while good was largely unmemorable. Like a haute-chocolate-orange with an element of savory, I much preferred the chocolate-orange dessert at Scarpetta.

#13) BABA AFFOGATO CON PANNA Rum syrup soaked brioche with Mick Klug Farms blueberries and apricots topped with whipped cream. My selection for the evening – after stellar Baba au Rum presentations at both MiX and The Modern perhaps I expected too much, but this dish was relatively underwhelming with the Brioche over-baked and rum largely understated. The highlight of the dish for me was actually the delicate interplay between the sweet and fresh berries and the incredibly fresh and velvety cream.

Served along with the desserts was a plate of largely forgettable cookies – the only which was truly notable being the ball of pistachio cream.

All the above combined with a generalized "stuck up" staff who acted as though it was a privilege to eat at Spiaggia left a very poor taste in my mouth - especially when compared to the genuine and truly gracious, friendly, and refined yet (dare I say) casual service at places like Charlie Trotter's and TRU in the past. This isn't even to mention the following night when I dined at Alinea - a place where it truly is a "privilege" to eat and received refined and attentive, yet down to earth service for 4+ hours.

All told, Spiaggia has great food and a great view - for some that may be enough. For myself, I like the service to match the chef's vision and I certainly don't appreciate nickel and dime up charges, snooty pretense, or a stiff elbow. I also don’t like excuses – whether it be from the dining room manager or from customers who act as though somehow Spiaggia’s location justifies their prices – I’ve had better Italian in finer setting for less.

Hot Doug's, The Art of Pizza, Vanille Patisserie, Chicago IL

While the "Chicago Steakhouse" holds some significance, ask most persons what they think of when they hear the phrase "Chicago Style" and you get pizza and hot dogs or hot dogs and pizza - simple "common" American comfort foods served in a very distinctive style and not really obtainable in their authentic form anywhere else in the US. After an early morning breakfast at the Bongo Room and meeting up with my family near the Art Museum the next stops on our list were two of Chicago's more unique places to order the city's staple specialties - Hot Doug's and The Art of Pizza.

Having heard that Doug's frequently generates a 1-2 hour line shortly after opening we decided to check out the hot dog scene first - arriving at 11:00am (only 30 minutes after opening) this proved to be a good call as the line was already 30 persons deep (a far cry from the 60+ waiting when we left.) Waiting in line all we heard was locals discussing how it was "totally worth it" and raving about previous experiences with Doug's specialty encased meats and (Friday and Saturday only) Duck Fat Fries. Chatting with the friendly crowd our 45 minute wait brushed by and we soon found ourselves standing in front of the big board of common and not-so-common choices.

Kitschy décor aplenty and Doug himself managing the register we approached and placed our orders – each of which was “approved” by Doug who, despite the lines, was personable and pleasant telling us about some of his button collection and making suggestions on whether each choice should be fried or broiled – heck, he didn’t even laugh at my mother’s request for a “plain hotdog” – but I certainly did. Taking our seats and listening to the radio we filled our sodas and waited about 10 minutes before our orders arrived.

Starting first with my aunt’s and mother’s boring orders – namely a plain hotdog and duck fat fries for my mother and an Elvis (Polish Sausage with tomato and onion) for my aunt. Additionally ordered by my aunt as a more adventurous option was the Teuben of Corned Beef Sausage with Russian Dressing, Saurkraut, Swiss Cheese. As I do not consume beef I did not taste any of these options but all three were noted to be “awesome” by the ladies and the duck fat fries were quite good with their crispy exterior giving way to a soft and fluffy center – while not as good as Michael Mina’s signature fries I think this was likely more due to the lack of designer ketchups than the actual fries.

The next duo of dogs, ordered by my sister – an absolute hater of hotdogs in general and a naysayer walking into the experience – was the Spicy Thai Chicken Sausage with Thai Peanut Sauce and Toasted Coconut and the Saucisson Alsacienne of Bacon Sausage with Creme Fraiche, Caramelized Onions, Double Cream Brie. First digging into the Thai option both my sister and myself were very impressed by the subtle nuances encased in the meat – namely a great degree of heat that was tempered well by the creaminess of the peanut butter and coconut fats. While not exactly “authentic Thai” or an “authentic hotdog,” I liked the encased meat more than either.

The second selection, entitled a bacon sausage was decidedly more fatty than the chicken sausage and reminded me more of jowl bacon or porkbelly than a true piece of bacon. Akin to Chang’s pork buns at Momofuku in texture the fatty pork’s saltiness paired well with the sour crème fraiche while the savory and pungent onions proved an excellent foil to the sweet and hearty helping of brie. While my sister wasn’t particularly thrilled with the texture of this option, I found it to be quite excellent and gladly helped her out with finishing the dog.

For my options, two dogs were selected – namely the Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, Sel Gris and the Smoked Shrimp and Pork Sausage with Cajun Remoulade and Goat Cheese. Beginning with the Shrimp/Pork option I was instantly struck by the impressive manner in which the pig and the shrimp worked together – smoky and well blended in texture the dish was further enhanced by the remoulade and hefty helping of goat cheese which created an almost gumbo flavor with a bit of heat and a whole lot of savory saltiness.

The final item – the piece de resistance for myself – was indeed the Foie Dog; not since The Bazaar’s Foie Cotton Candy with Corn Nuts had I seen a more obscure way to use the most decadent of all foods. Presented as a sizable piece of terrine atop a sublime duck sausage with the classical flavors of sauternes built right in the dish was put even further over the top by the addition of crunchy grey salt and a creamy and aromatic truffle cream aioli. At $9 the sausage certainly wasn’t cheap, but it was oh-so-worth it.

With tax, tip, and drinks the family ended up walking out of Doug’s full, happy, and smiling for less than $15 a person – something I don’t think we ever expected from “a hotdog joint.” Kitschy décor (check out the bathrooms,) an incredible down-to-earth owner, and top notch food. Having waited in lines for other “hype” restaurants in many other cities I can definitely say Hot Doug’s lives up to the substantial hype. Perhaps the two best words in the English language are indeed “Encased meats” – provided those meats are of the quality of Doug’s!

Following our gluttony at Doug’s, I had Pizza on my mind – alas my dining companions were stuffed and holding out for dessert. Never one to let the appetites of other stop me from my culinary adventures my plans went on undeterred – a stop at The Art of Pizza was programmed into the GPS and off we went. Arriving toward the middle of lunch hour I was surprised at the lack of cars surrounding the small strip mall, but glad that our wait would be short.

Walking into Art’s I was instantly struck by the heavy scents of tomato, pepper, and butter in the air – exactly like a pizza joint should smell. Approaching the counter I was…I guess the word is “greeted” but a sullen looking young man who acted as though it was a great inconvenience to tell me which pizzas were available by the slice. Listening to the options I decided on a slice of deep dish Art’s Special which was plated and handed to me without further warming and without as much as a smile - $3.25 please.

Making my way to the table I must admit the décor left a lot to be desired - but thankfully the pizza did not. Thick, hefty, and absolutely loaded with fresh toppings the sausage, onion, mushroom and green pepper special had just the right amount of toppings versus cheese, a wonderful buttery and crisp crust, and the best pizza sauce I’ve tasted in many moons. Starting with a fork and knife then later proceeding to pick the slice up and eat it by hand I was amazed how the crust was able to support the heft yet how delicate it was in the mouth. While the pizza could’ve stood to be a little warmer, the flavor certainly topped Giordano’s or Pizzapapolis (Chicago and Detroit, respectively, and my only previous Chicago-style experiences) and rivaled the famous Lou Malnati’s with Butter Crust that I had two days later.

The final stop on our lunch foodie tour on the Northwest side of Chicago was dessert – specifically dessert from a place I was recommended by a fellow foodie – Vanille patisserie. Purportedly sporting “the best Macarons in the city” and “amazing Entremets” I had to admit I went in with high expectations. Arriving around 1:00pm three of us hopped out while my mother circled the block (for lack of parking) and browsed the selections. While I must admit I was perplexed by the fact that a box of 8 Macarons cost more than 8 individually selected cookies everything did look very appealing and we emerged with 7 individual macarons, two entremets, and a chocolate croissant. Service was adequate but I have to say I was put off by the server’s smug attitude as we asked about the various entremets.

Beginning first with the cookies that were shared by myself and my mother, our selections entailed Coffee x2, Chocolate x2, Lemongrass Strawberry, Yuzu, and Coconut. Beginning with the chocolate, I was glad I did as the macaron was quite terrible – more a brownie in texture than the traditional crackling shell with fluffy interior. Following this the selections were definitively better with the Lemongrass Strawberry and Coffee being particularly memorable with their jam and cream fillings, respectively, and perfect shell with pillowy interior. While certainly not as good as La Maison, Pistachia Vera, or Bouchon these were certainly high quality cookies prepared with good technique.

Admittedly quite full at this point my sampling of the additional items was somewhat limited – one bite of the chocolate croissant was enough as the pastry itself was largely forgettable and the chocolate ganache although good was far from that loading the versions at Payard or Bouchon. The entremets, on the other hand, proved quite delicious and actually well priced for the quality. Selected by my sister, the bar of caramel with vanilla pound cake and lemon filling surrounded by chocolate was quite delicious – the lemon particularly was well thought out and added just a slight amount of sour to the otherwise incredibly sweet and smooth dish. My aunt’s option, a buttery pastry topped with a creamy peanut butter ganache and coated in a chocolate lacquer was also quite good but certainly not as complex as the other dish – like a haute-peanut butter cup with a buttery crust.

All in all I can’t say I was overwhelmed with Vanille, especially given the attitude of the service and the strict lack of parking. Competent and well prepared overall, nothing about the shop wowed me on the level of experiences elsewhere and I can’t really imagine a reason I’d return unless I lived in Chicago. Overall my macarons were a nice end to great foodie tour – but for the priced I’d have opted for another dog at Doug’s.

The Bongo Room (Wabash), Chicago IL

…you hop off the plane at O’Hare at 7:30am with bags in hand – you’re scheduled to meet your family who is driving in at 10:30 at the art museum - you catch the subway into town and hop off at Jackson – you make your way to Wabash – Hello Bongo Room…er, well, hello construction with Bongo Room Hidden behind it. After a wonderful experience at the Wicker Park location back in December a return visit to the alternative location was only logical – what better way to kick off my first day out of the inpatient setting in nearly 2 months? Making my way into the restaurant I was actually surprised at how empty the place was – but the smell of eggs, baking bread, and candy coated pancakes was anything but unexpected. Seated quickly at a booth up front and handed a copy of the local paper I quickly browsed the menu – 4 pancake options and 2 french toast – decisions, decisions.

“Are half portions available?”


“Which two would you recommend?”

“Have you eaten here before, our pancakes are pretty big?”

“Yes, I was too full after two full orders and I’m planning on lunch around noon, so which two would you recommend??”

Orders placed, coffee filled, I watched my neighbors tuck into a big pile of wonderful looking eggs and pulled out a copy of GQ to finish up the Tarantino article I’d been enjoying on the plane. Waiting for approximately 20 minutes for my order I notably had to flag down an alternative waitress to fill my coffee as my waitress literally seemed to have disappeared after taking my order – but when she did return it was bearing the object I’d been craving; two heaping plates of dessert-style pancakes. Denny’s commercials be damned – “Grown Up Breakfast” is for the work week!

Starting with the option recommended by my server (along with the caramel pretzel version which I declined as I had it on my last visit) I dug into my Black Forrest Cakes with Brandy Soaked Cherries, Warm Vanilla Panna Cotta Cream, and Chocolate Creme Anglaise. On first taste I must admit I was struck by the wonderful flavor of the panna cotta cream and how it contrasted with the doughy pancakes. Unfortunately once this initial impression passed I was suddenly aware of just how flavorless the cakes themselves were – literally doughy and sporting maybe 4 small cherries each (none of which tasted like Brandy.) Without the absolute dousing of cream and crème I can honestly say these pancakes wouldn’t have been much better than the standard McDonald’s Hotcake – and had my server not stopped by and challenged me by asking “you doing all right, would you like a take home box?” I’d have likely not finished the plate. Hey now, don’t judge, I have my reputation of vacation gluttony to uphold!

My second option, selected on my own accord because it simply sounded amazing fared much better than the Black Forrest – MUCH better indeed. Entitled Banana Nestle Crunch Bar Flapjacks with warm Toffee Cream Sauce and Fresh Bananas the dish is exactly what it sounds like – banana accented flapjacks with a muffin-like texture absolutely loaded with melted and gooey nestle crunch bar and topped with a salty toffee sauce and at least 2 whole chopped bananas. Comparable only to my one previous experience with banoffee pie this creation was smoothness contrasted with crunch, sugary sweet tempered by creamy savory, and absolutely excellent – on par with anything experienced on my past visit to the Bongo room, for sure.

Sitting around waiting for my family to call I finished the issue of GQ and drank another 2 cups of coffee while watching the place slowly fill up and listening to a mix of The Decemberists, The Shins, and Radiohead, and Regina Spektor play over the stereo – I was never pressured to leave and everyone was friendly. While not as great as my previous experience with the Bongo Room in Wicker Park (I like their décor better, as well) I would definitely like to return for the seasonal brioche French toast – the option I’d originally considered until being steered toward the Black Forrest. Like the Griddle in LA, the Bongo Room is a MUST for all future visits to Chicago.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Alana's and Pattycake Vegan, Columbus OH

As my list of "Must Visit" restaurants in Columbus has dwindled through the past few years one name stood at the top of the list for some time - a glaring omission in the places I'd visited already - that name was Alana's. Hailed by many as the best restaurant in the city and by others of at least being a truly unique and great dining experience I decided to correct this in celebration of the end of a long month of inpatient medicine. Accompanied by two attending physicians and a medical student who is vegetarian Alana's veg-friendly menu with focus on local/seasonal produce and close location to campus made it an ideal setting.

Getting out of work early I made a quick stop to Pattycake prior to Alana's to pick up a couple of sweets - namely a strawberry shortcake, chocolate peanutbutter, and carrot cupcake - all of which were excellent and re-confirmed my belief that Pattycake is not only the best Vegan bakery in the city, but possibly the best overall (at least on par with Pisachia Vera and Piece of Cake.) I then made my way back down to Alana's where I was still the first in my party to arrive. After snapping a few pictures I entered and spoke to the host for a bit before taking my seat and waiting for my group to slowly filter in - after ten minutes all members were accounted for, water was poured, and menus were delivered.

Chatting for a short while before ordering I was impressed by the lack of pressure from the waiters as I've found this a problem at many Columbus fine-dining establishments in the past - at no point did we feel hasseled, rushed, or pressured - a definite plus. With my colleagues opting for wine and beers (an appropriately named Delerium Tremens was particularly notable on the list) we first ordered some appetizers for the table - namely the cheese plate and fried green tomatoes. Beginning with the cheese plate, for $14 we received three anemic portions of relatively common American cheeses, a basket of boring baguette slices, and some raisins - compared to Luce I couldn't have been more disappointed and would certainly not order this again.

The second appetizer, originally intended to be sharred with our vegetarian student, was the tomato dish - unfortunately my attending forgot until 10 minutes after ordering that it contained chorizo and asked if the order could be augmented to which received a flat "no." While I found this strange as it took another 10-15 minutes for the dish to be delivered and I do suspect the server could've been a little more accomidating, I will admit the dish was excellent and I didn't mind having more to myself. Described as fried green tomato with chorizo, chihuahua cheese and corn vinaigrette the tomato was very well prepared with a delicate snap on the outside yet smooth and sweet inside. Adding to the dish was a spicy yet understated chorizo that contrasted well with the mild cheese and sweet yet savory corn studded dressing.

Following the appetizers my colleagues each opted for a main course and another drink while I selected a salad and a water refill. Arriving shortly after we finished appetizers the tomato stack with lump crab, shaved vidalias, greens, chopped amish egg cheddar and cabernet buttermilk dressing was an absolute knockout of a dish - both in presentation and in taste. Incredibly fresh heirloom tomatos that could very well have been picked immediately prior to service were stacked 4 slices high with layers of fresh and delicate crab, crisp and textural greens, and pungent yet well tempered vidalias. Mellowing out the sharper flavors and pulling the whole dish together was the mild and aromatic egg cheddar (a cheese far superior to any on the cheese plate in flavor and texture) and the absolutely divine buttermilk dressing with mild alcoholic base notes.

For our mains one of my attendings opted for the 4oz tournedo of beef topped with roquefort potatoes, broccoli, and bacon vinaigrette while the vegetarian amongst us ordered the rustichella spaghetti with zucchini noodles, shaved golden zucchini and basil pesto and noted that he'd have trouble going back to eating "normal" pasta any time soon - it certainly looked and smelled excellent. For myself and one of my attending's the order of the night was Alana's nightly risotto - this time featuring sun gold tomatos, sweet corn, goat cheese, and lump crab. Enormous in portion and toothsome yet smooth in texture I must admit I found the risotto to be quite excellent and the creamy cheese and mild crab proved an excellent foil to the sweet and 'al dente' corn and tomatos. Accompanying our mains was a basket of white and rye breads plus a fairly generic and boring olive oil - thankfully there was plenty of sauce to be sopped up from the risotto.

After a meal prepared with such skill dessert was a no brainer - and true to the form of (seemingly) every other restaurant in Columbus the accompaniments to each dessert was a no brainer as well - Jeni's Ice Cream. While my companions decided on the Vanilla Lavender Creme Brulee and Chocolate Zucchini Pound Cakes accompanied with Wildberry Lavender and Kona Stout, respectively I decided to go with the Peach Plum Frangipaine Tart with Honey Vanilla Bean. Served in large portion I found the almond based tart to be quite tasty and well paired with the ice cream selection, but I rather wished the peaches and plus had been a bit sweeter given the fact that we are in the midst of stonefruit season.

All in all I must admit I was quite pleased with the food at Alana's in terms of quality, quantity, and skill of preparation. Service was adequate if not overly friendly - something that clearly is table dependant as we saw our waiter as well as the chef herself visit a table of older "regulars" frequently - and the setting is quite attractive, secluded, and intimate. As a fan of natural/organic/locavore approaches to food I'd certainly not hesitate to recommend Alana's amongst the ten best dining options in Columbus - and certainly moreso than I'd recommend the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley in terms of price, attitude, and quality of the produce. While not every dish was a smash success, the dishes that shined did so brightly and those that didn't certainly didn't fall flat - more attention to details such as the bread basket and cheese plate plus a tad more accomidating service (the tomato dish) could definitely make Alana's a 5-star Cbus experience.