With the closing of Handke’s and Rosendales it is in my (not so humble) opinion that there remains only one option for a truly great/opulent meal in Columbus, Ohio – The Refectory. Sure M and Alana’s are nice, but their preps and platings aren’t anything to write home about. Sure Luce and Rigsby’s are great, but the setting and service won’t turn heads. Actually, having dined at myriad Michelin Starred restaurants in the past few years I can most definitely say that only The Refectory and perhaps Kihachi or the Worthington Inn would stand up to such scrutiny in a major US dining market.
Having experienced Kamal’s hospitality and Chef Blondin’s fabulous cooking in the past (http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2008/11/refectory-columbus-ohio.html) I’ll not go into the setting, service, or chef’s pedigree – all are top-of-the-class – but I will note that on this occasion we were celebrating an early Christmas (I’m on-call Christmas day) and the restaurant was not only decorated festively, but also full to capacity with well dressed families and couples while light Christmas music filled the rafters.
Napkins unfolded, waters filled and drinks served (and refilled immediately/repeatedly without request,) we were first brought the night’s amuse and the restaurant’s wonderful house bread. The amuse du jour was a round of creamy brie with rind served cold and topped with a clean olive oil and paired with a chive emulsion and tomatoes. Somewhat smoky, the sweet tomatoes provided a pleasant contrast to the creamy and nutty cheese while the chives added a bit of spice – very nice. Spreading the cheese on a piece of the superb (and warm) country bread was additionally nice.
Starting next with a first round of appetizers I selected the night’s special – a cold torchon of foie gras served with beet Ribbons, Maple Jus, and tomato. Smooth and unctuous the foie was a fine example – potentially the best I’ve had in Ohio since BoMA closed – and the creamy consistency melded well with the crisp and earthy ribbons of beets. Adding some needed sweetness to the dish were dots of thick and sweet maple syrup, a nice blend but not entirely unexpected. Having had many preps in recent months I can’t say I’d rush out for this foie (unlike their Sweetbreads of last year) but it was certainly serviceable – perhaps a crisp/carb component such as a brioche or baguette would help.
Ordered by my aunt, the lobster timbale with with a saffron mousseline and parmesan tuile, plus chive oil was a very attractive dish (and one she liked a lot) but didn’t really wow me as much as I’d have hoped. With ample pieces of lobster dispersed within the crème fraiche and saffron mousse I just didn’t get a lot of contrast between the components and largely the dish was just an ornate crab/lobster dip that you could buy at Whole Foods.
Trio of Salmon, my sister’s appetizer, was a winner by all accounts and featured Chilled gravalax, creamy mousse, and warm smoked line caught salmon on a single plate. Like most dishes that look to explore a single ingredient in variant forms this dish was small in portions but hefty in potency with each sample serving to highlight the fish – its ability to melt in the mouth with the mousse, its smooth and muscled texture in the smoked form, and its fattiness in the gravalax. Interestingly I felt the gravalax was the strongest option while my sister was impressed most by the warm serving…the mousse certainly wouldn’t have felt out of place next to the table-spread at Le Bernardin, either.
Mom’s appetizer, another cheese option, was roasted goat cheese with beets, shallots and olive oil. Twice as large as I’d have expected for the price I do believe this was the best of the first courses with the creamy goat cheese only lightly pan-kissed to melt the curds together and then gently paired with smooth shallots in olive oil, crisp sweetened beets, a beet puree, and a buttery crostini. Mild and well paired I think doing something akin to this with Humboldt Fog could be the best thing one could ever accomplish with cheese.
After a short wait and a lot of conversation about the year past our second courses came out – plus a spacer plate for Aunt. For the second round my sister and mother both selected a soup – for my mother the tomato lobster bisque and for Erika the mussel soup with white wine and shallots in a saffron cream. Not a big fan of tomato soups in general I felt that bisque was good for a non-butter version, but that the sweet lobster was largely overwhelmed by the acidity of the tomatoes – a bite was enough. With regard to the mussel soup I was first impressed by the sheer number of mussels in the broth and then after a taste I was even more impressed. At first touch to the tongue I have to admit I was a bit shocked by how heavy the alcohol flavors came forth, but as the amalgam sat in my mouth I realized that the base notes were where the nuance hid – brine, pungency, even a bit of sweetness came through with a subsequent bite and the creamy texture was very nice.
For myself, continuing the foul theme of the evening, dish two consisted of a pheasant terrine with apple wood smoked bacon and roasted hazelnuts, sour cherries in brandy, and a fanned cornichon. Garnished again with chive oil the terrine itself was flawlessly smoky with the gaminess of the pheasant mingling pleasantly with the saltiness of the bacon. Further enhanced with brandy, hazelnuts, and chopped pickle in the terrine itself my sister compared the flavor favorably to old-fashioned loaf – and placing some on a slice of bread with a brandied cherry made for an excellent bistro style sandwich.
Following our appetizers, just like our previous visit, was the nightly palate cleanser – this time a white peach sorbet. My favorite fruit by a long shot, this sorbet had no chance to fail and it was fabulous – the very essence of a fresh white peach…in December, no less.
After more talk (most notable for my mother’s comments on how much she likes dining with me because it makes her remember how good food can be and how nice a quiet restaurant is) our mains arrived – three menu items and one of the nightly specials. For my sister, Steamed Dover Sole with a lobster suprème sauce and fresh pepper linguini – the weakest of the mains (and that is saying something.) Sweet and moist, flawlessly steamed with the bare minimum of cooking to melt the sinew, the fish itself was flawless despite its lack of textural variance. Paired with the pepper linguini, a tomato stuffed with ground capers, and asparagus my only “issue” with this dish is actually the sauce which was buttery and succulent, but too heavy and too generous a portion for such a delicate fish.
The second dish, my mother’s Duroc Pork Loin with Spinach Spatzle, Steamed Bosc Pear, carrots, and asparagus was divine. Savory melt-in-the-mouth pork, rich vegetal noodles, an invariably sweet pear stuffed with cranberry chutney, and crisp vegetables all paired well with the salty pork reduction to form one of those rare dishes where each bite was an experiment in mixing different components to form a new flavor, texture, taste, and experience. While I don’t tend to order pork when I go out I have to say that each of the past times I’ve been out with my mother I’ve been impressed with her selections – pig based almost every time.
My aunts selection was the most unique of the evening – the most nouveau-French for sure. Again paired with asparagus and one of those strange caper tomatoes, pan seared monk-fish wrapped in pancetta with red pepper spaghetti was absolutely astounding. “Poor Man’s Lobster,” was a new experience for my aunt and one I was surprised to see her order, but it was definitely the best main of the evening. With the savory and crisp pancetta providing a perfect foil to the sweet and smooth fish I was delighted to help out with this dish (aunt wanting to “save room” for dessert) and found even more brilliance in the manner in which chef Blondin used a light garlic sauce to meld the two distinctly different flavors.
My main course, ordered both because it sounded amazing and because aunt had ordered the monkfish, was Spiced Cajun Duck Breast with chestnut confit, savoy cabbage potato cake, and pine honey gastrique and it wouldn’t have been out of place on the menu at Alex, La Folie, or even Joel Robuchon. Recommended medium rare the duck was reportedly wild caught game and it tasted extraordinarily fresh – the layer of fat barely melted but the skin crisp to the tooth and the meat without a hint of gaminess. An enormous portion the duck sat alongside a carrot topped with wild mushroom confit, watermelon turnips, confit style chestnuts, an au gratin potato cake topped with shredded and caramelized savoy cabbage, and the whole dish was surrounded by a layer of honey sweetened vinegar. Like the pork I experimented with multiple taste and texture combinations on this plate and found them all quite pleasing – particularly the turnip+chestnut+duck bites.
Up next – desserts – and like last time we received the seasonal pear tart “compliments of the chef.” This time featuring Cranberry Chutney, Butternut Squash Ice Cream, and White Chocolate Caramel atop the buttery pears and almond frangipane crust the dessert once again shined and showed the talents of the kitchen in terms of both taste and plating.
The first ordered dessert – my mother’s – was a trio of panna cotta, specifically Fig, pomegranate, and Lavender Honey plus a white Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti. Smooth and creamy each of the panna cotta were surprisingly large with the fig being invariably sweet and the pomegranate intense and tart. While the biscotti didn’t really pair particularly with any of the panna cotta it was quite excellent, as well.
Dessert two, my sisters, was recently featured in Columbus Alive – called “Tribute” the dish is meant as an ode to Elvis Presley and features Chocolate Shortbread, Peanut butter mousse, chocolate bavarian, banana sorbet, bacon streusel. Again pushing the “classic French” boundaries a bit and experimenting with avant-garde “sweet and savory” pairings I found this dish quite delectable with the crisp shortbread contrasting well with the creamy mousse and ganache-like Bavarian while the sweet sorbet worked well as a foil to the heavy chocolate and peanut butter. Sweet, salty, cold, warm, smooth, crisp – excellent.
The next dessert, my aunt’s “Chocolate Mania” was another multi-course dish with Blondie Cake, Brown Sugar Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream, Chocolate Chip Espresso Cookies, Chipped Cream, and Dark & White Chocolate Sauce. Like the salmon in that it explored a single ingredient in variant forms and like the tribute in its use of varying textures, tastes, temperatures, and styles this dessert was another winner and an impressively large amount of food for a mere $8.
The final dessert, selected by myself, was Deconstructed Apple Pie with Tatin Apples, Cheddar Crumble, Cinnamon Ice Cream, Balsamic Apple Reduction. Again with the sweet/savory pairing I adored this dish and consider it amongst my favorite desserts of 2009. Crisp and pan seared cinnamon apples, creamy cinnamon ice cream, and an acidic reduction of apples and ginger formed the backbone of the dish but the whole fusion was completed by the delightful pieces of dehydrated cheddar – an almost molecular gastronomy touch – that created a totally novel mouth-feel, yet entirely familiar flavor.
When it was all said and done we each walked out of The Refectory full and happy – another great meal with family, another great experience. On the way out each member of the staff stopped what they were doing to wish us happy holidays, welcome us back soon, and smile. Great food and great service, well priced and ample in portion; a breath of fresh air in a stale local dining scene. As with my prior visit at The Refectory, this trip was one celebrating a special occasion which and I guess that means that I consider The Refectory a “special occasion” kind of place.