Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Refectory (Columbus, OH)

My first dining experience at The Refectory was senior prom back in high school. I went to one of the preppiest high schools in the city and hung with folks who put the word 'high' in high-maintenance. Needless to say, I didn't think twice about Chef Blondin's cooking at the time. All I remembered was that it was 'good' and that our prom group was placed in the wine cellar. Talk about a teaser.

Fast forward a few years. Now with a more refined palate (I think!), I've come to truly appreciate the mastermind behind the restaurant. Having been in twice this summer, I can honestly say that The Refectory is not only sterling in its cooking but in service and ambiance as well. Inside this former church are dining rooms -- each with its own feel and its own character. Every staff member is welcoming and courteous without a hint of pretentiousness. Perfection achieved at every level.

Ancillary things (yet every bit noteworthy!) aside, the food is impeccable. Each dish is prepared with meticulous care and with attention to the minute details. Coming in twice in one summer allowed me to have the best of both desserts worlds and to, obviously, sample more of the cooking.

My first appetizer was the Marble of Escargot. Prepared with Shitake mushrooms, the two ingredients blended harmoniously -- with the escargot providing a firm chew and the shitake lending an earthy flavor.

The second time around, I opted for the Alpaca Terrine as my starter. (*Note: this and the infamous sweetbread lasagna are no longer offered.) I vowed I'd garner good karma after eating this simply because having alpaca-anything in Ohio is considered a treat to good to pass up. Served pate style, the terrine itself was wrapped in bacon and topped with sour cherry in brandy. The picture does not do justice to this exquisite appetizer.

As for my main, I unhesitatingly chose the Grilled Bison with horseradish burgundy sauce. My server recommended a medium-rare preparation, but I went with medium to be on the safe side. Despite the generous cut, the pinkness was preserved in the center, as well as the distinct robust flavor. Easily my favorite bison dish ever, I could come back and order this every single time.

I wanted something different, so for my second entree, I went with the Beef Shoulder Tenderloin "aux 3 poivres" style. Like the bison, I went the medium route and was quite satisfied with my choice. The peppercorn sauce subtly enhanced the dish without being too overwhelming.

One dining companion ordered the Dover Sole -- which we were told was only available on the weekends -- and I deemed it necessary to mention such delight of an entree option. Deboned and deftly prepared tableside, it was more captivating than a hibachi show with a lemon caper sauce to boot.

No meal is ever complete without dessert. The pistachio creme brulee was rich, creamy, and scrumptious. While plucked from the current dessert menu, pistachio lovers must order this while at The Refectory (or the next time it's on the menu.)

Though visually arresting, the Pistachio Dacquoise Mousseline did not stack up to the Pistachio creme brulee nor the following Pear Tart Frangipane. I blame it partly on the fractionally dry cake part of this dessert. However, the pistachio mousse was light and fresh and paired quite nicely with the accompanying raspberries.

Ordered also by another dining companion is the Pear Tart Frangipane. Not a fan of desserts with fruits other than berries and having had a less-than-stellar poached pear dessert in a not-so-distant memory at another restaurant, I had my uncertainties as to how this would turn out. Aesthetically pleasing and tastefully delightful, this easily made my list of Top 10 Desserts in Columbus. The pear itself had a nice crunch but when soaked in the vanilla almond frangipane, it was a match made in heaven.

I point folks into The Refectory's direction for milestone dinners, as well as when folks want to try something out of the ordinary and adventurous (e.g. Arctic Char, Escargot, etc.) Why? Because I am 100% positive that Chef Blondin will set them at ease with his culinary skills. Moreover, diners will leave with good impressions of what a solid rendition of "that odd sounding fish" or "that organ" should be like.

Rating: *****

The Refectory
1092 Bethel Rd
Columbus, OH 43220
(614) 451 - 9774

The Refectory Restaurant and Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Latitude 41 (Columbus, OH)

In every city, there are overrated restaurants... and then there are the underrated ones. Latitude 41 definitely falls under the latter category. I rarely hear Columbus natives mention the restaurant whenever I ask for recommendations and when I do hear about Latitude 41, it's usually along the lines of "terrible experience." I'll be honest -- I had my reservations when walking in. The words 'hotel food' inevitably echoed in the back of my mind.

Our server simply added to my hesitation as to how dinner would pan out. Slightly on the abrasive side, I find her to be one of the rudest servers I've had in recent memory. It's not that she was condescending in any way, but rather her attitude and manners in saying certain things and correcting a fellow diner with her slight mispronunciation were uncalled for.

That said, onto the food -- which could easily turn me into a regular here at Latitude 41. Three of my friends and I decided on the 4-course tasting menu. *Just a note, if a member of your party opts for the tasting menu, the entire party has to participate. Our server made that crisp and clear from the get-go.

I like to think of my first course as more of an amuse bouche than an actual appetizer. Here you see the Foie Gras Torchon with cashew butter and red currant jelly served on two brioche toasts. It was just like PB&J (although CB&J would have been the more politically correct term.) Cashew butter itself is creamy and dense, so I found it to overpower the starter instead. Either way, it was a good predictor of what's to come (in the sense, that it might actually turn out to be a good dining experience afterall!)

Next up was the Warm Summer Peach salad with humboldt cheese, chorizo and shaved fennel with blood orange vinaigrette. This could easily be my least favorite course of the four. I understand that the chef wanted to manipulate summer ingredients, but the flavors and constituents simply did not mesh in the way that I had hope it would. The brick of humboldt cheese paired very well with the chorizo and salad, but the peach was highly unnecessary.

My third course was the Striped bass in artichoke stew, lemon oil, and grilled scallion. What they had failed to mention was that bacon was prepared in the stew. For my dining companions who didn't eat pork, that almost ruined their main entree. The bass itself was prepared with utmost perfection and the stew served to augment the superb quality of the dish. Buttery and melt-in-your-mouth delicious, I could have easily had another serving of the bass.

The tasting menu concluded with one of my favorite desserts to date -- not to mention one of the most creative desserts I've had too: the Red Eye Breakfast. It consisted of belgium liege waffle, espresso semi freddo, and chocolate covered bentons bacon. Much like the bass, I could have easily scarfed down another plate of this. Moving from top to bottom, diners get quite the interaction of texture, temperature, and taste. From top, it starts off with a brief taste of bitterness from the dark chocolate to the saltiness of the bacon to the coolness of the espresso ice cream to the warmth of thewaffle and, finally, ending with the sourness of the berry coulis. Talk about a flawlessly executed contemporary dessert!

By that point, I was full but went ahead and ordered the Espresso Pot de Creme with beignets, as I have the habit of ordering beignets whenever I see it on a menu. Similar to the Red Eye Breakfast, this grand finale blew me away. With a pot of chocolate mousse richer than any chocolate dessert I've ever tasted and the crispiest balls of dough to accompany it, I was in chocolate heaven!

There aren't many upscale restaurants in Columbus that I can see myself returning over and over again, but I can certainly see myself coming back for either another round of the tasting menu or for the a la carte menu. Prices are highly reasonable given the top-notch quality and artful presentation of each dish. Prices are definitely on par with many of the Cameron Mitchell establishments. With an ambiance to boot, this is a wonderful place for a ladies' night out or for a date night. Of course, given that it's inside the Renaissance Hotel, it's also an excellent place for people watching.

Rating: *****

Latitude 41
50 North 3rd Street
Columbus, OH 43215-3510
(614) 233-7541

Latitude 41 on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 16, 2010

G Michael's Bistro (Columbus, OH)

Wanting to experience as many of Columbus' local eats as possible whenever I'm home, I knew I had to make G Michael's Bistro a destination at some point. With three of my best friends in tow, I know I was in for a spectacular laughter-filled evening featuring gustatory delights. And G Michael's certainly did not disappoint!

Located in the heart of German Village, the restaurant boasted the similar historic feel -- from the dining area to the bar area. Every server was professional and polite without being rude nor condescending.

In addition to the extensive menu of Southern cooking, three more daily specials were read to us. All three were rather inspiring sounding, but I knew I wasn't going to be easily swayed from ordering the sweetbreads for my appetizer, the pork trio for my main, and a dessert to polish off my dinner. A basket of sourdough with a rather heavy house-made, red pepper based butter was brought to our table following the placing of our orders. Good to munch on over conversations and the wait but highly forgettable following the presentations of the food.

I love sweetbreads and will usually order them whenever I see them listed. Truth be told, they can be a hit-or-miss but, I soon learned that G Michael's take on the sweetbreads easily made it an easy contender for Columbus' best. (The Refectory's was memorable, whereas L'Antibes' was passable.) Lightly fried to a golden crisp on the outside while keeping the texture of the sweetbreads firm and delicate on the outside, what amplified this outstanding starter was the bed of sweet wilted spinach, sauteed onions, and crispy bacon in a pool of mild peanut dressing. An interaction of flavors and components that I would have never dreamed of but truly a winning one!

Needless to say, expectations were raised a few notches following the appetizer. What followed was the Pork Trio -- an entree consisting of grilled pork tenderloin on collard greens, chicken fried pork loin on sour cream mashed potatoes with black pepper gravy, and braised pork belly on Granny Smith -- served on a rectangular plate. Once again, the meshing of tastes and ingredients proved to be excellent one here! Starting off with the pork belly was a given. Topped with a faint fruit reduction, I happily finished the pork belly sans Granny Smith, as it is my least favorite of the apple cultivars. Next was the chicken fried pork loin, which was intensely peppered but bursting with deliciousness (although a bit more crisp would have made it even better.) A nice, savory contrast to the sweet, crispy pork belly. Lastly, the pork tenderloin -- possibly saved as the third of the trio due to its pedestrian nature. The tenderloin itself was temperately spiced while preserving its juiciness, but paired with the barbecue sauce soaked collard greens, this preparation also blew me away.

At that point, I was highly anticipating the seasonal dessert menu. Having had far too much chocolates and all things chocolate-related during the holidays, I opted for the eye-catching Pumpkin Napoleon. Despite having been garnished with blueberries and blackberries, I found them absolutely unnecessary and could have done with the toasted and caramelized pecans on top of the luscious cake. While this dessert seemed more like a flattened pumpkin roll, it was still one of the best renditions I've had in recent memory.

In the end, I can honestly say that G Michael's far, far exceeded my expectations. If I had lived closer to the restaurant, I know I'd be stopping in whenever the hankering for Southern cooking (with a flair!) kicks in. But for now, I'll be looking forward to my next visit back and hoping that the pork cheeks and the fried chicken remain on the menu.

Rating: *****

G Michael's
595 S. 3rd St
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 464 - 0575

G. Michael's Bistro and Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Due Amici (Columbus, OH)

Due Amici boasts a modern rustic feel the first second my mother and I stepped inside. A classy atmosphere with an interior design to boot, I was mildly suspicious at the lack of patronage (i.e. being the sole customers) on a Saturday night. We were immediately taken care of by our server -- who remained attentive all throughout the evening -- and daily specials were recited.

Disappointingly enough, the starters menu at Due Amici was less than enthralling, which led my mom and I straight to the entrees instead where many wonderfully sounding dishes were listed. A nice change from the mediocre lineup of appetizers, I must say.

For myself, the cioppino ($23) was a no-brainer. As a seafood and orzo fiend, I simply cannot say no to a dish that listed mussels, clams, fish, and shrimp over a bed of orzo pastini. The parmesan focaccia that topped off the dish was a different story, as I soon learned that it had the same consistency as Texas toast. The plate itself was teeming with fresh shelled molluscs, plump and flavorful shrimp, and tender fish slices all cooked in a tangy tomato broth. The scattered grains of orzo lended a good contrast and chew to the seafood stew.

My mother, on the other hand, opted for the Grilled Coffee and Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin ($23) after much convincing from yours truly. Being slightly wary of having anything espresso related on my meat, I could sense her hesitance upon ordering. However, the tenderloin itself was served juicy and bursting with a range of spices (and absolutely no detection of an espresso taste whatsoever) despite having requested it prepared medium-well. The pine nut-goat cheese barley risotto was generous in serving but light on the creamy department, with the salty undertone of goat cheese providing most of the flavor. And while I didn't care much for the broccoli rabe due to its bitterness, my mom enjoyed it and felt that the bitterness, in fact, rounded the entire entree nicely.

Much like the appetizer menu, the dessert menu didn't exactly shine in the way that would lead me to decide between two or three possible options. The one dessert that particularly stood out, however, was the Zeppollis ($8). Now, after my dining experience at DeepWood, one of my rules was to never order donuts (or anything that resembled donuts) at restaurants ever again. But these zeppollis sounded far too good, and I needed something sweet to clean my palate after all the seafood. The five balls of fried dough encased in cinnamon sugar could honestly be the best donuts I've had in a long time. With a slightly crispy exterior but a warm and soft interior, I could have easily inhaled all five as presented, but the accompanying chocolate ganache sealed its deliciousness.

Truth be told, I did not walk into Due Amici with high expectations after seeing mixed reviews and the lack of eye-catching menu items. Moreover, I was forewarned of the restaurant's reputation as a place "to be seen" and less so a place to actually enjoy the cooking. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the winning mixture of flavors and ingredients that the chef and the rest of the kitchen staff put out. Even though portion sizes should never be a factor to take into consideration while dining at a place like Due Amici, I was equally impressed by the amount of food that was placed in front of us. A highly satisfying meal -- to say the least. An eatery I can see myself returning to sometime in the near future as well.

Rating: ****

Due Amici
67 E. Gay St
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 224-9373

Due Amici on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Encore by JD Wesley (Toledo, OH)

Encore by JD Wesley has renewed my faith in fine dining in the city of Toledo. Prior to my visit to Encore, I would have undoubtedly pointed folks wanting to experience an upscale dining experience to Fifi's Restaurant in a heartbeat. Upon my discovery of JD Wesley's second restaurant, however, I find myself recommending both top-notch restaurants to out-of-town guests.

Tucked in a strip mall in a space formerly occupied by Poco Piatti, Encore is not exactly the easiest place to find. However, the bright, gaudy sign will lead you straight to the business' front doors. Having been warmly greeted by our hostess, we were immediately led to our table in a rather small dining space -- which brings me to my first tip to dining here: make reservations!

Our personable and highly entertaining server swung by our table within minutes of being seated and proceeded to fill our glasses. The appetizer menu covered a range of tempting options: from JD Wesley's infamous crab cakes to the Creole pie. The Creole pie called and I unhesitantly answered, while two of my dining companions opted for the crab cakes. The pie itself was divine, to say the least. Chunks of crawfish can be found nestled between layers of tender, flaky dough immersed in spices. The bite of crab cake I managed to sneak in also proved to be heavenly, with the accompanying aioli sauce augmenting the already flavorful pan-seared crab cake patties.

Onto the actual entrees themselves. Again, my indecisiveness kicked in making it difficult to settle on simply one dish. The young sea bass sounded delicious, as did the potato crusted sea bass. We soon learned that the sea bass was no longer an option for the evening, as was the mahi-mahi. Additionally, Encore was down to one last young sea bass for the evening, which led me to wonder if it was the restaurant's growing popularity that led to such shortages or the fact that they were short-stocked to begin with. Either way, I was thankful when one of my dining companions was gracious enough to let me have the last young sea bass of the night while he settled with a perch entree.

The young sea bass was prepared tableside meticulously and accurately. The dish itself was well-executed with the perfect amalgam of flavors, with a nuance of tang that sets this preparation style apart from the other sea bass I've had at other establishments. My one small gripe was the fish bones that were found in the sea bass, which made it rather difficult to enjoy the cut of fish at times. Portion-wise, Encore did not skimp on the seafood. Friends who ordered the Creole Pasta and the Lobster Ravioli breathed sighs of relief upon seeing the generous chunks of scallops and lobster, respectively.

Having come across many reviews of the memorable desserts at Encore, it didn't come as a surprise to any of my friends that I wasn't going to share my dessert. A printed dessert menu is non-existent here. Rather, the menu was recited to us by our server. My ears tuned into the bread pudding at first, but that quickly shifted after hearing the words 'signature' next to 'chocolate dessert' roll of his tongue. Sold, ladies and gents. No words can possibly do the behemoth of a dessert justice. While it resembled the chocolate sack at the Fat Fish Blue to a certain degree, this one was noteworthy in its own ways. Delicate in appearance, I was taken aback by the richness of the mousse. In fact, it was so dense that I could only finish a quarter of the dessert and requested a box for the rest. Who would have guessed that chocolate mousse would make such a great breakfast alternative to oatmeal, bagels, and the like? I certainly didn't until I polished off the remainder the next morning.

I truly hope that Encore, unlike most of its fine dining counterparts, is here to stay. It's places like this that introduces folks to true gastronomic delights. Chain restaurants need not apply. From the service to the food, all was close to flawless. Word on the street is that the owner himself will concoct a dish for the undecisive diners. Perhaps I'll take advantage of this my next visit. Till then, keep up the amazing culinary skills, Mr. Wesley!

Rating: *****

Encore by JD Wesley
5333 Monroe St
Toledo, OH 43623
(419) 841-3222

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Z Cucina (Columbus, OH)

Having come across many mixed reviews, my expectations were tempered as I stepped inside Z Cucina. A good time was definitely on board regardless of the food, as two of my favorite dining companions joined me on a breezy autumn evening.

We were immediately greeted after being led to our table and were quickly overwhelmed with a throng of words, which we soon learned were the daily specials. The Z Tavola tasting platter ($19) allowed us to sample the restaurant's wide spectrum of appetizers. The three mainstays included the Calamari Fritti, Parmigiano Risotto Fritters, and the House-Made Mozzarella. The three chef's creations of the night happened to be a Mediterranean sardine concoction, pumpkin spread with baguette, and a fruit medley. The calamari fritti particularly stood out as the squid had been lightly battered, flash fried, and topped with a memorable shallot sauce. The parmagiano risotto fritters were equally delectable, with the distinct flavor of mozzarella contrasting nicely with the piquant tomato sauce. The fruit medley would have to be my least favorite of the six, since it was a mixture of raisins and cranberries. Paired with the pumpkin dip, however, made for a refreshing appetizer.

The bread basket was then presented -- which I found to be slightly odd. The warm herb and olive oil infused bread was tasty enough as is that the olive oil balsamic dipping sauce proved to be highly unnecessary.

Hesitating between the Orange Sage Veal Loin ($22) and the daily special of Confit Risotto, the former trumped in a heartbeat when I saw Yukon Gold Potatoes as the accompanying starch. The veal loin itself was well-seasoned and spiced. A few squirts of lemon juice would have made it more enjoyable, however. The green beans and the aforementioned potatoes were slightly undercooked making them the crunchy components to my main. Whether that was intentional on the chef's part is beyond me, but I do like my potatoes a little softer (i.e. more cooked) in order to bring out the natural buttery taste.

As a closure to dinner, the Butterscotch Panna Cotta ($6) was a no-brainer. It was Z Cucina's signature dessert, and I could see why. A chocolate coated biscotti was served alongside a martini glass filled with layers of rich, gooey caramel and gelatinous textured cream of milk and sugar. Absolutely divine.

There were certainly a few hits and misses throughout the night. Both of my friends raved about the juicy scallops and the risotto, while both unanimously agreed on the uninspiring dessert libations, particularly the Z Caffe.

Our debonair server remained attentive and helpful during dinner -- being quick to answer any questions we had in regards to the ingredients and such. The restaurant itself was strewn with white fabrics, which transformed a rather plain looking space into a more elegant and more inviting area. No diner can feel out of place dressed down in jeans or decked out to the nines in evening dresses. And given the broad range of prices and menu choices (that vary by season), I must say that this is an excellent date spot!

Rating: ****

Z Cucina
1368 Grandview Ave
Columbus, OH 43212
(614) 486 - 9200

Z Cucina on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 9, 2009

Deepwood Restaurant (Columbus, OH)

First off, I have to say that you know you are in good hands for the rest of the night when the server snaps a picture at the subject's eye level. Service for the entire evening was prompt and superb, though a bit too formal.

The food at Deepwood Restaurant (DR), on the other hand, was a-okay in my book, no more no less. It definitely did not reflect the $80 bill by any means. Utilizing an abundance of ingredients and making the most of blending as many different flavors possible, I was somewhat disappointed with some of the outcomes.Carb-loading on the bread basket was easy, as three types of bread were offered. My personal favorite was the cranberry walnut bread, although one could easily have made a meal out of the white bread with the red sea salt butter.

To start, the stench emanated from the Scallop Wellington appetizer was rather unpleasant. There may have been hints of foie gras in the presentation, but I certainly did not detect it. The robust savor of the scallops inside the crispy confines could potentially make this an enjoyable lead-in to dinner -- if you can overlook the smell.

For my main, the seared duck breast, corn bread pudding, arugula, and blueberry mostarda sounded too good to be true. Disappointingly enough, the complexity of flavors simply did not mesh. While the duck was delicious, as it was steeped in its natural jus, I didn't care for the rest of my dish.

My mom's fish du jour boasted a similar impressive-sounding interplay of tastes, but only the salmon proved to be the only noteworthy item on her plate.

To end our meal, we decided to split the house made donuts with coffee ice cream. Note to self, never order donuts at a restaurant unless they are served with dipping sauces of some sort. To me, these donuts were generic tasting. For all I know, they could have come straight from Krispy Kreme.

While I appreciated the attentive service and the warm, woody ambiance of DR, I thoroughly felt that the food aspect could use some slight improvements. Hearing the mix of certain items may titillate the ears, but sometimes they just don't settle well in the stomach afterwards. This restaurant is -- without a doubt -- culinary proof that opposites do NOT attract.

Rating: ***

511 N High St
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 221 - 5602

DeepWood on Urbanspoon