They like to drop a ball in Times Square to ring in the new year. I’d like to raise an imaginary flag to the food year in Columbus that was 2011.
In the center of my pretend pennant would be a phoenix (the self-rejuvenating mythical bird) surrounded by tall buildings and fluttering atop a picnic table hung with a plaque that has “2011” etched between a knife and fork. In one wing, the phoenix holds a pecked-on slice of pizza; in its other wing is a half-eaten banh mi sandwich.
Around the bird’s neck is a shiny, thick block of bling reading, “’Till 2012.” This takes place against a field of green — the color of renewal. I guess I should explain my iconography.
To me, the central theme of new-in-2011 Columbus restaurants was rebirth. For instance, the Goody Boy, which I just wrote about, is open again, under Jimmy V’s tutelage, and better than ever (try the “Gyro Boy Old World Style” with a side of fries) and the once and long-beloved DaVinci’s, which became the very fine Cibo for a very short year, recently reopened as Nicola’s (I had excellent scallops and duck pappardelle there).
The tall buildings
Foremost on the renewal front is the renaissance of our Downtown dining scene. What all began as a late-20th-century risk with Cameron Mitchell’s Steakhouse blossomed last year into a fully fledged movement.
Prominent among the stunning number of startups were:
• The Jury Room. One of the city’s oldest taverns/eateries got transformed by Liz Lessner into an up-to-date joint with fun, seasonal and super cheap menus (check out the “Sausagefest”).
• MoJoe Lounge opened its most ambitious iteration in the revitalized Lazarus Building right across from the beautiful new Columbus Commons, i.e. the repurposed City Center mall (try MJL’s great cheesy gnocchi and Ohio-raised burgers).
• Sidebar 122. Replacing the abandoned old Brownstone, it’s a handsome, classic cocktail and Peruvian-tinged tapas-y establishment with luscious lamb shank
• Market 65, a healthy soup-and-salad lunchtime option
• Lexi’s, a high-performing and comfy deli related to Danny’s Deli.
• De-Novo, a flamboyant, New Orleans-type vibe overseen by the former chef of the Short Story Brasserie (try the zingy Chorizo Burger and lively North Market Pasta).
• Milestone 229, Columbus Brewing Company Restaurant’s summer-inaugurated, modernist architectural attention-grabber, that offers cheffed-up comfort food and the most glorious Downtown patio views ever along the recently built Scioto Mile.
The picnic table
Outdoor eating is suddenly huge in Columbus. Practically all of those Downtowners I mentioned above open nifty patios during the warmer months. Two other notable new dining porches can be found at Cafe Istanbul in Bexley, where I loved the intense and meticulous brickwork, landscaping, and — to eat — Spicy Beyti kabobs.
The excellent L’Antibes also got into the al fresco act. Loosening up its serious and serene image, it gamely opened itself up to the buzzing Short North pub crawl (try the pommes frites, avocado and fennel salad, tuna tartare — heck, any and everything!).
The pizza slice
Columbus has become a semi-surprising hub of charming and distinctive artisanal pizzerias. This year, the burgeoning list, which includes Bono, Clever Crow and Yellow Brick, was augmented with the additions of the excellent Element (love the eggplant chips, Element salad and Salami and spicy Americano pizzas) and the crazy-great Harvest (from the foie gras app to the Spicy Yuma pizza to the Butterscotch Budino, it’s all impressive).
The banh mi
This classic Vietnamese sandwich, which combines a baguette-like sub bun with fresh, spicy picked veggies plus (often) mayo, is more popular now in Columbus than a Sloppy Joe — and not just in Asian restaurants.
Milestone’s distinguished fish sandwich mimics one and Sage offers a porky version during its lunch service. The wonderful Explorers Club — itself a phoenix-like rebirth of pioneering local chef Ricky Barnes — also makes terrific banh mis, and De-Novo assembles one starring lamb belly.
I can hardly wait to check out what’s in store for us from Columbus’ vibrant and exciting restaurant scene in 2012. Also, I can’t wait to experience Dragonfly’s imminent rebirth as Till, a more casual, less expensive and — gasp! — meat-serving palette for the artistry of Chef Magdiale Wolmark.