Monday, 8 October 2012

Central Ohio Food Fare: Another Foodie Weekend

Every first Saturday of the month here in central Ohio typically means one thing: the Short North Gallery Hop, which further translates to a celebration of culture in Columbus in the form of art, music and food. This past weekend, Gallery Hop coincided with Experience Columbus Days and The Columbus Italian Festival. Fortunately, this past weekend also happened to be my first weekend without Denison-related responsibilities or major driving plans in quite some time; and so, with relatively little time and a weekend full of cultural exploration and learning (through food, of course) to be had, I was more than ready to brave the crisp fall air and explore the very clear foodie scene that Columbus has become.

Before my Columbus voyage, the foodie adventures began in Granville on Saturday afternoon with a Greek (as in Greece, not the collegiate organization) gathering at the home of Ann and Paul, family friends of Beth and her family. As I approached the mailbox with their house number and drove on the pebbled pathway to the house, I wasn't entirely sure if I was in the right place.. that is, until I heard the Greek music cycling on the outdoor speakers and the smells of something fresh off the roasting pit hugged me with the familiar feeling of home cooking.

The sight of the familial, self-serve buffet was just as engaging and familiar as were the constant reminders and encouragement to grab a plate, eat, and eat some more. And, without question, this past weekend certainly highlighted by it. That, and the roasted pig, recently removed and carved by the time I got to the meat station.

Fire pit set up to counter the chilly fall weather, to conclude my plate of homemade meatballs, roasted chicken and pig, potatoes, feta and beets, and salad, I especially enjoyed Ann's homemade baklava. Having made it before, I certainly appreciated not only the time that went into making it, but the filling, butter and sugar that brought all the ingredients together.

From my Greek in Granville experience, I headed over to Columbus and saw a new restaurant in town. But first: During the dining portion of a cooking class with my classmates and one of our French professors during my study abroad semester in Paris, I had shared (or rather, intended to share) with our professor that I was super chocoholic. She tilted her head and I realised quite quickly that I had sounded as if I said I was choc alcoolique (super alcoholic), rather than chocoholique. I share this forever imprinted story to provide a context to my inner glee that I found that a resto-bar (Le) Chocoholique had recently opened up in the Short North District. If I was still able to catch them later, I told myself, I would definitely have to end my foodie experience there.

So, onward I went and ended at what I consider to be a staple Columbus stop, especially during the Gallery Hop: Da Levee. I had aimed to stop in before heading to the NAES conference in New Orleans and when that didn't happen I switched gears and aimed to go back to keep the Cajun tastes alive in my life. As I entered the doorway, I saw three familiar faces-- Justin, the owner of Da Levee (unbelievably, this was only my third time here), and Ellen and Dalia, two Denison students who were in Columbus as part of an art field trip. Again, the company of familiarity created a consistent theme of the weekend. After a taste test of the Chili Cheese Étoufée and the White Chilikin', I settled on the half-and-half order of the former (for the crawfish) and the Jambalaya. As I noted a while back, the onion of the jambalaya makes that dish, as does the magic bread that comes with the order. And though only my third time here, it's definitely a consistently good option which definitely won't be my last on the foodie scene. (As an aside, this all tastes great as a midnight snack, and I said that from experience.)

Onto dessert, I headed a few doors over to Hubbard Grille (specifically to make use of the Experience Columbus opportunity) where I managed to find an empty seat at the bar. I had earlier checked out their menu and, having made blueberry bread pudding, knew that I wanted to try their chocolate bread pudding. Definitely rich and filling (quite possibly the first time carbs have ever slowed down my eating), I paired this with a chocolate martini that in itself was quite good and helped to cut the heaviness of the bread pudding. Unfortunately, I was forced to have an honest internal dialogue and stop halfway through and left both the martini and bread pudding to their respective fates.

And with that, I had to call it quits and skip out on Chocoholique (yet another reason to return to the Short North district). But I couldn't do that without stopping in on another must stop hot stop: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. While there, I tried their newest (limited edition) flavours to the menu: Root Beer (right, and which had only begun being available the Friday prior to Gallery Hop) and Pumpkin 5-Spice. It's truly uncanny how refreshingly familiar each of these turned out to be. Though I'm not a huge fan of root beer, I will say that this one was definitely my favourite of the two (if I had to choose). Check out the video below to see the creation and consumption of Jeni's "Reverse Rootbeer Float" (root beer ice cream and dry vanilla soda).


However, and as much as both of those flavours were good, I told myself I wouldn't leave until I went for it and purchased a pint of Askinosie Dark Milk Chocolate, arguably my favourite ice cream flavour of them all (rivaling Edy's discontinued Orange Sherbert with Dark Chocolate Flakes and my standard favourite Mint Chocolate Chip; also on that list is Espresso Chip, but that's in frozen custard form and in a league all its own). The most expensive flavour of all of Jeni's options, I had first discovered Askinosie chocolate and its milk chocolate pairing a year ago.

Ice cream in hand (or rather, in the bag), I made my way back to my car, but not before stopping at one of my favourite stores in the Short North: The Cookware Sorcerer. In its own right, I'm calling it a gallery and one that fits comfortably with the rest of the art scene of the Hop. As I perused the items I'd like to one day have in my own permanent kitchen (which is basically everything in the store), I purchased a gnocchi board to add to my collection of kitchen gadetry, as if I couldn't just stick with using forks.

Back at home, I couldn't just leave the ice cream to sit in the freezer without undergoing quality control, so I controlled myself and quenelled a small serving, and topped that off with some Turkish Black Pyramid sea salt ("Modern Family" scene where Gloria tries chocolate milk with salt, anyone?)

La Plaza Tapatia on Urbanspoon

Recovered from Saturday's food coma, I was back in gear and headed to La Plaza Tapatia with Susan, Director of Denison's Writing Center and professor of a first-year seminar course titled "Food and Culture," and some of her FYS students. Located about an hour away, in southwest Columbus, and complete with a mariachi band every weekend, La Plaza Tapatia is about as ethnic and authentic one could aim to get when it comes to Mexican cuisine in central Ohio.

Soon after we got to our table, we were handed menus written completely in Spanish, a micro event in my life that further emphasized how frustrated I was during our last chapter in the Spanish class, as we had focused on food (a forté of mine, I would claim) but had little room to navigate given the constraints on my Spanish language ability. Of additional note, I must admit that I've come to better appreciate and understand the experience of students who, when given a menu completely in French or are encouraged to order in the language, would given anything to switch over to English. All that said, and served with warm tortilla chips, little translation help was needed when Susan ordered for the table sauce muy picante. La Plaza Tapatia's version is made of crushed chiles de árbol.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the experience, the one drawback was the fact that the liquitado (milk shake) I ordered was made with underripe mango; the disappointment was short lived as mango-flavoured Jarritos took its place.

For my main course, I believe I ordered the alhambra de plata (or something like that); what I truly remember is how good it tasted, and the fact that it's made with steak, ham and bacon!

In addition, I ordered a side of nopalitos (grilled nopales, or prickly pear cactus) which on its own definitely needed some salt. Rather okra-esque, but not as slimy, the texture was something I just couldn't seem to get past. If nothing else, the nopales made it very clear that cacti really do store moisture in their leaves. Given that I just wanted a taste, I shouldn't have been surprised to find this underneath all the food on my plate.

Just a few hours after this experience, dinner time came rolling around. Surprised (though we really shouldn't have been) that the Indian restaurant in the area was closed, Molly and I ended up at Tokyo Asian Bistro in Heath. Nicely decorated, Tokyo was divided into a main dining area and a room full of hibatchi stations. We went to the former and ordered what seemed like food galore at first but ended up being just the right amount of food. At the start of the meal, it should be noted as a sign of expanding her gastronomic horizons, Molly courageously tried her first (and perhaps last) taste of miso soup, a fermented food as we recently learned. Not a huge fan of miso in general, I quite enjoyed Tokyo's version. This was followed up by calamari, surf and turf, and teriyaki chicken which (though the chicken was cooked very well) seemed as if it were slathered in a sweet barbecue sauce. Against that sauce in particular, the smoked salmon nigiri I got was a great ending to the meal. 

To cap off our dinner, we headed to a very new, and rather swanky-looking, Panera Bread. Always quite good, I went with a chocolate chip bagel and a "chocolate pastry" which did nothing more than remind me how wickedly good Aux Délices de l'Étoile's pains au chocolat are. Apparently, though, the pumpkin cookies are rather tasty. (Better gobble those up before the pumpkin shortage hits these delicacies, too!) Hyuu, and with all of this written, I sign off saying ndihluthi! For the complete album from this past weekend, click here.

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