Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Mo and MA Back on the Food Scene: Commonwealth Sandwich Bar & Other Columbus Visits

Commonwealth Sandwich Bar on Urbanspoon

This past October, I went with local foodie and Denison staff member Maureen to the Terra Madre Local Chef's Dinner at Basi Italia. Chef Stefan Till of Commonwealth Sandwich Bar had dined with us and the other wonderful foodies at our table, and his cousin Chef Erik Till (chef/owner of Commonwealth) was one of many local chefs who contributed to that evening's menu, by way of a very memorable rhubarb lacquered pork belly dish. This evening, after a very much anticipated wait, Maureen's and my schedules intersected, just in time to visit the Tills and Commonwealth for one of the best culinary food deals I've heard of existing in central Columbus: $5 Sandwich Wednesdays.

Located in Columbus's University District, Commonwealth (check out Urbanspoon reviews here) is situated along N. High St (1437), nearly hidden from plain sight and sandwiched between its outdoor patio and a bar called Village Idiot. As you approach the doorway, the size and personality of Commonwealth become very evident. The sandwich bar itself is incredibly small and focused. Three small tables and bar stool type seating all sit against the left wall of the interior space; at most, about a dozen folks could dine as comfortably as could be imagined without blocking the growing line of university and non-university sandwich goers alike. The remaining space outside of the kitchen gives way to three types of individuals: those who are putting in their menu orders, those who are waiting for their orders, and those who are still deciding what on the eclectic 15-sandwich menu of diverse flavour profiles and combinations they want to order. To complement the physical space and environment, everyone who works at Commonwealth is welcoming, friendly and enthusiastic.

Maureen had only been to Commonwealth once, and so our collective tasting menu was completely wide open. When asked what Gilberto (the cashier pictured above) would suggest, his response was prefaced by (and because there are so many different options which are completely different from each other): "In this moment, I'm in the mood to eat..." Indeed, as I looked through the menu, the next sandwich looked just as great if not better than the one before it. In the end, I went with the first sandwich that caught my eye, which also happened to be the first one listed. Along with an order of fries to share, Maureen went with the Gilberto's recommendation.

Within a short window of time, our sandwiches arrived and we soon swapped sandwich halves so we could try both. Gilberto's recommendation is called the Dr. Fu Manchu (I'm sure there's a story somewhere in that name), and had at its base roast pork shoulder topped with a shaved cabbage slaw and a sauce of Korean barbecue. Upon my first bite, my first thought was "home." More specifically, the clear Asian influence reminded me of a refreshing spring roll and somehow the batard baguette slices transformed into a delicate wrapper which skillfully contained the alternating warmth from the pork and coolness from the cabbage, hit every now and again by small kicks from the sauce. I'll note here that all the bread Commonwealth uses is made by Eleni-Christina Bakery which is also located on N High St (641).

As expected, and by contrast, the Urban Cowboy was a bit more difficult to manage (but I shamelessly took no issue to eating the pieces of roast pork shoulder that fell out of the hefty sandwich). In addition to the pork base, Nueske's bacon, gorgonzola, pickled onion, tomato and port wine barbecue sauce completed this sandwich. Read over those ingredients again and I dare you to try and find a sandwich for $5 that comes close to the quality and flavour of this one (I'll even let you search for the usual price of $9). Both our favourite between the two we tried, I'm fairly confident in identifying the Urban Cowboy as the first dish I have eaten that to me exemplifies umami (the "pleasant savoury taste"), aided in large part by the pork and tomato. Cutting through this richness is the slight saltiness from the gorgonzola, the subtle sharpnes from the onion and the sweetness from the sauce.

Now, I can't sign off with my high recommendation and eager approval of Commonwealth (to whatever extent they matter in your decision to visit) without writing if only briefly about Commonwealth's fresh cut fries. Fried twice (I imagine) at different temperatures to reach crisp, well-seasoned perfection, an order of fries at Commonwealth just seems to me to be a given. Next time around, I need to try Commonwealth's sweet potato fries which we had intended to order (read: here's another excuse to go back and visit, as if I needed one). Served alongside the fries, I should note, are (listed here in order of preference) sauce options of which Stefan made and shared with Maureen and I: port wine bbq (1), cayenne ketchup and chipotle aioli.

Following our fill of sandwich and fries, and having said so long (for now) to Stefan and company, Maureen and I drove down N High St and into the Short North for a dessert stop at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, in time to experience Jeni's winter flavours. After we both tried the Lime Cardamom with Lingonberries Frozen Yogurt (which immediately reminded me of Ikea), followed by Dark Chocolate Peppermint (Maureen) and Boozy Eggnog (me), Maureen got a scoop of the Boozy Eggnog and the Sweet Potato with Torched Marshmallows while I got the Dark Chocolate Peppermint and the Cranberry Royale Sorbet. As far as the flavours were concerned, I think the Lime Cardamom with Lingonberries had the most refreshing taste followed by the sweet lingonberries. The Dark Chocolate Peppermint, which tasted like an Andes mint as suggested by one of the Ice Cream Ambassadors, had a deep, dark flavour with a fudge-like consistency. Not having ever had eggnog, the Boozy Eggnog (spiked with Kentucky bourbon) was particularly rich and creamy. You could taste the permeation of torched marshmallows in the Sweet Potato ice cream (without actually eating the bits of marshmallow) which offered a homey, holiday quality to it; and in sharp contrast, the Cranberry Royale Sorbet was full of holiday cheer that included punches of extremely tart cranberries throughout an overall tart sorbet.

In retrospect, many of my recent posts have been composed of trios; and though this trip was by no means planned to have three stops, for our third and final one, we headed to Upper Arlington to visit the Giant Eagle Market District, which is situated as part of Kingsdale Center. For me, the Market District itself is an intersection of multiple grocery stores, reminding me in part of the layout and typeface of Trader Joe's, the quality of Whole Foods, the variety of Holiday Market, the layout of Plum Market and the intrigue of Jungle Jim's International Market. At the end of our minimalist, post-eating exercise tour of the Market District, I picked out a recipe card I hope to adapt into a food and culture practicum recipe and purchased a bottle of Blue Agave, for which I need to soon find a recipe. Until then, I sign off full and satisfied, reenergised by Columbus's amazing food scene and already awaiting the next foodie adventure.

For the complete album of photos, click here.

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