Sunday, 3 March 2013

5+ Hours of Talking about Food (and Eating in the Process)?: I Plan on Getting Used to This

Lamb burger and local chèvre from TILL Dynamic Fare
With the first half of this spring semester nearly upon us, it's been a bit of a hectic ride (I think that's an understatement). Amidst all of that, I did want to take a brief moment and note for the first time on this blog that I officially accepted at the tail end of the week a Graduate Enrichment Fellowship and will be attending The Ohio State University (MA/PhD program in Anthropology) beginning this upcoming August. I have truly enjoyed working at Denison for as long as I have (and certainly look forward to my remaining time here), but am equally looking forward to transitioning into full time graduate work. With this in mind, I had the fortunate opportunity to get a bit of a break today from campus and head into both Newark and Columbus where I continued to gain more local knowledge and develop even more connections through stories and, of course, food.

Sparta Restaurant and Coffee Shop on Urbanspoon

I met owner Chris Ramsey a little over a month ago and had previously heard great things about the work that he's been doing with Sparta Coffee Bar and Grille (colloquially referred to simply as "the Sparta"). And through the power of social media I was prompted to check my calendar to see if I could join in on a Facebook event invite for Sunday brunch at the Sparta to "meet the amazing people who live in our community and care about Licking County." As luck would have it, I finally was able to make my way into downtown Newark (16 W Main St) and to check out what all the hype was about. Operating within a philosophy of social entrepreneurship, the Sparta is a beacon for local businesses and is situated in an area that quite honestly could do with a few more. Within literally seconds of entering the coffee shop, I recognised something quite special about this place, something that reminded me of my undergraduate days in Albion where everyone seemed to know each other and if they didn't, it certainly felt like they did by the time the wait staff was back to take your order. Now, it could perhaps be that I've become more comfortable meeting new people (or seeing again familiar faces), especially when food plays its catalytic role, but it definitely didn't hurt that the same dynamic enthusiasm I first saw in Chris when I met him was ever present throughout the restaurant. Rather than the dozen and a half or so that were enjoying the company, conversation and eating, there may as well have been a full crowd.

In addition to the great conversations that ranged from identity (turning a blind eye versus celebrating all kinds) without stereotyping to education (critical thinking skills and what our students are being taught at various points in their careers), and then inevitably to sharing our food memories, I did get a chance to try out a few items. Upon walking into the Sparta, I saw a sign for a hazelnut mocha (rich and velvety, and hot without scorching any taste buds) which turned out to be a great choice for the chilly autumn-like spring that's currently upon is in central Ohio.

For my entrée, I asked for whatever is the signature dish of the Sparta. Without hesitation, the vegetarian omelet (which I later found out is made with four organic free range eggs) with a side of home fries was suggested and eventually delivered in front of me. Folded and sealed up rather well, I had to take another shot of my dish after cutting into the thick yet relatively light omelet.

Stuffed very well inside was a healthy serving of seasonal, local vegetables (the Sparta is also the hub for Project Main Street) including zucchini, yellow squash, onions, green bell peppers, mushrooms and tomato of various cuts which added great texture to the dish. On its own, the omelet tasted fresh while somehow also tasting borderline bland; thankfully, the home fries that were served with it were wickedly well seasoned (although a touch greasy, even for me) and balanced out the entire dish overall.

Till on Urbanspoon

As the group started to break up for the afternoon, it was time for me to also head over to the annual meeting of Slow Food Columbus held this time at TILL Dynamic Fare located at 247 King Ave, which I had first learned about a few weeks ago when I saw it among the list of Restaurant Week: Columbus participants. Following introductions and SFC Board elections (a "grueling" process for all those present, an end result of which now sees me serving in the role of Secretary!), SFC Chair Bear Braumoeller updated everyone present on the membership numbers and social media stats, and a review of this past year's events, and then opened up the floor to areas of the organisation that could be improved upon.

Before we ended, Bear also presented the second annual Snailblazer Award, "given to a pioneer in sustainable food," to Kevin Caskey, Chef/Owner of Skillet, Rustic.Urban.Food which I've previously reviewed. As was written on the Facebook event page for this year's annual meeting:
This year's recipient is Chef Kevin Caskey of Skillet Rustic Urban Food. Skillet combines sustainability and quality with a casual air and an accessible menu; their delicious food speaks eloquently for the values it represents. Chef Caskey and his family are leading us into the next stage of the Slow Food movement, one in which sustainability in food ceases to be the sole provenance of high-end restaurants and becomes, simply, good food for all. The Caskeys have donated one weekend per year to our Shake the Hand That Feeds You farm-to-table dinner at Flying J Farm—an exceptionally generous act, since they must close Skillet in order to do so. For his pioneering work, Chef Kevin was selected by Slow Food USA to be a delegate to Terra Madre in 2012; though schedule conflicts precluded his attendance, we will be resubmitting his name in 2014.
Following the formal awarding, and with the collective minds of everyone's experiences, we used our remaining time together to share our interests with each other and brainstorm new projects for the coming year.

As noted above, this was my first time to TILL (which was chosen as Columbus Underground's Best New Restaurant of 2012) and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try out one of their signature dishes. And so along with Bear (who had apparently also eaten there earlier in the day), Jennifer (recent Board member of Dine Originals) and Drew (SFC Treasurer), as well as Dustin (Head Chef of soon-to-be-opened The Crest Gastropub) and Abed (a recent OSU grad and whose family owns The Crest), we selected from the menu and continued to dream about the many possibilities for not only Slow Food Columbus but the entire food scene and network within and outside of Columbus.

Despite Bear's enthusiastic review of the country fried portabella mac n' cheese (which is actually completely vegan...what.?.) of which he described as a "technical accomplishment," I went with our waiter's first suggestion (of many): the lamb burger and local chèvre, served with great thick cut fries. The locally sourced flavours were the stars of this dish... in which case this was brilliant. (I'm going to put it out there, though, that I had a bit of an issue with actually eating everything in one bite without any of the layers falling all over the place. Somehow Drew got it to work for him). From the bitterness from the radicchio (finally, a tolerable amount!) to the sweetness of the roasted red bell pepper to the saltiness of the goat cheese, this burger was utterly delicious. Even the white onion was a great addition and cut through the meatiness of the burger. And speaking of meat, the lamb burger (which was cooked perfectly) was clearly hand formed and had a great texture to it. Oh, and the bread used to burger all of this together... I could eat that all on its own. (But I'd rather have everything with it.)

Without question, The Sparta and TILL are among the growing number of restaurants and food communities that have come to value relationships and social awareness and engagement just as much as they value the food itself. To that end, and to conclude this full day of local gastronomies, I leave you with a reminder to check out The Sparta [on Facebook or in person] the next time you're in Newark (it's definitely worth the drive over there, even if only for the familial atmosphere; but you might as well grab a coffee or something to eat in the process) and to support all of their local initiatives. And while I'm naming restos, check out TILL, as well. If you're interested in joining Slow Food Columbus or volunteering, visit the aforementioned links. Or at the very least, check out SFC which also has a home on Facebook and Twitter! (Can you tell one of my roles as SFC Secretary is to work with social media?) For the entire album of today's foodie adventure, click here.

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