Monday, 6 January 2014

First Post of 2014: Foodie (and Film) Fun in Columbus

Happy New Year and frosty Monday! Here in the Midwest, temperatures are falling to record lows, pushed even further by wind chill factors that make me want to see how long it would take to make ice cream outdoors. As much fun as that would probably be (I mean, outdoor food science? Of course that would be fun.), I'm bundled up indoors, as are the huge majority of central Ohio's student population. In a word, it's almost like the city is becoming "frozen." Speaking of which, Brianne and I saw Frozen again (this time in 3D, so of course it was of a justifiable necessity...) this past weekend and absolutely enjoyed it. We also managed to enjoy quite a few foodie destinations, of which I've chronicled below. Reviewed here are my return (Brianne's first) visits to Skillet and North Market (with focused commentary on the newly-opened Pistacia Vera location), (briefly) our return visits to Whit's and Mikey's, and our first visit to Philco.

Skillet, Rustic. Urban. Food. on Urbanspoon

Unbelievably, my previous visit to Skillet, Rustic.Urban.Food. (410 E Whittier), was way back in October of 2012. Since that visit, not much seems to have changed. The same warmth, charm, and familiar atmosphere I initially felt more than a year ago still remains not only within the restaurant's walls but also among everyone who works and eats within the small, focused, physical space. There's certainly comfort in continuity.

To kickstart this second experience, I ordered a glass of Cherry Orchards' (Crooksville, OH) apple cider. (Coincidentally, I ordered the apple pancakes during my first visit.) If nothing else, I figured the apple profile should go well with the German-esque entrée I ordered. On it's own, the full-bodied cider was delicious, appreciated even more so with the "Weekender" bratwurst plate I first read about on Skillet's Facebook page.

The bratwurst was house made from House made bratwurst from heritage Red Wattle pork, which I first tasted last June. An Ark of Taste food, I knew the dish would already be inherently good. I ordered two links (the option for just one was there, but for two bucks more, why not?), which sat atop an amazing heap of bacon and onion winter kraut cured with pear, Riseling, caraway and mustard seed. (In retrospect, maybe I should've gotten Cherry Orchards' pear cider to go with this lot...) Moreover, underneath all of this was a luscious, velvety, natural gravy with pear cider.

The single component, though, that made the dish for me was the memorable griddle mashed potato pancake layered between the gravy and kraut. It soaked up all of the flavours and added complementary moisture to the bratwurst while toning down the acidity of the kraut. Oh.my.yum.

On Brianne's side of the table appeared her order of the tasty Skillet burger. Made from Ohio proud grass fed beef (ground for the folks at Skillet from bottom round, brisket, short rib, and deckle), the "basic" burger is served on a brioche roll with housemade sauce, creamy Laurel Valley Creamery (Gallipolis, OH; by the way, I'm a fan of their website) Harvester cheese, and a healthy dose of dressed arugula, which helps cut through the meaty burger. Cherrywood double smoked bacon and a fried Holistic Acres egg are available additions to this otherwise wonderful plate of food, complete with a side of pickles and a great side of quinoa salad.

Pistacia Vera on Urbanspoon

Moving out of German Village and en route to the Short North, I found out/realised Brianne had not yet been to the North Market. I don't know how that happened, but in any case we put a brief pause on our stop at Whit's to check out one of the first foodie destinations I ever blogged about since my move to central Ohio over three years ago. After an intial tour of the many vendors, some of whom have recently moved in, we made our way back to one of the newest additions to the North Market family, Pistacia Vera (the flagship location of which opened a decade ago in German Village). I was captivated yet slightly dubious by the display of large, vibrantly-coloured macarons which adorned the display case. In the background, additional, freshly completed macarons rested in the open kitchen. Tomorrow, Pistacia Vera will have just been opened for a month, and already it seems to be very well-established.

After a taste of the basic vanilla bean macaron, Mel did a fantastic job of not only easing my macaron concerns (in the early exchange, I could hear myself being some proclaimed expert of le macaron, to which I can only justify by the one too many I've eaten during each of my trips back to France), but in exercising her product knowledge and recommendations. In addition to my gastronomic tastings, our summer 2013 language and cooking Experiment group tried our hand at making the mighty macaron. Through all of those experiences, the one word I immediately ascribe to this deliciously dainty dessert is "finicky." And apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks so, too (1,2,3,4,5,6; also, take a look at these, which happen to not use the term 7,8).

In theory, macarons are fairly straight-forward and easy to make. In practice, however (and as evidenced by the above posts)... well, you just need to practice. Indeed, there are a lot of facetors that can destroy the macaron-making experience, including but not limited to too much heat in the kitchen, not having enough moisture, overbeating the batter, and opening the oven door too soon. But when you get them right, you get them right. Coupled with much of the cacaophony of macaron commentary I've gathered and read from others, and based largely on my own palate, I would suggest the perfect macaron is one in which the macaron halves have delicately risen and are visibly supported by a bottom layer referred to as "feet." The tops should be rather smooth and uniform. When bitten into, they should gently collapse against a distinctly nuanced crunch, making way into an airy interior. The filling should be smooth, cover the entire surface of the macaron halves, and meld with the cookies (as this is what typically gives the macaron its overall flavour) rather than taste like a separate layer. [On the cultural end of things, check out this article.]

Having said all of this, Pistacia Vera passes my equally finicky review. They're slightly larger than the ones I typically have in France, though definitely not as large as the mega-sized ones that are sold across the pond. I realise the sizing is all relative.. My point here is that they're big enough to more easily share than the standard French size and definitely cheaper if not at least cost-effective when consider how much of a macaron you're actually getting for your $1.50. (I shudder slightly at the thought of my personal macaron investment in euros.) There are perhaps two downsides which to most won't even matter, especially given the relatively low number of macaron suppliers. First, and thing that surprised me the most upon my initial bite: the macarons are kept cold and are best served at room temperature (an easy adjustment, unless you can't wait the few minutes that would take). Second, and much less of an issue, the fillings don't extend to the outermost edges of the macaron cookie, in which case the ratio of filling to cookie tastes slightly off (this is truer for the chocolate ganache-filled macarons). The flavours are nevertheless distinct and pronounced, so no major harm there.

Onto the tasting then! Following the clean vanilla bean with vanilla bean buttercream, I also got the chocolate cherry cordial (great balance between the ganache and dark cherry notes), pistachio (Mel's favourite), mint chocolate (which turned out to be my favourite), milk chocolate passion fruit (among this batch, the arguably weakest in terms of flavour.. for me, the chocolate overtook the more subtle passion fruit), and the assertive and absolutely amazing lemon yuzu.

As if this wasn't enough, I also got the chocolate bombe which (excuse my return to the '90s) was the bomb. This is one of my new favourite foods in life for the present moment, utterly decadent, rich, and unabashed in its complexity and chocolate identity. Sitting atop a thin chocolate dish, is a layer of beautifully-textured chocolate buttermilk cake, topped off with a generous scoop of an airy semi-sweet chocolate mousse infused with marsala wine, all of which is then glazed with a chocolate ganache, dusted, and completed with cocoa nibs.

A single bite should lure all occasional chocolate eaters, chocolate lovers and chocoholics alike, if the description alone didn't do it for you. [Personal shout-out to Mel and Nathan for a great introduction to Pistacia Vera!]

Omega Artisan Baking on Urbanspoon

In addition to our stop at Pistacia Vera, I should note, too, that Brianne and I stopped by The Barrel and Bottle where I purchased Clos Normand brut cidre. So far, The Barrel and Bottle is the only place in the area I've found so far that sells one of my favourite cidres ever. (Check out a review here, as well as a compendium here.) Before leaving North Market, we also stopped by Omega Artisan Baking, where I introduced Brianne to their delicious foccacia. Complete with a liberal amount of olive oil, toasted garlic, and herbs, this airy yet meaty bread with a delicate crust was just as great as I remembered when I first had it.

Whit's Frozen Custard on Urbanspoon

Now moving into the Short North, Brianne and I completed our foodie Friday afternoon with a stop in the ever-popular Whit's (841 N High St). I typically don't veer from my traditional grasshopper Whitser, but this time around I went with the "Cool Coffee," a blend of vanilla custard, mocha syrup, and Irish cream.

Mikey's Late Night Slice on Urbanspoon

Recharged but this time in need of a food break, we then headed over to Easton and eventually settled on watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Cue my bolstered motivation to travel the world and learn through food.) To cap off the night, we made our way over to another ever-popular locale, Mikey's Late Night Slice, and ordered some pizza to pair with the start of our season 8 Will & Grace marathon. Brianne got a Baby Cheezus and I got a slice of the flavour of the week, the Mac 'N Cheezus. The great textures and layers of cheesy goodness paird well with a glass of the Clos Normand. (Oh hey there, coming back full circle with that cidre. How about that?)

Philco Bar + Diner on Urbanspoon

On Saturday, we continued our marathon and in the midst of trying to get some reading done, chose a different course and after much thought-processing (#11, just saying), we set our sights on watching Frozen in 3D. (I'm convinced it's impossible for us to watch it too many times). Before all of that took place, however, a visit to Philco Bar + Diner (747 N High St) for brunch was in order.

Complete with a rather hipster, contemporary, and rather rustic kind of vibe, in addition to the impressive wine display above the back of the counter, Philco's style fits perfectly with that of the Short North. Each of the menu items are reasonably priced and (un)fortunately sound delicious. I was told the Huevos Rancheros are popular (as also evidenced by the number of such plates greetings diners) and especially well-plated (which would be great to photograph). Also suggested were the Steak and Eggs (which come with home fries and a bloody mary aioli) and the popular Traditional (in the form of two Johnnycakes, two eggs, and two strips of Nueske's bacon).

While the breakfast menu is served all day, and the rest of the menu looked equally appetizing, I ended up going with an order of the Baked Grits and a Coney Dog topped with Ohio cheddar.

I'm not the biggest connoisseur of grits, but I know what I like, and I definitely love Philco's take. The serving is creamy and has a consistent, non-gritty texture throughout. The chorizo mixed into the grits provides an even-handed spiciness which elevates the dish entirely. To top this all off, there's also a richness from the baked cheese layer that ties everything together, without going overboard. If you want an even richer iteration, there's also the option to order two eggs to accompany the grits.

As for the coney dog, I can't say it's one of the better ones I've had (that distinction remains with Detroit's Lafayette Coney Island until proven otherwise). That being said, this one is still a popular and worthwhile choice. I did find the bun to be a bit doughy, but it wasn't enough to overwhelm the dog itself. The coney sauce is delicious and the white onions were not an overpowering mess that they could be (at least for my palate). And any addition of cheese to most anything is always a welcomed comfort. If you're interested, the addition of slaw to the coney dog is an option.

Brianne also ordered from the breakfast menu and went with the Biscuits & Red Eye Gravy. I can't say I've ever had red eye gravy (1,2), but wow is it good. It had a smooth, deep flavour and soaked well into the flaky, fresh buttermilk biscuits which were topped with smoked paprika. Adding additional, building heat to the mix was a rather generous serving of andouille sausage. And with that, I leave you to enjoying the rest of your day. Stay warm, stay full, and continue to learn through food this year, and every day after! For these and additional photos, click here. For your take on any of the locations mentioned above, or to suggest a dish or spot to try out, leave a comment below!  

Also, and as a final aside, I wanted to share with you that I was interviewed for an article last month, which was posted just a few days ago. Click here for access to the online magazine version (pp 10 & 11), or visit CityScene's website here.

1 comment:

  1. I teach foods and nutrition.
    Would you be willing to speak to my students?
    How may I contact you via email?
    Thank you!