Food means different things to different people.
If I asked someone how far he’d be willing to travel to eat at the best restaurant in Columbus, one may say across town, another may say not at all. The hike (for some) to Dublin to eat at Kihachi may be too much; someone up north might lament the notion of hoofing it to Explorer’s Club on the south end. Or perhaps the allure of a perfect croissant isn’t enough to drag you to German Village.
As it happens, the best restaurant in Columbus isn’t even in Columbus. It’s in Delaware.
And the best restaurants in the region – in the country, perhaps – are six-and-a-half hours away by road in The Windy City. True gourmands will travel to the ends of the earth to find that perfect morsel, the taste that elicits within them the feelings they long for, to resuscitate the memory of the last time they were truly captivated by something they ate.
The closest you’ll likely get to that in central Ohio is Veritas Tavern, which resides about 14 miles past the northernmost part of the beltway. It’s a jaunt. But Zanzibar it is not.
My conversation with Joshua Dalton (progenitor chef of Veritas and owner/overseer of the nearby 1808 American Bistro) didn’t live long before the topic turned to Chi-town’s heavy hitters, the nature of high cuisine, and the love of a good gadget. He has the same illness of thought that afflicts most other artists: whatever it is you’ve done, it could probably be done better.
I had intended originally just to feature Veritas’s cocktails, penned and poured perfectly by Nicole Hollerman, a former MFA candidate who abandoned academia for Aperol. Her menu actually dwarfs that of the kitchen’s, though is its equal in terms of delicacy. She’s got all the tricks, and she doesn’t need a sleeve garter to keep them up there.
As the Columbus cocktail scene continues to burgeon, it becomes more and more derivative: modern twists on Prohibition-era classics. It’s an ideal so common it may as well get sampled on a hip-hop album. Soon, I believe you will be able to find barrel-aged orange juice if the idea suits you. The true destination, I would think, must then return to flavor and mouthfeel.
Hollerman’s Winter Campfire is an epiphany in both categories. Crushed black cardamom sealed and cooked with Barton vodka joins cream infused with cigar smoke, ginger liqueur, and honey syrup for something that tastes delightfully close to a just-burnt marshmallow. It’s as near to perfection as I’ve had in a cocktail. Dalton himself doesn’t care for it. As always, there’s no accounting for taste.
For many things offered in the tiny, 36-seat space, it’s difficult to imagine a way to improve upon them. It is a different way of dining to the Michelin-starred culinary juggernauts in the sense that dishes are a la carte, that you do not simply show up, pay some hundreds of dollars, and let course after course of chef’s tasting menu waft over you.
No, it’s more like a normal neighborhood restaurant in that sense. You could order an app and an entree and call for the check. The food, though, more closely resembles what you see in pictures, abstract art on a porcelain canvas, a man wearing a mask of stern concentration hovering over his something precious to apply a component that many people in the Midwest would brush off the plate in confusion. It’s modern and intricate. It’s thoughtful. And it is tremendously good.
Personally, I could make a meal of the Brussels sprouts alone. Sous vide with butter and eighteen different spices, they condense and lose most of their cabbage qualities in the lengthy cooking process and play simply as drop after drop of complex yet familiar flavor. At Veritas, it is more about the perfection of technique than it is about featuring signature, proprietary dishes. Dalton makes it clear: if it takes 45 minutes to get a dish right, then the customer waits 45 minutes. They don’t send it out if it isn’t right.
It’s a philosophy not shared the culinary world over. Dalton knows the importance of service as well as anybody, but he isn’t here to make milkshakes. Veritas, as he put it, is for them. The people behind it. They want you to enjoy it, but ultimately, it is they who hold the gavel. He and second-in-command Silas Caeton are pushing the envelope. They’re pulling the creative juices through a strainer, freezing them with liquid nitrogen, and assembling them with care.
But Delaware’s envelope, as lovely a home as it has been for them, is likely right about shot. It’s been a good staging area: Caeton hails from Alaska, Hollerman from North Dakota. Dalton’s last lieutenant moved on to wd~50, the New York flagship restaurant of the iconic Wylie Dufresne. Dalton wants more toys and more room in which to play with them. Rotovapors and centrifuges and homogenizers and immersion circulators. He wants to move to tasting menus. To dictate what the diner eats.
And so it is that Veritas’s next stop – once the right space presents itself – is right here in the city proper, nestled somewhere more in reach and sure to terrify nearby competition. Their goal is unattainable perfection. Their plan is conquest. They don’t just want to win – they want to cover the spread.
I say game on.
15 E Winter St., Delaware