Photo by Chris Casella

Urban Legend

When I was younger, I fantasized about living in the J. Crew catalogue. Wanted to melt into the pages, have saltwater hair, frolic on the dunes in a cable-knit sweater in front of my perfectly weathered
gray beach house. Wanted to dive into the world of crisp white shirts and well-worn denim, black rotary phones, and buoys as décor. As it happens, I’ve grown up a bit.

Now, I’ve decided I want to live inside Salt & Pine, Chris Crader and the Grow Restaurants group’s new destination dining spot. Kind of like that kid’s book “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” where two sibs maneuver to get locked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the night. Want my high heels to click-click-click through the restaurant while running my hand down the smooth white spectator bar. Want to raptly watch as the kitchen brandishes dangerous knife skills and serves up plates of food crafted from the best ingredients.

I could spend my days and nights swanning around the gorgeous 7,000-square-foot new restaurant space. It’s modern, but in a lustrous, subtle way, not in a clunky, industrial way. The bluish gray accent paint sidles up to the wood tones in a hushed kiss, and the main dining area is sleek with right angles contrasting the lucky horseshoe curved bar in an organic versus rigid face off. You can sit at the chill ivory bar and watch the moves of the bright kitchen as well as the maneuvers of the sushi chef, or choose a booth to reminisce with friends, or rendezvous the night away in one of the mini-rooms.

A wall of windows faces High street and the trails left by speeding cars lend a low-key glow to the room. With high ceilings, the volume isn’t as loud as one would think, but the hum of activity and assignation is there, an in-the-moment soundtrack that gives diners the feeling of being in the right place at the exact right moment.

I could also spend my time luxuriating my way through chef Andrew Smith’s inspired menu, as Salt & Pine serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, has a coffee and smoothie bar, and also sells petite provisions for a fast snack getaway. Truly one of the most ambitious projects to come full throttle down the restaurant pike in quite sometime, Salt & Pine is redefining and setting the bar for downtown dining in this new era of Columbus shedding its Cowtown drag and emerging as a cool town.

Just reading through the menu is flavor tripping through a field of ingredients, both familiar and surprising. The grilled Spanish octopus appetizer ($15) is one lovely pink-tipped tentacle curled like a beckoning finger. It is cooked to such tender perfection that I could cut it with a mean look. Joined by accents of Spanish chorizo, preserved kumquat, and stewed delicata squash, it’s roll-your-eyes-back delicious.

Smoked trout roe ($15) is a slick of orange atop a toasted brioche rectangle, marbled with bone marrow and the pop of lemon balm. Salty and rich, the appetizer manages to be both sophisticated and homey at the same time—the toast keeping it from getting too precious. Braised lamb belly ($14) is courted by a trio of apple flavors: granny smith applesauce, crispy apple skins, and a savory apple fritter. These provide an excellent foil for the whispered gaminess of the lamb belly, as well as being a tour of textures.

Just as dressing in black solves all sartorial dilemmas, sometimes it’s the simple things that stand out the most. In this case, what Chef Smith does with carrots is gorgeous. A fan of rainbow carrots—purple, orange, white—plays well with carrot tops, bee pollen, dried pasilla (a mild chili), and raw buckwheat honey. A few dollops of a mild bleu cheese add a creamy richness. All that sweet—the carrots, the honey—spoons up against the depth of the cheese and hint of chili heat for a bite that blends the toss-away brightness of summer with the serious ruminations of the coming winter.

“Yes, if I could, I would live in Salt & Pine. The low lighting would make me look good all the time, I would curl up on a banquette for naps in between delighting in the culinary creations and basking in the impeccable service.”

As always, a meal constructed of appetizers alone gives you the best tour of the kitchen talent. Yet sometimes a big plate offers a prolonged gastronomical pleasure that small plates simply cannot. As every restaurant must have a signature burger, Salt & Pine digs deep for its own version. A beef cheek crepinette burger ($17), which takes the tenderest meat of the cow and casts it in a patty form, is given a hint of Northwest Italian flavor as it’s served with fontina cheese and roasted peppers. Cheeks are a favorite and show up again in ravioli ($27), this time in pork form. The little pasta packets get serious in a ginger beer sauce, with the crunch of hazelnuts and the bitter sun of nasturtium. Ricotta gnudi ($19) are served tossed with a brown butter spiked with thyme, a sprinkling of Parmesan, and the zing of lemon. Like a broken strand of pearls, the white pile of dumplings is simple, yet unforgettable.

Yes, if I could, I would live in Salt & Pine. The low lighting would make me look good all the time, I would curl up on a banquette for naps in between delighting in the culinary creations and basking in the impeccable service. I would also have front row seats to the tipping point of downtown turning into Downtown.

Salt & Pine is located at 250 S HIgh St. The Facebook page highlights the specials while the website, saltandpine250.com, provides the details on each menu and takes reservations – which are needed.

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