Location is everything in real estate, especially in the restaurant business. But when your new restaurant happens to be the former home of a favorite neighborhood haunt, preserving the legacy of that location adds another layer of complexity to already enormous expectations.
Now add the pressure of leaving another celebrated restaurant and you’ll start to understand the stakes facing Bradley Balch, former executive chef at The Sycamore, whose new restaurant Trillium recently opened in the space occupied by the venerated Alana’s Food and Wine for nearly two decades.
“We knew coming in here it was going to be a challenge. We weren’t trying to replicate; it wasn’t going to be Alana’s 2.0,” Balch said. He and co-owner Michael Kulikowski had no illusions about the inherent anxiety Alana Shock’s loyal patrons would have. “We knew there would be a lot of comparisons as we created our own identity, while still serving and entertaining her clientele.”
The Old North neighborhood of Columbus between campus and Clintonville epitomizes the eclectic mix of retail and restaurants that flourish or fold based on how well they pull in patrons from Upper Arlington, Grandview, and Worthington. Balch expects redevelopment just down High Street will position Trillium at the right place and the right time to draw diners from a wider area—though he hopes professors and professionals living in nearby neighborhoods will also appreciate the updates and atmosphere.
There are also the inevitable comparisons to The Sycamore, the quaint and comfortable German Village standard where Balch maintains ownership, but has stepped away from daily operations in the kitchen. Though there is some familiar fare to be found.
“We’re still matching, mixing, and melding complex flavors and textures so they all come together on the plate. The focus here is more on seafood and fresh fish, not tavern food,” Balch said. “Sycamore had that casual balance. Trillium is more upscale.”
Named for Ohio’s official state wildflower, Trillium is equally local and approachable mixed with Midwest hospitality. Generous portions and a range of price points make “upscale” entirely accessible.
Happy Hour includes Pork Cheek Mac & Cheese with cavatappi pasta and white cheddar topped with crispy breadcrumbs, and Chicken Wings with a watermelon-chipotle barbeque glaze. (Think sophisticated comfort food.) Small plates of Lump Crab Wontons with sweet and tart rhubarb barbecue, avocado crema, pickled red onion, and napa cabbage, or Duck Confit Vietnamese Spring Rolls with
Serrano black vinegar dip, sambal aioli, and sesame salad are decidedly Eastern with worldwide influences.
Large plates, like the McDowell Farms Pork Chop with bacon-cheddar Shagbark grits, andouille sausage, red-eye gravy, braised mixed greens, and jalapeno-peach jam offer unexpected depth and subtlety to Southern staples and are very shareable. Though the signature Trillium S’mores are a deft execution of the campfire favorite, their Crimson Cup Coffee & Thai Chili Custard of caramelized banana, maple
Chantilly, and candied bacon is equally enviable, if not superior.
But the star of the show is the still the seafood.
“I’ve always and will forever utilize the Ahi tuna wherever my path leads me. It goes all the way back to Tucci’s,” he noted. Balch’s business partner Michael Kulikowski is also the former general manager at Tucci’s. Like most restaurant ventures in Columbus, though the projects may come together quickly, the relationships are often years in the making.
Like the pedals of namesake flora, the current menu takes the featured fish in three distinct directions—the Ahi Tuna Poke of taro chips, shisito peppers, pickled radish, and sesame cucumber noodles; a grilled Ahi Tuna Nicoise with egg, greens, haricot verts, new potatoes, nicoise olive, tomato, white anchovie, caper berry, lemon zest, and a white wine vinaigrette; and the large plate of Ahi Tuna with a wasabi Okinawa sweet potato mash, tamari-charred haricot verts, Asian pear coulis, and house-made kimchi.
Trillium is currently open for dinner hours only, though that’s likely to change. Balch suggested an uncertain timetable, but inevitable lunch menu as well. “We’ll do lunch, but I don’t want to do brunch,” he chided.
The aesthetic is also new, with a more prominent bar than Alana’s and a larger kitchen than The Sycamore. Oak floors revealed under the carpets and the overall openness of the reimagined interior help ground the entire restaurant as the refined gathering place Trillium was intended to be. The extensive patio excavation, new plantings, and live music will complete the “kitchen and patio” concept. “Our patio alone is bigger than Sycamore,” Balch noted.
Trillium is reviving another restaurant tradition as well with their monthly wine dinners.
“We just did our first one—five courses for 24 people. Wine dinners are kind of a thing of the past, but we’re bringing them back,” Balch explained. “We’re planning a whole lamb wine dinner in October, and a bourbon dinner in November. Then we’ll probably take a break in December, and come back in January.”