At Your Service

“My goodness. There’s parking.”

I thought this to myself as I pulled into the lot next to the new Middle West spot, Service Bar. Not just a ton of available parking in the area, you know. Lots of stuff squished in down there. It was a nice surprise. The first of several.

I walked straight in on a Sunday night and took up a stool. It is a modestly-sized place. Maybe 60 seats. But still larger than I had let myself expect.

Christina (Basham) greeted me warmly from behind the bar. I mentioned to her that I wasn’t terribly hungry but needed a food menu anyway.

As I perused the lineup, I got the distinct impression that it didn’t matter what I ordered—it was going to be good. There’s a sense you get from the language, the descriptions of the food. You see the words numbing oil and you just kind of know.

Then I noticed the name of the chef in the bottom right-hand corner. Avishar Barua

I suppose I should have done a little research and known that going in. Better food writers than I had already spilled plenty of ink on this young giant. As I said, though, it was a nice surprise.

I sat and chatted with General Manager Karen Reed, and memories of food scene scuttlebutt about Barua bubbled forth: Bangladeshi descent, Veritas Tavern pedigree, stops at legendary NYC spots like WD-50 and Mission Chinese, degrees in psychology and biology, a penchant for fried things and fast food.

His passion had become hers in the couple years since conception, it seemed, as she spoke glowingly (and knowledgeably) on the various dishes. The marriage of humility and sophistication was apparent. She watched me eat the complimentary amuse and told me why it tasted the way it did. Paté and pickled apples.

After minimal debate, I opted for the Bread & Butter and the lamb dumplings. The former, Service Bar’s play on bread service, was a fun play on the idea. A sweet bun atop some thickened vinegar came alongside a fat dollop of compound butter laced with freeze-dried pepperoni. Christina said the word Donato’s, and it clicked: it was like perfect day-old pizza. Each tearing of the roll wound up with successively larger amounts of the butter. A deceptive amount of dumplings appeared after. I had already made clear my love for all things dumpling, yet we had somehow agreed that I was supposed to eat them anyway. So I did. And I was still surprised.

Szechuan peppercorns punched up the pool of oil bathing the seven-or-eight morsels. At some point, I stopped and forced myself to go back and eat more bread, so as to prolong the experience. The filling was at once delicate and distinctly lamb. Fine stuff.

I entered into my third drink, and got to thinking: cities grow and change in interesting ways. Ages ago, when South Campus was still recognizable as an extension of a college campus, it was difficult to imagine it as anything but the Petri dish it was—a malodorous collection of fascinating and beautiful bacteria drenched in cheap beer, pepperoni grease, and the tears of the young, hardly worth scrubbing clean.

But scrubbed clean it was. Mostly. And the scrubbing continues. Not that a new Popeye’s is a hallmark of gentrification, but the intent is pretty clear: extend the friendly walkability of the Short North as far as it will go. Vibrant elements of underdevelopment still persist, but one wonders for how long.

Fifth and High still isn’t boujee by any stretch, but the last several years have seen previously non-viable elements cropping up and hanging on. A scratch restaurant, a meadery, a pizza boutique, a chain tacqueria. There’s a new clientele occupying the area, just as has come to occupy the likewise expanding commercial chunk of Italian Village.

Which leads us back to Service Bar, a shinier gem than perhaps one would expect in its place. But that’s sort of the point: as the storm of development swells, new projects like this can either facet themselves in close or try to branch out. Cheers to the latter.

This was one of a number of similarities to Watershed’s own effort over in Grandview. Not that either group was disinclined to make use of the spaces they already occupied, but one might have argued (I certainly did) that neither location was necessarily ideal for an ambitious upscale dining experience. It’s not a good argument, of course. Never said it was good.

Service Bar isn’t in no-man’s-land. Nor is Watershed. But it’s probably about as far out as I, a resident of the Short North, would be willing to hoof it for dinner. Not that I couldn’t use the exercise. Hell, maybe it would be better if there wasn’t parking.

The menu, as previously mentioned, is profoundly thoughtful. The product is crave-able without feeling cheap. There’s comfort and familiarity and still a sense of adventure. I will be back for the roasted gnocchi with oxtail, the Mongolian short rib with milk bread, and the burger with bone marrow in the mix. I’ll probably go back and eat a whole chicken by myself, too.

Not to be overlooked is the significant care put into the vegetarian and gluten-free menus and the rangy, ambitious bar program put together by Cleveland import Gerad Guhde.

Precisely when and how the Short North will completely envelop the pocket in which Service Bar resides is unknown. What is known is that if quality counts, Service Bar will still be there when it happens.

Service Bar (1230 Courtland Avenue) is open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner.