Photo by Tommy Feisel.

App Hop

Welcome back to another edition of App Hop, an idea that started off as a date night, turned into our favorite date night, and then into this series of articles for you to benefit from.

What is an Appetizer Hop? Glad you asked! An App Hop is going to 3-5 restaurants and ordering small plates from the menu to share, maybe order a round of drinks, and move on to the next spot. The idea is to order an appetizer that you can’t find everywhere—something that the chef is proud of. It can take a little bit of pre-planning to pick out where you’re going to go, but it’s a great way to experience new places that you haven’t been to yet, or even established places that change their menus seasonally. With new restaurants popping up all the time in Columbus, this is a great way to tour all that the city has to offer in the culinary scene.

For this edition, we’re hopping through multiple neighborhoods, courtesy of the offerings of A&R Creative Group, who over the years have not only been advocates of farm to fork, but have arguably one of the best and diverse set of restaurants and bars in the area. The Market in Italian Village, The Crest(s), Alchemy, Fourth Street Bar and Grill, and the newer Trism are all among the group’s creations. While each restaurant is unique, they all share in A&R’s mission to “foster local commerce by contributing to the local economy & food systems through strategic partnerships, innovative community-driven businesses, and environmentally sustainable practices.” That’s important because while you’re eating these beautiful plates of food, you can feel good knowing that A&R’s goal is to have broader impact on their community and regional farmers/suppliers. After all, the closer your ingredients are to the restaurant they’re being served at, the better they taste. And that’s just good for everyone!

We started the evening at The Market in Italian Village (1022 Summit St.) where Chef Stefan treated us to our first round of small plates and drinks. The Market is a unique offering in Columbus because you can come in for lunch or dinner, buy ready-made meals, or shop their fully stocked shelves and coolers of cured meats, cheese, wine and craft beer. It’s the kind of place where you want to get to know the staff and ask questions; learning about what you’re eating/drinking enhances the experience. They know their craft, and they execute it well. Chef started off strong with what may be my favorite dish I’ve had in recent memory, their stracciatella, a cheese made from stretching fresh mozzarella curds into long tubes, pulling them into strings, and then soaking them in cream. It’s light, and luxurious, and can traditionally be found as the filling of burrata. In The Market’s stracciatella dish, they serve the cheese on top of a layer of brown butter emulsion, shaved asparagus, puffed faro, black garlic, and spruce tips. Ok, so everything about the top of this dish is light, and feels like spring. That is until you get to the brown butter emulsion that has the most amazing flavor—nutty, toasty, warm and complex. It’s magical. The puffed faro adds a nice crunch of texture to the noodle thin asparagus, and it’s also a colorful feast for the eyes, which just elevates it that much more. Next, their sunchoke turnip carpaccio, with its thinly sliced sunchoke with pickled mushrooms, cured lemon, scallion, sunchoke whipped tahini, and pepper jam, which was, well … the jam. For me, this is one of those dishes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Sunchoke can be a versatile ingredient, but when sliced thin like this it resembles a rawish potato in texture. The flavors all make sense together, and the “bite” of the sunchoke is mellowed by the softness of the pickled mushroom. Last to come was the Le Delice De Bourgogne, a French classic triple crème cheese, similar to brie, but more pungent and flavorful. Don’t let the word “pungent” scare you off; this cheese is rich, creamy, and delicious. In other words, eat the rind, you’ll thank me later. Spread it on the waffle fries that come drizzled with Yoder Farm’s honey, and you’re all set. Oh, and did I mention that the cocktails were on point? My wife Meredith and I were happy to pass back and forth the “Ish Delish” (blended scotch, absinthe, passion fruit, lemon, apple bitters, mint) and the “Midnight in Greece” (Watershed vodka, skinos—a Greek liqueur, house pomegranate grenadine, lemon, cava, and pickled blackberry).

Five minutes away, we pull into Hoof Hearted Brewery and Kitchen, a partnership with the wacky brewers that occupied a Marengo hog farm, which A&R opened with them in 2016. If you haven’t driven up Fourth Street from Downtown in the past year, you’ll be amazed to see how much development has gone on in the once-barren landscape that was just north of 670. Lots of units means lots of people, and so it’s a very good thing that Hoof Hearted is there to keep them filled with excellent beer and equally good food. Meredith doesn’t have a taste for beer so I knew the food alone was going to have to carry the weight on this visit. Chef Justin did not disappoint. While she sipped on their Attitude Adjustment (frozen rosé, peach schnapps, vodka, grapefruit, strawberry syrup) I got to sip on one of their beer flights. Then, Chef brought out three apps that were delicious and extremely well-plated. Food is a multi sense experience—before you taste, you see. When someone puts this kind of effort into how their food looks, you know they have pride in what they do. Translation: it all tastes as good as it looks. The Spring Ballsz (ya gotta love the names here) were balls of breaded ground sausage, house made sauerkraut, with mustard green puree and honey, again from Yoder Farms. The mustard puree was a great addition to the Ballsz (sorry, can’t help myself) that had just the right amount of sauerkraut to add flavor to the pork without noticing that there’s sauerkraut in them—for me, the perfect amount. The Alligator Bites were my favorite to look at, surrounded with an abstract brushing of sauce around the rim. Alligator has always reminded me of calamari in flavor, but with a more pleasant texture. It’s firm, but not rubbery the way calamari is often prepared. The Truffle & Artichoke Garlic Bread (grilled garlic-rubbed baguette, mushroom melody, truffle and Parmigiano-Reggiano) was fantastic with its lightly charred artichoke, and medley of mushrooms. What I really liked about this one is that it’s the perfect type of dish to share on an App Hop. Too much bread will fill you up, but splitting it will make sure you have room for more.

The Crest on Indianola in Clintonville—or as the A&R crew call it—the O.G. Crest—was one of A&R’s first restaurants.

The second one can be found on Parsons Ave. by Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Like Hoof Hearted, I remember visiting The Crest shortly after they opened in 2012. At the time, Clintonville was ripe for a neighborhood place like this, especially on Indianola. I’ve been a fan ever since. This visit, though, reinvigorated my love for them. Tyler Minnis, now A&R’s Executive Chef, met us there to walk us through the plates we’d be salivating over. I was intrigued when he brought over their Shrimp and Grit Arancini, because one of my favorite things to make is Shrimp and Grits, though what I make at home is a spin on the traditional favorite by substituting the grits with risotto (arancini is typically breaded deep fried risotto)—a trick I picked up from Tyler Florence in his book Inside the Test Kitchen. What made this dish different, and exceptional, was the grits were breaded and deep fried instead of risotto. Next up, Chef presented us with their cheese curds that were served on a red sauce spiked with Za’atar spices and the seasonal salad with its pickled red and green strawberries. The strawberries were tart and sweet—and when paired with the fresh basil from their own herb gardens they have in the parking lot … dang.

Never thought of doing pickled strawberries, but I guess that’s why I’m a photographer and not a chef —I’m more than happy to be a participant in what these guys and gals do on a daily basis to serve their community with artisan eats and libations. Be sure to check out one of A&R’s places next time you’re in the mood for something really, really good.

Until next time, keep on experiencing all the deliciousness that Columbus has to offer—there’s plenty to explore. Cheers!