Photo by Tommy Feisel.

App Hop

The winter months are upon us. The grills are put away for the season, the holidays have passed, and Columbusites everywhere are preparing for the inevitable and depressing gray days that lie ahead. Alas, it is a burden that we have all grown accustomed to, or for those of you recently relocated here from warmer and greener parts of the country, eventually will grow accustomed to. It’s no secret that winters in the midwest can be a drag—snow and salt trucks everywhere ruining the underbellies of our vehicles, Urban Meyer retiring, Super Bowl ads that just don’t live up to the golden era of the 90’s, lackluster Super Bowl halftime shows that just don’t live up to the golden era of the 90’s, music that just doesn’t…wait, I’m getting old…

I digress.

Fortunately for Columbus, our restaurant scene has just what you need to fill your bellies, warm your soul, and help you get out of those winter blues, if even just for a night. New spots continue to open, and even old favorites have new menu items to shake up your taste buds and ignite your inner foodie. The days of hanging out on a patio may be months away, but you’re in for a real treat if you brave the cold and head out to some of the best food the city has to offer.

“But wait Tommy, where should I go? I mean, you said it yourself that there are tons of great places opening, I can’t get to them all!” Well, I’m glad you brought that up Kevin, because that’s where an App Hop is the perfect way to start experiencing new kitchens you haven’t been before and taste what’s new at some of your old favorites! An App Hop (if you haven’t read this feature in past issues) is a food crawl of sorts, where you the reader seek out small and shareable plates that are unique to the restaurants you visit. Order some interesting cocktails or wine to complement the food, then move on to the next place. There aren’t any set-in-stone rules about it, but here are some ideas that my wife Meredith and I have been implementing since we started making this our favorite date night more than 10 years ago.

  • Pick a neighborhood to explore. Not only does it make sense logistically, since your goal is to hit 3-4 restaurants in one night, but it also forces you to have a look at some lesser-known or new joints you haven’t
    been to before.
  • Limit your consumption. Don’t get too full at the early stops—leave room for what’s to come. Try not to go overboard on your drinks either. Share a cocktail if you can.
  • Tuesdays through Thursdays are great nights of the week to App Hop. Fewer people in the restaurant means more attentive and faster service.
  • Give your server a heads up when you sit down that you’re only in for a couple small plates and a drink or two. Hell, tell them you’re doing an App Hop! They might not know what your talking about at first, but they’ll love the idea once you explain it. Side note: tip your server well!

Ok, now that the formalities are done, let’s get to the good stuff. I’ve been holding off on doing an App Hop in German Village for a long time purely out of the fact that everyone knows what’s going on down there and I wanted to highlight other neighborhoods and restaurant groups that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. But, with a few new gems that have opened recently, I just couldn’t hold back anymore. We started our Hop at Comune, followed by South Village Grille, jumped over to Ambrose & Eve and ended the evening at G. Michael’s. Here’s what you should know.

Comune

The recently-opened Comune features a plant-forward menu and a bar that rivals some of the best in town. Meredith and I dined there for the first time back in December and since then my bank account keeps getting lower and lower due to the number of times we’ve been back. Everything there is just so damn good. You’ll like this place even if you’re a meatatarian like me. The fact that their entire menu is plant-forward doesn’t eclipse the bigger picture that the food is really just amazing food and not a bunch of gimmicky replacement meat and cheese (which is, in my humble opinion, NOT food). What Comune is doing, is real food. On this Hop, we shared the roasted acorn squash and the grilled trumpet mushrooms. To drink, we sipped on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, We Got the Beet, and the I Have the Pawa.

If you don’t already have ras el hanout in your pantry, go out to the store and get some of this amazing North African spice mix now. I don’t care if you get it from the North Market or from Kroger (yeah they sell it!). Just get it. It works on everything! Needless to say, I was thrilled that Comune paired it with the lentils and squash. The grilled trumpet mushrooms are so meaty, have so much “grill” to them, that you’d think there was steak on the plate. The cocktails are equally impressive—hard to choose a favorite out of the three, but I especially liked the avocado fat-washed tequila in the Pawa that uses frozen avocado pits as the ice, which is kinda ballsy. (You’ll see what I mean.) Finally, one of the things I think you’ll love about Comune is how quiet the dining room is. The kitchen is upstairs, and even with a dining room filled with people, it’s refreshing to be able to have a conversation with the person across from you without having to yell over the bustle of the back of the house.

South Village Grille

After Comune, we headed over to South Village Grille on the Southwest corner of Thurman and Jaeger, catty-cornered from the also newish Fox in the Snow. SVG, a passion project and widely-different concept from the folks that brought us Local Cantina and Old Skool, took over the space that Easy Street Cafe filled for years (whose favorites can be found just a couple blocks away at Red Brick Tap & Grill) back in 2017. Filling the shoes of a long-established favorite in any neighborhood can be a challenge, but Chef Josh Wiest has been up to the task and when I say that his experience shows, I really mean that it shines. A perfectionist at his craft, Josh was a student of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, and has done stints at the Plaza Hotel in New York as well as G. Michael’s (more on
them later).

Everything on SVG’s menu looks amazing by description, but after some recommendations from our server we ended up ordering the brussels, pork belly, and ratatouille. Growing up I never enjoyed brussel sprouts. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that my Uncle Dan did a pan of sprouts tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted them in a wood burning pizza oven that changed my mind forever. I loved them.

That being said, I know from conversations over the years that people tend to fall into two categories: those who love them and those who despise the little green gems that they are. These brussels though are good enough to satisfy the latter due to the variety of ingredients included in the dish. The lemon thyme cream sauce, butternut squash, craisins and goat cheese balance out the otherwise bitter taste (especially if you’ve only ever had them steamed), while the pancetta adds some welcomed saltiness. As a whole, it ends up as a beautiful combination of rich, sweet, salty, nutty, and creamy that’s hearty shareable.

Even before our server suggested the pork belly, I knew we had to have it because, well, it’s pork belly, and nothing screams “satisfy your winter hunger” like a well made piece of fatty heaven. SVG’s take on it includes an Asian slaw with plenty of zest and acidity that cuts through the fattiness of the pork that is glazed to perfection. Finally, we shared a plate of the ratatouille (yes, like the movie) and oh…my…it is awesome. If what you want is an incredibly satisfying dish of marinated portabella caps on top of delicious vegetables on top of even more delicious stone ground grits, then this is for you. It’s perfectly sized to share. In fact, we ate our fill and still had some to take home for lunch the next day.

I’d be remiss not to mention SVG’s cocktails. We sipped on the Woolly Sweater, Recreation, and Mad Hatter, all of which can be found at the top of their cocktail menu. Just like wearing white after labor day, forget the “rules” and enjoy a solid eggnog past the holiday season. SVG’s Wooly Sweater nog has a single cube of ice and complete with a stick of black licorice. The Recreation may employ a bit of gimmicky dry ice, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t appreciate a little show with their cocktail? I know I do. Beyond that, the flavor profile of the drink is distinct, due to the sfumato they use. If you don’t like them strong, this one might not be for you, but it was for me. If you’re looking for something a little more approachable for your sensitive palate, but equally palatable, try the Mad Hatter, a drink that combines bourbon, nocino, carrot juice and lemon, topped with dehydrated carrot pulp. It’s colorful, not too heavy on the booze, but not too sweet either. It was our first time at SVG, and it certainly won’t be our last.

Ambrose & Eve

After a wonderful outing at SVG, we took a Brewery District detour to check out the very brand-new Ambrose & Eve on S High St. The concept by chefs Catie Randazzo and Matthew Heaggans, is a true testament to a chef-driven menu, and one that they’ve been tirelessly working towards. No doubt you’ve heard Randazzo and Heaggans’ names a lot over the past couple years, and rightfully so. The two have been separately, and jointly, hustling and killing it in the city’s food scene for a long time. Ambrose & Eve seems like the perfect culmination of something that they’ve always wanted to do: a menu filled with things that they would want to cook for themselves. While there, Randazzo even mentioned a reviewer that said that the food “wasn’t for them,” and that that was OK. And you know what? It is ok. Columbus dining in general has for too long held the idea everything on the menu must be acceptable to the masses, and it just isn’t true anymore. People in this city are, more than ever, excited to try new things. The number of people being relocated to Columbus from larger metropolitan areas practically demands it, and I think that it’s a challenge that more and more chefs in town are eager to take on. Randazzo and Heaggans are “stepping up to the plate” in a big way, and I couldn’t be more excited to see them flourish.

For food, we decided to share the tuna salad and pastrami carrots. If there ever was a name of a dish that didn’t encompass the deliciousness of what you were about to eat, it would be the tuna salad. To start, it’s not a salad at all, and thank God, because honestly I can make a pretty decent salad at home. What I can’t do, and thank God that these two do, is lightly poach tuna belly and serve it with a bone marrow aioli meant to be spread on top of wonderfully grilled focaccia from Matija Breads by Matt Swint. Swint explained that it was kind of like an upside down version of vitello tonnato, which is a veal dish flavored with tuna. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was either—google it if you want. What I found out though, is that an upside version of vitello tonnato called Tuna Salad at Ambrose & Eve is fantastic. The pastrami carrots were salty, as you would expected anything called “pastrami,” but with an earthy sweetness you can only get from a root vegetable. Dollops of their house-made grainy mustard added to the what I want to call a “deconstructed vegetarian pastrami on rye.” Definitely worth a try. And while you’re there, order a glass of the Brothers Drake Lynne Virginia Cider, a signature brew made exclusively for Ambrose and Eve under Randazzo and Heaggans’ direction. Not being a cider fan myself, I was surprised at how sweet the nose was but how crisp and clean it was in the mouth. Its carbonation is added after the fermentation, which lends a delicate, almost champagne-like experience.

G. Michael’s Bistro & Bar

You’d be hard pressed to talk about the best of the best without mentioning our final stop of the Hop. G. Michael’s has been consistently ranked as one the best dining experiences in Columbus for more than 20 years, and that much experience really does show. The inconspicuous restaurant starts with the bar upon arrival and opens into multiple dining rooms that you didn’t know were there when looking at it from street level. Everything about G’s feels intentional. Not in a crazy pretentious way, but in a way that makes you feel like every detail has been attended to. Nothing goes to waste here. I’ve even been told that Chef prides himself in butchering in house (not something that every chef does), utilizing as much of the animal as he can to create his dishes. Talk about a chef after my own heart! We shared plates of the shrimp and grits, pork belly, and a bowl of the butternut squash soup. (Now I usually don’t double up on dishes during an App Hop, but I mean c’mon…you can’t expect me to not order pork belly when it’s on the menu. Sorry, not sorry.) To be completely honest, the pork belly was one of the best I’ve ever had in the city. It could be the soy caramel glaze, it could be the 5 spice reduction, it could also be that we were 5 or 6 drinks into the Hop and my judgement was cloudy….but my best guess is the quality of the belly itself. Not all pigs are created, or rather bred, equally, and it’s apparent that the kitchen has access to some top-shelf swine. I bet you’ll agree.The butternut squash soup was the perfect match for a winter Hop. The added maple syrup to the pureed squash lended additional sweetness to a creamy rich base that is topped with a pecan gremolata. (Yum!)

To wrap things up, don’t let the Ohio winter get you down. There’s plenty of new spots to explore and lots of things to eat. So before you settle down for another night of binge watching Game of Thrones for the 20th time or buying new skins on Fortnite, ask yourself this: “Have I really tried anything new lately?” No? Cool. Go out and explore. Happy Hopping!

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