Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Columbus, Mitchell's, and the limits of fancy

I spent a few days in each of the last couple of weeks in Columbus, Ohio. I've always liked Columbus - it's a beautiful, cosmopolitan place, sophisticated, but rooted in the humility and niceness of the Midwest. Food-wise, this place has enormous promise. There were snazzy, well-conceived, high style restaurants throughout downtown and up into Short North. Fabulous signage, subtle lighting, clever names. I only got to try a couple, but I can imagine thoroughly enjoying the process of checking out more of them should a project here be in my future.

At the same time, there were some limits, and it was interesting coming from Columbus back to Tally, where there is lots of heart, but very little style, and where nothing, no matter how hard they try, is fancy.

On my first night in town, we went to Sushi place called Haiku. This is a beautiful restaurant. Being 7 degrees, we didn't spend a lot of time on the patio, but it looked like it'd be an amazing place to be outdoors in the summer. As a table, back indoors, we sort of went all in on the sushi. About 15 different rolls and half a dozen types of sushi (that's our actual rolls there in the picture). First off: Sushi, family style, in beautiful place, with good people and hot sake on a cold day is a thing of beauty. We started in with several appetizers - decent but not spectacular, they displayed little creativity and suggested that the kitchen's culinary skill was focused elsewhere. The lettuce wraps were timidly spiced - sort of PF Changs derivative. What they called calamari was interesting but not great - more or less a spring role stuffed inside fairly large squid with a simple soy sauce-based compliment. The rolls, however were outstanding, and sushi was excellent. What they lacked in elegance of presentation (the tuna was cut awkwardly, and the rolls were not quite symmetrical), they made up for in taste. The yellow fin was as good as anything I've had since I lived in DC.

With a few non-memorable dinners between, my last meal in Columbus was at Mitchell's. Mitchell's is one of the prettiest restaurants I've set foot in. This is a cathedral of food on a scale that puts Vegas to shame. Soaring ceilings, massive light sculptures, deep leather booths. Not the very best food, or the best wine list, but man did they make you feel like it was. We did a pretty typical run through of steak house fare - down to actual shrimp cocktail, which I hadn't eaten for years. The waitress was exceptional - friendly and efficient. She said she'd been waiting tables for the owner for 30 years. Clearly they're doing something right - that's a heck of a low-turnover story for any business, let alone food service. While it'd be nice if the architectural and service skill extended to the kitchen, it didn't. The steak was middling - they did a good job searing it, but the meat itself was bland and tough. It took them 3 tries to get a hot baked potato to the table, and the desserts, with one exception (the upside down apple bread pudding), were uninspired. The only other stand out was the asparagus, which was unusually light and tender - simply steamed and well presented.

Both Mitchell's and Haiku traded on the spare-no-expense luxe style that I saw looking in the windows at a lot of places here. Haiku was by far the better of the two, though both, separated from the pleasant company and flashy surroundings, come up a little short. The really great places in Columbus, the places that draw you in, and make you feel like the person in the kitchen cares passionately about your happiness, those places are still to be discovered. I hope I get the chance.

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