The best restaurants in Columbus have this in common: their dishes reflect the vivid personality of a creative chef embellishing excellent ingredients. For more than a decade, the terrific G. Michael's in German Village has qualified on all accounts.
And now that it's springtime, the generally rich cuisine at G. Michael's - which is rife with the pork, seafood and brash Southern stylings Chef David Tetzloff learned to love in Charleston, South Carolina - has lightened up some.
So a new menu is in place from which you can expect of-the-moment green things like fiddlehead ferns, ramps, peas and asparagus, along with Ohio-raised pork and chicken, Lake Erie walleye, rabbit from Westerville and beef from Lancaster.
Unsurprisingly, the very fair prices for the hefty portions at G. Michael's - or G. Mike's to its many regulars - are not necessarily on the low side. Unless you know the "secret" I'm about to divulge.
During happy hour, G. Mike's enticing list of can't-miss small plates are sold for a song - plus $6. This applies only inside the festive, orange-and-purple-tinged, kinda Mardi Gras-inspired front room which, for my bargain-hunting money, has the best seats in the house anyway. Characteristically, happy-hour-discounted small plates load in lots of ingredients, textures and flavors and ain't actually small.
For instance, the Lamb Lollipops ($11) were basically a meal in themselves. A quartet of lovely "pick-upable" chops with tender, rosy meat and an exterior sear were partnered with shards of Romano, roasted red peppers and a bright, wonderful and full-sized local greens salad. Fried chickpeas and cumin lent that great plate attractive Middle Eastern accents.
A tsunami of P.E.I. Mussels ($8) was awash in a sea of rich, thick and complex sauce. That viscous, killer liquid was hopped up on chorizo plus a "charred tomato-brandy broth" and was joyously sopped up with crunchily grilled bread.
I also loved the dynamic Grilled Asparagus small plate ($8). Sprinkled with thickly grated parmesan, an arsenal of thin spears was draped over a crispy and surprising veggie fritter. Resembling a crabcake, the fritter's julienned peppers and squash were made earthy by shiitakes and alternately lightened by a vinegary touch. Supplying lush and fruity counterpoints were a perfectly poached egg and "candied roma tomatoes."
Those same diced and tangy-sweet tomatoes combined with a tangle of sauteed arugula and a punchy pancetta vinaigrette to give a fancy BLT-like bent to the Honey Mustard Glazed Scallops ($12). Yet another G. Mike's showstopper, that appetizer starred two mammoth caramelized scallops and the honey mustard was more like a cameo than a main player.
Two outstanding main courses from the new menu were a Duo of Ohio Pork ($24) and the Golden Trout ($24). Pig-wise, a giant pile of slightly sweet and smoky, melt-in-your-mouth pulled shoulder meat squared off with a couple of lightly crusted, pan-fried loin pieces capped with a red onion marmalade. I was the winner of that battle.
Adding vegetal ballast were coarse-salt-crusted diced redskins and plain-old cabbage elevated to graceful with a Boddingtons cream sauce.
For the trout, two fabulous ruby-colored filets sandwiched mashers infused with ramps. On top was a pecan-pesto nut bomb and underneath were more greens in the form of sauteed spinach. Like many dishes here, it had refracting tart and especially sweet angles, this time provided by a bacon vinaigrette.
A palate-rejuvenating last act was the knockout Lemon Gingersnap Tart ($6.50). I loved both its custardy, Key-lime-pie-type filling and its moist, thick and brimming-with-ginger crispy cookie crust. But I'd expect nothing less from one of the best restaurants in Columbus.
More restaurants should be like G. Mike's during happy hour, because their 4:30 to 7 p.m. martini special isn't limited to a list of syrupy pablum. No, you can concoct your own $5 cocktail using any top-shelf liquor (like a Bombay Sapphire martini or a Woodford Reserve manhattan).
Small plate vittles, like G. Mike's justly famous Shrimp and Grits, are discounted to $6 from 5 to 7 p.m. (down from $8 to $12).
Insider alert: There's also a wonderful ground-in-house burger special served on weekends. It comes on a glossy pretzel bun, with sauteed mushrooms, gruyere cheese and a hard-to-stop-eating side of hand-cut truffled fries.