Here are some reasons why Knead is at the top of the heap of the 2010 freshman class of Columbus restaurants: its unremitting commitment to fresh ingredients from local farms; great prices; a dinery, breezy and "let's have fun" approach to restaurateuring from a serious owner/chef with impressive previous successes at dining destinations like La Tavola and Tapatio; an individualistic, even eccentric, cooking aesthetic; and a wide, open ear to customer feedback conjoined with a willingness to evolve.

Here are some reasons why Knead is at the top of the heap of the 2010 freshman class of Columbus restaurants: its unremitting commitment to fresh ingredients from local farms; great prices; a dinery, breezy and "let's have fun" approach to restaurateuring from a serious owner/chef with impressive previous successes at dining destinations like La Tavola and Tapatio; an individualistic, even eccentric, cooking aesthetic; and a wide, open ear to customer feedback conjoined with a willingness to evolve.

It's that last characteristic that makes Knead a different restaurant today than it was even, say, a couple of months ago. That learning curve adjustment certainly shows when you consider how Knead has reviewed, retooled and improved on everything, including the unwieldy menu it opened with last summer. With all this in mind, I decided it was time for a report on what Knead's currently up to.

Cocktails are certainly causing a bit of a stir (sorry) there lately. Equally emphasizing classic preparations (like a black licoricey, absinthe-kissed Sazerac) and new takes on old favorites (like the notoriously lethal Tapatio margarita and an exotic Bloody Mary made with Oyo vodka garnished with a long kebab that might include sausages, olives, pickles and a pepper shooter), at $5 to $9, they're nice-priced and a great addition to Knead's regional-celebrating, book-long beer list.

Another great addition - and regional celebration -is the Ohio "Calamari" ($8). Swapping squid for pig, they were ethereally tender strips of fried pork loin in a crispy, golden brown crust with a hint of acid to balance the richness. They're terrific, and an example of Knead breathing life into a cuisine cliche.

Ditto for the wonderful Homemade Pierogies and Brats ($9 for a "half" - which is a crowded plateful). Flaky fried pierogies filled with garlicky pureed potatoes and local goat cheese accompanied lean and lovely seared sausages made with veal and pork belly. Strong support came from long-cooked purple cabbage (with an apple-y sweetness cut by vinegar) and jalapeno-accented grainy mustard.

Another blast of hot pepper - this time in roasted poblano form - was tempered by drizzled honey on the killer fried chicken sandwich called, uh, The Motherclucker ($8). Further flattering the tender, buttermilk-battered poultry breast were rich and gooey Amish jack cheese and house-cured bacon.

More of that crispy bacon and cheese (here, American) graced a pretty great cheeseburger (StuDaBurger, $11). Assembled with primo ingredients like fantastic (and NYC four-star-chef-preferred) Pat La Frieda beef, nifty pickles, a potent aioli and a buttered and toasted challah bun, it's A#1 in my book.

Like all of Knead's sandwiches, this comes with either an interesting olive and thyme flavored lentil salad or thin and crispy, skin-on, golden brown french fries knocked back with the option of fennel-tomato ketchup.

Knead's also been offering intriguing nightly specials. One recent winner was a Scallops with Gran Gala dinner ($24). Perfectly seared big-boy shellfish were accompanied by darkly blistered Brussels sprouts. The oven-sweetened vegetables were a fine foil for the seafood, and a buttery, orange-liqueur sauce played nice with all of the plate's elements. An unexpected garnish of crispy corn tortilla strips pointed up the meal's prismatic play of textures and flavors.

'Tis the season for peppermint, so pick the Smoozy Q for dessert ($5). A candy-cane-flavored cream cheesy icing brings smiles between homey and thick, brownie-ish chocolate cake slices. Like Knead in general, it is generous, unpretentious, inexpensive and fun.

For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog at blog.columbusalive.com/underthetable