When Michelle Obama and Jill Biden swept through town last week, Liz Lessner's restaurants were picked to feed them. That makes sense, doesn't it?
Like the first and second ladies, Lessner is a successful woman unafraid to speak her mind or forge her own path. Plus the three also promote modern causes such as vegetable-friendly eating, local ingredients and green businesses (last year, Lessner co-founded Eartha Limited, a zero-waste restaurant composting/recycling service).
In January, the restless Lessner also opened Jury Room, another of her fun-food playgrounds. This newly revivified establishment is the oldest continually running bar/eatery in Columbus (since 1831), and it became the fifth sibling in Lessner's Betty's Family of Restaurants.
But as the first lady could certainly attest, being prominent in the public eye has its pluses and minuses. In other words, where there are fans there will also be backlash.
Unsurprisingly then, when Jury Room's more ambitious, Philly-style Italian menu debuted, rumblings of a lesser Lessner operation began sounding around town. But were these quibbles well-founded? After several visits, I'd have to answer, "Not really."
As with all newbies, Jury Room needed time to find its footing, and during early noshes, I was served tepid soup and oily pasta. But my meals there lately have been more on target, and besides, like the entire Betty's Family, this courthouse-area baby was born for good times - and that includes how-can-you-lose low prices.
It also includes another worthy rehab (a la Tip Top Kitchen and Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace) in a funky Downtown neighborhood. Painted onto the little Jury Room exterior (near its five-table, uber-urban patio) are cavorting top-hatted politicos and barrister types. Inside, it's like a time-warpy vintage parlor (wide-banded wallpaper, a wintertime fireplace, a large, carved and mirrored bar) inhabited by digital-age hipsters and somewhat older pleasure seekers.
Like me, they clearly like "Intoxicants" - which is the smiling title of the all-important drinks menu. This boozy document is filled with great beers, classic libations (Negronis, Sazeracs, Aviation and Prohibition cocktails) and a small but efficient wine list.
A breezy, Stauf's-fueled weekend brunch has recently been added, and from that I'd recommend the horseradishy and pickly Bloody Marys and Eddie's Pick Flatbread ($6). The latter's a thin-crusted breakfast pizza topped with sausage, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, cottage cheese (it works) and unexpected sprouts freshly plucked from a Jury Room waiter's family farm.
I also tried a fine, floppy-Frisbee-like Leek, Asparagus, Prosciutto and Goat Cheese Frittata ($7, would've liked more leeks); orangey, thick and crispy French Toast ($9 - nice, came with battered and highly seasoned fried potato cubes, breakfast pork and lots of berries); and giggle-inducing Caramelized Bacon drizzled with a sweet dark chocolate ganache ($4).
From the regular menu, my favorite starters were the noodle-y, light and garlicky Pan-Seared Zucchini ($7) and the not-so-light, cheesy and fried, arancini-like Skillet Spaghetti ($8). Both arrived atop an excellent, chunky fresh and bright tomato sauce.
The Pepper and Egg Sandwich ($8) was an in-my-face omelet mass on a soft, toasted roll enriched with tarragon mayo and amusingly aroused by olives, peppers and capers. As with all sandwiches, it came with a house salad or cup of soup, but upgrade to the crispy, truffle-oil-glistening and parmesan-sprinkled Hand-Cut French Fries ($5 buys a ton) for extra fun.
A healthy Breadless Hoagie Stack ($8) was not bad. It was like a Caprese salad with semi-chewy grilled eggplant, a mound of arugula and enlivening bites of lemon basil.
From the "big ticket" items, the thick and terrific Pork Chops alla Pizzaiola ($14) were perfectly grilled, juicy and tender bone-in numbers served with sauteed greens and peppers plus golden brown fried gnocchi. This sharable dish demonstrated Jury Room's raison d'etre - to serve hearty, party food to party-hearty people. Cheers, Jury Room!