Restaurant review: Windward Passage

From the 06/08/2011 edition

I'm frequently asked, "What're some hidden gem, off-the-beaten-path type restaurants you love?" As I tease out what kind of joint the questioner might enjoy, if a "yes" comes back on seafood or old-school, I always say, "You gotta go to Windward Passage."

Not only is the wonderfully wacky Windward Passage (aka just Windward) unlike any other restaurant in Columbus, nothing's even close. Oh sure, it's situated at the end of a routine strip mall on Henderson Road, but when you stroll in (and after your eyes adjust to the movie-theater-like darkness), you'll think you've entered some kind of watery resort, theme park eatery or time warp - possibly all three.

See, Windward is a nutty-looking, nautically decorated retro restaurant that uses captain's wheels as chandeliers and tortoise shells and mastheads for wall adornments. Crab traps are suspended above the entire bar and there are loops of amusingly schooner-ific heavy rope riggings too. On top of all that, the place feels frozen back in the days when it opened, i.e. the Carter administration (Average hair color: white. Average beverage: Scotch).

Conversely, most of Windward's excellent fish is fresh, not frozen - like its duly famous and truly great Lake Erie walleye. That pike-ish stuff is lovely broiled, but since Windward exhibits a sort of genius for frying, not only is it even better bathed in gurgling oil, but I dare you to compare it with your current favorite plate of fish and chips. Yep, I'm confident Windward wins that competition 'most every time.

Lunchtime presents the best value. Then, for $11, you get wildly generous platter-spanning filets and planks of thinly coated and virtually grease-free crispy-crusted walleye. And if the incredibly clean-tasting snow-white meat underneath were any moister, it'd still be swimming.

This fin-tastic (sorry) feast comes with some of the best fries you can get without slicing them yourself, plus homey, cooked-into-submission vegetables like grandma-style green beans and carrots. Frankly it's a meal that should leave any normal person - something I've never been accused of - with plenty of leftovers.

Other lunchtime funsters are: the irresistibly spicy, smoky and salty Devils on Horseback appetizer ($7) - a half dozen toothpick-harpooned oysters bundled in crispy bacon and dunked in Tabasco sauce; and the killer Sauteed Scallop entree ($11) - two sides plus six huge, sweet, plump, juicy, garlic breadcrumbed and deeply caramelized beauties.

Seafood not your thing? Try the righteous Reuben ($8) or one of the astoundingly large yet inexpensive and homestyle daily specials, like Friday's Pot Roast ($7). Munch through that baby while crunching through terrific house-fried Saratoga potato chips and you might never want to get back on the beaten path.