Restaurant review: Explorers Club

From the November 17, 2011 edition

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (well, kinda — it was Powell during the ’90s) alterna-musician/chef Ricky Barnes opened a game-changing local restaurant called (you saw this coming, right?) the Galaxy Cafe. It might be hard to believe now, but in those primeval days, there were a whole lot of old fogey/steak and potato/spaghetti and meatball feeding options in Columbus, but few hip, fun or ethnic ones. With its bold, Latin-tinged, veggie friendly and revved-up diner fare plus its rock ’n’ roll atmosphere, the Galaxy helped change that. In fact, you can easily see the Galaxy’s influences on current beloved eateries like the Starliner Diner, Betty’s and Knead.

The Explorers Club in Merion Village is Barnes’ new project, and it poses this culinary question: In a vastly more restaurant-sophisticated 2011 Columbus, can Barnes go home again? I’ll answer that question with another question: Ricky, what took you so long?

Covered in handsome woodblock artworks depicting a wide spectrum of geniuses (by Barnes’ old musician pal Jeb Loy Nichols), Explorers Club emphasizes local ingredients, righteous portions and prices — nothing’s over $11 — healthy-leaning scratch cooking prepared with panache, and, well, fun. Here, you can enjoy: freewheeling cocktails in a Southwest-totem-laden bar (there’s a decent and $5 cheap pint of house margarita or, even better, a potent cucumber and ginger Explorer Margarita of the month for $8.50); terrific weekend breakfasts (like killer chilaquiles rife with veggies and chorizo or the inspired hybrid of a Chili Relleno Omelet); plus snacks, dinners and lunches rich with veggies, Southwestern and Asian touches plus high-quality housemade bread products (Barnes studied breadmaking at the Culinary Institute of America).

As wonderful as the Black Bean Hummus ($6) is, it’s nearly upstaged by accompanying triangles of warm, yeasty, thick, chewy, garlicky and citrus-flecked homemade pita-ish bread. As for other starters I tried, there were nontraditional but irresistible cornmeal-crusted, deep-fried Chili Rellenos ($6); Tofu Fries with insanely crispy textures ($6) and a lively, ancho chili-paste dip to perk up the bean curd taste; and a beautiful, even luxurious posole-like (but healthier) Green Chili and Barley soup du jour — get that with the dense house bread, which sports an alluring, sourdough tang.

The rest of the enticing but casual menu is categorized by salads, sandwiches, pasta and “dinner,” with about five to six items under each heading.

I thought the huge Caesar salad ($6), with its extra-crunchy croutons and thickish creamy dressing, was pretty good, but I loved the standout Underground Salad ($8). That chilled and colorful, meal-in-itself, root veggie ensemble with the teasingly countercultural handle grouped glistening beets, parsnips and potatoes with a terrific lettuce salad starring a horseradish-kissed, light and delightful Green Goddess dressing — a cold-weather-embracing must!

I also enjoyed tempeh made memorable by a spicy and sweet glaze ($10, with a neat sriracha slaw plus rice and beans) and a fusion-y Banh Mi ($8.50) made with juicy and stewy chicken (the protein changes daily). That sandwich was a bit of a mess, but I loved its sweet and pickly notes, homemade baguette loaf, swarm of veggies and side of dark-cooked, crispy fries.

Of course, there’s a lot of old Galaxy classics, too, like the crave-tastic Spinach Fettucine Caliente ($10.50) and a wonderful Ropa Vieja sandwich ($7.50 with fries). And if the Cuban-style Roasted Half Chicken ($11, with top-notch jalapeno slaw, rice and beans), wasn’t as flavorful as I’ve had it before, the Galaxy’s famous old dessert (Mrs. Barnes’ Pumpkin Dessert, $5) hit my prototypical pumpkin-love sweet spot dead on.