Often in the recent past, when I thought about Bodega, I was reminded of this sagely quote by the immortal Yogi Berra: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Don’t get me wrong, I was an early champion of and always remained a fan of Bodega. Handsome, sleek and sophisticated, it embodies a “this is the happening place to be” spirit that makes the Short North the first thing people talk about when they talk about Columbus.
But by latching on to its winning formula — artsy NYC look + fun food + epic booze menu (including a dizzying selection of beers) = unceasing popularity — Bodega lost people like me unwilling to continually brave its heaving crowds. Until lately, that is.
See, in the last few weeks, Bodega has drastically retooled its food menu, undergone a major kitchen renovation and added an influx of ambitious cooking talent in the form of chef Marcus Meacham (he used to rule at Barrio). This has resulted in hugely flavorful dishes sold at terrific prices and in generous portions. It’s also attracted me back to the waiting list at the Bodega host stand, because its new gastropubby menu now offers some of the best eating deals in the area.
A great way to get the taste buds rolling is with Bodega’s new spate of kicky and multi-culti small plates. Sure, chicken wings are passe, but Bodega fashions its flappers to wave in their own direction. They’re enormous, super crispy, zestily dry-rubbed whole wings ($7) daubed with a chutney-like jerk sauce, served with tropically compatible partners of grilled pineapple and guaranteed to please.
At least as pleasing were the kefta-like Lamb Kebobs ($9). Four tender, juicy and aromatic seared ground meat blobs flavor-powered by parsley and chopped onion were served with stinging harissa (think spicy Middle Eastern salsa) and grilled pita.
It could easily be argued that the rich, sharp and pungent blue cheese sauce and crispy bacon bits were heavy-handed accents for the Mussels & Fries ($10), but after digging into them a while, I started to love them. Yeah, the mussels got a little lost, but that sauce would be good on hockey pucks, and the blocky, extra-crispy and garlicky fries are some of the best around.
A more subtle approach to seafood arose with the nice Shrimp & Grits ($7). A simple winner at a great price, it was just clean-tasting shellfish and thick bacon bits atop a dense base of coarse and buttery white grits. In lieu of a sauce, it got acidic zip from chopped tomatoes.
Irresistible Chicken Tikka “fingers” ($7 for a large, shareable bundle) bore the tell-tale tenderness of yogurt marination and showed Bodega’s slight Indian influence. They came with toasty pita triangles and a coriander chutney.
Though some garnishes were MIA, the behemoth Bombay Burger ($9) was a killer, and one of my new favorites. Its kefta-ish and curry-ish flavors enhanced and never overwhelmed the beefy quiddity of its thick and juicy patty. (Hint: Get it with Bodega’s terrific fries).
Impressive chef’s specials also crop up now, like a pretty — and delicious — Crawfish Etouffee Napoleon ($12). Showing off wit and real culinary chops, its stacked discs of red bean and rice polenta cakes were punctuated by smoky andouille sausage, slathered in an unusual tomatoey sauce, and surrounded by crackly, cornmeal-battered okra.