“I never thought I’d be eating food this damn delicious beside the parking lot of a grocery store!” gushed my lunchtime companion between intent nips on a formidable Sour Cherry and Lemon Goat Cheese Scone ($3) and avid sips of a tart but jammy Hibiscus Strawberry Lemonade ($2).
I could see by her wild eyes that she was 1) experiencing a mini-epiphany and 2) entertaining futile designs on the last bites of my beautiful Lamb Chorizo Galette and my knockout Patacon Maracucho. Coldly staring her down, I carefully curved an arm around my plate and, scooching that plate tightly against my torso replied, “Well it’s the Veranda at The Hills, not a parking lot at some grocery store.”
One of our premiere Ohio-focused specialty markets, The Hills always seems to be actively promoting clever events celebrating our regional food and drink scene. Now once a week (11-2 p.m. on Fridays) it’s presenting Darista Cafe, a chance to taste bold, world-inspired and impressively cheffy fare sold at “I’ll have one of each!” prices (nothing even reached $10). Considering my table was wowed by every morsel on Darista’s heavily locally sourced and exciting six-item menu (a chalkboard listed several specific farms), I’m going to proclaim this home run-hitting outdoor operation Columbus’ best new “non-staurant.”
Chalk this up to the talent, hard work and global travels of Dara Schwartz. Schwartz — who, along with fiancee Mark Subel, constitutes the entire Darista Cafe staff — told me her immersive travels to places like Spain, Thailand, Costa Rica and Portugal inevitably involved befriending locals who invited her into their own homes to share conversation and dinner. In those faraway kitchens, Schwartz learned a lot about cooking — a sharp skill she continues to hone by working part time at Barcelona in German Village. One day Schwartz hopes to open her own brick-and-mortar restaurant, but for now, the ceiling-fan-cooled, covered patio-like relaxing confines of the Veranda at The Hills will do quite nicely.
Darista’s menu varies weekly, but you can expect seasonally tongue-popping dishes like this:
• Rhubarb, Strawberry, Chevre Salad ($8): A light dressing (rhubarb vinaigrette and red wine reduction) pointed up field-fresh veggies (arugula, sugar snap peas) that were enriched by pistachio-crusted goat cheese orbs, spiked by killer pickled rhubarb slices and sweetened by pristine strawberries.
• Cucumber Gazpacho ($5): Just great — and thoroughly refreshing on a sultry June day. Showing off a pretty, creamy-yet-textured green hue and hefty, if lean-tasting body, this expertly balanced chilled soup abounded with concentrated, just-sliced cucumber flavor aided by crunchy and fruity-sweet diced yellow peppers. A perfectly tuned background bite of tickly chili played yin to the yang of soothing goat cheese crumbles.
• Patacon Maracucho ($9): This huge and fabulous sandwich (think South American torta) used crackly shells of smashed and fried plantains in place of bread. The ungreasy discs — which were as delightfully thin and crispy as chips — enveloped a seductively rich, comforting, thick and meaty filling of warm and juicy pulled cilantro chicken, pureed avocado and melty mozzarella. Lime, roma tomatoes, cumin and a mild “sriracha vinaigrette” slightly mediated the richness.
• Lamb Chorizo Galette ($8): A handsome and irresistible savory handmade pastry that was thick, flaky, crispy, buttery-rich and dense. Inside was a loose and racy — if not spicy — ground lamb and paprika amalgam. Lavish garnishes came by way of a tangy, homemade-tasting roasted garlic aioli, an intense pesto with leavening bites of radish and more goat cheese.