Wafting through the imposingly solid walls of McCasky’s Grille are ghosts from a great Columbus past. The other night, I heard spirits there whispering to no one in particular, “Thank you for no longer abandoning us.” Then again, that might be attributable to strongish ales from the exalted, if arcane Baltimore-based “gypsy brewer” called Stillwater.
Reviving this lamentably long-dormant structure that began life as a brewery in 1883 and a century later housed Master Chef Hartmut Handke’s groundbreaking fine dining restaurant, McCasky’s crew has rejuvenated an odd Columbus jewel. Fortunately, their cosmetic alterations are barely consequential.
The stunning, barrel-vaulted downstairs space — where Handke worked his magic — will be open this weekend for St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans, but it’ll mostly be reserved for private affairs. Upstairs, that distinctly grooved plaster ceiling and large, carved wooden bar bracketed with stout columns behind it still define an amusingly unusual, horizontally oriented room.
Upstairs changes that do stand out are a line-up of flat screens that have, since the first week of February, heralded this distinguished old building’s new identity as a glorified sports bar. Ergo, don’t expect any more Bocuse d’Or winning duck dishes; but do expect winning duck confit tacos — and other perfectly competent, flavor-forward, homemade pub grub.
That’s what I got when, after ordering a brew from a list with a few gems on it such as that aforementioned peachy, rare-around-here Stillwater quaff (there’s also a modest wine selection), I was informed of one of the area’s better daily specials — McCasky’s “taco Monday.” Eight bucks bought three overstuffed fusioners on decent-enough corn tortillas: fresh-tasting, juicy walleye with an acidic slaw; obviously house-roasted, barbecue-sauced pulled pork with onion straws and more good slaw; plus duck confit with crunchy chow mein noodles and Thai chili sauce. A pile of garlicky, lime and cilantro-inflected black beans with saffron rice accompanied these far-from-boring un-Mexican tacos.
Though sesame-oily, I mostly enjoyed the Asian Scallops appetizer ($10) — two golden-seared and sweet chili-sauced shellfish on a misnamed “risotto” that was actually a lively pimento and scallion rice dish. My beef with McCasky’s House Made Chips was the lack of beef on McCasky’s housemade chips. Though crispy, thick and snack-ilicious — and served with a punchy, oniony and basil-y mayo — $10 was a lot to pay for a stack of rippled spuds with little of their “filet” (extra-tender, highly seasoned steaky chunks), cheeses or other advertised accoutrements.
Conversely, McCasky’s simple Cuban sandwich ($9 with rice and beans) was a restrained success — and a rare accurate rendition of this too-often over-thought classic. Instead of mucking things up with, say, offal boudin and foraged Finnish umami sauce, it was just honest roasted pork, OK deli ham, melted Swiss cheese plus mustard and pickles on a — and this is key — crusty roll righteously smashed (hence concentrated) like it might’ve been run over by a truck.
McCasky’s House Burger ($10, with top-notch chips) earned two enthusiastic — and beef juice-coated — thumbs up. A nicely seared and loosely packed half-pound of black angus was judiciously graced with bacon jam (tastes as good as it sounds), sharp cheddar and crispy fried onions. As those bold flavors soaked into a toasted bun — and my grateful mouth — I looked contentedly around the old room and mumbled to a nearby ghost that I hoped this eccentric local treasure never had to go empty again.