The best new high-end restaurants, chef-driven destinations, bakeries and more

How many new Columbus restaurants have you tried this year? Go ahead and count. I'll wait.

Unless you're in the “eating media” or the restaurant business, I'd guess that the number you just came up with is unlikely to exceed 10, which would reflect a recent unscientific poll I conducted with some friends.

When I performed the same exercise, I stopped counting as my number approached 40. Yes, that's crazy-high.

Obviously, this is because I'm some sort of restaurant guinea pig. (I'm pretending that typing “guinea” was necessary.) And, as a longtime professional glutton and dining-out outlier, I'm happy to report that the general high quality of 2017-minted eateries made my “job” easier than it's been in years.

Not so easy: staying on top of an ever-swelling tsunami of restaurant openings that finds me still splashing through my yet-to-review-before-the-year-ends list. Anyhow, here are a few thoughts on some of the best new restaurants I've waded into during 2017.

Raising the Bar: Service Bar, Watershed Kitchen and Bar

If there was any doubt that a city with 30-some breweries has become a hooch hotspot, how about this observation: The two best new restaurants to open in Columbus this year both have “bar” in their name andboth branched off from — and are situated in — local liquor distilleries.

These terrific hybrid operations (Should we call them “Boozepubs?” “Liquorants?” Yeah, probably not.) should be credited for having the wherewithal to hire all-star chefs rather than phoning in a menu of afterthought grub with which to ply patrons who've understandably shown up to get gloriously cocktail-faced.

Service Bar, which is the dining arm of Middle West Spirits of OYO liquors fame, opened in the Short North in October with a bang not a whimper, thanks in large part to Chef Avishar Barua. Barua's playful attitude about serious cooking was clearly influenced by working at witty, genre-bending restaurants such as WD-50 and Mission Chinese Food in New York City — as well as Veritas Tavern in Delaware, Ohio (but soon-to-be Downtown). At Service Bar, Barua exhibits a fondness for smoke and a keen awareness of pleasurable textures. And his sense of humor informs several downscale dishes upgraded through enhanced ingredients and skill. So a Big Mac gets remade as the MWS Burger, which stars beef that is enriched with bone marrow and lightly smoke-scented by incorporating bacon. General Tso also gets a promotion (the hoisin-and-hibiscus-kicked Crispy Ribs) and Taco Bell's notorious Cheesy Gordita Crunch is born again as the Cheesy Brisket Crunch, created with tender and juicy oak-smoked beef and puffy fried Indian roti bread. Reuben-style sandwich fans can greet their new local champion: the kimchi-spiked Pastrami Rachel. Even Johnny Marzetti gets a makeover as the enormous Michelone Marzetti. Here, old Johnny is redressed with homemade creste di gallo (rooster crest-shaped) pasta and a huge meatball. The hip, starkly handsome little restaurant also offers great cocktails from a large menu fashioned like a food menu and featuring “starters,” “shareables” (table-serving punches) and “mains.”

Pro tip: Open-to-close happy hour on Sundays (5-10 p.m.).

At Watershed Kitchen and Bar, chef Jack Moore displays cooking chops that live up to his resume, which includes elevated Cleveland eateries such as Greenhouse Tavern and Black Pig. Moore also displays a refreshing, conventions-be-damned attitude conveyed through a menu that eschews the normal flow of courses for one organized by Roman numerals. Basically, this means that instead of appetizer, entree and dessert, diners are offered a mix-and-match selection that showcases small and not-so-small plates. Describing his cuisine as “homey-yet-new,” many of Moore's dishes are spins on comfort-food classics. Expect fare such as hay-smoked baby back ribs; the Nashville-influenced Buttermilk Fried Chicken (a Moore favorite topped with a melting scoop of spicy lardo and served with house pickles plus house hot sauce); must-order Fingerling Potatoes (some of the best spuds in town, they're crispy, herby, garlic-kissed and further distinguished by the interplay of a lush aioli, lemon zest and feathery shaved Parmesan); and a corned beef-style treatment of sweetbreads (a staff favorite). Also expect an often loud and energetic, dark and fashionable Northwest Side space brightened by gleaming distillery tanks, a copper-topped bar, plants and a huge colorful menu of intricate cocktails.

Pro tip: Watershed is regularly packed, so reservations are highly suggested.

More Top Chefs: South Village Grille, The Keep, Cosecha Cocina, Trillium

Serious chefs with impressive credentials likewise grace the next level of top new restaurants. These places are also in line with and help to define where fine dining is headed in 21st-century Columbus — which is somewhere near the intersection of cosmopolitan and casual. In these kinds of establishments, you'll find professional service, accomplished dishes and (sometimes) white tablecloths, but you'll also find an often-boisterous, tavern-style space with a celebratory atmosphere.

When South Village Grille opened, several fans of the room's beloved previous tenant — Easy Street Cafe in German Village — told me they viewed the newcomer with a skeptical eye. But after seeing South Village's urbane-yet casual, non-cliche interior and after tasting the polished plates of Chef Josh Wiest, that old Easy Street flame of theirs became easy to forget. Wiest, who graduated from the prestigious French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and worked for celebrity chef Todd English, executes his accessible menu with uncommon consistency. His fancy-cooking-school techniques routinely transform routine-sounding ingredients into attractive dishes, such as a distinct Beet & Goat Cheese Terrine — pretty pinwheels supported by a lemony arugula and shaved-radish salad. The standout scallop entree teams excellent shellfish given a textbook sear with pillowy gnocchi, well-browned shiitakes, pesto, arugula and a Calabrian chile vinaigrette. Even calamari and chicken wings are distinguished at South Village Grille — and discounted during its terrific happy hour. And the beignets are amazing.

Pro tip: Cocktails exceed expectations and nightly steak specials are usually terrific.

The Keep is a keeper. Hopefully, so is its opening chef: Jonathan Olson, a veteran of several Ritz Carlton restaurant kitchens. Olson's interesting menu bounces around France, touches down in Mediterranean lands, cruises through Asia and spends a lot of time near the ocean. Here, you'll find Melted Eggplant, which turns out to be a texturally pleasant take on baba ganoush with minor accents from baba's Italian cousin, caponata. The Halibut Ceviche gets Thai-twisted with lime, coconut milk and jalapeno. For a really dramatic fish dish, pick the Bronzini. Fried and presented whole and posed as if it were still swimming, it offers crispy skin and flaky, snow-white meat — all lashed with a mild XO-style sauce and sided with a tangy, gingery squash-and-cabbage salad. Meat-eaters will enjoy the succulent Guajillo Pork Cheeks; veg-heads should seek the Lentils & Legumes with smoked mushrooms, mint, labneh and a broth-like “tamarind vinaigrette.”

Protip: This buzzy, vintage-meets-contemporary restaurant is inside the stunning LeVeque Tower, so budget in sightseeing time.

Cosecha Cocina, the best Mexican restaurant to open in Columbus this year, occupies an aged but dramatically renovated Italian Village dairy barn that looks like it was transported in from an old Western movie set. It's part of the Harvest Pizzeria family of eateries, so this local-farm-focused operation is hardly your typical Mexican restaurant. And Chef Silas Caeton is hardly your typical burrito-slinger. Another alum from Veritas Tavern — and the former head chef at lost-and-lamented Rigsby's Kitchen — Caeton manages to respect classic Mexican culinary traditions even as he refreshes the cuisine with modern tweaks. Attention fish taco fans: Caeton's Fried Cod — huge blocks of lavishly garnished, wonderfully crunchy, masa-battered, clean-tasting cod (not the usual crappy tilapia) — are the best in town. Unlike conventional Mexican hominy stews, Cosecha's piquant Pork Pozole Verde showcases high-quality heritage pork. Among many tapas-style plates, some favorites are: tender Charred Octopus; zippy-sauced Pork Meatballs; Esquites (a bells-and-whistles corn salad); and the unexpectedly compelling Caramelized Sweet Potato.

Pro tip: Order one of the terrific margarita-style cocktails such as the tart-and-spicy Next Episode.

It's hard to mention Trillium Kitchen & Patio without mentioning Alana's Food and Wine, the landmark restaurant Trillium replaced and drastically renovated with loads of sleek wood. Even though I realize I did just that, it's hardly fair to Trillium, because the place has carved out its own identity. Much of the modern eatery's distinct personality derives from chef and co-owner Bradley Balch. A graduate of the esteemed College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, Balch has opened several high-profile local restaurants, including The Sycamore, which Balch still co-owns. Focusing on carefully sourced seasonal ingredients and seafood, Balch's versatile and alluring Trillium menu draws influences from Asia, Europe and the American South. The lemony Wild Gulf Prawns is an elegant little starter; the Lump Crab Wontons, a transcendent version of generally forgettable crab rangoon, is a larger starter. For a shareably big entree, pick the Ohio-raised McDowell Farms Pork Chop, a Southern-style showstopper with andouille sausage, bacon-cheddar grits, greens and a luscious redeye gravy.

Pro tip: Show up for the good happy hour on the (weather permitting) peerless patio.

Mom-n-Pops: Baba's, Ranchero Kitchen, N.E Chinese

Having a trained professional chef in the kitchen isn't a prerequisite for making great food — my mother's home cooking certainly proved that time and again when I was growing up. Countless inexpensive places in Columbus prove it every day, too. Here are a few memorable ones that recently became restaurants.

Baba's officially opened in late 2016, but it didn't become a full-fledged restaurant until this year, when it grew its hours and menu beyond that of the limited breakfast specialist it started out as. One of the most endearingly idiosyncratic little eateries in Columbus, this minimalist, local-focused, no-frills North Campus establishment celebrates an everything-from-scratch aesthetic often expressed in sandwiches contained in a signature muffin/roll. At Baba's, simple-sounding fare reaches unusual heights. Some examples: the killer Diner Burger with a side of superb Fries; a Ham and Cheese Sandwich that leaves most others in the dust; the inspired Insideout Grilled Cheese sandwich with house chorizo; and the Smoked Chicken entree, which shows Baba's is adept at barbecue, too.

Pro tip: Chef's-whim, pig-in-a-poke entrees called Evolved Plates — they come with a “no questions, no complaints” disclaimer — are fun, inexpensive and generally delicious.

The recent move by Ranchero Kitchen from a cramped nook in the Saraga International

Grocery store to a notablybigger and cushier room in a modern, spotlessly clean space on Morse Road feels physical and metaphorical, because this terrific and affordable Salvadoran restaurant has come into its own in multiple ways. The obvious draws here are El Salvador's most famous culinary gift to mankind: pupusas. Whether filled with gooey cheese, rich refried beans or delicious pork (chicharron), Ranchero's version of these pancake-like, corn tortilla pocket quesadillas are stupid-cheap and fantastic. But don't sleep on the marvelous Carne Asada, the prettily plated Yuca Frita Con Chicharron (decked-out fried pork and fried yuca) or Salvadoran-style subs such as the Pan con Pollo.

Pro tip: Off-menu “everything” pupusas are available if you know to ask for “revueltas.”

Wordplay doesn't — and shouldn't — figure into the name of N.E. Chinese Restaurant because, well, it isn't just any Chinese restaurant. It's a damn fine one that serves locally uncommon dishes native to Northeastern China, aka Dongbei, aka (back in the day) Manchuria. The preparations often reflect Dongbei's proximity to Russia and Korea, so potatoes, pickled vegetables, chilies and even homemade quick-breads show up in the friendly-but-spartan confines of this little Old North establishment. If dish titles are hardly inspired, their flavors are. Some recommendations: the dynamite Mixed Vegetables Salad, Sour Veg with Sweet Potato Noodle (Korean-style noodles and kraut-like cabbage), tender Spicy Pork with Cilantro, Spicy Twice-Cooked Fish and the Spicy Potato Salad.

Pro tip: Color photos in the storefront window herald limited-time-offer seasonal specials.

Your Daily Bread: Cravings Cafe, Little Eater, Flowers & Bread

Great baked goods can elevate a cafe-style place into a restaurant you want to visit day after day. These counter-ordering but discerning shops certainly meet that standard.

It was a happy day when the Cravings Cafe team recentlyresumed operations after a two-year hiatus. Not only is Cravings again making sandwiches on its buttery signature brioche rolls, but the business has relocated to a bigger, better, more charming space Downtown. This new-look Cravings also offers an expanded array of scratch-made fare. In addition to those duly famous sandwiches, you can regularly expect daily soups, salads and a selection of worth-the-splurge treats du jour. Some faves: Italian-style White Bean, Smoked Pork and Kale Soup; the rich, tangy, properly sweet and addictive Bulgogi Cheesesteak; the All Chopped Up Salad with a basil-based green goddess dressing; Chocolate Chip Cookies; and the Malted Blondie Brownie.

Pro tip: Always-good chalkboard specials — like a great recent Green-Chorizo-Sausage Roll — sell out early.

Little Eater comes about its name in amusing fashion: It's the translation, from Italian, of the last name of founding Chef Cara Mangini. Even if you haven't dined at Little Eater yet, you might know about Mangini from her frequent local radio and TV appearances, or from her much-praised book, “The Vegetable Butcher,” which was a 2017 James Beard Award finalist. This new Little Eater — the original is a North Market stall — is a chic, good-sized and inviting vegetarian restaurant committed to local sourcing. Hearty, nuanced veggie salads are key here — two of my favorites are much more involved than they sound: Cauliflower and the Potato & Leek. Other highlights: Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits, Mushroom Quiche, Swiss Chard Crostata and Black Bean Chili.

Pro tip: The Everything Spice Pretzel Braid is one of the best house-made pretzels in town.

Flowers & Bread —an immediate and wild success — is an example of talent and experience blossoming together at the right place and time. The place and time: near the Park of Roses in quality-restaurant-hungry Clintonville, a neighborhood newly realizing its potential. Three graduates of the French Culinary Institute supply the talent and experience: Tricia Wheeler, owner of The Seasoned Farmhouse and founder of Edible Columbus; Sarah Lagrotteria, who worked as a publicist and cookbook recipe-developer for superstar-chef Mario Batali; and Anthony Schulz, former Executive Chef for The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls. This trio's cute and quaint little cafe bakes superior products such as Tart Cherry Hot-Cross Buns, Buttermilk-Chocolate Bundt Cakes, Coffee Cream Scones and a wealth of exceptional breads.

Pro tip: Daily soups and sandwiches on spectacular ficelles (thin baguettes) such as the Black Forest Ham and Homemade Butter Sandwich and the Smoked Salmon Sandwich, make A-1 lunches — and present a strong case that “simple” can be sophisticated.