New, all-over-the-map restaurant features entertaining, bold dishes and easily fixable inconsistencies
The number in the name of Passport 196 refers to the recognized countries in the world. While hardly all 196 countries are represented on the menu of new, international-minded Passport 196, enough cuisines are referenced — and entangled — to create some unusual items. These are sometimes dishes in which the flavors don't marry but still have a pretty fun date.
Taking over the former Big Fat Greek Kuzina space in Upper Arlington, Passport 196 is an open and expansive eatery with varnished wooden tables and long, wooden banquettes. Decorations are sparse on the walls of the tavern-like place, but prevalent around the large bar. There, you'll find a hodgepodge of knick-knacks that might've come from a United Nations-sanctioned souvenir shop.
Thought has gone into the beverage selection, more so with the interesting beer menu — 18 are on tap — than the not-bad, 16-bottle wine list. Four cocktails with good-sounding components are offered, such as the Rosemary Gin Fizz ($7), made with Watershed Four Peel gin, rosemary syrup, grapefruit juice and soda. Mine tasted pleasant, like an Old Tom gin, but wasn't fizzy or properly chilled.
The Smoked Wings ($11) with “jerk bbq” sauce also oversold its assets — I didn't detect any smoke or much jerk seasoning — but this didn't deter me from enjoying the chili-and-barbecue-sauced, relatively crispy chicken and first-rate blue cheese dip. If sharing, these pair well with "West Indian Street Corn” ($3) — think pico de gallo, plus corn.
Chili and fortified wine lent plenty of zip to a black bean and sherry soup du jour ($4). The solid recipe and execution resulted in a thick and soulful soup I'd happily order again.
Fiery but delicious jerk sauce ignited the three plump grilled shrimp that are nearly worth the price of admission to an idiosyncratic surf-and-turf combination: the Morne Trois Pitons Burger ($14). Named after a volcano and an eponymous park that's a UNESCO world heritage site on the Caribbean island of Dominica, the sandwich features a juicy, sear-crusted, substantial and terrific grilled hamburger. Fresh guacamole, smoked Gouda cheese and a faint “tandoori glaze” add to the all-over-the-map flavors. A side of crisp, golden-brown fries provides strong support.
The Juan Epstein ($12) is another recommended, eccentric sandwich with another notable title. Named after a character on the 1970s TV sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” with Jewish and Puerto Rican roots, it's a spicy, Reuben-style assembly with sauerkraut, chorizo, thin-sliced smoked turkey, pepper jack cheese and spicy Thousand Island dressing. This is served with the good house fries, but if you'd like to explore other sides, the Mac & Cheese ($4.50) with a rich, creamy sauce — and sometimes chilies — is the way to go.
My Bayou Salmon entree ($17, with nice sauteed yellow squash, plus bland rice and beans) featured skillfully grilled and blackened fish topped with an oddly light and chunky, if tangy and appealing, “crawfish etouffee” that arrived cold. When I informed my server of this, she whisked away the dish, only to bring back the same bites-missing plate several minutes later after a reheating. Despite the inconvenience, I was charged full price.
The same server didn't seem to mind that a tablemate was underwhelmed by the hearty, fresh Veggie Burger ($10, with fries) that tasted mostly of under-seasoned rice and beans. After seeing that the burger was barely touched, instead of offering to replace it, the server offered a to-go box, then charged full price.
These blips are unfortunate, because Passport 196 is a generally fun place with otherwise cordial service and distinct, flavorful food. Once it works through its few kinks, I'll be glad to have my passport regularly stamped in this adventurous, mostly rewarding restaurant.