With temperatures soaring, allow these plates to introduce some chill
I was walking my dog recently on a day so stinking hot that when I made an emergency stop for ice cream, I thought about dumping a S'mores Blizzard down my shorts. Instead I started eating it, and the Blizzard immediately gave me cool, sweet relief. It wasn't long, though, before that DQ treat began to taste a little too sweet.
This got me thinking. When it's hatefully hot out and chilly foods sound especially appealing, what might I eat that would still be inexpensive but could hold my interest longer — and would require far better ingredients and far better culinary skills to prepare — than a soft-serve dessert? After visiting some of the city's buzzy new restaurants, along with a few favorite older places, I came up with this list of interesting, delicious and cooling summertime dishes.
Tomato and Artichoke Stack, $9
Juniper is “See and Be Seen” central right now; and there's a lot to see. Taking its name from a major flavoring agent in gin (try the thirst-quenching Elvis cocktail), Juniper is perched high up on the rooftop of the 1920s-era Smith Bros' Hardware Building near Italian Village. Generally open to the public (it functions as a private-party space, too), this new establishment regularly attracts packs of camera-brandishing visitors content to soak in its stunning setting and incredible views of Downtown. Whether out on the glass-walled patio or inside the huge, minimalist glass box of a restaurant — which has a retractable roof — Juniper induces most patrons to wander around with mouths agape.
To fill in those holes, a Caribbean-leaning menu of snacks, salads and small plates is offered. Seeing how the local weather is Caribbean-leaning now, too, I was happy to find something here to combat the wilting effect associated with sultry conditions.
It's the Tomato and Artichoke Stack, a relatively simple but attractive vegetarian dish whose core is a molded cylinder of chopped artichoke hearts and tomatoes concasse (i.e. peeled, seeded and diced). The squat little veggie barrel gets height from an elevating base of thin, French-style green beans, plus a crown of fresh frisee. Speckles of black pepper and an effective lemon vinaigrette with a hint of sweetness provide zip.
Tam Tam Hiyashi Chuka, $10.90
Fukuryu — careful how you say that — in Upper Arlington (there's a Dublin branch of the small chain with local roots, too) is a modern ramen shop that features local beers and a rock 'n' roll soundtrack. Fukuryu also is wise enough to understand that a big old bowl of steaming-hot soup doesn't always sound good when the weather gets hot and sticky. So a couple weeks ago, the restaurant released a supplemental summer menu — it'll be available into August — that includes this colorful entree that's spicy enough to have taken a cue from the fire breathing dragon mural that spans Fukuryu's flashy red wall.
Rather than a boiling broth, a crisp ginger dressing is the flavor base for a bowl of chilled and firm, yet delightfully springy house noodles. Add-ons include a garlicky, spicy, intense and addictive ground pork mixture ignited by Thai chilies and cayenne pepper. Strips of crab stick, cucumber and egg sushi (tamagoyaki) help balance the incendiary pork. Toss in a pile of corn, plus nori and sesame seed garnishes, and you've got a dynamic summertime meal offering spicy, comforting, sweet, salty and umami qualities.
Maine Lobster Roll, $15.50
Cousins Maine Lobster food truck
You might guess that a luscious lobster from Maine couldn't make it out of a shark tank intact, but this impressive new food truck proves otherwise. Actually, I should write “Shark Tank,” because I'm referring to the TV show on which entrepreneurs vie for funding from a panel of mega-rich hosts. LA-based Cousins not only survived that “Shark Tank,” but it's thriving to the tune of a veritable fleet — 32 of its franchised trucks are currently roaming the streets of various cities.
When I caught up with the Columbus Cousins in the parking lot of OSU Hospital East, the sleek black vehicle festooned with pennants bearing witness to its many celebratory media appearances (Saveur, the Food Network and “The Chew,” just to name a few) had a good-sized lunchtime line.
After one bite of this sandwich, I considered getting right back in that line again. Big clumps of cool, perfectly firm (not soggy), lemon-kissed, sweet tail and claw meat — plenty of it — are packed into a buttery, expertly toasted, split-top, New England-style bun. A whisper of mayo adds a touch of richness. That's it. There's no celery or anything else to get in the way of the pure lobster flavor delivered by this killer seafood missile, which blows most other lobster rolls out of the water.
Mussel Escabeche, $3
Those lists of Best New Restaurants that won't come out until the end of the year? Yeah, go ahead and pencil in Lupo on all of them. What else would you expect from the team of Rick and Krista Lopez, life-and-business partners and accomplished chefs and restaurateurs who, four years ago, opened one of the best Italian restaurants to ever appear in Columbus: La Tavola in Grandview.
Lupo isn't Italian; it's a sophisticated but informal, high-energy, tapas-leaning Spanish eatery with extremely appealing and strongly executed food and drink menus that offer some great values. Chef Todd Elder, a Lopez protege and longtime veteran of Barcelona in German Village, skillfully commandeers the kitchen in the stylish, modest-sized former bank space with an alluring little patio on a quaint “old” Upper Arlington street. Given these assets, it's hardly surprising that tables are in high demand (get reservations).
Lupo's Mussel Escabeche is a Spanish classic and a great bar-snack bargain. Three measly dollars buys four large, plump, fresh-tasting Prince Edward Island mussels that have been gently cooked in an acidic solution and then refrigerated so they're chilled and super-tender. Saffron, oil, fried garlic bits and white wine lend the ocean-kissed shellfish punch and richness. When finished, you'll be tempted to sip the liquid left in your empty ramekin, but ask for some house-baked bread instead — Lupo isn't that informal.
Lindey's Restaurant & Bar
Carpaccio is like lovely roast beef without the roasting. Lindey's is like a lovely local restaurant without “the next big thing” hubbub. Put the two cool classics together on Lindey's fabulous patio when an excellent selection of drinks and dishes are half-priced — between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (the carpaccio is $6 then) — and it's a match made in happy hour heaven.
The tender “sushi style” beef, which will practically dissolve on contact with your tongue, arrives in rosy ovals splayed out on a large white platter. Adorning the paper-thin meat are a snowfall of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, squiggles of spicy chipotle aioli and a terrific little arugula salad boosted by vinegary fennel strips and firm pieces of marinated Portobello mushroom. To eat this is to realize that these ingredients belong together. To eat this on Lindey's patio at a ridiculously discounted happy hour price is to realize that you, and the smart-looking crowd around you, are on to something special.
Xi'an Steamed Cold Noodles, $8.25
Don't be misled by this restaurant's name, or the fact that it confoundingly offers pad Thai. The “Thai” in its title refers to a mountain range in China because Jiu Thai is actually a Chinese restaurant — and one of the best in Columbus. Specializing in the distinct cuisine of the north, casual Jiu Thai has a lot to offer: a simple-but-lively dining room with a contemporary pop soundtrack; Chinese beer; inexpensive, scratch-cooked, real Chinese dishes; and friendly, exceedingly speedy service.
The ever-bustling spot excels at noodle-making, too. That skill is on delicious display in this addictive, good-sized appetizer that brings some chili heat with its chilly temperature. Wide ribbons of comforting, house-made pasta join wispy-thin noodles plus delightfully chewy nubs of noodle dough (aka “noodle tendons”) in a vibrant salad energized by vinegar, stir-fried dried chilies, garlic and chili oil. Offsetting but hardly taming these potent flavors are shaved cucumber, cilantro, sesame seeds and bean sprouts. I order this dish every time I come here, and I come here often.
Ahi Tuna Poke, $15
Given the recent proliferation of poke-specific shops popping up in Columbus, when readers nowadays encounter the word “poke,” they're more apt to register “sushi-style tuna” than “finger jab.” That wasn't the case when the Sycamore, a stylish operation that premiered about five years ago under the umbrella of the Harvest Pizzeria family of restaurants, began offering poke. Back then, I remember most local food writers (including me) would insert an “it's pronounced poe-kay”-type line when describing the refreshing, Hawaiian-style tuna preparation. Anyway, half a decade later, the Sycamore is still a terrific eatery, and it still offers some of the best poke tuna in town.
Whisked out in a forming ring that's removed tableside, the little timbale-like tower — which suggests a refined and Hawaiian-style riff on nachos — is layered with a generous supply of chopped, silky raw fish, crisp taro chips, avocado and pickled onions. Also in the composition are microgreens, curls of preserved lemon rind, plus garnishing droplets of scallion oil and reduced soy sauce. Yup, there's a lot going on here, but the varied flavors and textures in the entertaining ensemble all make sense.
Fresh Veggie Soba, $10.95
This uncommon vegetarian dish, prepared by a bastion of high-level Japanese cuisine, applies a sushi aesthetic to a piled-high salad with an elegantly spare, Zen-like austerity. The entree might be woefully undersold by its bluntly worded title of Fresh Veggie Soba, but it's accurately depicted in one of the many helpful color photos that ease the reading of Akai Hana's big menu.
In a bento, you'll see the usual sushi companions of wasabi and a soy-based dipping sauce opposite a sushi-rolling mat that supports an improbably tall mound prettily assembled from various noodles fashioned from components with muted colors.
The sturdy base of this multi-textured jumble of an edible hill is a tangle of chilled al dente soba noodles — which are made of buckwheat and high in protein, fiber and nutrients. Delicately draped above are skillfully shaved “noodles” of cucumber and daikon radish interspersed with semi-bitter sprouts and greens. A tuft of crinkly nori strips provides the crowning touch.
You eat this, a la sushi, by dipping bites of the subtly flavored heap into the soy sauce that you've previously seasoned with wasabi. It makes for a refreshingly light and lean, yet surprisingly substantial, meal.
Wild Arugula Salade Gourmande, $15
Summertime means entree salads, but most entree salads aren't what you'd call exciting dining. This isn't most entree salads. Besides, calling this lush, lusty and lovely chilled dinner a “salad” is like saying that LeBron James is a basketball player.
The perfectly dressed vegetation that centers the composition and ties it together is a pile of wild arugula whose mild bitterness is offset by a semi-sweet champagne vinaigrette, which, because it's made correctly by the Refectory, is enriched with egg. The tender greens are accompanied by a coronet of carrot threads decorated with a sprinkling of pretty edible flowers.
Wild arugula might supply the salad with its name, but the outstanding proteins that surround it supply the salad with elegance. These include two huge poached shrimp animated by blots of intense sauce ravigote (which is bright and herby); little slices of succulent duck with pink centers; silky ribbons of rolled smoked salmon (sometimes it's smoked sea trout); and a couple generous mounds of incredibly smooth and delicious “chicken foie gras,” a rich house-made liver pate that could convert organ-meat skeptics. Toss in saffron and tongue-tickling lemon notes, then showcase the haute-cuisine creation on a fancy platter and, well, now that's an entree salad.
Hot & Sour Fern Root Noodle, $7.95;
?Spicy potato salad, $5.95;
Chilled Broth with Buckwheat Noodles & Beef, $10.95
N.E. Chinese Restaurant
I'm guessing you noticed this is a three-fer? Sorry, but I couldn't choose just one, or even two, items from a menu rife with so many unusual and enticing chilled dishes on it as you'll find in this humble but wonderful little restaurant. Inky black noodles made from fern roots are a rare find in Columbus, and the appetizer NE makes with them is dynamite. I mean that almost literally, because the eatery's stark-looking dish is explosively flavored. But, man, is it delicious, with fun-to-slurp, slippery, long noodles embellished with garlic, vinegar, cilantro and potent red chilies that should come with a warning.
The potato salad is spicy, too, but it has fruity notes and isn't really a fire starter. It isn't really a potato salad, either — or what Americans recognize as potato salad. What you'll get is firm and crisp, shredded and marinated potato matchsticks tossed in chili oil with jalapeno, carrot, cilantro, sesame seeds and more.
NE's beef noodle dish — which is chilly but has no chili — is a handsomely arranged, gigantic bowl of wonderfully unusual, sweet-and-tart broth supporting a huge load of buckwheat pasta. Gilding the lily are garnishes that might have come from the ramen playbook: hard-cooked egg, a couple hearty slices of cured beef, julienned cucumber, sliced tomato and sesame seeds.
Chocolate = White + Dark, $7
Plenty of desserts could make a list of chilly dishes, but this one takes CHILL to the extreme. That's because it's made with liquid nitrogen, which boasts a temperature of around 320 degrees below zero. Obviously, there's some “Mr. Wizard” stuff going on here, but you might expect that from a dish named “Chocolate = White + Dark,” or if you know anything about Veritas.
Anyway, liquified gas is used to super-freeze white chocolate foam, taking it from a loose consistency to crystallized lumps that look and crunch like oversized kernels of frozen popcorn but taste like vanilla mousse. Bonuses: within minutes, the texture of the “kernels” changes from crinkly to creamy, and when the dish is presented — it's big enough to serve three or four people — it arrives literally forming little clouds around it, so it appears to be steaming.
But it's not just about the frosty special effects. The dish is a delicious essay on chocolate in five guises, and so also includes a dark chocolate ganache sauce, a scoop of smooth and lovely house-made caramelized white chocolate ice cream, a dusting of chocolate powder and, to sort of wrap it all up, an aerated milk chocolate ribbon with welcome bitter notes.
Oh, and if you don't know anything about Veritas, here are some quick facts: It semi-recently relocated from Delaware to Downtown; it's an archly modernist restaurant with fantastic cocktails; and it will join Lupo on every single 2018 Best New Restaurants list.