Sophistication never goes out of style at The Refectory. In this city's wonderfully accomplished restaurant scene, other upscale places may have flashier cuisines or trendier concepts, but The Refectory remains loyal to its fine French fare and service so refined you may not even realize how well you're being catered to. It is the true meaning of exquisite dining.
The Columbus institution, located in a centuries-old church on the Northwest Side, has been welcoming diners for more than 30 years. Its consistent excellence makes it a staple for romantic nights out, especially during this time of year, when thoughts turn to elegant holiday gatherings with family and friends.
We started our recent evening at The Refectory in the lounge, which is actually an old one-room schoolhouse now connected to the main church building. And it is old school. You can feel the decades swirling around the spacious room-it's almost awe-inspiring-but the exposed brick walls and dim lighting still give the lounge a comforting intimacy. It's anchored by an ornate wooden bar and a row of swiveling leather barstools that are so cushy you'll be tempted to stay for quite a while.
From the cocktail menu, we enjoyed the Limoncello Drop ($9), a bright and not-too-tart martini made with Absolut Citron and limoncello. Just as beautifully crafted was the Classic Champagne Cocktail ($9), a bitters-soaked sugar cube topped with dry bubbly.
A light bistro menu is also served in the lounge-a three-course, fixed-priced affair for $24-but we moved on to the main dining room to enjoy the full dinner menu.
That dining room is the sanctuary of the 1853 church building, and the design details of its reverent origins have been preserved in grand fashion. An exposed roof soars overhead, supported by hand-hewn wooden beams, while the heft of brick and stone accouterments quietly remind diners of its once-serious purpose. People still worship here, of course, but they now give thanks for plates of wonderfully crafted cuisine.
From the hors d'oeuvres menu, we began with the slightly spicy kick of the Shrimp and Andouille Fricassee ($14), and the Roasted Goat Cheese ($11), a warm and rich plate that whetted our appetites for more fine fare to come.
The Rack of Lamb entree ($33) was beautifully prepared in the traditional French-trimmed style. The peppery meat was covered in a sweet glaze, and accompanied by a buttery caper sauce. Likewise, attention to detail was evident in the Beef Shoulder Tenderloin ($28), which was perfectly cooked to medium rare, showcasing the high-quality meat with melt-in-your-mouth flavor.
A pool of color brightened up the Sea Scallops ($29) and the entire table. The meaty, well-seared mollusks rested on a purple mustard sauce that added a flavorful tang and an impressive visual pop. Of course, everyone sears sea scallops in this town. The Refectory's display makes you realize just how pedestrian most others' preparations are.
The Whole Dover Sole ($39) may be the epitome of The Refectory's fine service, and the most obvious example of the wait staff's otherwise unobtrusive attentiveness. The fish is prepared tableside; our server carefully filleted and de-boned the roasted sole, then applied the salty zing of a lemon caper sauce. It tasted as delightful as the presentation.
The Refectory has rightfully earned a reputation for having one of the city's best wine selections, with thousands of well-priced bottles in its cellar. The list of glass pours is impressive, too; we tried the crisp and fruity A Mano Pinot Grigio 2008 ($7) and the bright Underwood Pinot Noir 2009 ($7).
Dessert included a super-rich and decadent Chocolate Tart ($8), accented with a Grand Marnier truffle. This is a chocolate-lover's dream-it's hard to imagine fitting more dark cocoa flavor onto one forkful. We also enjoyed the Pear Tart Frangipane ($9), a sticky and crispy fruit pastry that was too pretty to eat. But don't worry, we ate it anyway.
Beautiful presentation is to be expected at The Refectory, but it shouldn't delay you from digging into the delicious food.