"Rooks" is a word that, for many people, refers to tower-shaped chess pieces. For the past two months in Columbus, it has also referred to Rooks Tavern - one of the city's most interesting restaurants to open in 2016.

"Rooks" is a word that, for many people, refers to tower-shaped chess pieces. For the past two months in Columbus, it has also referred to Rooks Tavern - one of the city's most interesting restaurants to open in 2016.

Inhabiting a smartly rehabbed Chittenden Avenue space in an underserved University District neighborhood, Rooks is a slyly sophisticated barbecue specialist with twists. Many of these originate near the semi-open kitchen of its comfortably rustic, gray-brick-and-wood-laden room. There, two shiny metal smokers and a rare Argentine-style grill generate the scent and sputtering flames of a campfire cookout.

Tastefully not exaggerating its western theme, Rooks also features an outgoing staff and a bar where the unobtrusive TV has recently screened "Scrooged" and a Bruce Lee flick. When the weather becomes appropriate again, a little patio awaits.

Bourbon is celebrated with a strong bottle selection and the giggle-inducing "pig-and-a-swig," an ever-changing pairing of "artisan ham" and whiskey. Recently, $8.50 scored a slice of silky, prosciutto-like meat and a healthy pour of Angel's Envy.

The expected roster of craft beers plus a small-but-versatile wine list are offered, too. Among about a half-dozen specialty cocktails are a spicy tequila concoction (Dia de Juego, $8) and the winning NOLA ($9), a Manhattan-martini hybrid made with Watershed gin.

"It helps you drink!" is how the menu describes the Pickle Plate ($7), a colorful medley of aggressively brined fruits and vegetables that lives up to that billing and then some. For a more elegant starter, the head-turning Copenhagen Barbecue ($9) arranges lemony goat cheese and sweet "ember-roasted" golden beets garnished with dabs of their liquified greens plus food-grade ash into one of the best beet salads around.

The substantial Green Bean and Smoked Trout Salad ($12) is equally impressive. Delicious sliced fish - more than you get with entrées elsewhere - nests within super-long, char-spotted beans brightened by a champagne-and-herb vinaigrette; a rich-yet-tangy paprika aioli makes a great foil. Another salad - the Red-Eyed Caesar ($8) - was uncharacteristically unmemorable.

Soups are far from afterthoughts. A recent bowl du jour ($8, "usually vegan") was a large and zippy mash-up of posole and chilaquiles with hominy, lima beans, a smooth tomatillo base, just-fried tortilla chips, cilantro and pickled vegetables.

The enormous and excellent Chili Mercier ($9) is more meat than beans. Named for the co-owner/chef, it's packed with smoked beef - both ground and in stew chunks - bound to a beer-enhanced broth cooked down to a sauce. Pico de gallo plus a doorstop of very good cornbread laced with jalapeno and cheese complete the meal.

Cornbread reappears in another signature dish: Cowboy Cassoulet ($10). Bourbon- and ham-braised beans help elevate this smoky, rich and nuanced home run launched by a hefty link of spicy, house-made, Texas-style sausage. The entrée soars even higher with the perfectly seasoned and perfectly grilled flank-steak option ($7 extra), which effectively makes it a great dinner for two.

"Perfectly seasoned and perfectly grilled" describes many menu items, such as the fatty but irresistible Ribs ($12.50 per half-rack) and other barbecued meats sold a la carte. This includes zingy-sauced Pulled Pork Adobado ($18 per pound), which gets the nod over the juicy, tender Smoked Chicken ($15 per pound). Both are delicious - and rustically chopped, so watch out for fat and tiny bones.

The Humble Burger ($13) is humble only in its modest accoutrements, because the beef - which is ground in-house and expertly grilled - is a star. Try it with the mayo-free, cumin-seed-scented slaw ($4).

Rooks' menu reports that the restaurant is named for a "notoriously social" species of crow. Although situated in a restaurant-challenged neighborhood, as the crow flies - and this crow flies - Rooks isn't that far from wherever you are.