Restaurant review: Local-focused Little Eater is a big boost for meatless diners

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Little Eater, one of the newest vendors gracing the unbeatable food court in the North Market, stands out for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the ingredients (many cite local sources) used in Little Eater's grab-and-go meals are entirely meatless. Secondly, in a reversal of the usual course, Little Eater's restaurant business is spawning a retail shop (specializing in fresh-and-local fruits and vegetables). Chalk this up to Cara Mangini's "produce-inspired" vision.

Mangini, Little Eater's chef-owner, developed her outlook through studying (culinary arts at the National Gourmet Institute, journalism at Northwestern University); long stops in culinary hotspots (Paris, Napa Valley, Brooklyn); and high-profile jobs, such as "vegetable butcher" at the huge and hugely popular Italian food complex in Manhattan called Eataly (owned by celebrity restaurateurs Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich).

Not a bad resume. But you can't eat CVs, so it's a good thing that Little Eater's mostly plant-based fare (eggs and cheese appear in some items) is so fresh and - more often than not - flavorful.

There's generally a small line at Little Eater. This will give you time to admire the stand's tidiness and pristine white tiles while you pore over one of its date-marked menus attached to a clipboard.

Since it showcases seasonal ingredients, the menu isn't set in stone. But at its heart is a half-dozen or so pre-made vegetable salads sold by the generous scoop (one scoop is $4; four are $12). You can also expect a farm egg frittata and quiche to be offered, like an attractively golden-browned and delicious frittata with asparagus, leeks and Mackenzie Creamery chevre ($9, with one scoop).

The sharp-and-creamy cheese was a nice touch, because it emphasized the egginess in the densely asparagus-packed frittata. Unlike most of the dishes I tried here, this one had ample richness and was served warm.

I was also a fan of a mammoth sandwich ($11, includes one scoop) made with the same cheese. In this case, the chevre played off roasted and thinly sliced beets, mashed avocado and pickled onions. The earthy, sweet and tangy ensemble was encased in a great ciabatta roll baked - locally of course - by Matija Breads.

Crusty, toasted Italian bread (Matija again) was the wonderful base for an open-faced sandwich that was full-sized, but mislabeled as "crostini" ($9 with a scoop). The dessert-worthy nosh, another highlight here, was topped with local strawberries, a balsamic reduction, local honey, lemon ricotta and mint.

I expected a soup special ($4) labeled "roasted red pepper, farro and kale" to have that creamy texture you usually get when roasted red pepper is the lead ingredient. Instead, I got a barely seasoned, extremely lean vegetable soup with a tart, light broth and minimal red pepper character.

Like that soup, I found some of the salad scoops tasted as healthy as they were. For instance, the one-note shredded carrots with black sesame seeds needed more - or any - of its advertized "cilantro and Tahini dressing." I tried this salad twice with identical results.

A limp, mixed-greens salad with chickpeas, feta, bulgur and more was made too far in advance. It was also shy of salt, pepper and its citrus vinaigrette.

On one occasion, the herby Parisian lentils with razor-thin radishes suffered from a similar lack of dressing; on another occasion - when properly tossed with its Dijon-sherry vinaigrette - it was a joy to eat.

Other joys: the delightful textures and bright flavors of a hefty kale, walnut, spelt, thyme and cranberry salad; and addictive buttermilk cheddar biscuits with craggy exteriors and garlicky undertones.

Bottom line: For healthy, local food, Little Eater is quite good; with some minor tweaks, it could be outstanding.

Little Eater

59 Spruce St., Arena District

614-670-4375

littleeater.com