Quick: What springs to mind when you hear the words “Columbus, Ohio”? If you’re like me — and, apparently, most of the rest of country — you’re likely to get the mental equivalent of an old-fashioned dial tone.
Columbus is both Anytown, USA and Nowheresville. It’s a college town and state capital with a population of nearly 750,000, but it’s also off the beaten track for just about everyone outside of the state of Ohio. Cincinnati had WKRP; Cleveland had The Drew Carey Show; Columbus got Family Ties, which is about as strongly associated with its host city as Webster is with Chicago.
This combination of size and anonymity led the folks at Experience Columbus (formerly the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau) to put together a trip for journalists to show off the city’s burgeoning farm-to-table food culture. Thus, with little more than a week’s notice, I found myself on a plane from Minneapolis bound for the capital of Ohio. (For details of what this trip included, check the disclosure at the end of this story.)
As a Minneapolitan, I touched down at CMH with a fair bit of baggage — skeptical that this city I’d never heard about could actually have enough going on to merit a visit, but hopeful that it would prove itself an under-appreciated Midwestern gem along the lines of the Twin Cities, Madison, or the increasingly intriguing Milwaukee.
The theme of the tour was Farm-to-Table, Cow-to-Cone, & Silo-to-Still, and if this stuff sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for that: Columbus, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, is blessed by its proximity to fertile farmland and wonderful seasonal produce.
FARM TO TABLE
The trip started with a 15-minute jaunt by chartered bus to Sunny Meadows Flower Farm (pictured bottom left and right in collage above). Six miles from downtown Columbus, the five-year-old farm is run by Steve and Gretel Adams, who are 27 and 25, respectively.
A mix of foolhardy courage and hard work, the farm has the feel of a work very much in progress, with experimental plots, rows of disheveled tomato plants, and a massive pile of rotting compost lending a chaotic feel to the endeavor.
“We do a lot of reading,” says Steve, who is frank and talkative about the farm’s struggle to establish itself. Gretel notes that in the first years of the farm, “Even our friends and family didn’t take us seriously — growing up, I didn’t even like to mow the lawn.”
Sunny Meadows has made a local name for itself by growing local flowers that are handled according organic methods, meaning that they can be handled in bulk by local florists without the use of protective gloves or specialized methods of disposal (many industrial flowers are so chemically adulterated that, in large amounts, they can be downright toxic).
They’ve also found markets for their produce, including a crop of winter carrots that are locally renowned for their flavor. “The sugar concentrates in them really nicely,” says restaurateur and farmer Kent Peters, who runs the Black Creek Bistro. “With a little butter, salt, and pepper, people go crazy for them.”
Steve points out that Sunny Meadows is, beyond being a working farm, an attempt to reclaim a heritage of self-reliance. “It’s amazing what you can do,” he notes. “We make our own cream cheese, and ricotta, we do canning and pickling… we’re trying to bridge the gap between generations. Our grandparents did all these things, and our parents didn’t pass them on.”
Black Creek Heritage Farm and Black Creek Bistro are two different faces of one joined enterprise: The mission of Kent and Leslie Peters (Kent pictured top left, above) is to bring local produce and heritage animals forth from the land around Columbus, and serve the resulting bounty in a high rustic style at the restaurant.
The Peters farm is currently being reorganized to allow for a series of trails and bike paths to cross over it, so there isn’t much farming to see. There are, however, heritage turkeys and Muscovy ducks (top right in collage above) and two friendly goats. Maggie and Freddie trot alongside a group of visitors, eager to be petted and doted upon, and at one point taking a major (we’re talking 10 or 20 pages) bite out of one reporter’s notebook.
Dinner at the Black Creek Bistro featured a garlic salsa and cherry tomato bruschetta; a fresh, light, vivid tomato salad with mustard vinaigrette, poona kheera cucumbers, tabbouleh, and a local smoked Gouda (dominant image in collage, above); a moist and tender pork mole with a slow, deep, flavorful burn to it and exceptional guacamole. Dessert lived up to the meal, a Marsala pear upside down cake that was pear tinted but not overly strong, gently sweet, and pleasingly creamy in texture.
A breakfast visit to the newly founded Knead Urban Diner reinforced the trip’s farm-to-table theme with a not-at-all-unrelated do-it-yourself theme. Co-owner Krista Lopez noted that the name of the diner was a deliberate nod to the restaurant’s overall philosophy of food.
“‘Knead’ means hands on — everything we do is handmade,” she says. “We make the bread for our sandwiches, we make all of our pastries, our own pasta, our own Twinkies… right down to making our own sausage.”
If the Twinkies line raised an eyebrow, it should — the diner’s in-house “Jinkies,” made from olive-oil lavender sponge cake filled with homemade lemon curd, are charming, distinctive, and damned delicious, with a bright lemon kick and a moist, believable texture that stands in stark contrast to their industrial relatives.
On the restaurant’s wall is a jumbo-sized map of Ohio, spotlighting the purveyors who supply Knead’s raw ingredients. “We have such a large map on the wall to highlight Ohio,” says Lopez, “and show people from all over the country what Ohio’s all about.”
Knead’s food was good across the board, and essential simple details (eggs, coffee) were deftly executed.
THE NORTH MARKET
Columbus’s North Market is a remarkable collection of 30-35 restaurants and food purveyors, similar to Midtown Global Market but considerably more upscale, more purveyor focused, and less ethnically diverse. It’s a closer match to San Francisco’s Ferry Building (about two dozen artisan food vendors) and New York City’s Chelsea Market (also about two dozen tenants). From a walking around and noshing perspective, it compares favorably to Chelsea Market and is fully competitive with the Ferry Building when its weekly local-only farmers market is in session.
One of the market’s best-known tenants is Jeni’s Ice Cream, the one food recommendation that was pounded into my brain before the trip began. At least three friends, upon hearing the word “Columbus,” immediately responded with something along the line of “holy crap, you HAVE to try Jeni’s Ice Cream.”
Try we did. The root of Jeni’s success, according to founder Jeni Britton Bauer, is the way she sources ingredients from “cow-to-cone,” with a heavy emphasis on fresh, high-quality, local, seasonal ingredients. “We use as many ingredients grown as close to home as possible that are delicious,” says Bauer. “We’re the only scratch cow-to-cone operation in the country.” [EDITOR’S NOTE: Pumphouse Creamery seems to be able to make the same claim.] At the base of all of Jeni’s ice creams is milk from Snowville Creamery, a family-owned dairy farm in Meigs County, OH, with a small pasture-grazed herd of Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Friesian, and Jersey cows.
Bauer, beyond making some of the country’s best (and most earnestly sourced) ice cream, looks the part — her serene sense of poise gives her the aura of a Midwestern dairy demigoddess, or at least some sort of very important rustic nymph. Charming as hell from the get-go, she got only more appealing as she talked up some of her special seasonal flavors, including winter’s Influenza Sorbet, which features Maker’s Mark bourbon, orange juice, honey, lemon, pectin, ginger, and cayenne.
A host of flavor samplings revealed ice cream that was universally delicious (as advertised), ranging in quality from “excellent” to “mind-blowing.” Squarely in the latter category was a sweet corn and black raspberry ice cream that had a fresh jammy start and a beautifully pure, thrillingly sweet corn finish. A cool, crisp cucumber sake sorbet was perfect for a hot summer’s day, while a cherry lambic flavor using Lindemans lambic from Belgium was an ideal showcase for the dry, fruity beer.
Also at the market is North Market Poultry and Game, an enviable butcher shop regardless of where you’re from; a board posted above its countertop touted whole fryer rabbits, rendered duck fat, local natural poultry, chicken livers (which were fresh and vibrant-looking) and chicken feet, and numerous cuts and styles of grass-fed bison… plus the date for an upcoming slaughter of a bison, marking the next delivery of fresh meat.
The shop also featured some ready-made foods, including bison barbacoa, “roast beast” (the bison equivalent of sliced roast beef), and a twist on cassoulet described by kitchen manager Dan Bandman as “like a comforter for your stomach.” True enough, although its flavor balance was actually closer to classic American baked beans than the more aromatic and herbal Occitanian version of the dish. Still: comforter for the stomach. Damn tasty.
The Taste of Belgium brings authentic European breakfast to the Market in a highly pleasing way. The shop’s highly-touted Liege waffles (made from dough, rather than batter, and impregnated with little chunks of caramelized beet sugar) were undeniably tasty, but also make an implicit argument for the lighter waffles we’re used to. When it comes to breakfast, heavier is not always better.
But the shop also does crepes — big, beautiful buckwheat crepes that were thrown back on the griddle after being formed. At that point, a raw egg was cracked onto the crepe (where it cooked) and locally sourced Gruyere and ham added to it. Then, it’s folded up (like an ice cream cone) and stowed in a paper holder for eating on the go.
No kidding: This was the best savory crepe I’ve eaten, hands down. In terms of overall ingredient balance, tenderness of crepe, quality of components, everything — amazing. I wolfed half of it down, felt momentarily guilty, and then wolfed the remainder.
One of the top five bites I ate during this intensely food-intensive trip was a mouthful of rich mint buttercream sandwiched between two dark chocolate brownies, whoopie pie style. The guys at Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties mean serious business — their products are unapologetically luxe in quality and price, their branding is impeccable and organic to every level of their business, and they bested Bobby Flay in a brownie throwdown.
The brownies at Sugardaddy’s are circular (no edges!), but the process is designed to catch all the excess — brownie edges are reinvented and sold as Brownie Biscotti, and other brownie bits are bagged and sold as Loose Change.
Owners Tom Finney and Mark Ballard source their eggs, dairy, fruits, and flour locally whenever possible and make and handle their product using no freezers or preservatives.
Thus the shop’s slogan is “oven-to-door in 24,” representing a commitment to keeping the product fresh, which makes sense considering the price — a set of 8 baked-to-order brownies in a personalized gift bag is $55, plus cost of monogramming.
The company also gets credit for doing seasonal brownies (such as a harvest blondie with pumpkin spice or dark citrus with chocolate and orange for the holidays) — Ballard notes that he and Finney get “a lot of inspiration from chocolatiers, and dessert menus. For our Cherry Almond Blondie, we asked: ‘How do we interpret cherry pie into a blondie?'”
The Via Vecchia winery foot-stomps California grapes in an old-fashioned manner (thus the “old way” name) and puts a distinctly Italian spin on the finished product. The winemakers spurn lab cultures, coloring, oak chips (or staves or dust), yeast, sugar, and chemical / mechanical filtering in order to make a wine dependent on the naturally occurring yeasts in the grapes themselves for development.
Co-founder Paolo Rosi notes that other wines have no obligation to tell you about flavorings, glycerin, or other additives, and he rails against “commercial soup in a sterile barrel!” With the typical modern processing methods, he adds, “you’re in the world of Kafka.”
Via Vecchia’s decision to give a middle finger to modern industrial wine processing has an impact on the wines they offer — Rosi notes that “because our process doesn’t rely on mechanical intervention, we rely on classic blends.”
One of these, Trouve, is a Bordeaux-style wine with a deep, complicated, cascading flavor, spiced up front with an evolving richness.
Three Babes and a Baker is one of the many gourmet food truck trolling the streets of Columbus. If it’s not also one of the best, then the food truck scene is improbably fantastic, because owner Carla Saunders puts out a product that stands with the best around. Do I prefer her cupcakes to those of Magnolia? Hell yes. To many (OK, most) of the ones available in Minneapolis-St. Paul? Another enthusiastic affirmative.
Saunders makes moist cupcakes (but still coherent!) topped with flavorful but not overly sweet frosting. The combinations are both simple and terrific — a sweet potato / caramel buttercream cupcake was, in a word, killer. That Saunders charges a mere $2 per (only $1 for kids) adds another charming dimension to her story.
While not really luxe per se, Dirty Frank’s is about as much fun as you can have eating hot dogs, a food already notorious for wacky good times. The shop includes a variety of outrageous variations on the theme including the Doginator (a bacon wrapped dog topped with beef brisket, BBQ sauce, cheddar, and onion rings), Puff the Magic Popper (cheddar cream cheese, jalapenos, and bacon bits), the Ohioana (spicy corn relish and a dash of celery salt), and The Glenn Beck (just a plain old wiener). There’s also an Octodog, an eight-legged hotdog served atop a mound of good mac and cheese. Prices are highly reasonable, starting at $3 and ranging up to $5 for the deluxe dogs; no wonder the place tends to be packed.
Fried leeks were highly enjoyable, much like the onion rings in terms of presentation, crispiness, and even flavor, but considerably lighter on the stomach. Also: Frank’s serves fantastic baklava. Why, is not exactly clear, but they do, and it’s great. [EDITOR’S NOTE: See comments on this story for details on Glad Annie’s Old World Baklava.]
Just be sure that you’ve got a calm stomach as you head in. A Seoul Dog (a dog topped with kimchee, mayo, and sriracha) turned magically into instant heartburn almost as soon as it settled down.
Once upon a time, “Short North” was a police handle for a drugs- and prostitution-ridden Columbus neighborhood located between downtown and Ohio State University. Now, it’s a burgeoning center for the arts and entrepreneurial spirit, not unlike Northeast Minneapolis.
Not every city can boast a truly local micro-distilled spirit of choice, but Columbus has one : Short North-based Middle West Spirits makes a vodka called OYO (“O-Why-O”), the original Native American word for the Ohio River Valley.
Founded and run by Ryan Lang (below, left) and Brady Konya (below, right), the company uses grain from within a local 50-mile microclimate, and relies on small batch precision and drop-dead gorgeous German-made artisanal equipment to produce a superior product.
The stuff is, in fact, notably superior — tasted side-by-side, Grey Goose was harsh and chemical in contrast to OYO, which boasted faint notes of cherry and grain (almost like a high proof beer) and tasted relatively smooth.
Rather than fix their product on the back end with flavor additives or filtering, OYO works almost like a single malt Scotch producer, using carefully controlled distilling and blending to hit their target flavor profile.
“Big distillers, because of how they produce, aren’t able to cut bad stuff out up front, so they have to filter it,” says Konya. “So you’ll see a lot of smart marketers talk about filtering — lava, ceramic, diamonds — six times, eight times, 20 times distilled — all of that is marketing.”
The equipment used by the guys at Middle West gives them remarkable control over how they shape the taste of their vodka.
“This still makes vodka, brandy, whiskey, eau de vie — it makes pretty much anything, all with one footprint,” notes Lang. “It’s got about 40,000 different combinations when you start adjusting it.”
Prominent Columbus food blogger Bethia Woolf has built a business out of offering gastronomic tours of Columbus, one of which trucks through six Short North establishments and the North Market. Her other tours give a quick snapshot of what’s going on in the local dining scene — she’s also offering an Alt Eats Tour of the area including a Middle Eastern bakery, a stop for Vietnamese sandwiches, and Somali food, highlighting the area’s big Somali population (second largest in the country, after the Twin Cities.) Her Taco Trucks tour celebrates a food truck culture large enough to be distinct from the gourmet mobile kitchens that have blown up in Columbus and nationwide.
While touring Columbus, we got a bit of time to sample food cart culture, which included gourmet Push-Ups (made with Jeni’s ice cream packed into special plastic delivery devices identical in function to the classic mass-marked Push-Up), Rad Dog vegan hotdogs (whose menu included some promising looking beer brats), and Foodie Cart, a deliberately enigmatically named operation that is both very new and long on charm.
Run by Kenny Kim wife Misako Oba (who hails originally from Sendai, Tokyo), Foodie Cart currently sells Japanese style crepes, which were delicate, fresh, balanced, and vegetal and chickeny in equal parts — a light and delicious food item from a summer dining perspective. Kim explained that he kept the cart’s name deliberately vague in order to give them options for future menu changes; he reacted favorably to a suggestion that cold soba noodles might work well as summer street food, so keep your eyes peeled. A Japanese crepe cart is plenty cool, but hand-crafted street soba would be a whole new dimension.
The co-owned Rigsby’s Kitchen and Eleni Christina Bakery represent the original spirit of renewal that brought Short North back from the brink. Owner Kent Rigsby talked about how his restaurant was part of an original wave that helped change the state image of Columbus when it comes to eating.
“We really started out as a fast food capital,” he says, noting that both Wendy’s and White Castle got their start locally. “But over the years, people here have started making true, good, artisanal food.”
He praised Ohio for doing three things excellently (“Sweet corn, tomatoes, soybeans”), and served his guests a highly refreshing summery tomato salad with watermelon, cayenne, and onion.
The restaurant’s spinoff bakery, Eleni Christina, uses a 25-year-old starter to make credible sourdough, creates real croissants (a ton of layers, and a ton of work), and employs wryly self-aware bakers. One of them told visitors a story about how his profession has long enjoyed a somewhat sinister reputation. “We were once seen as denizens of the underworld,” he noted, referring to the tendency of bakers to work at night, with fire.
If Eleni Christina is hell, there is at least one sweet compensation: The place smelled like heaven.
Perhaps surprisingly, this magnum opus only begins to do justice to the fruits of a two-and-a-half day trip to Columbus — I left out the business about the Gahanna, OH herb education center (where you don’t have to have two X chromosomes in order to enjoy yourself, but it probably helps), a magical visit to the farm / test kitchen / entertaining space of TV chef Tami Cecil (shown below with a guest), a decent high-end meal at the super serious Refectory restaurant, and the absolutely delightful but not actually food-related Columbus Jazz Orchestra performance at the Columbus Zoo.
In short: Despite — or due in part to — its relative obscurity, Columbus, Ohio is a hell of a town. If and when you visit, spend a lot of time in the North Market, rock the Short North, and, for God’s sake, save room for ice cream.
Many thanks to Allison Johnson (of the Cincinnati, OH-based Chickpeas, Please blog) for sharing her photos from this tour.
Disclosure: Experience Columbus paid my round-trip airfare and three nights of lodging at a downtown hotel. They handled my in-town transportation and food, including meals at restaurants and food carts, and I came home with some free keepsakes including a pound of coffee, some infused olive oil, and an umbrella.