Friday, November 13, 2009

Beyond the shadow of a stout.

In my continuing efforts to broaden my gastronomical horizons, I’ve begun delving into the wonderfully complex world of craft beers — the myriad interplay of malt, hops, yeast and the life-giving water that brings them together. For years, I had eschewed beer as too astringent without comprehending that such sharpness, contributed by hops, is deliberate on brewers’ part to temper the inherent sweetness of roasted malt (among other benefits, including preservation and aroma).

Despite this newfound insight into the intricate process of crafting a well-balanced beer, however, I find that my palate is still more inclined to enjoy sweeter brews, or at least those whose bitterness is largely subsumed by other flavours. In particular, I’ve come to appreciate stouts — robust, inky beers with pronounced “burnt” notes of toast, roasted coffee and dark chocolate — over their lighter-coloured, tarter brethren.

Many people only know of stouts through Guinness, and not without reason — the iconic tipple has been brewed for 250 years — but that’s merely scratching the surface. In fact, Guinness, as a “dry stout,” is actually considered light for its style at only about 4% ABV (alcohol by volume). Add Russian Imperial Stouts, milk stouts, chocolate stouts, oatmeal stouts, and even oyster stouts to the roster, and you begin to see the variety of flavours and potencies available to the stout enthusiast.

What I find most fascinating about the world of stouts, though, are the linguistic quirks surrounding their names — in many situations, the terminology could confuse an unwitting neophyte, as they did me before I researched the matter further. Fortunately, I’m here to give you a crash course in stout nomenclature so you can order a pint with confidence.

Russian Imperial Stout
These intensely rich brews — quite literally a stronger version of the already formidable stout — aren’t Russian at all, but were originally brewed in London for exportation to Russian czars. The first few batches sent into the tundra spoiled before arriving, however, so brewers added additional alcohol and hops (which, being acidic, have preservative qualities) to extend the beer’s life. The resulting brews, usually around 9-10% ABV, aren’t for the faint of heart, but offer complex, nearly overwhelming flavour. North Brewing Co.’s Old Rasputin is a delightful model to quaff — thick, heady, and powerful.

Milk Stout
If you’re anything like me, you may expect a “milk stout” (also known as a “cream stout” or “sweet stout”) to have milk or cream as one of its ingredients — something akin to Bailey’s, perhaps, with stout instead of whiskey — but we’d both be wrong. Instead, milk stouts include lactose, a milk sugar unable to be broken down by the yeasts traditionally used in beer, thereby contributing additional sweetness and a creamier mouthfeel. While I haven’t yet had the pleasure of sampling one of these delicacies, I have it on good authority that Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout, available seasonally on tap at Surly Girl Saloon, is excellent.

Chocolate Stout
Yet another victim of misleading terminology, chocolate stouts traditionally don’t have any actual chocolate in them — I call false advertising! — and thus may disappoint the chocoholics hoping to find ambrosia in a pint glass. Instead, chocolate stouts are made from some portion of what’s known as “chocolate malt,” which is simply malted barley kilned (dried) at higher temperatures than the lighter-coloured malts used in pale ale and porter. Because it’s roasted more intensely, however, chocolate malt gives up flavours reminiscent of burnt sugar and dark chocolate, emphasizing those qualities inherent in all stouts. To be fair, some beers — such as Young’s Double Chocolate Stout — do use a small amount of real chocolate in their brewing process.

Oatmeal Stout and Oyster Stout
These are fairly straightforward, albeit unusual (at least in the case of the latter). Oatmeal stouts, in addition to malted barley, also contain a good amount of oats — these increase the smoothness, if not the true sweetness, of the resulting brew. (I’m told that Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout is very fine.) Oyster stouts, in some cases, actually do involve real oysters in the barrel used to age the beer, but may simply refer to the once-common practice of drinking stouts while eating the mollusks.

Stouts are, as you can see, curious but complex and satisfying beasts, and worthy of our respect. If you’re not a fan of acerbic beer, pick up a pint of Guinness sometime — being careful not to disturb the impressive foamy head — and savor its dry sweetness. Once you think you’re ready, graduate to a good Russian Imperial Stout (which is also wonderful poured over vanilla ice cream), finish your meal with a chocolate stout for dessert, and never look back to the uninspiring, insipid pale lagers that dominate most domestic taps. You deserve far better, my friend.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Simple—yet sophisticated—fare at Skillet.

Upon first arriving in Columbus — now little more than a year ago — I despaired that I had left the bosom of Southern California’s culinary bounty and entered a mass-produced kingdom where White Castle and Donatos reign from their greasy fast-food thrones. In exploring the city further, however, I discovered a vibrant, diverse food scene, populated by genuinely passionate restaurateurs and epicurean patrons alike. As the unofficial bon vivant among my group of friends, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn of remarkable eateries and pass them on. Thus it was that I happened upon Skillet.

Opened in early October as a small family operation — chefs Kevin and Patrick Caskey are father and son, with extensive restaurant experience between them — Skillet takes up residence at the Banana Bean Café’s former location in Schumacher Place. The space is small, holding perhaps two dozen guests, and sparsely but charmingly decorated; prints of farm animals and brickwork motifs contribute to a pastoral theme in an urban setting. (Their motto is "Rustic Urban Food.")

Orders are placed and paid for — and, in the case of take-out, picked up — at a counter that dominates the far wall and provides full view of the kitchen. This allows not only an opportunity to see one’s food being prepared, but access to the chefs themselves, who are more than happy to answer questions about individual dishes or the philosophy behind their operation. (They have indulged both my curiosity and inquisitive barrages with the utmost patience.) I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to Patrick during both my visits; his passion for, and knowledge of, his craft are evident, his enthusiasm absolutely infectious.

The Caskeys describe their menu as “comfort food with an edge,” offering only locally sourced, ingredient-driven fare — while this could spell froufrou pretension elsewhere, the dishes at Skillet are hearty, and simply but lovingly prepared with a farm-to-table mindset. Each morning, based on what meats and produce are available from local farms, as well as how inspiration strikes the chefs, a menu is devised and printed out for the day.

My friends and I visited on a Tuesday in the early afternoon, finding a table despite the vestiges of a lunch rush that had clearly filled the cozy room. The menu predominantly comprises meat-based sandwiches, though soups (one vegan) and pasta are also available, as well as sides that mostly subscribe to the belief that vegetables are even better with a little pork. (You know that’s right.) Our goal was to try as many dishes as possible, so we each ordered a different sandwich, plus two sides and one bowl of soup for the table.

Our initial side was Crispy Fingerling Potatoes and “Burnt Ends,” which here were leftover tidbits of roasted pork — crunchy, piggy goodness lending added flavour and texture to the herb-speckled potatoes. We ate greedily, plucking golden-brown morsels from the bowl with our fingers, and took this as a good omen for the rest of the meal. We also ordered the Pan-Roasted Late Season Brussels Sprouts, Smoked Bacon and Sherry Vinegar — I’ve always loved Brussels sprouts with pork, and this was no exception. The bacon is, in fact, double-smoked, and that sweet, smoky meat plays off the slightly bitter browned greens. Occasional hints of vinegar. Sublime.

The first sandwich to arrive was Braised Beef Short Rib & Italian Taleggio, served with what we determined to be horseradish mayo, as well as a “lagniappe” (a little something extra) made up of black-eyed peas, celery, carrots, red peppers and herbs. The beef, slow-cooked in a flavorful liquid, came out tender and flaky, complemented perfectly by the creamy, “funky” washed-rind cheese; the bread, buttered and toasted to a golden sheen on the griddle, was substantial without being stodgy. In all, a wonderful sandwich.

Next to come was my Porchetta — a sandwich of slow-roasted pork, infused with garlic, herbs and wild fennel pollen, on grilled ciabatta. Porchetta is made from a whole pig that has been emptied of bones and organs, stuffed again with its own meat, fat and skin along with the aforementioned aromatics, and wood-fired for hours. Fatty, moist and decadent, it’s essentially the Italians’ take on pulled pork, but even more delicious. Skillet’s version didn’t disappoint: huge chunks of pork, bathed in their own natural jus, melted in my mouth with each bite. The fennel pollen lent a flavour faintly reminiscent of anise, nicely tempering the meat’s richness. I’m not usually a fan of ciabatta, as it’s often too hard and dense to make a pleasant bun, but this bread’s firm crust gave way to perfect fluffiness.

Third, and a clear favourite of the table, was the Pan-Fried Potato and Cheese Pierogies, Caramelized Onions, Spicy Napa Kraut and Sharp Cheddar on Grilled Brioche. For those who haven’t encountered pierogies before, they’re basically Slavic dumplings — tasty, but not commonly found on sandwiches. It was quickly agreed, however, that this dish is something special — the contrasting textures and flavours of starchy potatoes, gooey cheese and still slightly crisp sautéed cabbage (kraut) somehow meld into something wonderful. One of my more colourful friends, in her own words, had a “pierogasm” in the course of eating this delightful, if unorthodox, sandwich. Just try it!

The Truffled Griddled Cheese on Brioche, served with an Arugula Simple Salad and a side of soup, was last among the sandwiches, and a second vegetarian sandwich option for those so inclined. I’d been eager to try this — how often do you get to have a grilled cheese sandwich with truffle oil? — and was in fact so quick to assault the plate that I forgot to take a picture first. (I hate when that happens. Don’t worry, I’ll add one next time I have lunch there.)

I chose the Cream of Tomato Soup with Peppered Bacon, fulfilling the classic pairing, but tried the salad first — as the name suggests, this is simply arugula leaves dressed in a delicate vinaigrette, but it contrasted well with the rich unctuousness of the sandwich. In an inspired decision, they paired Taleggio with sharp Cheddar for the griddled cheese — creamy, oozing and complex, with hints of earthiness and mushroom from the truffle oil, it’s everything a cheese sandwich should be. Even better was the sandwich dipped in the soup — rich and buttery, with chunks of fresh tomato and peppery bacon lending body, its sweetness harmonized incomparably with the cheese’s tang.

Truly, this is an exemplar of the soup-and-sandwich model.

We also shared a bowl of Pumpkin-Black Bean Soup with Toasted Pepitas, representing the only fully vegan option currently available on the menu. This is a quintessential taste of autumn — nutty pumpkin, smoky black beans and fall spices combine to create a rich, warming meal. Crunchy pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds) add a pleasant textural contrast, as well as emphasizing the soup’s subtle smokiness. This would be perfect for a crisp fall day.

This isn’t even considering their brunch menu, which also looks to be immensely promising — it involves, for instance, a sweet risotto with brûléed peaches, bourbon and molasses. (Could anything be more beautiful?) My friends and I will be enjoying it this coming Sunday, and I look forward to documenting that deliciousness in a subsequent entry. The restaurant is currently only open for lunch and brunch, but extended dinner hours are planned for the future. (Hopefully soon!)

Skillet does something impressive in applying an understated sophistication to simple comfort food, living up to their seemingly contradictory motto and avoiding the affectation that can accompany ingredient-driven cooking. The Caskeys centre their menu around what the land provides, which means that every meal is something organic in its truest sense — intrinsic, harmonious, and extraordinarily fresh. It’s no coincidence that their dishes are also delicious and creative. What may surprise you is that nothing on the menu is over $9 — sides are only $3, and soups run $4 for a large bowl. That means you have no excuse whatsoever not to pay this humbly wonderful eatery a visit.

Tue-Fri: 11 a.m. — 3 p.m.
Sat-Sun: 8 a.m. — 2 p.m.

410 E. Whittier St.
Phone: (614) 443-2266
Twitter: SkilletRustic

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dirty Frank's: Hot Dogs and Booze — A Love Story.

Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace, the newest eatery masterminded by beloved local restaurateur Liz Lessner, isn’t exactly hurting for ink singing its praises. Like Lessner’s other restaurants — Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits, Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails, and Surly Girl Saloon — the jauntily named hot dog joint has been deservedly lauded by bloggers and independent newspapers since opening in early July. My review will be no less effusive, so one might wonder why I'd bother adding my thoughts to their already impressive list of accolades. For one thing, if there’s even the smallest chance of my introducing this irresistible locale to the yet-uninitiated, my effort is more than worthwhile.

More compellingly, Dirty Frank’s has become important to my group of friends as a fun, reasonably priced hang-out — our meat-centric version of Central Perk, with alcoholic slushes in lieu of lattes — and I would be remiss if I didn’t devote some words to a place we’ve had so many good times. This is a labour of love. That being said, let’s get to it!

Located in Downtown Columbus, Frank’s immediately catches the eye. Its bold yellow-and-red exterior, along with a “Masters of the Universe” sign in the front window (Skeletor promotes specials), promises an establishment that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This theme dutifully continues inside — the walls, too, are violently yellow with red accents, evoking childhood memories of hot dogs with ketchup and mustard.

Vivid though the paint job may be, however, one scarcely notices it behind the artwork covering most of the interior, designed by artist Thom Lessner — Liz’s brother — and dominated by his near-caricature paintings of sports and music stars. (Michael Jackson is featured at least twice, alongside homages to amply coiffed ‘80s metal bands and, my favourite, a bloody portrait of Andrew W.K. à la I Get Wet.)

That innate playfulness is reinforced by the menu, on which can be found several zany appellations for hot dogs (“Timmow,” “True Love Always,” and the choose-it-yourself “Your Wiener”); slushes dedicated to Pee-Wee Herman villains (“The Francis Buxton”); and cocktails named for baseball players (“The Chris Sabo”), iconic (or ironic?) musical stars (“Rick Astley”), and old-school videogames (“Yar’s Revenge”). One of the joys of browsing the offerings here is observing the staff’s whimsy in full, fantastical swing.

Speaking of those offerings, Frank’s lives up to the culinary tradition established by its older siblings — good old-fashioned comfort food, elevated above its pedestrian roots by careful preparation and vibrant ingredients. Each of the dozen-plus dogs (just $3 each!) is served on a Vienna All-Beef frank by default, but that can be substituted for a meatier Jumbo beef dog (add 50c, and well-spent), or a flavorful Polish Sausage or Beef Brat (add 75c). Vegetarians will be happy to note that meat-free versions of all three franks are available, and all but a couple toppings can be made vegetarian or vegan on request.

To be honest, the franks themselves have never been an especial focus of mine here, but they’re steamed to preserve the snap of their natural casings, which is appreciated on a textural level — a mushy frank can ruin a good hot dog. The buns are all poppy-seed, ostensibly in honour of Chicago’s grand hot dog heritage, an unorthodox choice that struck me and my friends as odd at first but doesn’t rankle by any means. In any event, the buns are carefully steamed as well, producing soft, pillowy cocoons for the franks.

Ah, but the toppings! Truly, here lies the genius of Dirty Frank’s. While the standbys are both well-represented and well-executed, a slew of somewhat more exotic options await those with adventurous palates.

First, the oldies-but-goodies. The Chicago, traditionally said to be “dragged through the garden,” is topped with quartered Roma tomatoes, diced onions, sport peppers, sweet relish, a dill pickle spear, mustard and a dash of celery salt. Frank’s is a fine rendition of the classic, with crisp vegetables in a pleasing contrast of flavours and colours. Similarly iconic is the Chili Dog — meaty Coney sauce, mustard, raw onions and sharp cheddar, melding into a messy but delicious mess. Even that Southern favourite, the famed “slaw dog,” can be found here in the Sriracha Slaw Dog, albeit with a nice twist: the creamy, mayonnaise-based coleslaw is adorned with a line of spicy hot sauce, as well as mustard and fresh onions.

Perhaps more interesting, however, are the non-standard toppings. These range from the Nikola — a Greek-inspired dog with yogurt-based tzatziki sauce and a zesty olive-rich relish — to the Classy Lady, topped with cheese sauce and crushed potato chips. Frank’s features a few international flavours, including the Seoul Dog, topped with kimchi, a Korean dish of sour-and-spicy pickled cabbage; and the Hot Bollywood, slathered with an impressively fiery Indian mango chutney. For those looking to enjoy something off the beaten path but not quite ready for chutney or kimchi, look to the Whoa Nellie!, topped with a large hunk of beef brisket — tender and perfectly cooked — and a dollop of barbecue sauce. Or the T-Dog, one of my initial favourites: Sriracha mustard, roasted red peppers, bacon bits and sharp cheddar. Frankly — ha, I made a funny! — you can't go wrong; they have something to please everyone's tastes.

What’s more, they’re always devising new, off-the-menu dogs to tempt the masses; these can be elusive, but are usually announced through the restaurant’s Twitter. My favourite is the Fire on the Rhine, topped with sauerkraut sautéed with garlic and Sriracha, which takes something I love (sauerkraut) and improves on it. Also excellent is the Puff the Magic Dragon — inspired by jalapeño poppers, with julienned jalapeños, cheddar cream cheese and bacon bits — and the Coalminer, with Coney sauce, coleslaw and mustard.

Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to try all of these yet, but I will — the Surly Girl, with gorgonzola, red onions and toasted pecans, sounds especially good — and you should ask for them as well, at the risk of getting a blank stare from your server. They’re worth it.

This isn’t even mentioning the sides, which are somehow substantial, satisfying, and inexpensive ($2 apiece) — those attributes don’t very often coincide, and it should be celebrated when they do. The fries are double-fried to ensure both a crisp outer shell and a fluffy inner texture, and can be ordered with cheese sauce and bacon bits for another $1. (I’ve recently taken to ordering them with Coney sauce and cheese, which is simply amazing.) The tater tots are also respectable, but the onion rings are splendid — their breading fried to a golden brown — and the mac and cheese, served with sport peppers, is both creamy and slightly piquant. I haven’t quite mastered eating the fried leeks, though.

I don’t think I’ve ever visited Frank’s without having some sort of alcoholic beverage, which might say something about me, but also gives you an idea of the range of hooch they serve here — everything from draught and bottled beer to house-invented cocktails to boozy slushes. Among the draught beers, I’ve particularly enjoyed the Bell’s Oberon, a crisp wheat beer; and the Tröegs Troegenator Double Bock, a robust, malty lager that, at 8.25% ABV, has an impressive kick. More fun, perhaps, are the cocktails, including Ride the Lightning, a brisk citrus tipple, and the aforementioned Rick Astley, essentially an alcoholic Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade). My favourites? The two Bloody Mary variants: Bleacher Bum, with habañero-lime juice, and Reign In Blood, which brings hot sauce and Old Bay seasoning into the mix. What can I say? I like spicy, savory drinks. Cocktails run from $3 to $6, as a rule.

During a recent visit, I enjoyed a special treat — Southern Tier “Pumking” Ale, a sweet, pumpkin-spice beer often compared to pumpkin pie in a bottle, with a couple scoops of Honey Vanilla Bean ice cream from local favourite Jeni’s. Being that this is a seasonal offering, it may already be gone, but must be tried when you have the chance.

And then there are the alcoholic slushes. (You can get them without alcohol, but what’s the fun in that?) Frank’s has both lime and cherry slush, and both get used to great effect in 2 Tickets to Paradise, which also has pineapple juice, Malibu and citrus rum. Other highlights include the Chris Sabo — cherry slush with orange vodka — and the Green Monster, which adds tequila, pineapple juice, and a splash of hot sauce to lime slush.

Oh, and did I mention that they have dessert? Freshly prepared, house-made funnel cake (also available as funnel fries) dusted with powdered sugar is especially delicious (it reminds me of going to the fair as a kid), and can be served with a scoop of Jeni’s on top if you’re feeling especially decadent. Keeping with  its characteristic Columbus pride, Frank’s also offers homemade baklava from AnneMarie’s in Clintonville. It’s not common that I find room for dessert after gorging myself on hot dogs and alcohol, but I should try to do so more often.

If it’s possible to capture Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace in short — and I certainly haven’t made much effort to be brief before now — it’s a fun, inexpensive place to grab a hot dog or two, throw back a beer, and hang out with friends. The food is creative, too, and better than seems possible for the prices they charge. What’s more, Liz Lessner and Harold LaRue have made a point of supporting local concerns (Jeni’s, AnneMarie’s, regional breweries, and even Columbus-based bands) throughout their operations — that, in itself, is to be commended. Visit these folks sometime. Who, I ask you, can resist hot dogs and booze?

Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace
248 South 4th St. // Columbus, OH 43215
Phone: (614) 824-4673 | Twitter: @DirtyFranksDogs

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sugar Inc. masters sweets and savories alike.

For my second foray into the flavorful world of food writing, I sought a suitable establishment for a couple weeks before it occurred to me that I should introduce people to Sugar Inc. Cupcakes and Tea Salon, an eatery that has swiftly established itself as a favourite among my group of friends. Located in Historic Dublin, roughly cater-cornered from Jeni’s Ice Creams, the bakery-cum-teahouse is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday (private parties only on Sunday). My friend and I visited on a Tuesday, shortly after the lunch rush had subsided, and greeted proprietress Ava Misseldine, who not only freshly bakes all the cupcakes each day, but also blends her own teas and is now branching out into traditional Hawaiian cuisine.

Suffice it to say that she’s a busy woman.

That didn’t stop her from sitting down with us, however, to chat and rest for a moment after the bustle of activity that had preceded our arrival — her dining room had just been full to capacity, though it is hard to imagine even crowds of hungry Dubliners disrupting the tranquility of Ava’s elegantly decorated salon. From the clean lines of natural-wood furniture to the clever napkin holders — designed like metal rocks weighing down stacks of sky blue paper that matches one lighthearted wall — each element contributes to a Zen-like minimalism that manages to convey precision without sacrificing warmth.

But, then, as a Hawaii-born chemical engineer turned self-named “head sweetress,” Misseldine is herself a charming combination of meticulousness and amiability. Her family’s recipes form the foundation for her creatively imagined cupcakes, made with organic ingredients supplied by local farmers, and her tea blends come from Red Bamboo Teas, a Hawaiian company that has been owned by her family for four generations. To eat at Sugar Inc. is to immerse yourself in the flavours and friendliness for which her home state is famed, transplanted as they are to a town in central Ohio.

Speaking of eating, our goal that day was to sample the newly added Luau Po’ Boy, made with pulled pork cooked in the traditional Hawaiian manner — wrapped in large leaves and steamed over smoldering wood at a low temperature overnight until fork-tender. This is the first of many traditional Hawaiian dishes Ava has planned for savory options — Hawaiian sweet bread and poi (a sort of thick porridge made from taro root) may also be joining the menu in the future, if local support and her workload allow.

My friend opted for the “deli-style” sandwich, in which the pork is complemented by mayonnaise, provolone and fresh, locally grown vegetables. This represents a careful balance of tastes and textures, no one ingredient overwhelming the others; moist pork, silky cheese, crisp baby spinach, sweet tomatoes and mildly spicy banana peppers deliciously meld, yet none of the flavours are lost in the resulting cohesion. Truly an excellent sandwich.

I chose the simpler barbecue version, trading vegetables for Ava’s homemade sauce, which lightly coated the chopped pork, but forgoing the sharp cheddar cheese that can accompany it. (I’m a purist when it comes to BBQ pulled pork.) The sauce, based on a family recipe, is tomato-based and sweet without being cloying, with a pleasant swath of spices and a hint of smokiness that emphasizes the subtle mesquite tones in the meat. In this application, the succulent texture of the pork can truly be appreciated by itself; juicy and rich but not unduly fatty, it rivals (if not surpasses) the pulled pork I enjoyed while living in North Carolina, where the famed “Carolina barbecue” is a regional specialty.

Both sandwiches come on freshly baked 8-inch French baguettes — their crisp, flaky crust giving way to a soft, chewy interior — and are served with kettle potato chips for $8; whether you decide on deli-style or BBQ, expect good food and a good portion of it.

No discussion of Sugar Inc. would be complete, however, without mentioning the cupcakes, which are immediately visible upon entering the bright, sunshine-bathed front room; the baked goods are proudly displayed in neatly constructed cases, each cupcake nestled in a precisely sized shallow depression bored directly into the wood. Ava always offers four more standard varieties spruced up with high-quality ingredients — Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Cake or Dark Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Silk or Dark Chocolate Silk — but also creates her own unique flavours each day, drawing inspiration from both local customs (e.g. Buckeye) and various cultural delicacies (e.g. Horchata). (As an interesting linguistic aside, “Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla” has nothing at all to do with whiskey, but is instead a specific variety of vanilla named for Bourbon Island, off the coast of Africa; it’s grown on the nearby island of Madagascar. Shame, though, isn’t it?)

On my last visit, she had Coconut Lime, Almond with Green Tea Matcha Silk, “Princess Cake” (lemon, orange and almond), and Buckeye (chocolate with peanut butter frosting), but the flavours change daily — some standouts that I’ve been fortunate enough to try are Guinness Spice, Red Hot Velvet (red velvet cake with cinnamon), Earl Grey, Tuscan Cantaloupe, Apple Cinnamon, Lavender, Blackberry Dark Chocolate, Mojito, and the aforementioned Horchata. No matter what flavour you get, the cupcakes themselves are delectable: moist and dense (but not too much so), with chunks of real fruit in both the cake itself and the silky, subtly sweet frosting that crowns it. Ava has also started offering gluten-free cupcakes, made with quinoa flour, for those with special dietary concerns.

The cupcakes come in two sizes — large for $3.75, or mini for $1.50 — and should be enjoyed as a sweet finish to your visit, along with some of Ava’s own tea blends, which can be ordered hot, iced or, in some cases, as a bubble tea (with tapioca pearls). I once tried an iced tea with jasmine and honeysuckle that brought me back to my childhood, when I used to suck the nectar out of honeysuckle flowers growing on our fence. Clean, delicate and refreshing, it was the perfect summertime drink. I look forward to trying still more flavours on subsequent visits — her Moroccan Mint (Chinese “Gunpowder” green tea with spearmint leaves) and rooibos (red tea) chai blends look especially tempting.

It is difficult to capture Sugar Inc. Cupcakes and Tea Salon in short — the sheer number of facets it embodies defies any brief summation — but its essence remains pure. Here is a place where fresh, organic ingredients complement flavorful ingenuity with a focus on integrity seldom found outside such small, independently owned businesses. With each new addition to her repertoire, Ava Misseldine shows that Sugar Inc. will continue to flourish under her guidance and her family’s culinary heritage. Make the trek to Old Dublin and visit this truly winsome spot — you’ll be grateful you did.

Sugar Inc. Cupcakes and Tea Salon
36 N. High St. // Dublin, OH 43017
P: (614) 389-3459 | Twitter: @AvaMisseldine

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Old-world flavours abound at New India.

My first opportunity to recount my experiences at a restaurant, newly viewed through the more discriminating lenses of an aspiring food writer, arose when one of my friends — a well-traveled, culturally aware and food-minded young woman — recommended New India Restaurant to me as the best Indian food in Columbus. She had suggested that I try the lunch buffet, served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the week, which neatly suited my desire to sample a broad spectrum of dishes. Thus it was that I arrived at Bethel Center, a small strip mall in northern Columbus, in the early afternoon on a Thursday.

The restaurant’s exterior is unassuming in the drab, homogeneous manner of all strip malls, yet belies the authenticity of the experience awaiting its guests. Upon entering the tastefully dimmed interior, I was struck by its décor, which I’ve deemed “budget finery.” You can tell that none of the decorations are particularly expensive, but small touches of elegance abound — the tablecloths, though trapped underneath glass, are shot through with gold embroidery — and dark wooden paneling imparts a stately air reverently observed by the patrons’ hushed conversation. But décor is not the subject of this blog, and I was eager to dip into the fragrant curries beckoning to me from their heated trays, so I approached the quiet young woman acting, it seemed, as both hostess and server.

She guided me to a booth, poured me a glass of water, and asked if I’d like something to drink. I inquired whether she had any recommendations — I always make an effort to get suggestions from the staff, and as a result have enjoyed some treasures I may never have unearthed on my own — and she offered mango lassi as an option. As a cold, creamy yogurt-based beverage (here flavoured with sweetened mango pulp), lassi can subdue even the fiercest curries, and is thus an excellent choice to accompany Indian cuisine, particularly for those with palates sensitive to heavily spiced foods. New India’s version was delightful — thick and rich, the yogurt’s tartness tempered perfectly by sweet fruit. Further heartened about the upcoming meal, I wandered over to the buffet.

Ah, how I love Indian food — the building, often sweat-inducing heat; the surprisingly savory vegetarian dishes; the understated beauty of sauces in earth tones contrasted by vibrant reds and oranges. Before me was arrayed a smorgasbord of old and new friends alike, and I thrilled at the exoticism of the names alone (like “Aloo Baingan” and “Dal Makhani”), to say nothing of the complex, spice-laden aromas wafting up to greet me.

For my first plate, I took modest portions of Lamb Vindaloo, Tandoori Chicken, Saag Paneer, and Dal Makhani, along with basmati rice and two fried appetizers with which I was unfamiliar: Aloo Tikki and Chicken Pakora. The Vindaloo (chunks of lamb cooked in a spicy sauce), often a favourite of mine at Indian restaurants, did not disappoint here — intensely flavourful without being overwhelmingly spicy, redolent of garlic, with a hint of gaminess from the lamb, it stood out among the meat dishes. (As a neat linguistic tidbit, the name “Vindaloo” is actually derived from the Portuguese dish “Carne de Vinha d’ Alhos,” meaning “meat with wine and garlic,” which was brought to the Indian state of Goa and later made into a curry dish.)

The Tandoori Chicken (marinated in spiced yogurt and roasted in a cylindrical tandoor oven), easily identifiable by its vivid, almost unnatural red colour, was also excellent. The meat, still on the bone but tender to the point of falling off at the slightest prompting of my fork, tasted powerfully of chicken; I particularly enjoyed the slightly charred skin juxtaposed against the moist flesh. I’ve been told that this dish loses some of its appeal if not enjoyed freshly prepared, which I believe, but I was apparently lucky enough to catch it before it dried out. Thus ended the first of my carnivorous samplings.

My first two vegetable dishes offered contradictory experiences. I immensely enjoyed the Saag Paneer, or spinach cooked with an unaged cheese (similar to Greek feta in texture) indigenous to India. Anyone who thinks they don’t enjoy spinach should try this dish, as it may just convert them. Full-flavoured, with a healthy dose of meaty umami from the cheese, it seems almost too sumptuous to be vegetarian. Sadly, the Dal Makhani (lentils flavoured with spices and sautéed in cream) proved less inspiring, at least on this trip; I found them bland and watery, though what I sampled may have been the dregs just before they were replaced by a new batch from the kitchen. I intend to try this dish again on my next trip, in hopes that my initial impression was merely an unfortunate isolated incident.

The Aloo Tikki (small mashed potato patties, battered and deep-fried) reminded me of miniature, unspiced samosas without the peas to which I’m accustomed; though I enjoyed their texture, they were a bit bland without being dipped in something. Less successful still were the Chicken Pakora (chunks of chicken, also battered and deep-fried), which may have been overcooked, judging by their tough, dry consistency. Thankfully, the naan more than made up for these minor shortcomings — flaky, pleasantly chewy and slightly browned, the garlic- and spice-strewn flatbread was perfect for sopping up curries.

My second trip to the buffet rounded out my main courses and sides with Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Curry, Aloo Baingan, and the intriguingly named Nav Ratan Shahi Korma. The Chicken Curry was excellent, again offering strong flavour without being too hot. (I noticed that none of the dishes in the buffet was extremely spicy, which is likely by design to accommodate the Midwest palate.) I wish, however, that the sauce in the Chicken Tikka Masala could have permeated the meat a bit more, as opposed to being a separate flavour from the seemingly unadorned chicken. Despite being fond of spicy foods, I do enjoy mild, creamy sauces if they have the benefit of stewing with the meat.

I briefly considered my final vegetable dishes, both in shades of innocuous brown. Their Aloo Baingan (potatoes and eggplant) emphasized the silkiness of cooked eggplant through contrast with starchy, albeit still tender, potatoes; another vegetarian dish that could satisfy even the staunchest carnivore. The Nav Ratan Shahi Korma — “Nav Ratan,” or “Navratan,” means “Nine Jewels,” and refers to the number of grains and vegetables sautéed with fresh herbs and served with raisins and cashews in the dish — evoked poignant memories of my childhood. As a child, I enjoyed Indian cuisine at my friends’ houses during Diwali (“Festival of Lights”), and this was a flavour I hadn’t tasted in over a decade — vegetal, but balanced by cream and spice.

Though I had nearly gorged myself on that Indian feast, I couldn’t resist trying some of their dessert samplings, so Kheer, Mango Pudding, and Jalebi found their way onto a fourth plate. Kheer, or rice pudding, has a cooling effect after the meal similar to that of lassi, and I enjoyed the soft, supple texture of the grains for a moment before popping them between my teeth. The Mango Pudding, in which various fruits (largely pineapple in the sample I tried) were swimming, was tangy, slightly tropical, and overall delectable. I regret now that I didn’t have the presence of mind to capture a picture of my dessert, as Jalebi — small concentric rings of deep-fried batter, coloured in this case a subdued maroon, that have been soaked in honey — are difficult to describe adequately. Their flavour, too, is uncommon to the Western palate; I couldn’t place it at the time, except to know that I’d had it as a child, but later learned that it was likely saffron. In terms of texture, they were chewy, with a slight crunch from their caramelized sugar crust.

In a word — toothsome.

Thus ended an exceptionally enjoyable — and reasonable, weighing in at just under $10 for my meal and mango lassi, before tip — meal, which certainly does seem to be a contender for the best Indian food in Columbus. (That being said, I still look forward to trying other options to see how they compare.) Authentic food, polite (if quiet) service and low prices happily intermarry at New India Restaurant; those who already love Indian cuisine, or who are curious to try its masterful amalgam of curry, meat and vegetables, would be wise to visit.

New India Restaurant
5226 Bethel Center Mall
Columbus, OH 43220
(614) 442-7705

The beginning of a beautiful friendship.

After years of poring over cookbooks, cooking magazines, and books from prominent figures in the culinary field — that is to say, after steeping myself in the world of food writing — I've finally decided to marry my love of food with my love for writing. For the past few months, I've updated my Twitter with especially memorable meals or dishes, attempting to capture the essence of spectacular food in 140 characters or fewer. While I enjoy the challenge of expressing myself vividly, yet briefly, in such a limited medium, and shall continue to tweet about notable food I encounter, I'd also like to broaden my creative and culinary horizons (not to mention my character count) a bit.

This blog is the fruition of those desires.

I had worried that, in taking notes (mental or written) about my meals, in analysing them, I'd make the act of eating a cerebral process, instead of the visceral experience I'd enjoyed before. But while I was jotting down thoughts during my first blogged meal, I realised that, far from detracting from my enjoyment of the food, thinking about it more was actually increasing my sensory perception. Rather than simply ingesting absentmindedly while reading or talking to my friends, I was forced to pay attention to each nuance of flavour, each minor textural subtlety, so I could adequately describe the meal to an outside observer.

I look forward to casting this new, more critical eye on what I eat. During the process, I hope to become a more discriminating eater — able to discern flavours and depict them in broad swathes and delicate brushstrokes alike — as well as a more capable, more fluid writer.

Please, join me at the table. Mangia!