Besides considerable funds, it takes courage, optimism and a lot of hard work to open a new restaurant at any time-particularly when the economy is only recently showing signs of returning to health.
Despite these obstacles, many folks keep trying, with only a few finding success in the kitchen and at the cash register. Looking back at the Columbus restaurant scene in 2011, we're glad to announce a bumper crop of places that facilitate our quest for good food and good prices. Fresh and local continues to receive serious support, and not just in places that aspire to fashionable political correctness. (Big smile.)
Our list includes a range of choices: the fast-casual Market 65 and the fairly fast and wonderful Buckeye Pho; the return of Ricky Barnes with Explorers Club and the emergence of a longtime Lindey's bartender onto the food scene with T. Murray's; restaurateur Dae Oh's newest addition, Two Fish, and the coffee shop folks branching out with a different kind of MoJoe Lounge; the eclectic décor and menu at De-Novo; the wide-ranging Atlantic Coast offerings at Rivage Atlantique; the great views and fun selections at Milestone 229.
But Hubbard Grille receives top billing for 2011-the stylish space with the four-star food that's found in the same spot that another Best of the Best winner, Rosendales in 2007, once occupied in the Short North.
What a lucky town this is.Hubbard Grille
793 N. High St.
Our choice for Best of the Best is yet another Short North delight. Hubbard Grille is dim and stylish, offering the unique setup of two tables with their own beer taps where you serve yourself. Or you can get a can of Sofia Coppola champagne (tip: use the straw). If that isn't enough, it also serves two of our favorite appetizers-a scrumptious housemade cornbread with lavender butter and the super-best combination of tender and rich beef short ribs and sautéed shrimp on a bed of perfect, creamy cheddar grits. The juicy and tasty Hub burger is so good we ordered it again just to be sure; it's topped with wild mushrooms, Manchego and roasted red pepper in a brioche bun. The buttermilk fried chicken is outstanding: crisp, flavorful and already boned with a delicious potato cake, braised greens and pepper cream sauce with truffle oil. What sets Hubbard Grille apart is the combination of creative dishes, fine cooking, unusually good vegetables and first-rate service.Buckeye Pho Asian Kitchen
761 Bethel Rd.
Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup capable of becoming an addiction. Buckeye Pho's version is magnificent: good beef broth "with secret ingredients," as well as rice noodles and wonderful vegetables, including onions, cilantro, basil, coriander leaves, bean sprouts and jalapeño peppers. And you get your choice of meats (meatballs, tripe, rare or well done steak or all of them) with hoisin and sriracha sauces. A meal in a bowl! When you finally decide to explore beyond the pho, you'll find beautiful Vietnamese summer rolls, outstanding subs, beef stew, noodle and rice dishes and more. (For a full review, see page 72.)De-Novo Bistro & Bar
201 S. High St.
Want to hang out with the hip folks who populate all those hip new condos and apartments downtown? Then head to the hip De-Novo across from Columbus Commons and you'll be rewarded with mighty good food and an artsy interior. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this is no diner. While you can fill up on pancakes and eggs at breakfast, you might also want the bahn mi sandwich with lamb belly at lunch or the beef short ribs with sweet potato gnocchi at dinner. We love the ambition of chef Richard Harrison's menu, and the execution is pretty good, too. Try the housemade ice creams for dessert.Explorers Club
1586 S. High St.
Ricky Barnes of Galaxy Cafe fame is back with a vengeance, serving many of the same Cuban- and Latin-inspired dishes of old and some new goodies as well. We love the sweet fried plantains with salsa yogurt dipping sauce. And just look at these prices: a big plate of half-roasted chicken, rice, black beans and jalapeño slaw for only $11. Save room for the sweet desserts and don't miss Saturday and Sunday brunch for huevos rancheros or chilaquiles. (For a full review, see page 71.)Market 65
65 E. State St.
Fresh, local and organic aren't just marketing slogans for this downtown breakfast/lunch/early dinner spot. It actually practices what it promises. Much of the produce, meats, cheeses, baked goods, coffee etc. are one or all of those laudable things. And, better yet, what they do with them is delicious. Lunch is the busiest time, when downtown types line up to build their own dishes from the nearly infinite number of choices for salads or wraps. If you can't choose, the place also makes it easy with several suggested combinations, such as the lovely Columbia River Catch salad. The baked goods are tasty and you can't go wrong with the Stauf's coffee.Milestone 229
229 Civic Center Dr.
It's well worth visiting the lovely Scioto Mile and its centerpiece restaurant, Milestone 229, at the south end of the new downtown attraction. You might want to walk the length of the promenade before digging into the fabulous skillet mac and cheese topped with buttered bread crumbs or the hefty 229 burger with crispy fried onions. You might want to walk it twice before tackling the massive chocolate cake (enough for four) or the old-school banana pudding with vanilla wafers, which comes in its own not-so-little Mason jar. The casual but serious menu is most pleasing, as well as the view of the river through the floor-to-ceiling windows. An outside patio right next to the fountain display is even better.MoJoe Lounge
149 S. High St.
Part coffee bar, part lounge and part restaurant, this new downtown venture of the Cup O' Joe group is well worth a visit.Just across from the Columbus Commons in the Lazarus building, the bright space with the big windows is a nice spot for lunch or dinner (or just coffee or drinks)-not just because of the setting, but also for the likes of the sprightly ahi tuna salad, the tasty grilled cheese or the satisfying potato gnocchi in a Parmesan cream sauce. There is an effort to highlight good local ingredients, such as the grass-fed beef in the big burger or the honey in the delicious little fruit cup with mint.Rivage Atlantique
652 High St., Worthington
Worthington has taken to Rivage Atlantique, where seafood (and more) up and down the Atlantic coast is lovingly prepared. Starting in the north, so to speak, you can order reliably fresh oysters on the half shell, classic lobster bisque and creamy Maine clam chowder. Then you can move down the coast for crab cakes, fresh fish or a Carolina-style spicy shrimp on buttery, delicious white corn grits. The place knows fish and seafood, and treats them with respect. And there is more on the menu, including fine crisp-crust pizzas out of the blazing hot hearth oven. Decent wines and yummy desserts are part of the bargain.T. Murray's Bar and Kitchen
560 S. High St.
Tony Murray is living the dream: The longtime Lindey's bartender opened his own place, a tastefully decorated spot in the Brewery District. His background behind the bar shows to good effect in wonderfully crafted drinks, including a first-rate martini and a cocktail menu of classics. But
T. Murray's kitchen is just as notable. You can munch on crisp ribbon chips with sriracha ketchup and garlic aïoli, slurp ale-steamed mussels in a savory broth with dots of blue cheese or nibble beautifully poached shrimp cocktail with a fine beet-avocado remoulade. The turkey meatloaf with crispy pancetta is quite good. In a year when bar-and-restaurant combinations are in vogue, T. Murray's is among the best of the breed.
721 N. High St.
Another winner in the Short North, Two Fish is joined at the entry with a good sushi joint, Red. And you can order from both menus. What we like about Two Fish, beyond the fact that the fish pretty much always seems fresh, is the imaginativeness of the cooking. For instance, try the Two Fish beignets, a puffy dumpling-like portion of seasoned fish breaded in panko, fried to a nice crisp and served with tomato cream. In prepping for this story, we noticed that the menu has expanded considerably since we reviewed the place, and some of the new dishes sound fabulous. We can't wait to return to do a review for "Fresh look."