Wolf's Ridge Brewing is young, ambitious and smart - a perfect fit for Columbus
Seth Lassak, the executive chef at Wolf's Ridge Brewing, must have one of those brains that churns constantly with ideas: restless, riffing, besting itself. It's his shiny dome you'll see in the kitchen, beneath two copper heat-lamps, moving with the metronome-like movements of a guy who knows his way around the line. Lucky for diners, he's comfortable with menu development, too. Inspired by Wolf's Ridge beers and the foods of the season, Lassak concocts complex dishes loaded with adjectives and components. Then he backs up his ideas by coaxing deep flavors from slow-cooked meats and lending wit and fun to the presentation of his food.
Most breweries with restaurants either don't incorporate beer into the food at all or give it merely lip service-beer-battered pickle chips don't count as innovative beer cuisine. Lassak isn't content to toss a bit of brew in a dish so it can get a shoutout on the menu-he puts beer to work. He braises a venison "osso bucco" ($25) in stout and swabs it with glaze made with the brewery's English brown ale. The result is a deeply burnished heap of meat that is the very best of friends with the parsnip puree at its side.
Lassak doctors cider with hops and then introduces it to Pork Belly ($13), which is braised, glazed and paired with crunchy, tangy carrot, apple and walnut slaw for one of the menu's small plates. He even brings beer to dessert, incorporating hops into caramel and adding the resulting elixir to Butterscotch Bread Pudding ($6) and excellent ice cream ($5).
The menu is worth deep exploration and elastic-waistband pants, but leave room for the bar. That's bar, not just beer. Wolf's Ridge brews a diverse selection of beers, but co-owner Bob Szuter made room on the drink menu for cocktail lovers' cocktails, too. Try the Fig Leaf ($8), a fun bit of alchemy that tastes just like fresh figs while containing not a whit of them. The Allegheny ($9), a seldom-listed classic cocktail, is a distant, more entertaining relative of a Manhattan; this one is made with Cleveland Black Reserve bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, blackberry brandy, lemon juice and Angostura bitters.
To experience maximum beer while expending minimal tummy space, order the WRB Flight of five you-pick house beers. When the waiter noticed I'd skirted all the bitter beers, he suggested the Ridge Trail American pale ale. Hops-mad beers have never appealed to me, though, and I preferred the Duke's Holiday spiced English brown ale, Zane's Trace roggenbier and Canis Lycaon (one guess to which member of the dog family this refers) American stout. The remainder of the beer list is thoughtfully edited, not the arm's-length tome you see at a lot of Columbus beer bars these days. When did the sheer number of taps and bottles on offer become proportional to the quality of the list, anyway?
But drink isn't everything, even at a brewery. Tuna poke ($14), maybe an odd fit for a brewpub menu, was a welcome side trip to somewhere near an ocean. A thin lengthwise slice of plantain is curled into a ring, fried and fashioned into a sweet, crisp cup for diced and marinated raw, ruby-red tuna.
Mole Braised Pork Shoulder ($18) with creamy polenta, garnished with shards of tortilla and pickled radish didn't evoke a strictly classic mole (funky, deep, redolent of chiles, chocolate and toasted things), but it scratched the itch nonetheless. In a Beef and Lamb Burger ($14), typically assertive lamb got a bit lost in the beef and smart accompaniments like aged cheddar and pickled onion. Still, not a crumb of the burger or the thin garlic french fries were left on my plate.
Let your eyes wander up the north wall of the restaurant near the bar to a clever nightly-specials sign fashioned from a big roll of brown kraft paper. Beef Pot Pie ($9 small plate/$18 entree) has been listed lately, and so has a starter of fried Popcorn Oysters ($15) coated in the same crunchy jacket as an autumn-menu starter of frog legs, which, by the way, taste and act more like fish than chicken. Sadly, the oysters couldn't fight their way out of the batter or the zesty remoulade in which we dipped them. Not a briny burst of liquor among them.
If some prices in this review seem a bit high to you, you've got company. Entree prices at Wolf's Ridge approach or exceed those at some of the city's hoity-toitiest restaurants. Usually, diners are getting good value for the price-portions are of good or even generous size, dishes are thoughtfully realized concepts, darn near everything is well-executed.
In one case, though, we call shenanigans: At $22, the Pan-Seared Foie Gras starter is an act of expensive distraction. An edible flower, beautiful though it was, dominated the plate, while swirls of fruity sauce spun beneath an elfin brioche cutout and a perfectly scored and seared lobe of foie gras to match. The flavor is ho-hum, as much as you can enjoy it in a few bites. Foie gras can be magical, and it has a place on a menu at a place like this. But in this iteration, it's an ostentatious creation on an otherwise cohesive menu.
Ironically, the fancy foie gras amplified the casual nature of Wolf's Ridge in a way that paying $25 for an entree hadn't. The army of hipster waitstaff, all with cool droopy hair and tiny jeans, are eager and enthusiastic, but service seems to still be easing into a rhythm-on one visit, we got one more server than we bargained for, resulting in a little beverage-retrieval confusion. No damage, though. They recovered swiftly and gracefully and took truly good care of us and other customers.
These rough-hewn edges might be a new experience for diners accustomed to getting white tablecloths and maybe a little carpeted hush along with a pricey meal. But Wolf's Ridge very much reflects the way Columbus is eating now-consciously, in good taste and with sophistication, beer gladly in hand.