Restaurant Review: The Sycamore

By
From the June 2014 edition

German Village’s dining landscape just keeps getting better. The historic district is already home to venerable bistros like Lindey’s, Barcelona and G. Michael’s, as well as ambitious newcomers like Harvest Pizzeria. Here’s one more for your short list: The Sycamore.

Located on the corner of two wildly uneven cobblestone streets (heaven help the FedEx guy who regularly bounces through with fresh seafood deliveries), The Sycamore opened last November in the brick building previously occupied by Sycamore Cafe, a neighborhood dive bar.

The quiet of the tree-lined street gives way to the sounds of a well-attended cocktail party once you swing open The Sycamore’s wide front door.  They accept call-ahead reservations up to an hour before you arrive. But even then, expect a wait. We spent ours at the bar, where wine takes a backseat to craft beers. They also do craft cocktails like the citrusy 6th Street Gimlet ($10) and the Village Jewel ($12), a rich, brown cocktail made with bourbon-barrel gin from Watershed Distillery.

Thanks to a complete gut job, the inside is now very handsome—all exposed brick, tan leather and cool grays. Modern banquettes run the length of the space, which is as sleek and narrow as a European bullet train. The quarters are tight. So tight that the host has nowhere to stand except among the waiting guests. So tight that once you’re seated, the chicly dressed stranger beside you is liable to sit on your jacket.

A fun playlist of bluegrass and rock ensures your neighbors can’t hear your conversation. At the height of the night, however, there’s a good chance your tablemate won’t hear you, either. The roar was so loud one night I found myself reading lips across the table.

The kitchen is small, too, like the inside of a food truck—as if it could detach and drive away at any moment. That’s where you’ll find chef and co-owner Bradley Balch, who often leans his bandanna-wrapped head out of a small pass-through to survey the room or confer amiably with a server about someone’s order.

Balch and co-owner Chris Crader are both seasoned vets of the restaurant business. Balch had been the longtime chef at Tucci’s and was the opening chef at Barrio and Elevator Brewing Co. Crader, who also owns Harvest Pizzeria and Harvest Bar + Kitchen, is a practiced front-of-house guy. It was at Elevator where Balch and Crader met and started dreaming of one day running their own place.

Balch’s menu, updated in April, is organized by small plates, tacos, sandwiches and large plates. Nearly everything I tried was terrific: boldly seasoned, vibrant with color and flavor, made with local or painstakingly sourced ingredients and finished with expert drizzles, salsas and slaws. In particular, Balch nails seafood. He orders from suppliers that fish using sustainable methods, keep human handling to a minimum and ship within 24 hours. That ocean-to-fork style of cooking, combined with expert execution, makes seafood feel exciting and new.

I loved a $13 small plate of Ahi Tuna Poke (pronounced POH-kay). It’s a carefully layered tower of lightly fried lotus-root chips, buttery avocado and cubes of sashimi-grade tuna from Hawaii, crowned with a fluff of microgreens.

The Skuna Bay Salmon ($25), pulled from the cold, pristine waters off Vancouver Island, is spectacular. Balch does it two ways on one plate: a light-as-air fillet on a puree of edamame, and a ceviche. A sweetly perfumed vanilla and pineapple coulis rings the dish.

If it’s late spring in Columbus, you can count on two things: rain at the Memorial Tournament and soft-shell crabs at restaurants all over the city. The soft-shell crab on special ($17) was a meaty crustacean that was well-seasoned and crunchy on the outside, mild and sweet in the middle.

Fillets of Lake Erie walleye ($23) were pan-seared until golden and complemented by a rainbow of sides: corn and poblano pepper salsa, a warm, tangy mash of truffled purple potatoes and bright green grilled ramps.

As lovely as the fish was, it couldn’t compete with the Ohio Beef Cheeks Poutine ($11) my dining companion ordered. If you order this dish, be prepared to share. “Ok, this quadrant is yours,” he graciously allowed, cordoning off a pile of grilled sourdough, shredded beef and hot fries tossed with minced garlic. Beef cheek can be a tough cut, so Balch slow-braises it for five hours until it’s tender enough to pull apart with a fork. The whole mess is finished with a gravy of Snowville cream and chives and fresh cheese curds that look like knobs of warm butter.

Balch makes the most of local suppliers. Blue Jacket Dairy, an artisan cheese producer in Logan County supplies the curds in the poutine and  goat cheese in a flavorful arugula salad ($8).

He also makes the most of his kitchen’s tiny grill. Grilled chicken wings ($11) rubbed with arbol chili were a meaty if somewhat charred starter. You can also get them marinated in Harold’s BBQ brine. The brine is an homage to Balch’s wife’s grandfather, an Army vet who was in charge of manning the grates at VFW parties, dousing hundreds of chicken thighs with a secret recipe that Balch is pretty sure included Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.

You’ll find the tangy brine again in Harold’s BBQ Amish Chicken ($19), a large plate that comes with a small bowl of hot creamed corn. It’s hard to imagine creamed corn could be described as “phenomenal,” as our server promised. But he was right. The credit goes to Balch’s apprentice, Mitch Kondis, who builds flavor with browned butter and caramelized onion.

Balch and Crader originally planned to open a Latin American joint; they shelved the idea when their first location fell through. That’s why it’s so confounding that the tacos at
The Sycamore are terrible, the only disappointment of my visits. The corn tortillas are thick and bland. Fillings were dry and meager — just two small nubs of meat in each of three beef tenderloin tacos ($12). The sunfish tacos ($13) were worse. Suddenly, the music in the restaurant seemed loud and annoying, and I wished we had some of The Sycamore’s garlicky guacamole ($12) to give the tacos flavor and creaminess. The tacos need a re-haul or a heave-ho; it would be a shame for people to get sidetracked from so many other excellent options.

The Sycamore offers a small dessert menu. My least favorite was a flourless chocolate torte that was as bitter as I was after eating those tacos. My favorite was the peach cobbler ($8). It was a pleasure digging through warm, chewy apricots and vanilla ice cream to get to the baked peaches at the bottom of the ramekin.

Balch and Crader, with their combined talent and years of experience, have put a great thing together. The food is inventive, never boring. The servers are knowledgeable and willing to give thoughtful guidance, even when the place is in full tilt.

And while they set out to create a place where locals could pop in for a beer and a burger, they’re making it easy for the rest of us with considerations like free parking at the Franklin Glass Studio lot down the block and their policy of accepting call-ahead seating.