The restaurant from the owners of Local Cantina and Old Skool is a village valuable in the making.
Over the past year, a new energy has taken hold at the corner of Jaeger Street and Thurman Avenue, where a few of Columbus' new-fangled success stories have joined the tried-and-true anchors of south German Village. The juicery Native Cold Pressed, the trend-setting plant store Stump and the intentionally Wi-Fi-less Fox in the Snow Café now complement old mainstays like German Village Coffee Shop and Thurman Café, drawing new traffic to the neighborhood. While these new additions have opened in previously empty buildings, South Village Grille took a risk by opening in the empty bones of Easy Street Café, the former beloved eatery owned by George Stefanidis. Judging by the full tables and bar nearly every night of the week, it seems South Village Grille is not only being accepted, it's giving the corner new life.
It's tough to live up to the atmosphere that made the previous tenant so vibrant, but South Village Grille is attempting to tell a new story in this space. This cozy restaurant owned by the folks behind Old Skool (barbecue) and Local Cantina (tacos) breaks away from bar food and features a menu that straddles casual fare and upscale entrées. Tables and comfortable chairs have replaced Easy Street's booths, and the décor has that trendy Scandinavian hygge feel—neutral colors, clutter-free, comfortable. While a television is above the bar, it's devoid of news, sports or any other jolting reminders of real life; it instead plays old movies. Some attempts to connect with the neighborhood feel contrived, including a cluster of attractive but awkwardly cropped black-and-white photographs paying homage to signs around German Village. Compared to the thousands of scraps of paper lining the walls, bar and ceiling of Thurman Café, this feels less than authentic and akin to buying a made-in-China, Ohio-themed mug at Target.
At South Village Grille, the service is typically friendly and attentive, with the right amount of time between courses. Wine connoisseurs will enjoy the restaurant's half-priced bottle specials, and savvy diners will notice that the $1 oyster Monday tradition of bygone Rigsby's Kitchen lives on here. The cocktail menu is adventurous. The Risky Fizzness ($11), a gin drink garnished with dried pear, is made with egg white and warm spices like cinnamon and cloves that make the drink taste like a creamy Yankee Candle. The Bourbon Daisy ($11)—the bar's Wild Turkey-based take on an Old-Fashioned—is sharp with a dusty finish.
At first glance, the restaurant's starters are typical to what you'd find in many restaurants of its type: calamari, meatballs and chicken wings. But South Village takes ubiquitous dishes and spikes them with unlikely and mostly complementary ingredients. The Brussels sprouts ($12), for example, are served in a pool of cream that supports goat cheese for a decadent vegetable dish. Served alongside the slices of sprouts (which would be better if roasted to a crisp) are identically-cut squash and pancetta cubes that alternate between melting in your mouth and providing a crisp al dente texture to the dish. And the tender PEI mussels ($12) are served in a creamy green curry sauce that could stand alone as a soup. Cilantro makes an excellent garnish for this dish, while the peanuts seem unnecessary.
On the casual side, the Cubano ($13) does not stray from tradition. Just a tad greasy, the sandwich (and its accompanying state fair-style fries) are perfect for soaking up happy hour beers. South Village's pizzas fall on the “gourmet” end of the spectrum, with thin crust and non-traditional toppings such as roasted squash. The Ohio Pepperoni ($14) balances crispy bowls of pepperoni with tangy, sweet honey and sparingly used fontina. The pizzas would be slightly better if the crust was crispy or wood-fired. And the burger ($15), made with a short rib grind, is a daring addition to the menu, as the city's most famous burger resides only a few doors down. Two slices of thick and crispy bacon make an “X” that spills beyond the confines of the sandwich. Melted cheddar hugs the burger (which was cooked closer to medium than the requested medium-rare), and with the addition of bibb lettuce, tomato, onion and a too-generous sweet pepper jam, the entire sandwich was too much. The real competition with the burger was the delightfully simple salad served beside it. Elegantly dressed baby arugula, two radish slices and a thin hint of Parmesan on top demonstrates that less is more—a lesson that could be applied to the burger.
The entrées vary in success. While the salmon ($24) is expertly cooked with a crispy crust and a creamy interior, the accompanying carrots are tossed in so much cumin that the texture of the powder distracts from the dish. It also comes with a roasted chickpea and kale salad, the flavors of which work well together, but the large pieces of curly kale and the crunchy chickpeas make it difficult to experience the pairing in a single bite.
Meanwhile, the crab-stuffed trout ($27) exemplifies executive chef Josh Wiest's knowledge of seafood. Well-seasoned, well-presented and well-cooked, this dish temporarily makes one forget that German Village is not a waterside hamlet. The accompanying sweet potato fritter has the consistency of a hashbrown, which is a plus for this diner.
The star of the menu, though, is the tomahawk pork chop ($25). It's worth assembling each of the dish's entities to construct the perfect bite: tender, well-seasoned pork, cooked apples, creamy grits, a sweet gravy of maple and Tabasco and perfectly cooked green beans. This dish can turn a regular Tuesday evening into a special event.
A nod to Wiest's creativity should be noted in the daily steak special, which is truly different every evening. One night, the steak was served with sweet potato hash, pork belly and pimento cheese. And another evening, it was served alongside a veggie kebab with hummus.
While some desserts were a disappointment (the beignets, $7 for three, are too big to be fully cooked), others, like the rich and dense pot de crème ($8) topped with a thick and crackable chocolate layer (making it akin to crème brûlée) are unforgettable. And the additions of lemon and cranberry in the apple crisp ($8) make for a sophisticated take on a cold-weather dessert.
On the whole, South Village Grille is a surprising and welcome addition to its owner's suite of restaurants and has succeeded in setting itself apart from its more casual predecessor. If chef Wiest and team can keep the menu lively (and the wine flowing), this neighborhood grill might one day join its Thurman Avenue brethren as a classic.