The Delaware bistro isn't trying to be Veritas Tavern, but quality food and cocktails run in the family.
Delaware's Veritas Tavern is widely recognized as one of the best restaurants in Central Ohio—it has been this magazine's No. 1 two years running. 1808 American Bistro, named after the year of Delaware's founding, is its big sister. Located inside a lovely 1890s brick building just a few doors down from Veritas, 1808's owners opened the bistro eight years ago, followed by Veritas three years later. While the approach and the food are simpler at 1808, executive chef Nate Hall and his crew have, thankfully, a similar commitment to quality.
1808's interesting menu is wide-ranging and offers more than traditional American dishes, including lasagna, guacamole and risotto. The menu is divided into “firsts” (smaller plates and soups), “seconds” (salads) and “thirds” (larger plates). The divisions make some sense in terms of size, but be aware that portions are large, and so a triple play is only for the hearty or for sharing.
Among the small plates, beef carpaccio ($11) has been on local menus for 20 years at least, but it's rarely prepared this well. The key is quality beef sliced paper thin to order, and just enough oil or sauce to let the meat shine through. 1808's carpaccio is just right, with a drizzle of peppery aioli, shavings of Parmesan and capers—along with a few leaves of lightly dressed spinach. I don't typically think of cauliflower as an appetizer, but the grilled cauliflower steak ($11) with an olive salad and garlicky oil will make you think twice. Judicious amounts of heat and bits of crisp potato sprinkled on top give it a pleasing crust, and the usually pallid vegetable takes on a meaty goodness in this preparation. Bread service ($3) is also on the menu, but the soft baguette-shaped loaf served here is not any better than average supermarket bread.
The salad offerings include a good wedge salad (the usual, with blue cheese and bacon for $8), a crunchy carrot and kale Caesar ($8) and a disappointing panzanella ($6), where the same sad bread is used (it does not seem to be grilled or even toasted). Beet salads seem to be a chef favorite these days, but few are as interesting as the bistro's 4 Way Beets ($8). Featuring—you guessed it—beets four ways, the salad includes firm beets cooked sous vide (constant temperature water bath), beet chips, beet gel (an odd if tasty substance) and beet powder, which was pretty but lacked flavor. Nonetheless, the whole salad was earthy and certainly healthful.
The best dishes on this menu are found on the “thirds” list. The lasagna ($15) is definitely an Italian-American version—big, rich, cheesy and meaty—and quite tasty. The sous vide bath is used again to good effect on a not-fatty chunk of beef short rib, which comes with fresh-tasting mashed potatoes, thin green beans and mushrooms ($24). The shrimp in the shrimp and grits ($18) are big and crisp. The grits are creamy, the sauce rich and only mildly spicy, and the discs of andouille sausage are a nice touch. Steak frites ($28) features a big grilled rib-eye with a smoky flavor and excellent deep char, complemented by “gastrique fries”—the honey and vinegar drizzle over salty fries makes for a great contrast.
All in all, my favorite visit to 1808 was for Sunday brunch. Dining alone, I was a happy customer at the bar and loved the buttery biscuits with wonderful sausage gravy sprinkled with rosemary, thyme and sage ($8). The brunch menu has some of the regular items (beef carpaccio, grilled cheese, crispy almond chicken salad, shrimp and grits), but also offers French toast, huevos rancheros and regular American breakfast items. I was happy in part because I was able to enjoy a delicious cocktail along with my biscuits and gravy.
Veritas is known for the strength of its bar program, the genetics of which run strong in this family. The folks at 1808 have designed some of the most Uber/Lyft-worthy cocktails around. Try the vodka-based The Saint, where fragrant elderflower liquor makes for a praiseworthy drink, or the Cucumber Basil Smash with gin, chartreuse, cucumber, lime and basil syrup, which tastes like summer. The bar is also serious about its beer: There are 48 on draft, and the expansive list is very interesting and informative. The staff here is knowledgeable about the various brews if you need more encouragement, and bar manager Abby Cottongim and her crew are a strength at 1808.
Timely service is not. Servers are friendly and—when around—helpful, but I had problems twice with slow service. This is understandable, perhaps, when the big place is full, but on a second visit, the restaurant was less than half full and we waited a considerable time in between drinks, first courses and dessert.
Fortunately for 1808, those desserts are worth the wait. Beignets, bread pudding, crème brûlée—these are not for the faint of heart, but they are delicious. The bread pudding ($7) is nicely flavored with whiskey and plenty of butter. The beignets ($6) are not the pillowy little squares you would get at the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans but more like doughnut holes—freshly fried and excellent. Bubba's Southern Banana Pudding ($7) is just like my Southern-born mama made (for the record her name was Flora, not Bubba) and so I loved it—you might, too.