Hotel LeVeque offers a cozy (if sometimes uneven) destination for French-inspired fare.
It may come as a surprise to Columbus that The Keep Liquor Bar is owned by the Autograph Collection, a sub-brand of Marriott. The look, feel and experience of the restaurant, though, is far from that of the continental breakfast nooks ubiquitous in the parent hotel chain. Instead, Hotel LeVeque's restaurant fits seamlessly within the LeVeque Tower, and it's difficult to imagine a time when dining wasn't an option in Columbus' iconic skyscraper.
Folks from the Autograph Collection were strategic in their hiring of executive chef Jonathan Olson—he's a Central Ohio native who was most recently the head of another hotel-based restaurant, Latitude 41.
The designers of The Keep successfully pay homage to the LeVeque and its art deco origins while providing a trendy yet comfortable atmosphere for lunch, happy hour or a multi-course meal. Servers traverse the floors in modern aprons to the tunes of The Shins and Andrew Bird, while some details—such as an ornate wooden door in the entryway and drafty casement windows—stay untouched. With cozy booths, a traditional dining room and barstools alongside its open-concept kitchen, The Keep has seating to accommodate all styles of guests: locals, business travelers and tourists. One thing most tables have in common is an unobtrusive overhead spotlight—perhaps to encourage Instagram photos of the artfully displayed dishes. Because The Keep is located on the mezzanine level of the 47-story tower, the restaurant lacks sweeping skyscraper views of the city. But an entire wall of western windows does allow for some stunning slivers of warm light to break into the restaurant during golden hour.
At The Keep, the servers are often at the mercy of the floorplan. The speakeasy-inspired bar is at the opposite end of the restaurant from the dining room, meaning that speedy cocktail and drink service is dependent on a server being in the right place at the right time. And while it is fascinating to watch food being prepared in the open kitchen, all interactions—verbal and otherwise—between the staff and the expeditor are on display. That said, some of the service missteps on my visits—having the correct silverware in place before the meal is served, remembering the temperature of a steak order or even knowing how to gracefully deliver a hot bowl of soup—can't be blamed on design.
The ample wine list is organized as “Stateside” or “Across the Pond” reds and whites. It's nice to see five sparkling wines available by the glass (including one sparkling rosé), suggesting that bubblies shouldn't be relegated to special occasions. And the craft cocktails are worth the wait. The Citadel ($12) tastes like a refreshing cherry limeade punch, with Bulleit Bourbon hiding beneath the sweet fruity notes. And for those who are suckers for fresh herbs in drinks, the magenta Deco Diable ($12) perfectly combines sage with mezcal and tequila.
The menu has a raw-bar focus not typically found in the Midwest. The two seafood towers (priced at $75 and $100) are particularly eye-catching. The petite tower ($75) features six oysters, under-seasoned Creole shrimp, a small bowl of salmon ceviche and a caviar-topped smoked cod and halibut rillette that looks like chicken salad. Thin sweet-potato chips accompany the two-tiered display, which is topped with half of a chewy, chilled lobster (on my visit it was served without the necessary tools to break open the claw). Unless paid for by a business-related expense account, it's best to skip the towers and order the smaller dishes, where more attention is paid to each element.
A much better choice for seafood lovers is the moules ($16). This sizeable bowl of mussels successfully combines some of the loudest flavoring agents in a single dish. Instead of competing with one another, the lemongrass, cilantro, fennel, ginger, coconut broth, sausage and Pernod provide a satisfying sauce for the pile of plump steamed mussels. A delightful slice or two of grilled baguette (found in many of The Keep's dishes) accompanies the dish. Pro tip: Ask for a second bowl for shells and consider ordering this as a main.
Carnivores will enjoy the steak tartare ($15). Shaped into a patty, pieces of raw beef mixed with tart, chopped cornichons are topped with a layer of chives and a creamy quail egg. Fine waffle-cut chips are served to complement each bite.
Be sure to ask about the soup of the day ($6). During one visit, it was a mushroom bisque with rosemary essence and handmade croutons. And the French onion soup ($8) vies for the best in the city with its rich, wine-laden broth and deliciously melty Gruyère.
Most of the mains are vegetarian-unfriendly French classics, though the techniques and assembly aren't necessarily by the book. The bouillabaisse ($28), for instance, is missing the chunks of fish that help define this dish, which is classically known as a fisherman's stew. Instead, the cloudy broth relies heavily (perhaps too heavily) on potatoes, shrimp and mussels and is lacking in both salt and acidity. Meanwhile, the steak frites with bordelaise ($24) are a fine version of the bistro staple, the thin frites dangerously addictive.
Static, the menu is not. In fact, one of my favorite dishes, the guajillo pork cheeks ($24), is taking a break. This hearty dish has the right amount of everything: salt, fat, acid, spice and even greens (for that healthy feel). Fall-apart pork is served in a dense and tangy display of black-eyed peas, collards and andouille sausage. And the crunchy corn nuts come as a nice surprise. Hopefully, the dish's absence is only temporary.
For dessert, skip the menu and go straight for the beignets ($7). They're what everyone else is ordering, anyway. A brown paper bag stamped with The Keep's logo features freshly fried and heavily powdered bite-size pastries. Accompanying them are a boozy crème anglaise and a bitter chocolate sauce for dipping.
There's one key to The Keep that can't be found on the menu, something that sets it apart from any other restaurant in Columbus: Whether you're eavesdropping on out-of-towners looking to pitch L Brands or watching some kitchen-side flirtations, it's easy to feel like a hotel guest at The Keep, like a stranger in your own city. Sometimes the ideal getaway is in the tower Downtown.