With a farm-to-table credo and a mansion full of whimsically designed rooms, Hinkley's aims admirably high.
With a farm-to-table credo and a mansion full of whimsically designed rooms, Hinkley's aims admirably high. But too many dishes fall short.
Ask someone who lives or worksin Marysville about Hinkley's and they're likely to say, "Oh yeah, that big old house in Uptown?" or "Oh yeah, it used to be Doc Henderson's." Or possibly even "Oh yeah, the owners also own the Honda dealership." All of those things are true.
Try asking someone who doesn't live in Marysville to join you there for dinner, and their reaction is a little less affirmative. About 35 miles from Downtown Columbus, Hinkley's is a bit of a drive. Columbus will travel for Buckeye football and for dinner if it's something special-the best fried chicken in Amish country, for instance. But as the miles tick up, so do expectations.
It was dark by the time I pulled up to the stately Victorian mansion on a grassy slope for my first visit. A covered porch with outdoor seating wraps around the front like the wide grin of a Cheshire cat. The two-story red-brick home has had many lives since it was built in 1884, including family home, doctor's office and brothel. In spite of its age, the building is sturdy and well-manicured. Its jazzy neon sign-think '80s cocktail lounge-seemed like an incongruous design decision. It turned out to be the tip of the iceberg.
For an agrarian town like Marysville, population 22,000, Hinkley's is pretty progressive. On paper, Hinkley's is doing everything right.
The menu, which tends toward Southern comfort food, is big on locally sourced ingredients. For example, dinner starts with homemade biscuits, artisan jams like a jiggly jalapeno lime that looks strange but tastes good, and rich honey from a farm not 5 miles down the road. Most ingredients in the 6-Mile Burger ($14) come from within a 6-mile radius. The 318 Chicken and Waffles ($5) is served with a bourbon caramel made with spirits from Watershed Distillery.
Hinkley's is also on trend with classic cocktails like Sazerac, corpse reviver No. 2 and the last word, libations from a bygone era when absinthe was a common mixer. They also keep an impressive wine wall stocked with labels like Orin Swift's D66 ($66), a towering grenache that goes well with the menu's Ohio Proud-sourced steaks, including a rib-eye for $32 and a tender 10-ounce filet mignon for $34. Pete Nunez, who co-owns Hinkley's with Bruce and Shelby Daniels, even popped over to share his passion for the bottle.
The servers radiate warmth but keep it real, and have artisan interests like growing hops on a 20-acre farm.
And there is no ignoring the restaurant's physical transformation from small-town to urban. The house is now lighter, whiter and highly theatrical with art installations and dashes of purple. There's a 16-foot mural of Marysville native Cornelia Fairbanks (wife of Teddy Roosevelt's vice president Charles Fairbanks), a wall-sized nonsensical poem that can be read down or up, a bar made macabre with gallons of black paint and clear plastic chairs suspended from the ceiling (a nod to the home's haunted past). It's "Alice in Wonderland" meets Tim Burton. Although some purists may consider it architectural blasphemy, I quite liked it.
Again, on paper, Hinkley's checks every box on the proverbial punch list. But on the plate, where it counts most-especially if you're driving 30-plus minutes for dinner-the execution is often maddeningly off.
The flavors in the Roasted Beet Salad ($8) of golden and deep pink bars separated by puffs of goat cheese foam were muted. We had to forage for flavor in Hinkley's House Salad ($6), even among shards of Blue Jacket Dairy's Hull's Trace cheddar.
That heady Orin Swift grenache and an itch for bold flavors had us impulsively ordering Fried Chicken Livers ($4), a small plate. Served with a scallion aioli, the orbs of organ meat were huge and hard as rocks. It was like trying to cut a hard-boiled egg with the shell still on.
The 318 Chicken and Waffles, a dish I'd been saving up for mentally, failed to deliver as well. It's a popular Southern dish whose success hinges on the drama between savory and sweet, salty golden crunch versus sweet tender dough. We had none of those culinary fireworks. The Gerber chicken thigh was bland. The plain Belgian waffle was as pale and limp as a frozen toaster waffle defrosted in the microwave. The bourbon caramel sauce was so stingily drizzled, it may as well have been skipped. Poufs of savory black pepper whipped cream were neither peppery nor sweet.
Sometimes it was just a small detail that derailed the dish. The 6-Mile Burger is pleasantly sloppy, with runny yolk from a sunny-side up egg and lots of savory juices from the Bluescreek Farm beef. But why sandwich it on an English muffin, which offers no purchase for your fingers and fails to soak up all the good flavor?
The texture of the Grilled Meatloaf ($18), a monster brick of dry-aged ground beef, was appealingly smooth, almost pate-like. But the distinct grilled-smoke flavor started to taste like injected smoke after one or two bites, and the promised Tasso gravy was closer to the mushroomy brown sauce that coats Salisbury steak.
Hinkley's has a cold-weather winner with the Ancho Chili-Rubbed Short Ribs ($26), the best dish I tried. The servers must agree, because it was always the first thing to be recommended (they also were consistently enthusiastic about the seafood specials, including Opa fresh from Hawaii and yellowfin tuna). The boneless short ribs are seasoned well and tender enough to shred with a fork. Heaped atop redskin mashed potatoes with an avalanche of roasted Brussels sprouts, it's a big bowl of comfort food that fed two hungry sisters from its place in the center of the table-with plenty left to take home. More dishes like that, and Hinkley's could be a top contender.
Most of us want independent restaurateurs to succeed, especially when they're taking creative risks or trying to revitalize a neighborhood. How many times have you read, "I really wanted to like it" on a crowd-sourced site like Yelp? That's how I feel about Hinkley's. More specifically, I really wanted the food to be better. They are very close to being a destination restaurant, yet still so far away.