The new Short North restaurant offers good values, although it focuses more on the decor than the food.
Level Dining Lounge seems to have put its energy into its swanky décor and generally loungelike atmosphere. A glance at its Facebook page confirms that most of the commentary is about cocktails. Given that, the food is less expensive than you'd expect-value for the money.
Located in the Short North, where R.J. Snappers used to be, Level's basic color scheme is black and white, with design touches here and there. It features a big bar in the center on the main floor. Modern art adorns the walls, and there are commodious booths with marble tabletops and even decent overhead lighting for those of us who like to read during dinner. The kitchen is a level up (as is another bar), with a railing over which servers keep an eye on things. The clientele is the usual youngish Short North mix, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves on my visits.
Some appetizers were good and others so-so. Crispy calamari were tender, brown (thanks in part to the Japanese breadcrumbs) and indeed crisp. The dish came with a sweetish tomatoey chili sauce. Crab-stuffed mushrooms lacked crab flavor, or much flavor at all, as did the creamy sauce. A bean dip garnished by two chive strands and a sprinkling of paprika had a pleasant loose texture, but its small flavor was somewhat overpowered by the accompanying dry crackers. The tapas trio was nice. It featured thin grilled asparagus stalks wrapped in prosciutto, sourish olives under a heavy sprinkling of paprika and brilliantly red roasted peppers holding good mozzarella and splashed with an OK pesto.
Salads were acceptable. The house version of decent greens was heavily topped with blue cheese and bacon in a good balsamic vinaigrette. The Caesar was built of finely chopped Romaine, nicely cold, with big chips of Parmesan, dry, dull croutons and a too-vinegary mock-Caesar dressing.
Entrees were usually pretty good. From the lighter side, salmon carpaccio provided a platter of acceptably fresh and well-flavored sliced salmon dressed with capers, X-ray-thin lemon slices and a lemon-dill sour cream sauce-as well as a few pieces of red leaf lettuce and two thick potato chips. Shrimp skewers held nine small (overcooked) shrimp wrapped with bacon and covered with barbecue sauce. They were accompanied by crunchy, thin, grilled asparagus and a tasteless rice pilaf. I recommend the seared scallops, which were served with that asparagus and a nicely toasted orzo (ricelike) pasta.
Level made a good hamburger, meticulously cooked to order. We sampled both the Sweet & Sinful BBQ version-barbecue sauce, cheese, bacon and onion straws-and the Vintage-lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, choice of cheese (we chose American, the vintage burger cheese) and mayo on the side. It's a matter of taste, of course, but we liked the Vintage.
A couple of the by-the-glass wines turned out to be better than expected. Alberico, from Spain, had a lovely full flavor and a yellow glow. And although one might suspect that Red Blend Ménage à Trois was on the menu for its name, it turned out to be surprisingly good, with vivid flavor. The decaf, unfortunately, was watery and weak.
I managed to find room for a piece of apple pie, and while the crust was a little soggy, the apple part was tasty and the ice cream was quite good.
Level Dining Lounge
700 N. High St.
Atmosphere: Snazzy, urban, lively.
Recommended dishes: Tapas trio, salmon carpaccio, seared scallops, Vintage and Sweet & Sinful BBQ hamburgers.
Price range: Starters $4.99-$11.99; salads $2.99-$9.99; entrees $7.99-$16.99; calzones and sandwiches $6.99-$12.99; desserts $1.99-$5.99.
Hours: 11 am to 2:15 am daily.
Service: Good, attentive and reasonably prompt.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more.
Rating: * * 1/2
This story appeared in the November 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.