With beef, bourbon and barbecue on the menu, it's fun to man up at Cameron Mitchell's latest, The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek.
Keeping up a Duggar-like pace, the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants group opened two more restaurants in Columbus last year. The first was Hudson 29 in the heart of Upper Arlington. The second, in September, was The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek-an upscale redux of the old Hoggy's barn on the edge of Gahanna.
As siblings do, they have some similarities. Both are gorgeously decorated in keeping with their respective concepts (Napa and Hudson valleys versus Kentucky horse farm). Both have regional American menus. Both are packed most nights with well-heeled guests. And both deliver a bill that's liable to give you sticker shock.But I found the Barn to be more appealing, more fun-a little romantic, even-with its country retreat design, outdoor space overlooking trees, and the kind of red-blooded American menu John Wayne would appreciate.
The CMR group made many upgrades to transform the pastoral property. The restaurant name is no longer emblazoned across the front gable. Now, tasteful signs with gilt lettering welcome you. A covered port with complimentary valet makes for a grand entrance.
Inside, two living rooms with glossy brown and red leather seating and equestrian decor flank the front door. A painting of a wild mustang hangs above the fireplace. Derby ribbons are framed on the wall. They stopped short of hiring a hound to lie by the fire.
Where you sit in the 10,000-foot space can dramatically affect your experience-although given the full reservation book lately, you may not have much say in the matter. The dark bar has lots of tables formally set for dinner and low leather chairs that swivel. Near the kitchen, a block of booths offers valuable elbow room and privacy, if you can tune out the clanging and steady shouts of "Service!"-a polite summons for servers to pick up food. The main dining room is center stage with warm light from chandeliers high in the rafters and a cozy brown tartan that softens all the wood like a woolen scarf. It feels like a manly place to do manly things. We promptly ordered bourbon.
The CMR group partnered with Woodford Reserve to create their own blends and came back with Barn No. 1 ($9), which has a traditional smokiness, and Double Oak Selection ($10.50) with soft vanilla notes.
The sweeter Double Oak is the backbone for the Bourbon Hemingway ($10) with fresh grapefruit and lime juice, which I preferred for its horsepower and pleasant burn. There's also an extensive wine list with some hefty mark-ups. Stick with cocktails.
Another tip: Don't pass on the rolls. A warm Parker House roll spread with soft maple butter is a wonderful way to start. I can't say the same when those buns are stuffed with beef brisket and braised greens and called Soul Rolls ($8). They were as arid as day-old Hot Pockets.
Don't let the name deter you from ordering Baked Oysters Bingo ($16), believing raw is the only way to go. You would miss a great little appetizer: Heavy shells with fat oysters are loaded with warm creamed spinach, aioli and broiled parmesan. I know I will crave these all winter.
Sauerkraut balls are a cold-weather delicacy that can also be lead sinkers. The Barn's fried croquettes ($9) with spicy sausage are bigger than average and somehow light as ping-pong balls.
Chef Michael Rice oversees a menu that honors traditional mid-American cuisine. The Barn's meaty St. Louis-style ribs are a specialty of the house. Full ($25) and half-racks ($18) are massaged with a dry rub and slow-cooked in the smokehouse built into the side of a brick wall out back where they develop a sticky, burnished bark of fire-licked fat and caramelized sugar. Using just my fingers, hunks of meat easily pulled away from the bone. I preferred it without the thick, house-made barbecue sauce, which comes on the side and tastes distinctively of smoke and pepper.
The spice was just right on lightly blackened Red Fish ($29), a mild fish similar in texture to red snapper. "That's my favorite thing on the menu," our server said. I'd heard that refrain from other servers about other dishes. But after a few bites of the bronzed fish, I believed her.
Beef is the other big star here. It's raised in the Midwest and hand-cut in The Barn's on-site butchering facility. They offer a range of cuts: T-bone, rib-eye and even chateaubriand for two.
An 8-ounce Filet Mignon ($39) was as thick and tender as you'd hope for the price. It had good flavor, too, which is more than I could say for the bland 6-ounce filet ($27) I regrettably added to a half-rack of ribs for a Rib Combo ($45). The smaller cut somehow escaped the kitchen free of seasoning. When you charge $45 for a plate, it should be something special. This wasn't, and I felt fleeced.
A 12-ounce Queen Cut ($29) of prime rib made me feel like less of a mark. It's the smallest cut and still a thick slab of meat. The brown edges where the meat starts to sag is where the flavor lives. Here, it had a whisper of smoke.
Servers wear ironed gingham shirts and are smiley, bright-eyed, fresh-scrubbed. With no malice, these happy campers will give you a glowing review of everything you ask about. I wish ours had steered me away from the Beef Brisket ($19), a mound of flavorless, shredded meat over Texas toast with a side of barbecue sauce.
It's not all mountains of meat, though. The Barn offers several classic salads-Caesar, wedge, Waldorf. We enjoyed the Roasted Chicken Salad ($14) made with fluffy gem lettuce and tender kale and full of crunch and flavor from toasted pecans, pumpkin seeds, dried cherries and blue cheese.
If you still have room by the end of your meal, consider sharing one of The Barn's house-made desserts. The Coconut Cake ($7), with layers of coconut-soaked butter cake, snowy frosting and shredded coconut, is heavenly. And if you can imagine cutting a wedge out of a bowling ball, you'll have an idea of the diameter and density of the Mud Pie ($7). If you loved ice cream birthday cakes as a kid, this one will take you back.