Cocktails and creativity abound at Middle West's Service Bar; speaking of service …
Lately, everyone’s talking about Service Bar. After a buzzy opening in October 2017, the acclaimed Short North restaurant enters its sophomore year with a growing reputation. Owned by parent distillery Middle West Spirits, Service Bar and its executive chef, Avishar Barua (formerly of Veritas Tavern in Delaware and Mission Chinese in New York City), have captured the attention of Food & Wine and The New York Times. Barua’s work is a sampling of what American food truly is today, a pastiche of influences—from fast food to immigrant kitchens—filtered through Barua’s modern culinary techniques.
Danish in design, with heavy dark woods and white and brass accents, Service Bar is also Columbus’ current see-and-be-seen destination, with black booths displaying the tables’ occupants to anyone who enters. The elaborate Brunswick back bar is stunning. The music is loud. The air is drafty. And Barua’s commitment to culinary exploration is real. From the dining room, you can glimpse of a sizable collection of cookbooks in the kitchen.
Reservations are a must for Service Bar, which allows diners to choose among a community table, bar dining or eating privately at one of three booths or five tables. Expect close quarters, and be prepared to have your private conversations be public. Scratch that. Be prepared—no matter where you sit—for others to join in on the conversation. The restaurant may feel like New York, but it’s still the Midwest.
The biggest disappointment during my visits was, ironically, the service. The pacing of the meal is leisurely at best, which is a miss for a restaurant that needs to meet its demand for reservations. On one visit, my table wasn’t available until 40 minutes after my reservation. The welcome service of changing out cutlery is hit-or-miss, and despite the close proximity, waitstaff are sometimes uninterested in assisting guests who are not their own. In one instance, my dining partner and I waited for our check for more than 10 minutes, while less than 3 feet away, Barua and a server made casual conversation with neighboring guests. Given the price point of the restaurant and its name, I expected more.
Grab a seat at the bar, and the service is more attentive. The act of making a drink becomes a performance, with detailed, seasonal cocktails presented as works of art. The Blanc Stare ($12) showcases Middle West’s brand of OYO Stone Fruit Vodka. This bitter and sweet, well-rounded punch is beautifully served with flower petals. And the Blood of the Kali ($14) is served with flaming tiki-style flair. A pineapple peel holds a flame atop the mezcal- and bitters-based drink with a smoky, leathery aftertaste. Ohio beers are on tap, and the list of wines by the glass include varietals that go beyond the usual.
Three menus are available—the full menu, a vegetarian menu and a new specials menu that can be viewed on Instagram at the not-so-secret account @secretkitchenmenu. The handle—which is printed on the paper menu—provides photos of the day’s specials. In my experience, the restaurant updates the app more quickly than it informs its servers of the “secret” offerings.
Among the starters, one holdover from Service Bar’s inaugural menu is the Cheese & Poof ($11). Fatty pork rinds meet a smoky pimento spread and barrel-aged hot sauce, a match made in heaven. It’s a heavy starter for a menu that is designed for multiple courses, but is ideal for a happy hour visit. A lighter version that employs tapioca poofs can be found on the vegetarian menu.
One of Barua’s calling cards is that he pays homage to American fast food classics with upscale takes on dishes from McDonald’s and Taco Bell. His best-known example is the Cheesy Brisket Crunch ($17), a grown-up version of the Bell’s Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Bigger than its cousin, a greasy Bengali fry bread and tortilla envelops smoked brisket, queso and salsa, all of which comes out a bit too dry. It’s a polarizing dish that some will love for its audaciousness, while others crave the original, test-kitchen-approved version.
Many items from the regular menu are altered to be vegetarian-friendly. Curled ribbons of celery are served atop shishitos, diced potatoes and a mayo-based, Alabama white sauce with either fried cubes of smoked tofu ($16) or seven hefty smoked chicken wings ($15). Both versions show reverence for America’s favorite sports bar food, but the tofu version, with its crispy edges, scored higher.
Barua gives a nod to American Chinese cuisine with his Crispy Ribs ($18). The dish, with its branches of fried broccoli and leaves of watermelon radishes atop laquered but underseasoned ribs, doesn’t look like carryout fare. But the inspiration for the dish becomes apparent with a taste of the sticky, Commander Tso’s Sauce that begged for vinegar.
The Mongolian Glazed Short Rib ($28) is perfectly cooked and covered in a sweet, rich sauce and topped with onions, tart pickles and black garlic aside three large, folded baos (or steamed buns) meant for making mini sandwiches. Unfortunately, the buns were difficult to cut with the provided steak knife. While the presentation was beautiful, the dish would have been better preassembled by the kitchen.
Gnocchi is frequently a special, and the Surf & Turf Gnocchi ($17) does not disappoint. The sweet, potato-heavy, 1-inch pasta comes with grilled octopus and cubes of pork cheek in a pungent sauce, coated with a pile of fresh herbs that made the dish smell, delightfully, like a natural foods store.
One standout entrée—loosely based on Malaysian Hainanese chicken—was a simple-at-first-glance duck feature called Duck Duck Rice ($36). A crispy duck thigh joined a lake of tangy soy- and hoisin-based sauce, a pile of decadent duck fat rice, and sliced and cured duck breast topped with a piquant slaw of sweet ginger and green onions.
Daily crème brûlée and daily cakes are on the Instagram menu for $9. Artfully served in a jar surrounded by a bed of smoking anise and other ambers, the Crème Brûlée Cheesecake was a multisensory experience and a reminder that aroma and taste go hand in hand. Although creatively arranged and visually stunning, the cakes (both a banana cake and a lemon cake) were coarse and dry, with a cornbreadlike texture. The crème brûlée is a safer choice.
Overall, impressive cocktails, a lively atmosphere and chef Barua’s talent can carry Middle West’s restaurant a long way, but as Service Bar works to live up to its young reputation (and its price point) the kitchen’s execution could use refining. More importantly, I hope Service Bar makes adjustments so that it lives up to its name.