Named after Ohio's state wildflower, this Old North restaurant is off to a memorable start.
As the fourth-fastest-growing city in the country, Columbus is accustomed to change. Blink an eye and there's a shopping center. Blink again and a Verizon store pops up. The generation that will never know Campus without a Target might also never visit The Blue Danube or remember Alana's Food & Wine. They will, however, know Trillium Kitchen & Patio, which sits in the shell of Alana's (which, if we're keeping score, was once a funeral home). To every thing there is a season, and Trillium's season is now.
Trillium is the work of executive chef and co-owner Bradley Balch (formerly of The Sycamore) and his onetime Tucci's colleague and current partner Michael Kulikowski. While Trillium shares an appreciation of wine and a similar layout with its predecessor, that's where the likeness ends.
Located just south of Clintonville, Trillium's patio abuts that of Cazuela's Grill and showcases the unique character of the Old North. In warmer months on Trillium's patio, a sometimes-barefoot crooner-slash-troubadour provides a musical backdrop to the pub crawls, motorcycle wheelies and people-watching that make High Street vibrant.
Inside the restaurant is a much more controlled atmosphere, as if Crate & Barrel opened a restaurant. White subway tiles and brick add texture to the bar area, which hosts a large table meant for sharing, as well as plenty of seating along the custom sycamore bar. The service is excellent, and the servers and bar staff are adept at reading a table's cues.
Tuesday is retail wine night at Trillium, which for some wines—like the Guy Allion Sauvignon Blanc ($11/glass)—essentially equates to “buy two glasses and get two glasses free.” In the age when screw-top bottles are acceptable (and easy to transport home), it's a deal worth taking even if only one person enjoys wine. And for those who want wine with a kick, the bar menu features the NY Sour ($7). With whiskey, fresh lemon, simple syrup and a splash of red wine, it tastes like a super-smooth sangria and looks like a Tequila Sunrise.
Trillium's pescatarian-friendly menu features approachable dishes with complex flavors, many with a nod to Asian influences. Much like Balch's last restaurant, Trillium name-drops Ohio farms and maintains a small-but-flexible menu to follow what's available seasonally. While several dishes were on the salty side on my visits, the food is enjoyable and worthy of return trips.
The small-plate menu serves as Balch's playground for local and seasonal vegetables. The pan-roasted radishes ($11) stand out, mainly because cooked radishes rarely get top billing in Columbus. Roasted to a little beyond al dente in avocado oil and topped with pepitas and spicy microgreens, the radishes present a tiny kick of spice at the end. The dish serves as a nice vegan and gluten-free option for diners.
Another find that fits those categories is the well-balanced sesame and kale dish ($11). Featuring super-flavorful—almost too salty—sautéed kale, toasted garlic, pickled ramps and bright and tangy Sweety Drop peppers to break through the greens, the dish (which is peppered with black and white sesame seeds) is nearly flawless. The downside? The kale pieces are unwieldy.
A major win on the small-plate menu is the olive oil-poached prawns ($15). Attractively displayed, the large pieces of shrimp join tiny, piquant Niçoise olives, grilled fennel and citrus rinds. A touch of umami brings the plate together.
And while poutine is ubiquitous at any restaurant with a bar, Trillium's pork cheek poutine ($12) can school the rest with its gravy game. As expected, the french fries—topped with Laurel Valley cheese curds, fall-apart pork and a soft egg—are very rich. The gravy that covers it all is tart and not overburdened with fat. Had the egg been runny (as promised), and the fries a bit more crisp, this version would top the list of Columbus poutines.
The bar menu (only available inside) features a series of affordable bites. At $8, Trillium's burger is possibly the best deal in the Old North/Clintonville area. (Even overcooked patties at O'Reilly's up the street are pricier.) Cooked to order and topped with a double layer of bibb lettuce and a juicy slice of tomato, the thick burger is perfect without condiments. The only negative is the freshly baked bun, which doesn't hold together.
Also on the bar menu, the shrimp and grits ($11) is slightly more expensive and slightly less enjoyable. The sweet and smoky flavor of the barbecue sauce drowns out the shrimp, bacon and creamy, cheddar-laden grits, dumbing down the entire dish. That said, a bar menu is not the place to go for sophistication.
You will find sophistication in the entrées, which are worth the price. A fork-and-knife-and-spoon dish, the ahi tuna ($29) takes a grilled rare tuna steak and hoists it atop a bowl of udon noodles mixed with a salty broth, Napa cabbage and broad leaves of seaweed. Topped with a soft egg and spicy microgreens, the bowl is a pleasing mélange of flavors.
For carnivores, the Maple Leaf Duck Breast ($29) tastes of fall, or Canada, or both. A slightly chewy, five-spice-seasoned duck breast is joined by confit fingerlings, a smear of carrot ginger purée and the sweet undertones of maple syrup. The dish is rounded off with bright pink beet chips that, while a bit salty, speak well to the rest of the flavors on the plate.
The laminated dessert menu—a celebration of Ohio dairy—seems more permanent than the rest of the menu, and given my experiences, there's not much to change. The Cloverton Cheesecake ($8) is downright classy and actually tastes like cheese. But it's the chocolate tartlet ($8) that I kept going back to. A dense yet flaky hazelnut shell holds a cool, creamy chocolate ganache and an explosion of macerated berries and cherries, while a Pepperidge Farm Pirouette cookie completes. It tastes like Christmas and looks like something meticulously assembled on The Great British Baking Show.
As Trillium settles into the neighborhood, it will become, like many High Street finds, a destination of its own, attracting a diverse and hungry clientele. Whether for its magnificent desserts, impeccable service or just a casual night with a chatty bartender, what Trillium delivers, it delivers well.