Restaurant review: Alana's is still queen of bold locavore dishes and wine deals

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Happy Holidays. How is your gift haul looking? If it could use some sweetening — or even if not — you should treat yourself to a celebratory dinner at Alana’s Food and Wine. Because whether you were naughty or nice, don’t you still deserve to eat at the most unique fine dining restaurant in town?

Alana’s, a 15-year-old University District trailblazer, put the “love” in “locavore” long before most Columbusites grasped the wisdom of supporting Ohio farmers. Its meticulously curated ingredients inject extra vibrancy into the genre-hopping, globetrotting and daily changing cuisine dreamed up by Chef Alana Shock.

Her food is surprising yet familiar, sophisticated yet unpretentious, creative but accessible. As a bonus, Alana’s wine prices and bottle selections make it the best wine eatery around too.

Dress up or don’t — no one will care. Alana’s atmosphere is casual, but embraces a boldness, sense of humor and eclecticism that reflect the restaurant’s culinary bent. Walls hold the expressionistic color explosions of local artist Rick Borg, but also a folksy cross-stitched rendering of “Home is Where the Vodka Is.” Music-wise, Thelonious Monk might be followed by Merle Haggard, Tom Waits, Burl Ives and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Refreshing cocktails like the Cider Manhattan ($10)are carefully shaken, but wine is king. Since the expansive, French- and Italian-generous list prices bottles at just $5 above retail, exciting deals abound. As wines by the glass go, $5 for the tart apple charms of Paco and Lola albarino delivers unmatched value. When in doubt, ask the knowledgeable staff for recommendations.

They can also steer you through dinner. Conscientiously, Alana’s accommodates diners seeking foods vegetarian, gluten-free, meaty, seafood-celebrating, edgy, comforting, expensive and cheap.

Fashioning meals out of great-deal appetizers is a solid strategy. Though menus vary daily, I’ll describe some recent selections.

After an amuse bouche (e.g. a killer, latke-like crispy carrot pancake tickled by harissa and soothed by lemon yogurt), soups ranged from an aromatic and creamy Indian Tomato with Urad Lentil ($5) to a large, peppery and elegant Pho ($11) with rich five-spiced broth and gelatinous oxtail meat.

Salads are generally large and overachieve in the interest department. I enjoyed one with spinach leaves and tatsoi greens pushed and pulled by creamy tahini, funky daikon and sweet carrot ($8). But the warm beets with pickled cauliflower and feta yogurt ($8) is the earthy-yet-bright winter wonder I’m still craving.

My two favorite “small plates” were both entree-sized, but as different as fire and ice. A seriously spicy and delicious Chile Relleno ($10) with black beans and rice arrived with a pool of nuanced enchilada sauce and zesty chorizo. Counterbalancing richness was provided by a fried egg and melted Chihuahua cheese.

The creamy and intense Smoked Salmon Cheesecake ($8) is a dessert form taking a brilliant left turn into a savory course. Served with a mayo-fortified green onion coulis, it’s the best holiday cheese ball you’ll eat this year — only it’s wedge-shaped.

Two excellent entrees delivered hearty, cold weather comforting: a soulful Cassoulet ($25) and a wonderful center-cut pork chop ($28). Beneath a layer of crunchy breadcrumbs, the cassoulet (a French casserole dish) showcased three kinds of creamy beans with Bluescreek sausage, potatoes, carrots, herbs and duck leg confit.

The thick and succulent pork chop gave down-home food an upscale sheen. It was slathered with addictively tangy “sausage” gravy, and teamed with tender kale (sporting bright mustardy notes), plus creamy grits-like polenta (made with hand-milled cornmeal).

And don’t forget Alana’s lovely cakes and amazing homemade ice creams. One recent pairing — a decadent chocolate and peanut butter silk “pie” with a tart sorghum and sour cream ice cream ($10)— is the stuff sweet holiday dreams are made on.

Photos by Tim Johnson

Alana's Food & Wine

2333 N. High St., Old North