Restaurant feature: Acre is long on healthy foods, sometimes short on flavor

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Happy New Year’s Resolution Day. Because if you’re like me, you’ve been on a holiday binge that simply must end. So instead of cowering from the bathroom scale like it’s a jug of rotten egg nog, maybe it’s time for some healthy eating. Enter Acre.

Subtitled “Farm-to-Table To-Go,” Acre aims to serve desirable food that’s healthful, convenient and affordable. It’s largely the brainchild of Todd Mills, the former director of organic-focused Local Matters — a nonprofit liaison between urban gardens, local farms and the Central Ohio community.

How about this for irony: Acre has taken over the Old North Columbus space previously occupied by KFC, Graffiti Burger and Talita’s. Exorcising greasy mojo like that was a daunting task, but Acre was up to it.

The new place’s clean and understated design features art-gallery-white walls, wooden tables with a glossy sheen, blue metal chairs, bright lighting, plants and books. Other attributes include an outgoing staff, nothing costing more than $9 and boards announcing organic, free-range and Ohio sources. Add it all up, and this counter-ordering operation resembles a fast-food restaurant run by fashionable locavores.

So on paper, Acre looks promising. On the table, it has ranged from good to, well, having good intentions.

Let’s start with some strengths. Acre’s $3 homemade soft drinks (no alcohol is served) are terrific. The citrusy Ginger Spritzer is aggressive and refreshing, and I loved the vibrant blackberry shrub (shrubs are bygone sippable vinegars experiencing a renaissance). Both were genuinely fruity.

Acre’s Kale Chips ($2.50) were salty as menu-advertised, but also delightfully tangy. Adding to their appeal, the little “chips” (fried-to-brittle leaves) delivered a pleasant crackle.

Textures were less welcoming with the overly stiff greens in my Parmesan-showered Kale Caesar Salad ($4). I also wish half of the salad’s homemade croutons hadn’t been soft, and overall thought Acre’s pungent and garlicky Caesar vinaigrette deserved a better showcase.

Two other $4 salads were a bit of a shrug: the Buttermilk Ranch (with wan spinach and sweet potatoes) and an under-seasoned Quinoa Tabouli with kale and onions. Another starter, Edamame Hummus ($3), was coarse, good-sized and mild.

Like many Chipotle-influenced “grab-and-go” restaurants, the heart of Acre’s single-page menu has a mix-and-match bent. You pick a main component — like seared and flavorful diced chicken; uncooked, unmarinated and tasteless soft tofu; or, for an upcharge, juicy pulled pork. After a sauce (e.g. Mole, Thai or BBQ) and garnishes are chosen, the ingredients can be configured into a taco, “wrap” (read burrito) or bowl.

The $3 tacos use locally made Koki’s soft corn tortillas and are served with good Shagbark chips and salsa. They’re OK for a snack, but compared to the much larger bowls and wraps (both $8.75), are relatively flimsy. Since the two wraps I sampled were practically sauceless and oddly bland, I’d stick with the more flavorful, organic brown rice-based bowls (you can substitute quinoa for $1.50).

My favorite bowl featured a rich mole sauce with cinnamon hints and other nuances from reconstituted dried chilies. I only wish unremoved, rigid chili skins hadn’t compromised the sauce’s consistency. This otherwise winning bowl also includes fajita vegetables, meaty roasted mushrooms and subtle “avocado cream.”

I’d put the Thai bowl (kicky curried cauliflower, carrots, steamed broccoli and a creamy, one-note peanut sauce) and Peking bowl (mushrooms, edamame, barely pickled cabbage and hoisin sauce) in close second and third places.

Where would I place Acre overall? It needs fine tuning, but if you stick with the bowls and request extra sauce, Acre makes eating healthfully easy. And its addictive Sweet Corn Cookie ($2.50, like a cornbread-sugar cookie hybrid), makes it easy to reward virtuous eaters.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Acre Farm-to-Table To-Go

2700 N. High St., Old North Columbus