Restaurant review: Grab the Brass Ring at Brassica

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

As sandwiches at Brassica are being fashioned assembly line-style with warm, puffy and thick homemade whole wheat pita loaves, they are balanced in brass rings. That's fitting, because if you're dining in this new Short North restaurant, you've grabbed the brass ring of "build-your-own" eateries.

Taking over the long and narrow space that once housed Betty's Fine Food and Spirits, Brassica is the latest project from the team famed for the local Northstar Cafe chain (Kevin Malhame, his wife Katy Malhame and brother Darren Malhame).

Although it also serves delicious meats, Brassica takes its name from the genus of plants commonly called cruciferous vegetables that includes cabbage, cauliflower and kale. If you think those ingredients sound too healthful to taste good, think again. Because through skillful roasting, seasoning and blending, they are transformed into vibrant and desirable foods.

Betty's once fancifully cluttered old space has been transformed, too. The room's stout brick walls are now better showcased, and even echoed by subway tiles with black grout. Striking Warhol-esque paintings of fuchsia flowers on blue backgrounds and porthole-like round mirrors play against a spare aesthetic that embraces clean lines and the high ceiling.

The Mediterranean-leaning menu is also streamlined. Only three core items are offered: pocket sandwiches, salads and hummus plates. There is no table service; you queue up cafeteria-style and wait your turn to design your order, which can include a slew of good, free sauces and $5 drafts from five Columbus breweries. Because the restaurant is so popular, the line sometimes extends outside the doors.

Pricing is downright confusing, but largely determined by choosing a main ingredient from $7.50 falafel (terrific, crisp, zesty, not greasy); $8.50 chicken (saucy strands that taste more like flavorful pulled rotisserie meat than menu-described "shawarma"); $9.50 brisket (lean, tender, juicy, lightly smoky and so prized that it often sells out by mid-evening); $10.50 glazed housemade lamb bacon (sweet, salty, smoky, slightly earthy and addictive lumps); and $7.50 for vegetables.

Those incredible vegetables are the heart and soul of this inspired restaurant, because after choosing a sandwich or salad plus a price-setting main ingredient, your meal can be customized with a cornucopia of them. Add-ons are free for sandwiches, but apparently because you can fit a bumper crop of veggies into a bowl, salads are subject to a $2 surcharge.

The impressive list of flavor-bursting grains and veggies includes curried rice pebbled with lentils that, when joined with the crispy onions, effectively creates mujadara. Instead of lettuce, greens are kale and Napa cabbage finely shredded to eradicate their fibrous texture and marinated in lemon, olive oil and salt to make them delicious.

The earthiness of beet batons is balanced by mint and vinegar. Chopped cauliflower is roasted sweet and treated to vinegar plus jalapenos to lend it a highly appealing agrodolce character. There are also pickled onion threads, fresh and tart-sweet pickles, rich and tangy baba ganoush plus tender, roasted carrots heated up by just enough harissa. The result: second-fiddle main ingredients, but intense sandwiches and salads so colorful, hearty, healthful and dynamic that they're my current favorites.

Hummus is another matter. Unlike the salads and sandwiches, it only comes with house pita, so if you want it accessorized with Brassica's signature vegetables, you'll have to pay $3 apiece. How is the hummus? Once it was top-notch - creamy with tahini and bright with lemon. On another occasion, it was drab, lacking tahini, lemon and nuance.

That, plus other hiccups - lukewarm but wonderful hand-cut fries ($3.50) and often harried, occasionally brusque service - are easily cured, and are easily outweighed by the wealth of style, healthy foods, great flavors and alluring values offered by this smart and terrific new restaurant.


680 N. High St., Short North