Peppered with style: Wonderful Salt & Pine could be even better

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

"Hipster Business Name Generator" is an amusing website that creates domain titles suitable for potential trendy startups. A recent perusal produced "Blade and Parsley," "Pear and Cedar" and, my favorite, "Elf and Earthquake."

Spend enough time on the site, and it would likely come up with "Salt and Pine." Sound familiar? It should, because Salt & Pine is the new buzzworthy restaurant from Chris Crader and his Grow team, whose shining resumé includes two Harvest Pizzerias and The Sycamore.

Here's the good news: S&P is versatile and hip, not a hipster cliché, and when firing on all cylinders, the early November-launched spot is already one of the best Columbus restaurants. Here's the less-good news: Sometimes S&P doesn't fire on all cylinders.

The decor does. Occupying most of the ground floor of the 250 High building Downtown, S&P is long and narrow, sleek and chic, handsome but casual. It has a detached, jazzy cocktail lounge plus a lengthy sushi bar, lots of windows, wood and tasteful nature-loving adornments gently countered by soothing blue.

The beverage list is attractive, too. Ten craft drafts, many local (all $6), join a roster of designer cocktails starring area liquors, such as the citrusy, martini-esque Salt & Pine ($11, with Watershed gin) and the stout Birch ($11), a reworked Manhattan integrating OYO bourbon, sarsaparilla, sweet vermouth and fancy cherries.

Wines are also thoughtfully selected. Unfortunately, on multiple occasions, my table was well into a meal before any arrived.

Supervising the easily navigated food menus - breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner are served - is talented Chef Andrew Smith, formerly of The Rossi. Through skillful execution, his fare routinely achieves a balanced resolution between terrific ingredients with contrasting flavors and textures.

This is especially evident in the excellent dinnertime small plates, such as the elegant and decadent Soft Egg ($8) made with porcini cream and Beemster cheese. It's presented like a delicate cup of coffee, but tastes like intense mushroom soup enriched by its namesake ova. Balanced on top like a cookie is the perfect complement: a brittle and thin pumpernickel crisp.

The substantial Chicken Liver small plate ($12) could win over offal skeptics with its beautifully smooth paté tempered by smoked cherries and scene-stealing, fried-chicken-style nuggets with nduja-tinged (spicy Italian salami) mayo.

Reading "Roasted Carrots" ($10) doesn't instill a thrill, but eating this starkly plated bunch will - if you enjoy the vegetable whole, deeply cooked to sweet (their bitter, edible tops crisp) and excited by sprinkled pasilla chili, buckwheat honey and pungent blue cheese. This is arty farm food, and it's delicious.

Ditto for another generously sized, healthful delight: Fried Broccolini ($9). Although slight on the advertised smoke and vodka accents, Asian spins - tempura-type batter, bonito flakes, an addictive homemade gochujang side sauce - still took it to a wonderful place.

Another shy ingredient, chorizo, and what tasted like too-crunchy corn nuts didn't detract from the fact that the large, uncommonly tender and smoky Grilled Spanish Octopus ($15) with kumquat and a delicata squash "cake" is phenomenal.

Its ginger beer sauce was indiscernible, but the silky homemade Pappardelle with blots of tangy local chevre, tons of deep-flavored pork cheek and hazelnuts playing off bitter greens was nonetheless wonderful.

I was confused how the same place that made that entree and an outstanding 42-Day Aged Strip Steak ($39; enormous, rosemary-scented, with several intriguing garnishes) could also deliver the disappointing S&P Burger with a puny patty but hefty price ($13 at brunch) - so I asked my server to bring on some Sticky Fig Pudding Cake ($9) for consolation, and to wish myself an early Merry Christmas. With that dessert, and so much other great food, I feel S&P wished me one, too.

Salt & Pine

250 S. High St., Downtown