Restaurant review: Skillet

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Skillet, a locally unequalled brunch and comfort-food specialist, doesn't make it easy on its legion of passionate fans.

Due to its tiny size and wide popularity, this quirky Schumacher Place restaurant implements a seating policy that involves a convoluted call-ahead routine, but no reservations. And then there are the skimpy operating hours: open only Wednesday through Sunday, and then just morning to early afternoon.

Toss in long weekend lines, a limited and frequently changing menu that makes popping in for particular dishes a risk, plus the lack of a liquor license and you have, well, an eatery worth all of those inconveniences.

Run in a very hands-on fashion by the talented Caskey family, Skillet is one of the preeminent ingredient-sourcing restaurants in Columbus, and countless local farm references dot its menu. But it's what this undersized dynamo does with those superior groceries that makes Skillet a destination restaurant: produce huge-but-accessible and focused flavors in a modest kitchen.

The compact dining room exudes a rustic-yet-artsy charm consistent with Skillet's cooking aesthetic. That no-nonsense mood is reinforced by stout brick walls, prominent wood, the kind of stars you see adorning Amish Country barns and knowledgeable servers dressed in service station-type garb.

There's no alcohol, but the carefully curated beverage selection includes uncommonly nuanced LOKAL cold-brewed coffee presented in a plastic flask ($5) and hot Cafe Brioso coffee ($3.25) with Snowville Creamery cream. Drinks with less caffeine include preservative-free orange juice ($4) and Shangri-La organic teas (iced or hot, $3.25).

Skillet's menu is written daily, but one recurring item is the stellar Huevos Rancheros ($12). One of those slam dunks in which every ingredient shines yet the whole is greater than the sum of its glittering parts, the dish arrives clad in the colors of the Mexican flag: white Laurel Valley Creamery farmstead cheese, green scallions and tangy fresh guacamole, zesty, slightly smoky red ranchero sauce.

These are piled atop just-fried, non-GMO corn tortillas layered with soupy black turtle beans livened by tomato sofrito and beer. Local eggs with extra-flavorful yolks enrich the deliriously messy tostadas.

Want some meat? Hefty sides of thick, house-cured bacon ($6) - mine was greasy, but had a wonderful country ham-quality - or various housemade sausages ($4) are worth the extra cost.

Skill and great Ohio ingredients also transform simple-sounding sandwiches (served after 11 a.m.) into memorable meals. Sure, $12 is a lot for a modest-sized griddled cheese, but when the terrific bread is buttery and crunchy, the two cheeses are tangy and creamy and the sandwich comes with two sides you'd expect from a far fancier place - such as elegant asparagus vichyssoise soup plus a lively, local arugula salad - you're getting what you pay for.

Ditto for the killer $14 hot turkey sandwich I recently sampled: slabs of free-range meat flattered by wispy grilled red onions, "tiger sauce" (horseradish-ignited mayonnaise), melted sharp gruyere cheese and oat-flecked, multi-grain griddled rye bread. Served with spicy pickles and a side - I doubled down on the day's star ingredient with a silky, turkey-and-peppered-bacon soup du jour - this was a comforting lunch with a punch of panache.

If something a little sweet is calling, the Cheese Blintzes ($13) are three bundles of joy that could give many of the renowned New York City blintzes a run for their money. The soft-yet-firm mini-crepes griddled to golden brown are endowed with a rich-yet-tangy filling of honeyed sheep's milk ricotta cheese.

Playing off this is a vibrant topping of cooked blackberries featuring a natural sweetness tweaked by lemon juice and cabernet sauvignon wine. Like most items here, this is relatively simple and homey food raised to unusual heights.

Skillet Rustic Urban Food

410 E. Whittier St., Schumacher Place