Restaurant review: Rockmill Tavern

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive
Ice Cream Sandwich dessert

Astutely arranged lighting fixtures punctuate ample darkness to create a seductive, subdued glow inside Rockmill Tavern. That counterbalancing effect is reflected in the mood-softening of Rockmill's brawny brown interior of bricks and barnwood by plants - including a lush "living wall" - and an often-lilting, tasteful, upbeat soundtrack.

A similar balancing act distinguishes Rockmill's most interesting dishes. Welcome to the hottest and best restaurant to premiere in the Brewery District in years.

An extension of the brand founded by owner Matthew Barbee - his Lancaster-based Rockmill Brewery began producing universally acclaimed, Belgian-inspired ales in 2010 - this eatery follows in the recent footsteps of other local breweries (Lineage, Hoof Hearted, Pigskin) by expanding to food service in stylish digs.

Rockmill - which occupies the attractively renovated former World of Beer - isn't just another pretty space. Its cuisine is overseen by a serious chef: Andrew Smith, previously of The Rossi and Salt & Pine. Smith's fare frequently mirrors Rockmill's handsome setting by offering rusticity and sophistication in equal measures.

Working from a small menu, Smith's dishes have a knack for balancing earthy and rich flavors with bright accents, and for livening old favorites with contrasting textures and ingredient upgrades.

For instance, gentrified deviled eggs are commonplace nowadays, but Rockmill makes them with duck ova ($8) generously layered with duck confit. Bright and zingy counterpoints arrive via crisp, pickled vegetables.

Beet salad - been there, done that. At Rockmill, though, the beets are animated by a deep citrus marinade, the creamy cheese is a smear of Cloverton (from Laurel Valley Creamery near Gallipolis) and ballast and contrast are supplied by whole leaves of perkily dressed greens and smoked almonds. Even if some of the halved beets are under-roasted, as were mine, it's a hit.

Citrus and nuts also add interest to charred and chilled cruciferous vegetables ($9). This palate-popping treatment of broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco hides beneath alluringly salty, grated ricotta salata cheese that resembles a coating of new-fallen snow, and contributes to an unexpected dryness.

These dishes, and snacks such as salty, just-fried pork rinds ($4), find natural partners in Rockmill's lineup of standout beers. Inquiring palates can request a sampler of three three-ounce pours ($7).

A solid, still developing wine list is offered, too. If you prefer a cocktail, the Sazerac-riffing Shetland Pony, garnished with clove-studded orange rind, is bold-but-balanced and seasonally appropriate. Like this establishment's other inviting cocktails ($10), its equine-related title pays homage to Rockmill's origins - the brewery occupies a former horse farm.

The addictive (not too) spicy chicken sandwich ($14) has become Rockmill's de facto signature entrée. Thoughtfully presented with moist towelettes, this flavor, texture and napkin-intense triumph starts with a puffy brioche roll coated in hand-smearing, spicy honey butter. Inside is crackly-battered, thick and juicy breast meat flattered by fresh pickles and umami-heavy mayo tweaked with urfa (fruity crushed chilies). Rockmill's winning fries ($5), which are crunchy-yet-creamy, likely from multiple fryings, are an obvious companion.

The killer tavern burger ($14) delivers serious grilled-steak flavor at a more affordable cost than the good-not-great $32 angus ribeye. Seafood fans can revel in the excellent, delicately fried branzino ($22). Served tail-on, its crisp, fried chicken-like meat is underlined by sweet, pickled chilies and a kicky salsa verde.

Desserts ($8) will please various sweet tooths with a decadent and intense peanut-butter-and-chocolate pie drenched in olive oil; an irresistible, grown-up ice cream sandwich; and a deconstructed "pie" of cored-out baked green apple, its tartness balanced by a streusel cap, scattered graham cracker "crust," caramel sauce and homemade ice cream.

Comparing life to riding a bike, Albert Einstein said, "To keep your balance, you must keep moving." Here's hoping this impressive newcomer keeps moving.

Rockmill Tavern

503 S. Front St.,

Brewery District