Restaurant review: The Light of Seven Matchsticks

G.A. Benton
Beef jerky and samosa spring rolls

Annabelle's yellow hair dances in the wind as she prepares to run away with Barnaby Jack, who

hands Annabelle a bullet to hide in her sock and then says, “Be ready at midnight.”

That action takes place in “The Light of Seven Matchsticks,” a children's adventure book you haven't read. Actually, no one has read it because it's a fictitious work of fiction cooked-up for “Moonrise Kingdom” — a Wes Anderson movie — and the passage I cited was “quoted” in a promotional video for the film.

For two years, though, The Light of Seven Matchsticks has been a real (and pretty terrific) speakeasy-inspired bar and restaurant. Like the celebrated movie it honors, the establishment blends sophistication, whimsy and a love of literature in a manner that can seem a little precious, but is a lot of fun.

Bearing no signage and hidden beneath its progenitor — Natalie's Coal-Fired Pizza — Matchsticks revels in its subterranean identity. But the secret is largely out, and minuscule Matchsticks is so frequently packed that a two-hour limit is enforced on those lucky enough to score a table.

Such fortunate patrons will find a dark and eccentric space with handsome wood, a few velvety, tall-backed booths, an excellent vintage-jazz soundtrack, tireless bartenders getting a cocktail-shaker workout and menus hidden in old library books. True to form, each book also contains a “secret menu” of nightly specials.

About 30 cocktails are offered, and given their complexity and approachability, they're quite nicely priced. For example, The Happy Mistake ($10) is a dangerously easy-to-drink concoction made with rye, cognac, rum, bitters and three other liquors.

For something less potent, richer and a bit sweeter, try the Running with Scissors and Playing with Matchsticks ($11), which arrives garnished with a ball of caramelized spun sugar. And if you'd enjoy an appealing eau-de-vie-like libation named after a can-can dancer immortalized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that's created with local vodka, plus an Andean-style spirit produced by the brainy filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, this is the place (The Last Kicks of Jane Avril, $10).

Although outnumbered about three-to-one by the cocktails, the creative small plates hold up their end of the menu. Cheese-covered popcorn nibblers will find that snack substantially elevated with Grana Padano and duck fat. The spicy, generous-sized House Jerky ($7) with an alluring texture and bulgogi-style glaze is even better.

Korean influences likewise enliven the thick-and-zippy barbecue sauce coating the outstanding Pork Ribs (three for $12). The enticingly crusted, fall-off-the-bone, crushed-almond-topped ribs are plated with a great counterpoint: a vibrant, Napa cabbage-based veggie salad with snap peas and cilantro.

The Sicilian Meatballs ($13) are another home run. Five tender, seared pork-and-beef orbs with a smile-inducing center of molten house mozzarella are further enriched with pine nuts, gently sweetened with currants, drenched in a perky-yet-creamy tomato sauce and served with wonderful garlic toast.

Although its menu description might sound like a shrug, the Baked Goat Cheese served with thick-and-crusty toasted Italian-style bread ($14) is attractively plated, delicious and the best vegetarian preparation I sampled: addictive tomato sauce topped with four virtual clouds of soft-and-mild robiola accented with pesto, all oven-browned in a quiche dish.

Another inspired vegetarian dish — the veggie-laden Singapore Noodles ($12) enhanced by a “64-degree egg” with a creamy yolk ($1.50 extra) — had plenty going for it, including too much curry powder. I'd still try this again, unlike the Samosa Spring Rolls ($6), a misfire missing most of the promised vegetables, presented with an undressed slaw and scene-stealing chutney.

Chewing through the tender handmade wrappers of the delightful Soup Dumplings ($12) to reach a large, brothy filling of flavorful ground pork might not make your hair dance, but it's another fun little Matchsticks adventure.

5601 N. High St., Worthington


The Light of Seven Matchsticks