First Bite: encore
The hottest thing in haute cuisine is cheap. I like cheap. So I don't mind one whit when yet another upscaler offers spiffed-up versions of downscale favorites. The trend seems pervasive, and time and again, I learn about a new high-flying fine-dining location turning out specially priced comfort menus or refined bar food.
Joining this remix crew now is Handke's Cuisine. Though the restaurant's world-renowned chef has sold his business, the new Handke's retains its name, and Handke's hand-picked successor - Asa Rodriguez - seems up to the task of maintaining the perennially top Columbus establishment's very high standards. Now he's focusing those standards on ambitious bar snacks.
Possibly borrowing the nonchalant lowercase e's from e.e. cummings, encore is Handke's foray into casual food. For this purpose, the vaunted, vaulted and expensive downstairs eatery has reopened its upstairs bar (thus encore, I suppose), which has been lying dormant for over a decade. I heartily applaud this redux.
I also applaud the Prohibition-era speakeasy vibe that the windowless encore gives off, with its old-timey photos, vintage Victrola, painted-over stone walls, unshiny wood and its black and white floor tiles.
On a recent weekend night, the mood grew even more retro after happy hour (4 to 7 p.m.) when the lights were dimmed and Nat King Cole and Billie Holliday took over for Pink Floyd and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the house speakers.
On the menu is a longish list of creative goodies that range from designer sandwiches and pizzas to smoked quail with a bourbon dressing and even a country pate with sweet breads, foie gras, veal and a navy bean ragout. Nothing costs more than $12, and most dishes clock in around half that price. And I liked every one I tried.
Like the Cuban Smash ($6), which was just that - a crunchily pressed panini sandwich that was a smashing success with its trio of crispy triangles layered with juicy pork roast, pickles, melted Swiss and ham. It's as fine a Cuban sandwich as you'll find in Columbus.
The Surf and Turf ($12) was a dressed-up slider delight. I got a juicy, ground lamb burger with oniony tzatziki, a creamy, unseared diver scallop burger with red onion marmalade and a rich and inspired foie gras and potato salad that showed off meticulous knife work and looked like a pineapple volcano.
Also excellent was a huge cone of homemade Truffled Frites ($4) with a roasted pepper ketchup; small but mighty Cajun Shrimp ($9) - four came with a sort of Old Bay and Cajun dust plus an intense blue cheese dressing and microsalad; and the Brick House ($7) - a nifty little yeasty-crusted pizza with salty and gamey Italian meats.
The Not-So-Traditional Caesar Salad ($4) was just a few bites but they included buttery, cute teeny croutons, basil oil and a garlicky and convincing dressing made with tofu.
After that I decided I must return to try the panna cotta made with soy milk and edamame anglaise; pulling that one off too would truly be an encore worth a standing ovation.
520 S. Front St., Brewery District
4 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday
4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday