Restaurant Review: Bel Lago

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Because of its stunning setting smack dab on the dreamy Hoover Reservoir, the Hoover Grille became a destination restaurant. As for the food, well, if you played it smart and stayed with something simple, you could usually find a nosh good enough to justify lingering on that inspiring water a while longer.

With diligent new owners, an Italian-heavy menu and a complete identity makeover, the place known since March as Bel Lago (slangy Italian for "pretty lake") has food more worthy of its view. Thus, your 20-minute-plus drive from Downtown will be rewarded with locally unparalleled aquatic panoramas and (pun intended) dam good meals, too.

The rambling blue-and-white waterside building (with free valet parking on busy evenings) is the same huge beacony thing outside, but it's been redesigned for the better inside. Gone is the matching blue-and-white nautical motif (which overplayed the obvious) and in are moderately upscale Italianate touches.

So smooth wooden columns topped with a trellis-like roof section off the large, curvy bar, and the main dining area's gotten a fresh ochre-and-burgundy paint job. Paying triple homage to that new color scheme, the awesome water view and apparently the art of Cezanne is the roomy restaurant's single prominent painting - a thematically resonating seascape triptych.

Outside, nature should and does take center stage, but it's aided by unshaky tables and a shade-granting awning equipped with ceiling fans. So though it's perfectly nice inside, it is worth the wait to dine on the fancifully fetching, boat-etched waters.

Bel Lago's on-target menu offers something for everybody - sandwiches (try the winning Italian Beef), good pizzas, steaks, seafood (like tender scallops smeared with rich pesto and perched atop a multi-flavored bean salad) and lots of Italian fare.

Such as the top-notch if linguistically creaky Polenta Frites ($7). I'm an oft-documented sucker for this corny stuff and these big, thick and crispy mezzalune speckled with garlic, bacon, cheese and basil (conscientiously grown by Westerville high schoolers, as the menu notes) are as desirable as any around.

Ditto for the Italian Wedding Soup ($3 cup/$5 bowl). Dramatically arriving in a huge white bowl, it was eggy, rich, thick and herby, and its formidable chicken stock was loaded with all the requisite chunky stuff.

Both the Tuscan Caesar ($5 - creamy dressing, excellent croutons) and the Arugula and Apricot ($6 - riddled with fruit and cinnamony almond brittle) salads were large and good enough, even if they suffered mildly from unmemorable dressing syndrome.

The highly recommended pasta dishes I tried were not so easy to forget. Bel Lago actually makes most of its own pasta, and it shows. In fact, their Spaghetti and Meatballs ($10 at lunch, $16 at dinner) can stand beside any in the city.

My "petite" lunchtime serving was massive, and the lovely, homemade al dente noodles supported a rich and tart, marvelously balanced marinara sauce plus a terrific fist-sized meatball. Available also as an appetizer ($7), the pliant and herb-speckled orb had delicate veal-like flavors spiked with a touch of chili flakes.

Also a joy to eat was the Chicken Dore ($19). An abundance of made-here linguine was populated with blistered tomatoes, artichoke hearts and mushrooms. Topping the pasta was a pounded-thin and crisply pan-fried chicken breast lightly coated in cheesy breadcrumbs. The whole shebang was tossed with a chicken brothy sauce whose restrained touch of cream was tamed by lemon and capers.

The pricey Bone-In Ribeye ($27) treated an only OK steak like prime royalty. So though I had to navigate through some fat and gristle to eat it, the beef was beautifully grilled and crowned with a "Barolo-bacon" butter. Its prominent juices only added to the decadent nearby mashers, and leaning on the unthick meat hunk were tons of firm, buttery asparagus spears.

I quite liked Bel Lago and its carefully trained, outgoing, black-clad staff. That said, the place does exhibit a few downscale tendencies - like serving packaged saltines (instead of, say, crostini) with soups, and using second-rate, pre-grated parmesan cheese - that do not suit Bel Lago's ambitious and generally well-executed cuisine.

Maybe those are affectations congruent with a restaurant straddling between actual fine dining and a family-friendly place where suburbanites can feel comfy while eating in shorts.

Bel Lago Waterfront Bistro

170 N. Sunbury Rd., Westerville