Crave 10: #1 – Rigsby's Kitchen

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

The brick-walled Rigsby's has once again proven its ability to shift with the way diners are eating now without straying from its Mediterranean and Italian roots. The Short North mainstay's restructured and pared-down menu and wine list means the same honest and homey flavors-filling and yet never over-indulgent-are even more accessible.

It's not easy for a restaurant to stay relevant. Palates change and so do diners' expectations. But somehow, Rigsby's Kitchen-the restaurant credited with kick-starting the life of the Short North and emphasizing the importance of local before it was a buzzword-always finds a way to stay top of mind.

I'd argue it's Kent Rigsby's culinary prowess: a passion for food mixed with well-traveled knowledge of his craft. For example, Rigsby spent 10 days on a farm in Austria this past year, watching the entire life cycle of pigs, even slaughtering one for the first time. That's given him a new appreciation for the way they use meat in the restaurant. It's also why you'll see salumi curing in a wine fridge in the dining room, and pork chop as a special, rather than a regular menu item. That gives him and son and head chef Forbes Rigsby the flexibility to offer the best and least wasteful cuts of pork.

Rigsby's search for the best ingredients and the best ways to work with them keeps the restaurant one step ahead of its peers. And his ability to change the menu while staying true to his original mission-to serve good, honest Mediterranean dishes-keeps Rigsby's familiar. It is one of the few places in town where food is viewed as nourishment as well as pleasure. Portion sizes are moderate. You'll find little butter in the kitchen. Meals are wholesome and filling, but rarely gluttonous.

"There is this kind of perception that going to a restaurant is an indulgence, and you're going to eat rich food that's maybe not necessarily healthy or good for you," Rigsby says. "From the get-go, we always wanted to make food as fresh as we could, which we thought is just how food should be. It makes things better."

Crave: The menu was, at one point, heavier. What sparked the change?

Rigsby: [About six years ago] I decided I'm tired of making veal demi-glace. It's an ingredient for making those French sauces that you have to add cream to. The decision sort of coincided with my personal decision to be healthier and to have a place where I could eat every day of the week.

Part of it, too, was I taking a trip to Italy around the same time. [There], it was more about the products. That's what inspired me to change the way we cook here.

Crave: You all but eliminated butter, too, right?

Rigsby: We use butter kind of sparingly. For instance, we use butter at the very end of the risotto. Pasutice, which is a seafood pasta, we use butter at the end. We sort of use that technique. Which comes full circle to the idea that fat is not bad either. Certain types of fat are really good; that used in economy can be good for your health.

Crave: This places a heavier emphasis on olive oil.

Rigsby: We cook with extra-virgin olive oil. It's cleaner. There's a myth about the smoking point and burning point of olive oil. It really can sustain itself.

Crave: You also changed the menu organization this year. The menu is simpler, no longer broken down into first, pasta and main course. It's now small plates and large plates. Is that a change made to reflect the way diners are eating now?

Rigsby: The menu has always been, for me, to find the perfect balance where it looks like there are enough choices, but small enough where the physical menu is easy to change. Of almost all the machinations leading up to now, this is the first one where I feel like, if we want to change one dish we can do that at the drop of a hat. And that's where I wanted to be. I really believe in smaller menus where execution is the thing.

Crave: And you've placed a greater emphasis on the bar menu, too?

Rigsby: The bar menu really got derived from that older menu that had too many things on it. A lot of those dishes we'd already made up; the sausage stuffed dates, meatballs. All those dishes were popular, so we wanted to wrap it into the bar menu. Then we expanded to sandwiches, pizza and pasta.

To have something that's nourishment and good to eat so hopefully it serves both. It's meant to be a way to have people come and try the restaurant.

Crave: The wine list also seems to have shifted to follow this more approachable format.

Rigsby: Good wine is kind of like food in itself. Our wine list has never been better. We have a consultant, Chris Dillman, who's helped. He's arranged [the wine list] by flavor profiles. It's better for the consumer, and the list is well balanced. The wine list is so good that if you just close your eyes and put your finger [on it], you're going to have a great experience.