Crave 10: #4 – The Refectory

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Think fine dining in town, and chances are this French classic comes to mind. Though chef Richard Blondin stays true to his French roots, not buying into the fads of today's quirky culinary world, he still manages to have a little fun. His knack for making us smile with every dish, paired with an exceptional wine list and attentive service, breaks The Refectory's stuffy stereotype.

The Refectory is not sleek and contemporary. There are no Edison light bulbs, no reclaimed barn wood and no sauces served inside gel capsules. But that's no reason to write this decades-old classic French restaurant off as solely a special-occasion spot for your parents. You should be dining here, too.

In a time when the act of eating out is considered entertainment, we're lucky to have a restaurant that doesn't get lost in smoke and mirrors techniques. It's old-school-white-shirted attentive servers, classic French dishes, a noteworthy wine cellar-but that's The Refectory's appeal. The restaurant makes no apologies for what it is.

Longtime chef Richard Blondin's ability to be creative while staying rooted in his native French cuisine is what makes dining here unlike anywhere else in town. It's what Blondin calls classic with a twist.

"The ingredients may be classic," Blondin says. "But you can still make dishes that are classic, plus something else. I like to take one plate and have three different cuts of meat-one cut that's braised, one cut that's grilled and one that's roasted." For example, instead of simply serving an 8-ounce cut of veal, he pairs the pan seared protein with veal mousse. He calls it a fun challenge.

"It's more detail. The protein being prepared two or three different ways is just something fun," he says. "For the clientele it's appealing to see the same dish three different ways. For the kitchen, it's motivating."

LAMB Lamb is a mainstay on The Refectory menu. Changing up the approach helps keep Blondin's mind fresh, he says. "I wanted to create a beautiful dish with more things on the plate," he says of the Lamb Osso Bucco with goat cheese strudel and baby rack of lamb. Instead of simply serving a whole rack of lamb, he serves four chops. He then grinds lamb meat and stuffs it in inside strudel pastry, adding a dollop of goat cheese to the center for color and texture.

FISH If Blondin is featuring a fish entree that has to be trimmed into a rectangle or square, he will be left with scrap pieces. "There's nothing wrong with that fish," he says, adding he turns those pieces into a garnish for that dish or he incorporates them into an appetizer. "If it's an appetizer, you may have not have enough of those pieces, so you have to create something." Small pieces of salmon are turned into the House Cured Salmon Gravlax paired with gambas boudin-a sort of seafood sausage made with shrimp, salmon and egg white.

DUCK Refectory regulars will recognize Blondin's popular duck pairing-a roasted breast paired with crisp duck bacon. "If you order the duck, bacon will come," he says. It's an added element that sounds good to the diner, adds saltiness and texture and allows Blondin to use more of the animal.

On writing the menu: Chef Richard Blondin has one rule when he writes a menu: It must be done on an empty stomach. "If you write a menu and just ate, it's totally different up here," he says, pointing to his temple. "The motivation's not the same. So I try to also be hungry when I write a menu."