Restaurant Review: Modern Revival at The Market Italian Village

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

At one point during dinner at The Market Italian Village, everyone in my party of five had disappeared.

One was getting his growler filled with $10.50 worth of Brew Kettle IPA White Rajah. One was admiring the hacked-up pig leg in the deli case, from which shavings of rich, almost raisin-y Jamon Iberico are taken at $119 a pound. Another had his tiny finger pressed against the glass of the small pastry case, indicating which giant blueberry muffin ($3) he wanted to take home for breakfast tomorrow. And one was perusing the intriguing European candy bars on a shelf near the door.

Surrounded by lacquered red bistro chairs left in disarray, I stayed put to finish my double espresso and enjoy the night air floating in through wide open windows.

That's the beauty-and ambiguity, some say-of The Market, a European-style bistro and food specialty shop that opened in Italian Village in July. It's the local alternative to Starbucks in the morning, a gourmet sandwich counter in the afternoon (you can sit at the tables, but servers aren't on duty) and a full-service bistro starting at 5 p.m. Shop the perimeter any time for Snowville Creamery milk, a bottle of The Prisoner or a jar of Nutella (staples for any household).

Previously a cigarette and beer carryout, The Market is the latest reincarnation from the A&R Creative Group run by Ali, Abed and Ismail Al Shahal. The brothers are building a reputation for turning seedy marts into hip neighborhood hot spots. Over the past four years, they've opened Fourth Street Bar & Grill, a soccer bar that used to be Weber Market owned by their father; The Crest Gastropub, a one-time dive bar where words like "living legumes" had likely not been previously uttered; and Ethyl & Tank, a coffee shop-bar-arcade hybrid that counts campus pet store among its past lives.

The renovations go beyond a fresh coat of paint and a cappuccino machine. Attention is paid to the quality and provenance of the food and drink, perhaps most seriously at The Market. Head chef Julian Menaged is a soft-spoken and respectful student of classical French cuisine with impressive credentials. He cooked for several years under two of the city's most respected chefs, Richard Blondin at The Refectory and Hubert Seifert at Spagio before that.

Now Menaged is putting his own modern twist on some of those European classics and teaching his staff some new techniques, like how to braise rabbit, serve bone marrow and work with heat-resilient brick dough.

Menaged uses that dough to encase goat cheese for an arugula salad ($9) and as an elegant purse for creamy pasta shells in baked Conchiglie ($19). In that dish, Menaged transforms fennel into something unrecognizable-tender, golden in color, deeply aromatic-simply by roasting it. It makes a soft bed for meaty house-made sausages that have a creeping heat and not a hint of gristle.

The conchiglie and a few other dishes I tried have since shuffled off the menu with the changing seasons. Menaged introduced a new winter menu in late October and plans to continually update it every few months. But you can-and should-seek out those sausages in the deli case and on Smoked Bacon and Sausage Pizza ($12).

The menu includes six or seven specialty pizzas, and the guy working the wood-fired oven seems to never stop making them. They have all the hallmarks you'd expect: a thin chewy crust, blistered air pockets and fancy toppings such as prosciutto di Parma, brie and red wine-poached pear.

More interesting are the other dishes that get roasted, charred, baked or otherwise finished in that white marble oven, such as Baked Feta ($10). The cast-iron skillet comes straight from the flames to your table. We happily risked wrist burns to spoon soft clumps of briny Bulgarian feta and house-made tomato sauce onto chewy focaccia.

Charcuterie ($15) also survived the menu changeover. A number of restaurants are doing great meat boards right now, so the competition is fierce. Here, our assortment included chorizo, soppressata, three kinds of cheese, caper berries and a red wine-soaked cipolline onion. It was fine, but I wished for more elements of surprise and delight, like a pate or terrine and more jammy, fruity foils.

Surprise and delight came later when a starter of Roasted Bone Marrow ($10) was set before me. A sizable beef bone is halved lengthwise to reveal two troughs of warm, unctuous marrow slicked with bright green pesto. A spoon befitting a child's tea party invites you to scoop the meat butter onto crostini rounds. An optional topper of pickled shallot gives crunch and cuts the oily richness. Frequent sips of my French 75 ($10), a lemony Champagne cocktail bolstered by the masculine warmth of gin, also helped.

Menaged seems drawn to labor-intensive techniques. A sous vide chicken that called for vacuum-sealed chicken legs to swirl in a hot bath for six hours is no longer on the menu, but dry-aged rib-eye ($32) is. The meat is wet-aged for 26 days then dry-aged for another 26 days, in a climate-controlled built-in cooler. The result is tender beef with a nutty, almost funky flavor as polarizing as a wedge of stinky Stilton cheese. Two people at my table ordered it. Only one liked it.

A few months ago, Menaged was doing pan-seared salmon ($23) with jasmine rice. There were many things to love: a pale-fleshed filet pulled from the waters between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, perfectly done rice that glistened with meuniere sauce, cherry tomatoes harvested from the garden of sister restaurant The Crest and roasted in The Market's wood-fired oven. So I didn't want to complain when I noticed the middle third of my salmon was completely raw.

The salmon got a makeover on the new menu (and a new price of $20), so I gave it a second try. Now it's wrapped in a potato lace of ampersands and curlicues and served with micro beets the size of melon balls. Once again, the salmon tasted mild and fresh, and its simple accompaniments were perfectly cast for the season. And this time it was cooked through. My only gripe? The parsnip puree underneath was ice cold.

Maybe it's the Continental influence or the shelves of wine around you, but something about the place makes you want to have a sophisticated drink in hand. A smartly curated list of craft beers ranges from local to European and changes regularly. I tended toward the short list of classic cocktails.

Despite its flaws, what's appealing about The Market is you get high-end European cuisine without the stuffy atmosphere. Most nights, you can sit wherever you want. The two or three servers working wear Converse All-Stars with cuffed jeans, and maybe a piercing or two. People wander around, browsing for something to take home.

The service was spot-on: efficient but low-key, personable but not too chatty. On a return visit, one server strode up to us with a big smile, shook my companion's hand and asked, "Back to fill your growler?" Yes, we are.

The Market Italian Village

1022 Summit St., Italian Village, 614-745-2147,

Hours: 7 a.m.-midnight Sun-Wed, 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Thu-Sat

Price Range: $8-$11 for salads and starters, $15 for charcuterie, $11-$14 for pizzas, $16-$20 for entrees, MP for butcher's cut

Reservations: Accepted on weekends

In Short: What used to be a shady carryout is now a hip destination. It's a grab-and-go counter during the day and full-service bistro with a smattering of tables at dinner. The European-inspired cuisine is mostly enjoyable despite some flaws.

Three Stars (Very Good)