Flatiron shaking things up with a new chef, menu, direction

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Flatiron chef and general manager Steve Nicholson is candid about the perception of the longstanding Arena District restaurant: That the food is good, but the barbecue and Cajun/Creole menu never changes.

Diners can't say that about Flatiron anymore. The restaurant unveiled a new menu this week that keeps a few Flatiron classics (Cajun Fried Oysters, Flatiron Burger), but the rest is a melting pot of American and global cuisines, from Malaysian Seafood Laksa to Tofu-rizo tostadas, Cheesesteak Tartare to pickle-brined fried chicken.

The shakeup has much to do with the hiring of co-chef Matt Heaggans-a 2014 Crave Tastemaker, and owner of the shuttered Swoop! Food Group and Bebe at the Hey Hey pop-up in Merion Village. It was a sad day for Bebe regulars (myself included) when Heaggans abruptly closed his business in October. The Columbus native had earned a reputation for crafting creative and honest fare. My hope was that he'd land at a restaurant where he'd be given autonomy to continue this style of cooking. And that's exactly what's happened at Flatiron.

Nicholson and Heaggans say they gelled instantly. The 15-year vet of the Flatiron wanted to shake things up. Heaggans seemed like the perfect partner. Together, the two say they have added dishes not seen elsewhere in Columbus. They'll continue to live under the Southern umbrella, Nicholson says, but will not be afraid to branch out from there. Heaggans calls their food "new American"-because it will essentially be a rotation of whatever dishes are piquing their interests.

Using the smoker more wisely is a big goal. Gone will be its wide array of barbecue offerings. Instead, they'll focus on one dish at a time, making that as good as it can be. Coming out of the smoker first is the star of the hot pastrami board. "I am geeked about the pastrami," Heaggans says of the dish that features warm, thickly sliced pastrami on a board with brown bread, biting house beer mustard and pickles.

Rolled out this week, the new menu is a mix of bar snacks, a lengthy small plates section (dishes the size of small entrees) and three dinner plates. The menu is a texture lover's dream-lots of crunch throughout whether from fried snacks, garnishes like nuts, puffed rice and pomegranate seeds, and crisp pickled things (get a fun sampling of these on the house pickle board).

Throughout the week, Nicholson and Heaggans invited a few friends and food writers, myself included, to sample a few items and offer feedback earlier this week. Dishes were presented in small portions, so I judged the food solely on flavor alone, not the value of each dish. Here are a few dishes I enjoyed:

From the Snacks list:

-House Funyun ($8): Lightly battered whole green onions with addictive kimchee ranch sauce for dipping.

-Chickpea Nicoise ($4): A bowl of crispy chickpeas tossed in zesty chili-lemon oil.

-Crisp Pig Ear ($5): Crunchy strips of pig ear with a side of creamy and bright lemon tartar sauce.

From the Smalls list:

-Smoked Carrot Salad ($10): A rainbow of heavily smoked carrots, tossed with pistachios, arugula and calming ricotta, in golden raisin vinaigrette.

-Szechuan Wings ($10): Spicy and tangy wings that get an extra crunch and interest from a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and puffed rice.

-Seafood Laksa ($16): Easily a meal for one, the curry broth is soft and beautiful, highlighting the seafood medley (shrimp, scallops, white fish) within.

From the Supper list:

-House Smoked Pastrami Board ($20): Thick slices of warm smoked pastrami come in build-your-own sandwich style with sweet brown bread, house beer mustard and pickles.

-The Flatiron Bucket ($16 half, $20 whole): Fried chicken is brined in pickle juice for a tangy flavor that makes this dish standout in a sea of fried chicken in the city.