Colum­bus day

Fill up on the un­ex­pected del­i­ca­cies of Ohio’s cap­i­tal city.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JANE BLACK travel@wash­post.com Black is a for­mer staff writer for The Washington Post Food sec­tion.

The very first thing I did af­ter sign­ing up to move to the far west of West Vir­ginia for six months was to log on to Mapquest. I’d be liv­ing in an en­tirely new and un­fa­mil­iar area of the coun­try, and I wanted to know where my hus­band and I could go to eat.

The op­tions were limited. Char­lottesville, Va., Asheville, N.C., Knoxville, Tenn., all cities with rep­u­ta­tions for good food, are more than five hours’ drive away. It takes seven hours to get home to Washington and eight hours to get to Mem­phis. Only 21/ hours away, though,

2 was Colum­bus, Ohio, a city I’d never thought much about vis­it­ing, let alone con­sid­ered a culi­nary des­ti­na­tion. Shows what I know. The once-con­ser­va­tive Ohio cap­i­tal has blos­somed into a cer­ti­fied food lovers’ town, with se­ri­ous cock­tails and mi­cro­brews, pas­tries wor­thy of Paris, fan­tas­ti­cal ice cream fla­vors — think peanut with toasted co­conut and chili — and ex­tra­or­di­nary food shop­ping. In Novem­ber, food guru Michael Ruhlman, who had dis­missed Colum­bus as “Ap­ple­bee’s coun­try” on an episode of the TV show “No Reser­va­tions,” very pub­licly re­vised his judg­ment, call­ing the city a wor­thier food des­ti­na­tion than his beloved home town of Cleve­land.

A case in point is North Mar­ket, the city’s food hub. Open year-round, the airy con­verted ware­house hosts 35 ven­dors: butch­ers, bak­ers and ice cream mak­ers. Lo­cal food gets lots of shelf space — we found Ohio-milled grain, grass-fed beef and Lake Erie-caught wall­eye — but so do in­ter­na­tional del­i­ca­cies such as im­ported cheese, wine and spices.

We stocked up on sup­plies (in­clud­ing a case of a ter­rific 2005 French Bordeaux priced at a glo­ri­ous $11 a bot­tle). But we also filled our bel­lies in prepa­ra­tion for an af­ter­noon of ex­plor­ing. We shared a fra­grant, yeasty cin­na­mon roll from Omega Ar­ti­san Bak­ing and lin­gered over a case stacked high with potato-and-cream-cheese pier­o­gis at Hu­bert’s Pol­ish Kitchen. But with the wind chill, it felt like 11 de­grees out­side, so we set­tled on two gi­ant bowls of pho at Lan Viet Mar­ket.

Af­ter pol­ish­ing off the aro­matic Viet­namese beef noo­dle soup, gar­nished with mint, basil and bean sprout, we were warm enough to for­get the blis­ter­ing cold and jus­tify dessert next door at Jeni’s Splen­did Ice Creams. Founder Jeni Brit­ton Bauer is one of the city’s gas­tro­nomic he­roes. Her mar­ket shop, along with six oth­ers through­out the city, of­fers about 30 fla­vors, such as Bangkok peanut (the one de­scribed above), brown-but­ter brit­tle and young Gouda with vodka-plumped cran­ber­ries, which sounds aw­ful but tastes like deca­dent cheese­cake.

Al­most all Jeni’s fla­vors fea­ture lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. That cran­berry-soak­ing vodka comes from Mid­dle West Spir­its, an ar­ti­sanal dis­tillery a short dis­tance from North Mar­ket. Housed in a ren­o­vated auto garage, Mid­dle West, with its con­crete floors, white sub­way tiles and sal­vaged turn-of-the-cen­tury an­tiques, looks more like a SoHo loft than a Mid­west­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing plant. But style doesn’t trump sub­stance. Smack in the cen­ter of the space is a stun­ning, cus­tom-made cop­per still.

Ac­cord­ing to the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, vodka must be col­or­less, odor­less and taste­less. And while Mid­dle West founders Brady Konya and Ryan Lang don’t of­fi­cially dis­agree — that would be il­le­gal! — they do ev­ery­thing they can to make their vodka, OYO, taste dis­tinc­tive. The wheat, a soft, red va­ri­ety, comes from just 25 miles out­side Colum­bus. The liquor is dis­tilled only once, which leaves a vel­vety feel in the mouth and a hint of sweet­ness on the fin­ish. This is vodka for sip­ping neat.

OYO is avail­able by the glass at Mou­ton, a spare-but-el­e­gant cafe and cock­tail bar a few blocks away. But the draw there is the clas­sic cock­tail list, which lim­its it­self to ex­cel­lent ren­di­tions of Pro­hi­bi­tion-era clas­sics: avi­a­tions and ne­gro­nis, Man­hat­tans and Mary Pick­fords. (This is a stark con­trast to many of the slick bars along the trendy Short North strip that seem to trade ex­clu­sively in cloy­ing mocha mar­ti­nis and cos­mos.) The drinks are ex­cel­lent: strong, smooth and never sweet. Still, af­ter one, we switched to wine, all the bet­ter to go with Mou­ton’s care­fully cu­rated list of Amer­i­can cheese and char­cu­terie, such as a salami, scented with black truf­fles, from Utah.

Brunch is a meal I gen­er­ally find dis­ap­point­ing: a blur of stodgy pan­cakes and rub­bery eggs that not even hot sauce can save. (A “pun­ish­ment block for the B-team cooks, or where the farm team of re­cent dish­wash­ers learn their chops,” is how An­thony Bour­dain de­scribed it in his mem­oir, “ Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial.”) But all is re­deemed at Skil­let, a cozy 32-seat bistro in Colum­bus’s his­toric Ger­man Vil­lage. The pan­cakes are fluffy and filled with shred­ded ap­ples and farmer cheese. The omelets are stuffed with or­ganic pota­toes and house-cured sauer­kraut spiced with pear and car­away, a nod to the neigh­bor­hood’s her­itage. And, just to make the al­ready tough de­ci­sion about whether to go sweet or sa­vory even harder, chef Kevin Caskey of­fers dishes such as break­fast risotto: Ar­bo­rio rice cooked in milk, then dot­ted with vel­vety bits of caramelized ap­ples and salty ba­con and fin­ished with a scoop of mas­car­pone. Only a truly skilled cook could make some­thing so in­dul­gent taste light.

We had planned to walk off our meal as we toured Ger­man Vil­lage. But blus­tery winds and snow forced us to tour the nar­row streets in our car. The tidy brick cot­tages and or­nate Queen Anne Vic­to­ri­ans are some of the city’s most de­sir­able homes. But that wasn’t al­ways the case. Set­tled in the early 19th cen­tury, the neigh­bor­hood grew quickly as waves of Ger­man im­mi­grants ar­rived in Ohio. But the world wars stirred up anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment and the area fell out of fa­vor. By 1950, the neigh­bor­hood was con­sid­ered a slum.

Over the past 20 years, young pro­fes­sion­als and empty-nesters have re­set­tled the neigh­bor­hood, which in ad­di­tion to of­fer­ing his­toric hous­ing stock is a short com­mute to down­town. Stylish bou­tiques and restau­rants soon ar­rived to serve them.

Pista­cia Vera is tes­ta­ment to the chang­ing neigh­bor­hood. For decades, the build­ing it’s in housed two no-frills fam­ily bak­eries. But in 2004, sib­lings Spencer Bu­dros and Anne Fletcher ren­o­vated the space into a chic patis­serie with ex­posed brick walls, mar­ble-top ta­bles and bent­wood chairs.

It would have been easy to sell muffins and ubiq­ui­tous cup­cakes, Fletcher told us. But the pair was de­ter­mined to re­strict the menu to clas­sic French pas­tries — crois­sants, brioches, palmiers and an ex­cel­lent fig-car­damom braid — and elab­o­rate desserts and truf­fles. Their most pop­u­lar item? Tech­ni­color mac­arons that come in sea­sonal fla­vors such as yuzu, caramel pecan and maple wal­nut.

A dozen made the per­fect snack for the car ride home.

CHRISTO­PHER GRA­HAM/NORTH MAR­KET

Colum­bus’s NorthMar­ket on a crowded Satur­day. Lo­cal del­i­ca­cies are a big draw.

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