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Rookies of the Year

Newcomers make an impact on Columbus’ dining options

2012 was a good year for the restaurant scene in central Ohio, and 2013 looks like it may be even better.
These are just three of the exciting new dining options to open their doors over the last few months.

The Grass Skirt Tiki Room

When the Grass Skirt opened its doors in downtown Columbus in late September, its status as a tiki bar and tropical restaurant made it the heir apparent to the Kahiki, which reigned for almost 40 years as the undisputed tiki king of Columbus.

Though the king had abdicated 12 years earlier, settling into his thatched throne was a daunting task. Fortunately, the Columbus Food League – responsible for such restaurants as the Surly Girl Saloon, Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace and Betty’s Fine Food and Spirits – was up to the challenge.

Starting with a limited menu, the Grass Skirt has slowly added more tropical treats. Current favorites include the Hawaiian Burgers, two beef burgers with Swiss cheese, caramelized green onions, grilled pineapple and teriyaki aioli on King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls; the Loco Moco, two mini burger patties over rice with house-made mushroom gravy, green onions and a sunny-side-up egg; and the Spam & Swiss, two grilled Spam sandwiches with Swiss cheese, caramelized green onions and spicy Chinese mustard.

“We thought of a lot of ways to serve Spam, and that was the most elegant way we could come up with,” says managing partner Carmen Owens.

Pineapple and chicken satay skewers will soon join the menu, as will pastas such as a red curry coconut pasta, Asian staples such as General Tso’s chicken and sandwiches such as banh mis – Vietnamese subs on baguettes. Desserts will soon be added as well, including a few that are set on fire for effect – a tiki staple.

“Eventually, we hope to set as many things on fire as we possibly can,” Owens says.

No tiki bar would be complete without a full line-up of tropical trinks, and the Grass Skirt aims to please. Its drink menu is highlighted by such offerings as the Grass Skirt Mai Tai (Appleton Estate rum, orange curacao, orgeat almond syrup and fresh lime juice with fresh mint and a spent lime shell) and Pele’s Curse (pineapple-black pepper infused rum, Cruzan vanilla rum, lime juice and cream soda with fruit punch soda reduction).

Helping to maintain the atmosphere of the restaurant is its décor, which includes handmade tikis, a skull chandelier and a glow-in-the-dark volcano painted on one of the walls.

“People often ask to sit over there because they want to sit in the glow of our silly little volcano,” says Owens.

The Pint Room

Burgers and beer are nothing new, but the Pint Room – which opened in Dublin in late December – aims to make them memorable.

“We just wanted to have a place where you can come and have a casual bar feel, but top-notch bar food,” says general manager Derek Rapkin.

Burgers are the Pint Room’s culinary specialty. Each, the menu specifically notes, is a blend of USDA prime chuck and Kobe beef served on a brioche roll, and those that include bacon feature the restaurant’s signature double-smoked bacon. The offerings start with the basics, then veer off into more unorthodox territory.

Those offerings include the Lobster burger, topped with steamed lobster, asparagus and Hollandaise sauce; the California burger, with Taleggio cheese, avocado slices, tomato, arugula, alfalfa sprouts and cherry pepper relish mayonnaise; and the Triple burger, with smoked cheddar, boneless short rib, bacon and horseradish slaw. Occupying even more esoteric spots on the burger spectrum are the Hangover burger, topped with smoked cheddar, bacon, mini hash browns, tomato and a sunny-side-up egg; and the PBB&J burger, crowned with bacon, Monterey jack cheese, peanut butter, strawberry preserves and strawberry slices.

Adding to the upscale bar food offerings are the appetizers, which include the Bistro Fries, which are topped with beef short rib, cheddar cheese, sour cream and roasted vegetable relish; the Bottle Caps, fried pickle chips that are beer-battered then breaded with Panco crusting; and sizable chicken wings with a choice of four sauces.

“We serve six wings piled high on a plate, and it’s pretty much (like) getting 12,” Rapkin says.

Making up the rest of the menu are a selection of sandwiches and salads.

While cultivating a lengthy beer list has been a popular trend in central Ohio of late, the Pint Room blows away the competition with a total of 101 beers on tap – on top of 20 craft beers in cans.

“People have just never done anything on a scale like this,” says Rapkin.

The beer list is ever-changing, with new taps being rotated in as old ones dry up. But there’s an emphasis on seasonally appropriate offerings, as well as an emphasis on Ohio-brewed beers such as those from central Ohio microbreweries Neil House Brewery, Four String Brewing and Columbus Brewing Company.

“Just having the drafts gives us a lot of flexibility,” says Rapkin.

The Pearl

It had been five years since Cameron Mitchell Restaurants had rolled out a new restaurant concept when the Pearl arrived in the Short North at the beginning of February.

Cameron Mitchell’s popular line-up includes Marcella’s Ristorante, Cap City Diner, Mitchell’s Ocean Club, Molly Woo’s Asian Bistro, Martini Modern Italian and M at Miranova, among others. Its new concept: a gastropub.

The culinary technique used for the fine dining at M is applied to bar food, resulting in a chef-driven menu with typical Cameron Mitchell class and an emphasis on from-scratch cooking.

“We’re making our own sausages, we’re smoking our own salmon, we’re making our own hot sauce,” says company president and founder Cameron Mitchell.

Menu highlights included deviled eggs served on chicken egg scales; confit-style chicken wings cooked in duck fat for two and a half hours, then tossed in a special hot sauce and sprinkled with bleu cheese crumbles and minced celery; and fried chicken with a bowl of collard greens and a cinnamon sticky bun.

“It’s just our take on chicken and waffles, if you will,” Mitchell says.

The dessert menu has a narrow focus on pies, but those pies are as varied as they come. Of 28 made at the Pearl, four or five are on the menu each night – some served in traditional wedges, others using different concepts such as long slivers and “deconstructed” pies served in jars with crumbled crust.

Beer is the main focus of the drink menu, with 10 drafts and 40 bottles. The menu offers a detailed description of each beer to help diners decide, and staffers have all earned certification as cicerones, effectively the beer equivalent of sommeliers.

Cocktails are also being taken a step further, Mitchell says, with house-aged bourbon and tequila and punch in antique glass punch bowls.

“Beer takes center stage, and right behind it is the cocktail bar,” says Mitchell.

Not to be forgotten is the oyster bar. Baked oysters, baked shrimp and crab Louie salad are a few of the offerings in the restaurant group’s first oyster bar in Columbus.

The restaurant’s interior – the space most recently housed a Burgundy Room restaurant – is almost entirely new. A center staircase was removed and the stairs relocated, a center wall was knocked down and a variety of welcoming elements – including glass, black steel, wood flooring and tiles, reclaimed wood tabletops and low-voltage lighting – will make the place look comfortable and inviting, Mitchell says.

The lit-up sign and, in the summer, open windows to the street are intended to have the same effect.

Garth Bishop is editor of CityScene Magazine. Feedback welcome at gbishop@cityscenemediagroup.com.

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