Dessert Bowl

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2839 Olentangy River Rd
Columbus, OH 43202
614.972.8827
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My (admittedly somewhat jaded) feelings about dessert are that most sweets are not too terribly different from most others, and when they are you often wish they weren’t. Consequently, it’s unusual for us to get overly excited about a dessert place.

This makes Dessert Bowl very unusual.

Dessert Bowl’s sizable Asian-style dessert menu is a distinct departure from the Western same-same, and amounts to a lesson on turning ingredients you’d never imagine finding in a dessert into finished dishes that charm with their novelty as they seduce with intriguingly harmonious flavor and alluring presentation.

Our first taste of Dessert Bowl’s cleverness came from menu item D10 – ‘Mango sago cream with pomelo in Mango base’. To demystify a bit, sago is nothing more than tapioca, and pomelo is a mild Southeast Asian fruit that is often described as a less bitter cousin to grapefruit. Mango is pureed with milk and coconut cream to create the base, and the fruit and tapioca combine with it to create a rich and tangy blend of tropical flavors and wildly varying textures. Spoons collided above this bowl more than once.

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Next we tried the ‘crispy glutinous rice balls’ (A4). It’s an inelegant name, in translation at least, that belies a spectacular experience. Filled with a sweet bean paste, chewy balls of glutinous rice dough are rolled in rice flour and fried. Then, six to an order, they’re placed atop a bed of crushed peanuts and drizzled with a syrup. If you’ve ever had Japanese mochi, you’ll immediately understand this dish and almost certainly prefer it. If you haven’t, skip the mochi and start right here – it’s that good.

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Crepes feature prominently, both in Asian dessert in general and on this menu in particular, so we tried the mango & banana version (K3). Filled with fresh fruit aplenty and drizzled with chocolate and another unidentified but tasty syrup, the only sense in which it didn’t satisfy was in the novelty department.

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For that, we turned to the ‘black glutinous rice congee with coconut’ (T9). Rice congees traditionally tend to be a savory breakfast porridge, so sweet piqued the curiosity. Our gamble netted us a warm bowl of nutty black rice combined with a sweet coconut base that featured a subtle salty counterpoint. Improbable though it may have sounded, it disappeared quickly.

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As did everything else. Our trio of grazers ordered all of the above after having already eaten a full and substantial meal. Portions were larger than we might’ve expected, and we approached the place expecting to taste but not finish. And yet, quickly, everything was gone.

Credit is due to the chef, a pleasant and congenial Malaysian gentleman who worked a stint at an Asian restaurant in a Vegas casino. He pointed to this experience as formative, and we can only imagine that it must have been. We like where it’s taken him. Simply put, on any short list of local destination dessert stops that include Pistacia Vera and Jeni’s, we believe that Dessert Bowl should feature prominently.

Last thought – if you’re looking for Zimmern-level culinary adventurism, Dessert Bowl can provide. The potently aromatic durian fruit is available in several dishes, and the spendy delicacy known as birds nest soup is the base for several others.

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Karen

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Japanese
5875 Sawmill Rd. Dublin, OH 43017
614.389.1890
http://www.karenjp.com/
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When I think of modern Japanese culture, I tend to think of all of the clever and considerate details that make so many mundane day-to-day experiences just a little bit more pleasant. The first time I encountered a toilet in Japan, I came away wondering why anyone should have to suffer an unheated seat, or how there could be any civilized way of manipulating the seat that doesn’t involve a button and a motor. Use your hands? C’mon!

And, where do you rest your used chopsticks? Usually, in Japan, on a beautiful little ceramic prop made just for that purpose. Opening product packaging isn’t an exercise in frustration in Japan, often it’s an aesthetically pleasing experience in it’s own right.

None of these things are particularly complicated or mind-blowing (OK, maybe the toilet…), but they’re all things that just didn’t seem self-evidently sensible until you had the chance to experience them.

Such are our feelings about Karen. There really aren’t many places that specialize solely in freshly cooked takeout-only meals (I refuse to include Little Ceaser’s…) but once you experience it… well, of course!

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Karen’s menu is surprisingly broad and easily navigated, and includes Japanese curries, tempuras, stir fries, and rice bowls. Sushi is also available, both in traditional Japanese styles as well as some more unconventional options that show serious local boosterism – Sawmill roll, OSU roll, Dublin roll, Columbus roll, and of course, Ohio roll. If you’re in the midwest but not of it, you can go your own fancy way with a Boston roll or a Philadelphia roll. And, if you’re a uniter and not a divider, there’s always the American Dream roll. Clearly Karen is intended to cater to both Japanese and American palates, but it comes at it from a decidedly Japanese perspective.

On our visit, we tried the yaki udon, pork shougayaki, kampyi sushi roll, and some kombu onigiri (rice balls). While none of them would rank as the best example we’ve ever had, all were solidly good, especially since none were more than $9 and portions were generous.

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Of all of the ways you could effortlessly put a good, hot, nutritious meal in front of friends, family, or the like, this has to be close to the top. Now to convince them to open one closer to us.

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Estilo Brazil

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Cuisine: Brazilian
5818 Columbus Square, Columbus, OH 43231
(614) 269-8990
Open Monday-Saturday
The last time we visited Estilo Brazil at it’s old location on Cleveland Ave., we were charmed by the flavors of the cuisine and the tropical vibe of their small side patio. We also could clearly see that the tiny back-of-the-market space just wasn’t up to the task of producing much food or accommodating many guests… especially in Central Ohio’s temepramental climate.

With the opening of their new, larger Columbus Square location, the seating’s better, the menu’s expanded, and the concept is clearer – alongside the bright, clean market sits a Brazilian PF, or ‘prato feito’, a popular traditional style of Brazilian dining.

PF is described as the working man’s meal, and as such we’d say that the working man has it pretty well off. The fundamentals are straightforward – beans, rice, a starch or two (usually fries), salad (potato or lettuce), and a rotating roster of proteins. For us, the proteins are what makes the concept shine.

Currently, two options are consistent – the linguica calabrese and picanha. The linguica, a spiced pork sausage reminiscent of a Filipino longaniza sans sweetness, makes for a pleasant and generously portioned accompaniment to the beans and rice, but the picanha, strips of beef sirloin rump cap, steals the show. Picanha is sliced so that each strip features a small knob of gristle-free fat at one end, and cut against the grain so that a reasonable degree of tenderness compliments the deeply beefy flavor of the cut. First timers can opt for half longaniza and half picanha, which makes for a good overview.

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A rotating third meat option is also available, and as of both visits it was described as a Brazilian version of a chicken stroganoff. Tempting though it was, the picanha and linguica won out for us both times.

Ordering is simple as the entire operation is structured as a cafeteria line. Once you’re at the beginning, lids come off of all of the food and it’s as easy as pointing to what you want. With small quantities of food being staged, the kitchen seemed busy with preparing refills for the steam table and as such freshness was consistently high.

One of the consistent sides is Paçoca de pilão, dried beef that is mixed with toasted cassava flour and ground until very fine.

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All of the dishes we tried were almost entirely devoid of spicy heat, but the remedy awaits, should you desire it, in the form of a variety of bottles of hot sauces on the counter. Beverages are limited to cashew fruit and passion fruit juice, though a wide selection of bottled and canned drinks are available in the market.

Portions are generous, and a run through the line will set you back $11, which strikes us as a bargain. In the context of Columbus Square offerings, Estilo Brazil may not feature the most exotic or adventurous range of flavors, but it’ll undoubtedly provide a damned good square meal at a reasonable price.

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Secret Vessel

Secret Vessel

2620 N High St, Columbus, OH 43202
(614) 636-4720

Hot pot is a term that is thrown around fairly freely in local Chinese restaurants – if a dish has a soup base and a source of heat beneath it to keep it simmering, most will list it as hot pot (at least in the English translations). As we understand it, however, Chinese patrons have a different definition, and it involves a significantly more elaborate set up. Secret Vessel is first restaurant in town to focus on cook-at-the-table hotpot.

Before we get into what that is exactly, it needs to be said that we stumbled into being Secret Vessel’s absolute first paying customers, and it was clear that they were not yet entirely up to full operating standards. They handled this with immense grace, and the food displayed so many unique and wonderful traits that we felt we needed to share our experience even at this early point in their evolution.

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So, back to hot pot, Chinese style, which is the vast majority of what Secret Vessel does. Broken down to its basics, there are 3 distinct elements – a broth simmering atop a table top induction burner, prepared ingredients on the side to dip into the broth, and sauces that you can dip your prepared ingredients into after they come out of the broth. All of these are customizable, and many options are available for each.

There are four broth options – Szechuan, Tomato, Hong Kong satay, and a clean, light Signature flavor. All can be had at one time in a bowl divided into quadrants. We did this, and found ourselves particularly enjoying the tomato broth, less than fond of the satay broth, and perfectly content with the other two. As broths become depleted, the attentive servers refill them. As far as we could tell there was no vegetarian broth option.

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The range of ingredients is vast, and is divided into 8 distinct categories – meats, seafood/fish, meatballs, bean products (essentially tofus), fungi (mushrooms), vegetables, ‘other’, and finally, combinations (assembled plates from the previous categories). We ordered the ‘angus boneless ribeye combo’ (beef slices, tripe, beef balls, tofu, cabbage, bean curd, white mushroom), and were given a couple of extras (shrimp balls, lamb slices) to, I suspect, gauge our reactions to them.

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Across the board, we were impressed with the freshness of the ingredients – it was conspicuous in the flavor of everything we tried, and elevated it well beyond anything we’d had before in a hot pot (or ‘hot pot’) setting. The lamb and beef were lovely, and both the beef balls and the shrimp balls were hand made in house (a rarity). Both were genuinely among the best things I’ve tasted in some time. Even the mushrooms and the tofu were transformed from something ho-hum into perfect flavor-packed bites after a few minutes of bathing in the tomato broth.

A wide range of sauces were clearly laid out on a bar, and as it was explained to us, the idea is that a customer who opts for the sauce bar ($2.99/person) can ladle multiple sauces into a bowl and mix them to their satisfaction. Being new to this game, we asked the owner to mix a couple up for us. We dutifully dipped our simmered mushrooms and the like into the sauces, admired the owners ability to concoct such edifying combinations, and ultimately appreciated the flavor of the simmered ingredients without the sauces (they struck us as good, but they served to cover the exceptional flavor of the ingredients themselves).

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Quality has a price, and in this case it was just under $60.00 for two. For all we were provided, the obvious labor involved in creating it, and the satisfaction provided, we’d call it a solid deal. We’re looking forward to returning, and especially to trying the full meatball assortment.

Hamdi Grill

somali restaurant columbus

Cuisine: Somali
1784 Huy Rd, Columbus, OH 43224
614.592.9089

Hamdi Grill is a new Somali restaurant that opened this week. It is located just south of the Northern Lights shopping center on Cleveland Avenue.

The interior is surprisingly polished and a lot of money has been invested in the build out.

The menu is fairly large and includes drinks (not pictured).

hamdi grill menu

Of the dishes that we sampled (beef kebab, roasted goat, salmon and chicken stew) we’d probably give the nod to the chicken stew (aka suqaar) and would recommend the rice. We found all of the dishes to be solid but you can find better versions at other Somali restaurants around town. However, Hamdi Grill is in the first week and still getting up and running. They are waiting for their coffee machine to be installed and did not have all of the dishes listed on the menu.

As is typical of Somali restaurants the portions are large. Pictured below Somali chicken stew (suqaar) with chapati.

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Salmon with pasta

somali restaurants in ohio

Namaste

Namaste Restaurant Indo-Nepali
1279 Morse Rd, Columbus, OH 43229
(614) 261-3636
website 

Almost nervously, the server pulled me aside to ask, “you like the taste?”. It was as though she didn’t believe us when we had eagerly volunteered that we enjoyed what we were eating several times previously.
More than just enjoy it, which we truly did, we were surprised. We’d been to Namaste a while back, and had not thought much of it, but a good Nepali friend suggested that the food had improved markedly and that the menu had changed for the better. This, as it turns out, was an understatement.
Dishes hit the table right as they were finished by the kitchen, and everything was served piping hot. First came the bhatmas chiura – a spicy snack of smashed rice flakes, fried soybeans, minced chilis, onions, and spices. It was intensely flavorful, crunchy, dry by intent, and presumably meant to be paired with beer. Which we did (Haywards, highly recommended). Off to a good start.
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Next came the hand-made momos – quite possibly the most iconic of Nepalese dishes. Similar to a steamed Japanese gyoza in form and concept, these were filled with minced chicken, onion, garlic, and just enough ginger to make itself known. A pleasantly savory tomato-based sauce accompanied, and in total the dish amounted to a crave-worthy alternative to the various dumplings more commonly found locally in other Asian cuisines.
nepali momo in Columbus
Dal, essentially a lentil stew, is ubiquitous among Indian-influenced cuisines. At worst, it’s a near-Dickensian gruel, and at best, it’s… okay. Namaste’s mung dal was better than that, and then better yet again – it was delicious, and the first example of the dish I’d eagerly recommend to vegetarians and carnivores alike.
The meat-free options don’t end there, either. The aloo saag, a potato and mustard leaf stew, impressed with its bold and novel flavor combinations, and the aloo bodi tama (typically ‘pre-order only’, but available on our visit) was equally enjoyable and equally unique with it’s intriguing combination of black eyed peas and bamboo shoots. We’d order either again in a heartbeat.
nepalese restaurant columbus
Finally, an order of goat sekuwa arrived. Think of the tastiest tandoori chicken you’ve tried, but with goat instead, and you’ll just about be there, except for the fact that it’s just about impossible to convey how well the tandoor treatment works with the flavor of goat. The flesh is almost inevitably on the chewy side (most cuts of goat respond better to a slow cooking method than to a high-heat grilling), but it didn’t diminish our enjoyment one bit.
goat sekuwa
It’s become increasingly rare that we come across restaurants whose flavors and preparations truly expand the sum total of novel food experiences in the city, but Namaste emphatically does. To us, from our little niche within the food world, that makes them an addition of importance.
Namaste also offers thali platters (individual meals made up of a variety of dishes) on weekdays and a buffet on the weekend. Catering is available, and at first glance at least looked reasonably priced.

nepali restaurant columbus

Bonchon

bonchon chicken columbus, korean fried chicken Korean
3586 Dublin Granville Rd
Columbus, OH 43235
(614) 389-4026
Website
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If you want a good sense of how your food offering will play across the US, you bring it to Columbus. Conventional wisdom has it that we’ll tell you what’ll make the cut, and in practice we often do.

And so, I suspect, it goes with Bonchon, a South Korea-based fried chicken franchise that has recently opened it’s first heartland location in the 161/Sawmill area.

Korean fried chicken has received tons of hype on the coasts, and Bonchon’s rendition has garnered no small portion of it – the graphics in the vestibule boast of the publications they have been glowingly reviewed in, including the NY Times and Esquire.

Bonchon’s primary proposition is simple – you can get wings, drumsticks, or chicken strips (the only white meat option), lacquered with either a (not so terribly) spicy (but fairly) sweet sauce, or a more deeply savory soy-garlic sauce. Whichever chicken cut you choose, it’ll go through the vaunted Korean-style double fry process, which creates a skin so crispy that it doesn’t so much crumble upon taking a bite as shatter into shards of crunchy goodness.

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Curious though it may sound, it has to be emphasized – this is not just a novelty. Aside from the alluring texture, the double fry technique intensifies the flavor of the skin, almost entirely banishes greasiness, and preserves the moistness of the flesh exceptionally well.

In other words, it’s something truly new in fried chicken, a genre that so often leads with hype, and then follows up with a minutely distinguishable spin on more of the same. Bonchon chicken is very different, and very good. If you enjoy fried chicken, you owe it to yourself to check it out. If you’re on the fence with the sauces, order ‘half & half’ and you’ll get to try some of both. Having done so myself, I’ll be back for the soy-garlic.

Beyond chicken, Bonchon offers a range of Korean and Japanese style apps and main dishes. They could be great, but I suspect I’ll never be able to speak to them from experience – when I’m there, I’m pretty sure I’ll be there for the wings.