Author Archives: tacodrew

Yemeni Restaurant

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5426 Cleveland Avenue
Columbus, 43231
614.426.4000
Hours: Monday-Sunday 11am-10pm

Yemeni Restaurant is just 3 months old, and they’re in the 161 & Cleveland avenue area, so the usual mixed bag of immigrant restaurant quirks is in full evidence – unavailable menu items, limited menus to look at, and perhaps understaffed on the service side (but very very kind). The space is spotlessly clean and a bit austere, all soothing greys and wood tones, and the dining room is divided into quadrants. The effect is curious, more that of a tech startup workspace than a place to eat.

Make no mistake, though, the eating is good, and in some respects unlike anything else you can find in the city.

“It’s hot”, the server said, as he rested the cast iron pot of bubbling stew on our table. it was held in a charred wooden box. “Even the box”, he elaborated, and he wasn’t being cautious. Two baskets mounded with flatbread followed, as did another stew and a lamb platter.

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We tore bread and dipped pieces into the first pot, called fahsa, and ate. Within a bite, our understanding of the word ‘savory’ was redefined. A bit of googling explained that the dish is primarily meat – often lamb but in this case goat – cooked in its own broth. And, cooked to the point that it lies somewhere between a stew and a porridge.

It has to be said, that even with the wide variety of eating experiences we like to pride ourselves on, we found it strange. We also thought it unreservedly delicious. It’s the kind of fizzy moment worth seeking out – with a taste we’ve experienced something truly new to us, and our world is made ever-so-slightly larger and better off for it.

The other pot contained ‘foul’. Both the dish and the name are common throughout the Arab world, though most we’ve experienced amount to cooked fava beans with accompaniments, while the Yemeni version was closer to a thick chili. We’ll take the slightly spicy and more complex Yemeni style anytime, especially coupled with the flatbread.

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The lamb dish, called ‘haneeth’, felt perhaps most familiar – bone-in lamb rested atop basmati rice and trimmed out with spaghetti and potatoes. This was very similar to any of a number of Somali-style platters, with small differences discernible in the flavor of the rice (I’d guess saffron), and the addition of sultanas. The lamb was flavorful, and perhaps just a bit overcooked and under seasoned for our tastes.

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Add a clover-forward Adeni-style milk tea and a surprisingly satisfying frothy avocado juice, and that was our meal – which leaves over 80% of the menu unexplored, a percentage we intend to work down. Given our experience, we’d like to suggest that you should, too.

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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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.

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.
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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.

Korean fried chicken

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.


Dire Cafe and Restaurant

dire cafe and restaurant

Cuisine: Ethiopian
4517 E Main Street, Columbus, 43213
(in the back of Dire-Dawa Grocery)

Finding Dire Dawa was pure serendipity. We were checking out Ethiopian bakeries in the Hamilton Rd. area (for our Crave feature), hoping it might be one, but as we wandered the cramped and overstocked market (no sign of baking to be found) we noticed a room off to the side. Chairs, tables, counter, samosas in the display case – it’s a restaurant alright, Dire Cafe.
Once fully inside, a set of carved stools huddled around an equally ornate table captured our attention. They’re set aside for use in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. So, we thought, lets do that.
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First, green coffee beans are presented in a pan for inspection and whisked away to the kitchen. Shortly, they’re presented again – this time pan roasted and smoking – then back to the kitchen. Finally, the prepared coffee emerges in a large black ceramic carafe. We huddle around on the stools while the hostess assumes a central position and pours coffee into small and delicate gilded cups.
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The first sip reveals a dark roast with deep cardamom undertones and a thick, almost syrupy body. It’s far from what most of us consume on a daily basis, and largely better off for it. It appears that our hostess is primarily in attendance to refill our cups, and perhaps to make small talk, for as long as we see fit. There can be an element of uncertainty in such open-ended arrangements, but we needn’t have worried – after finishing the first refill we felt as though we’d consumed the contents of a Red Bull factory. Time for food.
We’ve eaten Dire Cafe twice, and on the day of the coffee ceremony it was all about the lentils, lentils, lentils. With a flurry of caffeinated injera swiping, the lentils were gone. The red lentil dish, misir wat, is one of our favorites that we’ve eaten at Dire Cafe. Here it is pictured with a solid rendition of awaze tibs (beef cooked with fresh tomato berbere, peppers, onions and seasoned butter).
misir wat columbus
We also really like the kuwanta firfir which is served in a basket and consists of torn up pieces of injera tossed with a sauce and small pieces of beef jerky. It’s not a pretty dish but it’s very tasty. Also popular was the yebeg tibs (pictured below) a lamb stew with tomatoes, onions peppers and garlic.
dire cafe and restaurant
Dire Cafe has a pretty extensive menu including some breakfast dishes and several dishes that are primarily comprised of raw meat. The Market also has it’s own butcher and you can see them passing freshly cut beef and lamb through a window between the butcher and the restaurant.
If you’re a fan of Ethiopian food or want to try the Ethiopian coffee ceremony we recommend Dire Cafe. Service is slow so be forewarned and allow plenty of time, especially for the coffee ceremony.