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Good Deals: Fine dining for less

By
From the Fall 2013 edition

A night out at a fancy restaurant doesn’t need to pair with a hefty price tag. Here’s how to dine inexpensively at some of the best spots in town

I know what some of you are thinking: “Yeah, the food looks great in those photos, but I can’t afford to eat at most of those places.”

Because of the perceived fuss and expense, a lot of people shy away from enjoying many of our city’s top restaurants. Or they might save up for a “special occasion” meal at one of these high-ticket establishments, only to then—possibly because of an “I should’ve Googled that first” choice—wind up less than ecstatic. The understandable bottom line for many diners is this: yet another ho-hum visit to a comfort-zone eatery for a same old dinner. Believe me, I hear stories like this all the time, and I get it. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

With a little strategy, you can turn a potentially daunting and ouch-priced struggle into a can’t-lose evening of beautiful food cooked by the best chefs in Columbus, which—and this is crucial—doesn’t cost more than a night of burgers, beers and wings. Here are some cost-cutting schemes that’ll make ordering at A-list restaurants less financially risky and more fun.

Kihachi

Ask leading local chefs (or visiting ones like Anthony Bourdain) where they eat in Columbus to be wowed, and, with reverence and enthusiasm, they’ll mention Kihachi. A Honda executive favorite, this Japanese stunner might also be the most intimidating restaurant in town.

First, there’s its wide range of items on a too-easily-perplexing menu rife with no-training-wheels ingredients unfamiliar to many American palates. Second, there’s the cost: Kihachi’s famous omakase (a parade of amazing chef-selected specials) will set one diner back upwards of $100.

OK, forget all that. See, by focusing on appetizers and Kihachi’s daily specials (the basis for the omakase, and now printed in English on a separate piece of paper), two people can marvel through an evening full of edible haikus for less than half the price of a single omakase. Plus, by noshing on these mostly under $10 beauties, you’ll be dining like a pro since Kihachi is essentially an izakaya-style (Japanese tapas) restaurant.

Killer deals from the permanent appetizer list include novice-friendly pleasers like Fried Pork Tenderloin (a giant amongst modest-sized apps, it comprises two double-loaded skewers of golden brown, panko-crusted, high-grade lean pork); tempura (sweet, superior shrimp and fresh veggies lightly and crisply battered and fried); plus ceviche-like Tuna with Miso Sauce (a chilly symphony of meaty and abundant tuna batons on a pool of tart and smoky vinegar, all crowned by a sweet and viscous miso-mustard sauce).

Some seasonally recurring daily specials to target are: citrusy, “boxed” (or Osaka-style) Sea Bream Sushi (knife skill-showy with minty shiso leaves peeking through transparent sheets of fish); Fried Lotus Root with Shrimp Pate (an elegant little basket of crispy and aromatic, texturally complex, mini double decker sandwich-like wedges); and must-have Miso Marinated Berkshire Pork (think melt-in-your-mouth pig candy with garnishes like glassy shards of celery).

2667 Federated Blvd., Northwest, 614-764-9040

The Refectory

Entering its fourth decade, the Refectory bears the reputation of a serene temple of fancy French food charging some of the highest prices in town. Considering this built-in-the-1850s former church is overseen by a serious chef who studied under universally admired Paul Bocuse (a pioneering French titan of nouvelle cuisine) and that several Refectory main courses soar toward the $40 mark, that reputation is deserved. But it’s far from the whole story.

Here’s a chapter too often skimmed over: beautiful, three course “bistro meals” which include painstakingly created appetizer, entree and dessert choices. Le whole shebang costs only $24. Made with great, often local ingredients transformed through the magic of classical techniques into art on plates, these bistro meals are a steal.

Of course there are catches. One, you must eat in the lively bar area populated by plenty of tables and people who don’t dress to impress (the nifty patio is likewise OK, and if you ask nicely, the ultra-professional staff will likely allow you to order bistro meals in the main dining room, too). Two, you must dine between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., Monday to Thursday, or early bird it on Fridays and Saturdays (5 to 5:45 p.m. with a bistro reservation required).

The bistro specials change regularly, but a recent visit was typical. Starter choices included a silky if deep and vibrant artichoke and tomato soup with a puff pastry “crouton” or a lush, large and elegant fish terrine replete with bells and whistles, such as pungent chive aioli, pristine micro greens, a mustard sauce plus fruity tomato concasse.

The meaty main course option was wine-sauced sirloin fanned out on a plate containing sweet baby asparagus, basil oil and a delicately sliced but powerhouse-flavored potato scallop wittily resembling a giant sea scallop. The impressive fish entree was flaky Alaskan cod with tomato quenelles and a citrus beurre blanc and capers.

Desserts were a killer sort of buttery shortbread “scone” with macerated local strawberries or “chocolate bread pudding”—think high-end brownie with excellent homemade ice cream.

All this for $24? Like me, you’ll probably giggle all the way home.

1092 Bethel Rd., 614-451-9774, Northwest, therefectoryrestaurant.com

DeepWood

With generally modest-sized entrees clocking in between $24 and $42, and no shortage of daring flavor combinations, DeepWood’s dinner menu can present stumbling blocks for some casual gourmands. But there’s another DeepWood menu stocked with lots of nice-sized, less than $10 noshes that, while still flaunting plenty of this place’s famous creativity, offers familiar items approachable to even play-it-safe eaters (awesome $4 onion rings, for example).

Called the Tavern menu and available at the bar only from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, it’s worth showing up for early and often. A good start—and an excellent libation partner—are the Pork Croquettes ($6). You’ll get seven ping pong-sized balls that eat like aromatic, meat-laden falafel and show off DeepWood’s crispy, ungreasy frying technique. They’re also characteristically plated with panache—kind of pool ball-racked, with daintily sliced, sweet pickled red onions plus a creamy mustard sauce.

Big ups likewise go to beauties such as: Lobster Rangoon ($8)—five crunchy, golden brown purses packed with a sweet, rich lobster roll-type filling that should clash, but doesn’t, with tongue-tickling, orange-ginger side sauce; Foie Burger ($10)—a deeply beefy, even steaky, 5-ounce black angus tallboy stuffed with gouda cheese and foie gras and teamed with blocky polenta fries stacked like Lincoln Logs; and a huge and visually arresting, multi-sectioned platter teasingly called “Eat your Veggies” ($14), which colorfully corrals bacon-y mushroom chips with (among other goodies) a pretty succotash (starring slices of baby corn and baby zucchini), killer glazed whole carrots, earthy roasted kale, plus a sweetly roasted, cored-out eggplant boat filled with a sort of ratatouille relish.

Wait: inexpensive, healthful and delicious? Yup, DeepWood can do that.

511 N. High St. 614-221-5602, Short North, deepwoodrestaurant.com

G. Michael’s Bistro

It’s easy to love the relaxed and accomplished G.Michael’s Bistro and Bar. What’s not so easy is figuring out what to order. See, after scanning all the multi-ingredient dishes on G. Mike’s global-flavors-by-way-of-Charleston menu, you’ll want to sample its full range of cooking. That’d hardly be feasible even if most entrees didn’t hover in the mid-$20s stratum. Loophole time!

Start by parking yourselves in the jazzy, party-time bar between 4:30 and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday (note: this upscale chow-down works best for a group of at least three). There you can order one of everything by partaking in arguably the best happy hour in town (all elaborate small plates go for $6 a pop).

Pro tips: One, you needn’t actually belly up to the can-fill-up-quickly bar because the phenomenal deal is available at several comfortable, white-clothed barroom tables, too. And, two, you can claim one of these high-demand tables with a reservation.

As with every great eatery, the menu changes frequently, but here’s a sampling: Shrimp & Grits (it’s their signature dish for good reason); Asian-inflected and ridiculously delicious Pan-roasted Pork Belly (lavishly tricked out with a bold, kimchi-riffing veggie slaw); Germany-channeling, bratwurst-like Wild Boar Sausage (with a sweet, acidic and spicy kraut salad); grill-marked Broiled Asparagus (with a large, show-stealing panko-crusted goat cheese croquette, plus perky pickled golden beets); lox bagel-like house-cured Gravlax (sweet and lemony-sauced salmon with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and a toasty, attention-grabbing buckwheat pancake); top-notch PEI Mussels (in a garlicky beer sauce); and the Knife and Fork Crostini (like an intense, open-faced, mini roast beef sandwich with rich blue cheese, tender flatiron steak, perfectly complementing mushrooms and a tying-it-all-together tangy vinaigrette).

These (not so) little dishes unleash big and wonderful flavors. Oh, and ordering one of everything on G. Michael’s happy hour small plates menu equals $54; split three ways, that’s $18 per savvy diner—or probably less than what you’d spend at a generic sports bar.

595 S. Third St., 614-464-0575, German Village,

gmichaelsbistroandbar.com