Rooks Rising : Chef Aaron Mercier’s “New South Dinner” (video)

Chef Aaron Mercier is the busiest chef in Columbus that you haven’t heard of…yet. Fresh off a culinary tour south of the Mason-Dixon, Chef Mercier brought some of that Sean-Brock-inspired southern cuisine back to the capital city in the form of his second pop-up dinner in as many weeks. Following up on his Dinner Lab debut (and an early spring pop-up at Angry Bear Kitchen, of which i heard the soup course was to die for…) Chef Mercier’s “New South Dinner” was an opportunity to share some of the inspiration he gleamed from dining at some of the South-East’s best restaurants. (Cochon, anyone? Okay, how about The Inn at Little Washington?)

The six-course affair showcased what Chef Aaron does best: thoughtfully crafted menus that are exciting yet accessible and unpretentious. Bucking the trend of the traditional wine pairing, Chef opted for beer in fruitful collaboration with Columbus’ Actual Brewing Company. The combination of his primal, smokey flavors with the often cerebral quality of Actual’s brews proved a match made in dinner heaven.

The stand-out dish came mid-way through the 2-hour affair in the form of a delicious shrimp offering. Large achiote coated crustaceans were served over a bed of creamy corn and pepper chowder (a.k.a. maque choux), a testament to Chef Arron’s time spent in the gastronomical melange that is New Orleans. The dish was garnished with dried corn flowers from Clintonville’s Boline apothecary.

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Maque choux, the dinner’s pitch perfect highlight.

The maturity of this dish, the subtlety of the maque choux punctuated by the savory spicy of the achiote shrimp, shows a chef coming into his own. The plating, rustic and beautiful, while playful and with a deft eye for color. (From a technical standpoint, I’d never seen the blue from the cornflower on a plate before. The effect was powerful.)

Check out the video for a look at the rest of the dishes from “The New South”:

So what’s next for Chef Mercier? In July, look out for another collaboration from Aaron  and The Commissary; this time in the form of a Game of Thrones themed dinner. (Food nerds and regular nerds unite!) At the dinner he also hinted at the opening of a brick-and-mortar concept, Rook’s Rustic Tavern, to be opened “soon” at an as yet unknown location.

If this brief trip through “The New South” was any indication of things to come, we can’t wait for Rooks to find a permanent roost here in Columbus!

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Packing It All In or What the hell do I bring?

I leave tomorrow and won’t be home again until September. This is my longest trip to date and I thought I’d celebrate by treating myself to some new luggage. (And in all honesty, I had a bag that I loved for travel but a cat peed on it and I didn’t think the faint but constant smell of feline piss was the best travel companion this summer.) I’m an adult now, or so I’m told, and felt like it was neigh time I had some proper, matching luggage. I want to feel like an experienced traveler. And what says worldly ramblin’ man better than pristine, never-seen-the-inside-of-a-plane matching bags?! Here is a breakdown of each bag and what I’m cammin’ in it!

The Suitcase

Probably the most important bag because it determines what you get to where while you’re away. No pics of this one because my undies are private. I will say that I’m bringing a weeks worth of all of the essentials; sox, underwear, t-shirts, and shorts. And no chef’s coats! Because we don’t have to wear ’em!

The Carry-On IMG_4285

  • Books- A Little Yellow Dogan Easy Rawlins mystery by the author of Devil in a Blue Dress, because a good noir is essential when you’re traveling. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sadaris, because I need a reminder of what good writing looks like. Back issues of Popular Science, because I can always re-read a PopSci!
  • Notebooks- Nothing makes me more prepared to leave the house than a nice moleskin notebook. These miniature books fit in your wallet and are perfect for quick note-taking. This larger journal I use for keeping track of new recipes and taking detailed notes when planning a meal.
  • Pens- You aren’t ready to cook without a sharpie. And for note-taking, the greatest pen ever created.
  • Empty Water Bottle- Save some of that hard earned cash and refill your bottle on the other side of airport security. I get mine in a bright color so I’m less likely misplace it or leave it behind.
  • Drumsticks- For the boredom. To keep those chops extra beefy try the Vic Firth Corpsmaster Ralph Hardimon snare sticks.
  • Headphones-Noise canceling headphones are essential for travel, whether you’re trying to listen to some tunes over the din of an airplane or just want some quiet for catching a quick nap. These Sol Republic studio headphones looks sharp, sound great, and won’t break the bank.
  • Phone- Make sure you know your data and roaming policy before you head out of town!
  • Various Chargers- I like to imagine those halcyon days of travel before the charger.
  • Computer- Beat-ass old Mac, perfect for the road and maintaining the blog remotely.
  • Gameboy- 3DS with a library of titles, including Super Smash Bros. and Ocarina of Time.
  • Kitchen Timer- He is shaped like a hedgehog and his name is Dermut. I let him ride shotgun in the carry-on because he always keeps it 100 and because it gets lonely out there on the road.
  • Snacks- ‘fer keepin’ up the ol’ blood sugar. Avoid becoming “hangry” at all costs.
  • Bandana- Because I’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy once or twice.  

  • Shades- Cause I’m cool like that.

The Knife Kit IMG_4281

  • Mercer Plating Kit-This kit includes all the specialty spoons pictured above, including the saucing spoon and my personal favorite, the slotted serving spoon.
  • Chef’s Knife- Wusthof 10″ Classic Cook’s Knife. Called “classic” for a reason. This knife can do pretty much anything.
  • Kitchen/Paring Knife- Wusthof 3-1/2″ paring knife. Just picked up this one at River’s Edge Cutlery especially for this trip and can’t wait to see how it handles. (I also took all of my knives to River’s Edge for sharpening prior to leaving. They do quick and reliable work at a low cost. Also, purchasing a knife earns you free sharpening for the life of that knife. I get my Shun set sharpened a few times a year.)
  • Honing Steel- Dear Mom & Dad, this is not a sharpener and does not replace your whet stone.
  • Speed Peeler- Never get caught without your peeler! This one is super dope.
  • Box Cutter- For breaking down boxes and rumbling with Jets!

The Dopp Kit IMG_4302 Just the highlights on this one:

  • Goldbond (travel size) –Because corn starch is always around.
  • Roto V’s Eyedrops- For red eyes from uh… allergies! Yeah! Allergies! (Seriously though, feels like putting an altoid in your eyeballs. In a good way.)
  • Blackbook – There is a black version of James Dean. His name is Kareem and this is the probably the best way to smell like him. (Pretty sure they don’t actually make this anymore…)
  • American Crew Forming Cream- For curly hairs!
  • CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion- Because skin care runs in my family. And because my girlfriend thinks about this kind of jazz. Has SPF 30 and leaves me silky smooth!
  • Cliff Arousal Beard Balm- Another local Columbus product, this stuff smells masculine and keeps my beard looking dapper!

Westward Ho! – Dinner at Delaware’s 12 West

Every time The Fox and I go to Delaware, I always have the same thought upon leaving:

“We should come to Delaware more often.”

For nigh on a decade there has been a quiet renaissance happening in The D, as students from Ohio Weaslyan and an increasingly affluent local population support an exciting city center with some of the best food and beverage options in Central Ohio. This charming square mile provides the diner with an array of culinary experiences; in Delaware it is seen as perfectly normal for the venerable greasy spoon The Hamburger Inn to rub shoulders with the likes of Veritas Tavern, incubator for Rigsby’s new head chef and Columbus wunderkind Silas Caeton.

So where does a place like 12 West (12 W William St, Delaware, OH) fall on this seemingly boundless dining spectrum? With a pitch perfect balance between seasonal and high quality dinner offerings served in the tastefully appointed low-light of the San-Fran Lounge inspired dining room, 12 West has found the sweet spot smack dab in the middle. Given her pastoral context in the midwestern-meets-cosmopolitan burg that is Delaware, I’d say 12 West is right where it should be.

The Food

The night’s dinner was a special occasion for The Fox and I. Her parents would be joining  us to say farewell before I head out on the road for the summer tour. The venue was their choice, and as 12 West had been on my radar for a while, my expectations were pretty high.

We got great parking directly in front of the restaurant. (10 POINTS TO DELAWARE!!)

We snagged the last table, a corner both by a big window overlooking the quaint but bustling street, lit as it was in the lingering long light of an early summer evening. It was okay, I guess. Drink menus were understated but carefully selected. As I do with places that serve any cuisine from a locál south of the Rio Grande, I stuck with imported bottles of Mexican beer. They were light and cold and had limes stabbed into their slim necks. Sometimes craft beer and cocktails need not apply. (That said, the 4 handles behind the bar were all devoted to craft brews, most local. 12 West also boasts a nice selection of craft bottles and a decent wine list.)

The dinner menu was split into two sections. The first being an a-la-carte menu of house made southwestern favorites. This section also saw a featured selection of tacos.

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From top left going counter-clockwise: Empanadas, Tacos, Salmon Entree, Mexican Chocolate Cheesecake.

We started with the empanadas. They were fried GBD and came two-ways that night. One was a bean and cheese, the other chorizo. Both were topped with melty cotija and served with a really fresh pesto. The bean empanada was the stand-out. It somehow packed in more flavor and was really well balanced with the pesto, which offered a clever twist on the more commonly paired chimichurri.

On to the tacos, with a bit of a disclaimer. I was told by multiple sources to not skip out on the tacos, but given the multiple high profile taco shop openings in Columbus over the last couple of years (Bakersfield, Nada, Candado) I was feeling a bit weary. (I fear we have reached peak taco as a city.) But on the insistence of the parents Fox we ordered a few to share. We had the Barbacoa (that night’s chef special taco) and blackened shrimp as well as the cod and chorizo tacos respectively (not pictured). I’m glad I ignored my concerns over the redundancy of the Columbus taco market because these were great! They had an off the cuff quality about them that was refreshing and they were fun to share. Each taco featured some really fresh produce, including delicious locally raised radishes from Redde Hedde Farms as well as super crisp red cabbage in place of the more common iceberg lettuce.

Unlike a lot of other southwestern eateries, 12 West offers a complete menu of entrees. These include a much hyped chorizo burger as well a lamb shank and polenta offering which I’ve placed on the docket for my return visit. On this night I opted for the salmon, another well recommended favorite among 12 West’s many apostles. It is a thick filet of Faroe Island salmon, pan seared with a crispy golden crust, served over a bed of fingerling potatoes and smoked jalapeño cream. The fish is topped with a sweet house marmalade and paired with roasted beets. Again, as with the tacos, the rub is in the freshness of the produce. The beets and potatoes added an earthy-ness that was the perfect compliment to the fish. The sweetness of the marmalade was a welcome change from the California-Mex trope of mango salsa.

We ended the meal with a communal piece of Mexican Chocolate cheesecake. This was a rich finish to an otherwise light meal. The cake was dense and just the right level of moist with a semi-sweet chocolate topping with a delightful spicy finish of cayenne pepper. ¡Sabroso!

After Dinner Thoughts

So, the food was good. The atmosphere casual and cool yet welcoming. But what makes 12 West a destination? The staff!

First, the kitchen at 12 West is clearly having a good time. That is evidenced by the creativity and spontaneity on each plate.

The waitstaff was prompt and knowledgeable while remaining inviting. Service that night was attentive without being intrusive which is always a delicate balance.

And then there was Ron. Ron is the co-owner of 12 West and is the kind of guy in this business that I look up to. I respect a guy like Ron because he understands real hospitality. (He has the pedegree for it too. Google him. He’s had his hands in some of Columbus’ favorite restaurants for years.) His table-side manner was warm and his enthusiasm for his restaurant and its city were contagius. For me, Ron was the cereza on the pastel that was our evening in Delaware.

So get in your damn car and head north for 12 West!