A NEW TWIST ON THE OLD FASHIONED
Written by Shawnie Kelley
Photography by James Henthorn
Ten years after establishing Ohio’s first craft distillery, Columbus’s now-iconic Middle West Spirits has forayed into the realm of food. Its 16,000 square foot space, nestled between the Short North and The Ohio State University’s campus, houses an open air distillery where you can learn how the OYO brand bourbon, whiskey, gin, and vodkas are handcrafted using Ohio finest ingredients. It is easy to get into the spirits after a few samples in tasting room or pick out your favorite flavors to go from the The Bottle Shop carrying OYO spirits and other cocktailian accoutrements.
The latest addition to the space is Service Bar, which opened the fall of 2017 to considerable acclaim and the accolades keep rolling in. This seems a striking benchmark to celebrate a ten-year anniversary as Middle West Spirits now boasts one of the most innovative restaurants in Columbus. Co-founders, Brady Konya and Ryan Lang channel into the culinary side of their business the same passion that inspired the distillery. As champion supporters of Ohio’s agriculture and other local food artisans, the same rules apply to the dishes created at Service Bar. They are inventive, handcrafted, high quality, and like the OYO brand, built on humble foundations with a ton of character.
Avishar Barua took the helm as Executive Chef at Service Bar and brought with him all of the character, spirit and attention to detail that Middle West Spirits has. This carries through to define its culinary arm. Barua’s Midwestern roots and Bangladeshi heritage, combined with cooking experience at the famed Wd 50 and Mission Chinese Food in New York City, as well as a tourde-Szechuan region of China ensures an exciting combination of local and global flavors on Service Bar’s menu. One taste of the first dish and I knew we were in for a very clever meal.
The inventiveness with which Chef Barua interprets classic dishes (and I hesitate to call Taco Bell’s crunchy gordita a “classic dish”, until now) seems to have no limits. Barua’s riffs on popular fast food are whimsical and unique. They look modern, but lend familiar nuances to the original flavors and textures that we recognize this as the food we grew up on. One of the Service Bar’s most popular menu items is the Cheesy Brisket Crunch- an homage to Barua’s love affair with Taco Bell. This explains the “Hard Tacos | Soft Tacos” sign hanging at the entrance to the kitchen.
With eyes closed, reveling in nostalgia while eating the MWS Burger, I was whisked away to my high school days of cheerleading and post-football game gatherings at the Golden Arches. Never then, nor now would I think to refer to a Big Mac as poetic, but Barua’s version is. The two almost all beef patties are made from locally sourced beef, sandwiched with the perfect amount of cheese, topped with paper thin slices of pickles, onion, and lettuce slathered with creamy, house-made special sauce … on a Martin’s potato bun. Fast food has never seemed so poetically sophisticated. This is the restaurant stop when craving late night nosh after the ballet.
If fast food isn’t in the repertoire, then go global. Service Bar’s menu might look small, but it is far flung in flavors and creativity that comes out of this kitchen. You can experience Thai and Chinese influences, culinary nods toward Mexican and Latino dishes, and good ol’ Midwestern fare makes its appearance in subtle ways.
As one who lived, studied, and works in France, my most welcomed interpretation of international dishes is the Caesar Salad and French Onion Soup, which we all recognize as Parisian bistro classics. The thoughtful composition of these two modern dishes knocked me on my derrière. Red cabbage with puffed buckwheat mimics the base of the lettuce and croton salad, while kombu (seaweed) and tahini sauce creates a creamy umami dressing that the Caesar is known for.
The French Onion Soup is another story. Five different, sweet, savory, pungent onions are pressure cooked until all of the liquid is extracted. Chef Barua explained that the onions are cooked until all of the juices can be combined into an intense onion stock. Given the Service Bar’s philosophy, it makes sense that the onions are blended with as much care care and concern as the Middle West Spirits whiskey.
As a distillery-based restaurant, the food definitively plays well with cocktails. A flight of the Old Fashioned presents a new twist using the OYO spirits. Four mini-tumblers were presented with modern, seasonal riffs on the Old Fashioned: the traditional, lemon infused, a rum-based Old Fashioned and pumpernickel rye rounded out the sampling. A Sonic Bloom using the Vim & Petal Gin and Stone Fruit Spritz were wonderful pairings that showcased Service Bar’s creative cocktails.
The atmosphere at Service Bar remains true to the vision of old and new. The latest, greatest equipment is used in the distillery, while the bar showstopper is a nineteenth century wood-carved backdrop. Chef Barua’s menus change seasonally and as he feels compelled by inspiration. If this is the direction Columbus’ food scene is going, we are on an extraordinary culinary ride.
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