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Review: Coastal comfort food at Del Mar SoCal Kitchen

J.R. McMillan

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If not for the rhythmic roar of an occasional COTA bus breaking like waves against the shore, you might just mistake the sounds of the Short North for a Southern California boardwalk. But if the seaside-inspired shutters and coastal decor of its most recent restaurant don’t suspend your disbelief, the menu and milieu surely will.

Cameron Mitchell’s newest venture, Del Mar SoCal Kitchen, is the casual counterpoint to Ocean Prime (or what we locals know better as the original Ocean Club). Though the dinner-only destination is more than a “finer diner,” with an emphasis on intimacy, dominated by two-tops complemented with low-lit alcoves for more amorous couples and conversations.

The weekend before any restaurant launch is often a soft open, the culinary equivalent of a dress rehearsal for a forgiving audience. But unlike the average opening night, this evening was actually a tale of two Camerons. To my left was the insatiable restaurateur introducing a table of friends to his latest collection of curated cuisine, and at my own table, the irrepressible Cameron Fontana and his wife Katie. Familiar faces for sure, but we were otherwise strangers who just happened to be seated together.

Columbus is just big enough for folks to share the same orbit without ever intersecting. Though they didn’t know it at the time, my wife and I also happened to be house shopping a couple of years back, even looking at some of the same homes, including one featured
on their appearance on HGTV’s House Hunters. Fontana also fell short of finishing a comically-proportioned local pizza challenge, as well as having been born in Osaka the same year I’d spent a summer in Japan as an exchange student.

Cameron moved to California as a kid, decades before television became his calling and Columbus his adopted hometown. Meanwhile, Katie hails from Pickerington, yet her influence as a fitness and dance instructor reaches well beyond Central Ohio. The unanticipated rapport made them the perfect two-person test market for that other Cameron’s Midwest twist on coastal comfort food.

Never mind the awkwardness of new acquaintances. Exploring the menu immediately became a group effort, with each course pushing geographic and culinary boundaries. Though billed as a “SoCal” establishment, opening options like the curry clams, with heirloom tomato and Thai coconut, to the chilled octopus, served on ice with pickled cucumber, tobiko roe, and a citrus vinaigrette, cast a wider net with Pacific Rim credibility.

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Cameron was cool with shells, scales, even suction cups. But Katie confessed she isn’t always so keen on seafood. It’s a common conundrum among couples when one comes from the coast and the other is a little more local, another coincidence my wife and I share with the Fontanas. It’s not that seafood is inherently more sophisticated, just more scarce. The farther you grow up from saltwater, the more likely you are to eat off the hoof than off the hook.

Accordingly, Katie ordered the more reliable angus ribeye, flanked by a spinach salad of smoked bacon, pickled turnips, and ricotta salata, while Cameron was tempted by the almost obligatory fish tacos, breaded in a Baja style Tecate beer batter with bright pico de gallo and a sweet potato chimichurri. The halibut had my name on it, with Marona almonds and golden raisins atop a citrus chili relish. But everyone was also eyeing the swordfish, which we agreed to split—along with everything else.

And this is where Del Mar really raises the bar, offering equally enviable alternatives to their signature fare. At most seafood restaurants, if it doesn’t have fins, it probably plays second fiddle. The ribeye was seasoned and seared to steakhouse standards. The tacos were on target with a tempura texture offering yet another nod to California’s Asian influences. The halibut was delicate and decadent, and exactly what you’d expect from a plate I later learned every chef has to personally approve before it leaves the kitchen.

But the swordfish was sumptuous and as satisfying as any cut of steak, balanced with a refreshing Brussels sprout and sliced apple slaw with orange-mustard vinaigrette and a creamy sweet potato puree waiting to be discovered on the bottom of every bite. If there’s a single entree that epitomizes Del Mar’s earnest appeal to Midwestern palates, this may be it—and Katie is among its early converts.

Del Mar’s desserts are deceptively understated. Easily overlooked are the coconut sorbet served on the half shell and the Hawaiian shaved ice with the punch of pineapple. Order both and share for an experience akin to a deconstructed piña colada. For something more citrusy and unexpected, the olive oil cake is like eating an orange creamsicle with a fork, and so moist it cuts without leaving a crumb.

Dinner could end right there or extend upstairs to Lincoln Social Rooftop, an equally intimate perch accessible only by private elevator. Despite the polished appointments and urban overlook that stretches from downtown to the University District, the low seating around a cozy campfire still carries a little of the beach vibe into the exclusive cocktail lounge.

Despite its shine, California cuisine often gets as much shade, with petite and pretentious presentation rubbing the working class the wrong way. Steve Martin’s sardonic Shakespearean satire L.A. Story summed it up succinctly with one silly line — “Gee, I’m done already and I don’t remember eating.”

Not so with Del Mar SoCal Kitchen. Each plate is portioned with purpose—generous, but never garish—featuring flavors that reveal a refined appreciation for beloved regional ingredients. Those Brussels sprouts and sweet potato headline a recurring cast of Midwest favorites rarely found in deep-sea delicacies. The recipes are ocean-inspired, but undeniably Ohio in origin. If Alice Waters were to suddenly set up shop in the Short North, her execution would likely look shockingly similar. 

Columbus is still a meat and potatoes town better known for beer and beards than seafood for certain. But the thoughtful and affordable opulence of Del Mar SoCal Kitchen proves we’re more than just another inland culinary imitator. We’re not simply an emerging market. We’re evolving into a city that defines its own identity—sure to acknowledge influences, but unapologetic as innovators deserving our own overdue moment in the sun.

Del Mar is located at 705 N High St and is open Sunday through Thursday 4pm – 10pm and Friday through Saturday 4pm – midnight. Visit cameronmitchell.com or call 614.300.9500 for more information.

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Food & Drink

Last Call For Alcohol: A look at how COVID-19 is impacting the bar industry

Mitch Hooper

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It's Friday night and Eight & Sand Tavern is empty. There’s not a pint being poured, a March Madness game on the televisions, or a song playing on the speakers. Saint Patrick’s Day? That came and went weeks ago. A month that was supposed to be primed for making cash has turned into quite the opposite.

This is life for Brody Wakefield, owner of Eight & Sand Tavern, and many others involved in the bar industry. Life has come to a screeching halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak. This situation has evolved quickly and the impacts have been sweeping, leaving little time for many of these folks to prepare for the unknown in the upcoming months. Combine an international pandemic with the slow financial months for bars in winter and you are left with a tough situation.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

“We’ve just come out of our two slowest months of the year—where we actually lose money—and we [were] hoping March is the month where we turn a corner,” Wakefield said. “St. Patrick’s Day, patio weather, and March Madness often make March the best month of the year. Now it’s gone.”

Columbus has welcomed many new bars to its city within the last few years and Eight & Sand fits the bill as a newly opened spot. It requires a great deal of overhead and risk to open a bar, and hitting goals and projections are crucial for long-term survival. Though Wakefield said the tavern was on track in many ways, it was still two years out from hitting those projections that can provide regular profits. Given past viruses and diseases that garnered media attention, he said COVID-19 wasn’t something that was initially concerning him. It was business as usual until simply it wasn’t.

“This is unprecedented territory. Like most folks, I underestimated the results early on, citing the many outbreaks we’ve had over the last few decades and thinking our exposure would be minimal. I thought about SARS, H1N1, Zika, Ebola and others that certainly had a global impact, but locally we came out relatively unscathed,” he said. “That thought process didn’t age very well.”

Quickly, what looked like something that would blow over became chaos. Now, with business closed indefinitely, he’s looking into coronavirus-related small business loans with lowered interest rates and extended payment periods, but like many things during a pandemic, there are caveats.

“We are still a young business. We only have one year of tax filings available right now, and we don’t show a regular history of profitability, so those may be barriers we’re not able to overcome,” he explained. “The SBA Disaster Relief portal also crashed [on March 23], so we’re in an additional level of purgatory.”

In a press release, the Columbus Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild said that industry experts predict 25 percent of Ohio’s 22,000 bars and restaurants will close business permanently due to the outbreak. While the Guild is in agreement with the calls for social distancing, it has left more than half a million Ohioans without a job seemingly overnight. In collaboration with the Cincinnati and Cleveland chapters, the USBG has sent letters to more than 200 public officials outlining the struggles the industry is facing and the kind of relief they will need to survive this.

“The state has laid us off, not our employers,” the press release stated. “The state bears responsibility for providing us with full, livable incomes while we serve through our duty of preventing the spread of COVID-19. We are Ohioans who love to help and serve, but in this time of turmoil, we must ask the public for help.”

This pandemic has exposed some of the problems that are inherent in the service industry. Variables such as low hourly wages have led to servers receiving unemployment checks that are well below 50 percent of their typical income, or simply struggling to even get unemployment. It’s also shown the need for these employees to have benefits in place such as health care, retirement, and paid time off. This, combined with the fact that many places aren’t hiring in the midst of an international pandemic, and you can start to get a clearer picture of the magnitude of this situation for many folks.

Wakefield takes these sentiments to heart. While he attempts to navigate the waters of receiving a loan, his staff lives unemployed and unsure how they will meet their basic needs like rent, utilities and food. However, through all this adversity, he and his staff are banding together.

“Our staff has been incredibly gracious and understanding. We have a group of all-stars that I’d put up against anybody,” he explained. “We opened a GoFundMe to try to ease the burden, and we’ve had some really generous friends and regulars donate.” Still, the unpredictability of this crisis adds challenges. “I’m hoping we can meet that goal but the reality is, we don’t know what to ask for because we have no idea what the timeline will be. There’s so much uncertainty right now, which is perhaps the hardest piece.”

As Wakefield said, it’s time for leaders to lead, and much like other bar owners in the city, he’s doing his best to lead his team. Plus, he’s leading in other ways, too.

“I’ve been turning myself inside out for the past two years trying to get Eight & Sand off the ground. Long days, late nights, and very little time with my wife and three young girls. So now I have been able to really dig in as a father again, which is amazing,” Wakefield said. “Bike rides, our daily viewing of Frozen II, and having family meals again is a recharge I wasn’t aware I needed.”

These impacts on the economy aren’t exclusive to the bar scene, and Wakefield is concerned for those within the restaurant scene, too. He thinks of some of his favorite spots around town like Ambrose & Eve, Skillet, Barcelona, and Red Brick Tavern and knows—much like his own tavern—they will need assistance to survive all this.

“The community is doing what it can to support small businesses, but we’ll need politicians on both sides of the line to work together to help them survive,” he said.

Of course, there are ways we, the community, can support our favorite establishments. Similarly to Eight & Sand, many places have started a GoFundMe to support non-hourly waged employees. There’s also take-out from many spots as well as delivery options with reduced fees on apps such as UberEats, PostMates, and GrubHub. Those are some “easier” ways to support the food and drink scene in the city. But if you want to truly help out, pick up a phone; Wakefield encourages you to make a call to a local representative.

“We also are asking people to reach out to their representatives to press for sales tax relief for the months of February and March,” he explained. “Ask them to loosen SBA stipulations so newer businesses aren’t being left out. Ask them to provide real relief for restaurants.”

And above all else, show some kindness to your fellow community members.

“We just need to be patient and have some empathy for each other. I’ve seen a lot of folks using this situation to lob political spears at their perceived opponents. We don’t have the luxury of division right now. Let’s understand that yes, the service industry is in peril right now, but there will be other industries that follow quickly and they also will need help. The economy could be in real trouble right now. We’ll need real action from our elected officials to solve these problems in the short term.”

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Food Fight: With festivals postponed, food trucks are coming to a neighborhood near you

Wayne T. Lewis, Publisher

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Columbus has a certain love affair with food trucks. We must, since there are over 200 of them in the metro area. Ranging from international flavors to local staples, these mobile kitchens bring slices of diverse cuisine to our parks, favorite bars and sidewalks.

It’s a challenging business in good times, with most trucks having just a few hours each day to log a success. Of course this is Ohio, so weather brings its own challenges to the table. While the entire restaurant industry has been hit hard by closures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, food trucks are now facing an economic snowstorm. 

“It’s devastating. Some are making 10 percent of what they did. The spots they have on a daily basis, 90 percent cancelled,” said Nik Gandhy, founder of Streetfoodfinder.com, a website that helps the public locate their favorite food trucks.

On top of their daily walk-up business, a significant portion of business is catering parties and events. Those too, have been virtually
all cancelled.

“Here at Pitabilities, we are working hard to keep our staff employed as much as possible. Our sales have dropped nearly 90 percent, with some new opportunities coming up that may help us save a few jobs. As of today, we are making some really hard decisions as to who and how many of our staff to lay off. This has been the most difficult decision of my entire life, I have never laid off anyone in over 35 years of having employees,” Jim Pashovich, founder of Pitabilities trucks, said.

Despite these hardships, there is a certain resilience and scrappiness that makes up the food truck community. Leading the charge is the Central Ohio Food Truck Association (COFTA). 

Last week, COFTA introduced its Neighborhood Pickup program. This program is offering the opportunity for local food trucks to continue to serve their community, while practicing appropriate social
distancing measures. 

In the coming weeks, food trucks are scheduled to serve at designated locations around Greater Columbus. These locations have been selected with ample parking and immediate access to residential neighborhoods. Residents can view live, updated truck schedules online and place their order in advance. A designated pickup time will be provided, eliminating the need to wait in line to order. Payment can also be made online, so cash and cards do not need to be exchanged at the order window.

“We have transitioned from serving our guests at their place of employment and now going to the neighborhoods where they live. Our lunch service is nearly nonexistent and we hope that we can build a dinner service in the neighborhoods,” Pashovish said.

Gandhy added there are also efforts to use Nextdoor.com to identify neighborhoods that would like to see a food truck stop by.

“It’s hard, but we’re trying to get better finding new spots. We’re actually trying to go to apartment complexes instead of the streets, so we can get some business,” Abimael Ruiz, owner of two Taquitos food
trucks, said.

Food safety has always been a high priority for the food truck industry, and with the new social distancing measures in place, they are working on methods to serve carry-out while keeping customers safe.

“A lot of the trucks have signs out that say “please respect social distancing.” So customers can still walk up to order. But other trucks are requiring all orders be placed online,” Gandhy said.

Gandhy has been working day and night to get as many food trucks as possible set up with online ordering so they can better compete in the new reality. Customers can find a truck, place an order, and pay on the site, and walk-up to the truck when it’s ready for pick-up.

Despite the massive challenges facing these small business owners, many of whom toil in their trucks day-in, day-out, the guy who builds many of the trucks thinks the industry will survive, and perhaps even grow as a result of this economic storm.

Michael Gallichio is the owner of Titan Trucks—a Central Ohio custom food truck builder and founder of the annual Food Truck Fest.

Gallichio says the latest food truck boom was created in the wake of the last economic collapse when everyone lost their jobs. “People figured, hey I don’t have a job, and for a relatively small investment I can be in business for myself.” 

Starting a truck can be done for as little as $75,000, according to Gallichio. For now though, those dreaming of a new mobile business will need to wait, as the current food truck operators figure out ways to navigate a world with far less demand and virtually no access to crowds.

“Some of the food trucks are shutting down and hoping to ride it out. But these guys are innovators. They’re gonna find a way. That’s what’s so cool about this industry. They’re constantly evolving,” Gallichio said.

As for the Food Truck Festival, it’s still scheduled for early August, but like many things these days, that’s subject to change as the state and nation combat the coronavirus threat. Until then, we can all daydream of being next in line, wearing our flip-flops, hot sun on our back, cold beer in our hand, waiting to experience something special.

Find food trucks headed to your neighborhood on streetfoodfinder.com

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Food & Drink

Get your Fox in the Snow fix with this step-by-step recipe video

Mitch Hooper

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If social distancing and working from home has made your days of going to your favorite coffeeshop and café something of the past, Lauren Culley of Fox in the Snow wants to bring the café to your kitchen.

Culley, co-owner of Fox in the Snow, has put together this step-by-step recipe for the biscuits the café uses in many of its popular sandwiches and pastry items. As this recipe doesn't require many fancy ingredients, she said this should be an easy recipe for folks at home to make during shelter-in-place.

In the video below, Culley shows how to she creates the menu item buttermilk biscuits with house made jam.

https://vimeo.com/402332940/5229743f01
Video provided by Fox in the Snow.
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