One of my favorite developments over recent years is the ability for Ohio distilleries to open their own restaurants. The laws changed a couple years ago, and Columbus’ two biggest distilleries – Watershed and Middle West Spirits – jumped on it. Watershed Kitchen & Bar opened in the early months of 2017, and after months of preparations, Middle West’s newest venture – the Service Bar – opened last October.
The arrival of Service Bar is the final piece in a major expansion and renovation for Middle West Spirits. What was once a humble warehouse with their complete distillery, barreling rooms, offices, and bottle shop has now been completely transformed. They shifted a lot of the storage off-site, they upgraded to a completely new (and much larger) distilling system, and their current building itself rose up a couple stories. One section pokes up above the nearby buildings; it houses Ohio’s tallest still at 55 feet.
The restaurant space isn’t large, but it feels bright and open. It features bar seating, a small series of booths, and larger tables in the center. There’s a private, glass-walled dining room that looks into distillery itself. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a handsome marble bar top, with a wooden back bar behind that dates back to the 1800s. The space is gorgeous, especially when you catch the natural light through the doors and the skylight.
The menu is crafted by chef Avishar Barua. We’ve enjoyed his work many times throughout the years, and it’s exciting to see him “come home” as an executive chef for such a great restaurant.
Any meal at a distillery restaurant should start with cocktails, right? The cocktail menu offers a mix of creative and traditional selections, including barrel-aged cocktails, draft selections, even shareable punches. Whatever you choose, you’re in good hands. We started, for instance, with the Old Fashioned Flight, featuring four takes on the classic interpreted with different base spirits. Highly recommended.
The main selections are a creative bunch, and feature things like the Courtlandia, made with their sherry-finished bourbon, Averna Italian liqueur, Benedictine, bitters, and vinegar. Or there’s the savory Hard Pour Corn (say that five times fast) crafted with Middle West bourbon and whiskey, smoky mezcal, roasted corn and pepper syrup, and BBQ bitters.
The drinks, I should say, are a good set up for the food that is to come.
I selected the Mind F*ck, aptly described as drinking like a whiskey cocktail despite being made with OYO barreled honey vanilla bean vodka, with the sweetness offset by Averna, Byrrh, Suze, and bitters.
The website calls their food “humbly innovative,” and the descriptor is fitting. The beauty of Avishar’s work is how it approximates familiar flavors from many sources, upscale and down-home. There’s a certain elegance to the way they capture memories, the way a familiar smell can quickly recall moments from long ago.
But maybe that’s waxing too poetic. After all, the food is just fun to eat. For instance, the Bread and Butter is a sweet and dense pineapple bun with a rich pepperoni butter.
Or the Cheese and Poof: pork rinds with a barrel-aged hot sauce and a roasted pimento dip.
Even the Service Bar Wedge feels dense and filling, enriched with a smoked bleu cheese, bits of bacon, port, and a creamy soft egg.
Avishar also kindly sent over a dish he’s testing, one that’s right up our alley: a breakfast carbonara. Thick al dente noodles mixed with diced pancetta, cheese, and soft eggs. Avishar, you are welcome to test dishes like this on us any time, breakfast-themed or not.
One of the highlights of the meal – and if you’ve spotted Service Bar on social media in any way, you’ve probably seen this dish – is the Cheesy Brisket Crunch. Beth said it best when she observed that this dish is for those who say, “Do you want to stop by Taco Bell on the way home from the symphony?”
Avishar’s experience with Taco Bell is evident in his take on the gordita. It’s wonderfully bizarre, both familiar and completely foreign at the same time. The crunch comes from the familiar corn tortilla wrapped with the less-traditional fried Indian roti bread, while the interior consists of smoked brisket, pepperjack queso, avocado salsa, and shredded lettuce. We would order these again in a heartbeat. (And not just because we’ve spent our fair share of time at Taco Bell over the years.)
I found myself lingering, however, over the lamb dumplings. The tender dumplings are drenched in oil rich with garlic, sesame, a touch of sweet soy, and the numbing sensation of Szechuan peppercorns. I came to the last dumpling and just had to stop. It was a simply wonderful combination of flavors, one of those dishes you wanted to stick your nose into and just live in for a spell. I couldn’t rush through it, and to me this is the sign of a rare meal, one that forces you to pause because it’s complicated, challenging, and playful.
We polished off the meal with a sweet taste, the Cinco Leches cake. It’s malted and sweetened with dulce de leche and luxardo cherries.
While you’re there, make time before or after dinner to sneak into the bottle shop.
There you can buy bottles of their spirits, from the OYO honey vanilla bean vodka to the OYO bourbon to their Vim & Petal gin. They even feature a bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. I can attest it goes well on pancakes, waffles, French toast, in coffee, in cocktails, in/on everything.
My personal favorite amongst Middle West’s portfolio – and honestly one of my favorite spirits overall – is the OYO Whiskey, made with Ohio red winter wheat. It’s ridiculously smooth with a light, caramely sweetness.
Service Bar is topping many of the best new restaurants lists for 2017, and it earns the title decisively. The meal was highlighted by so many remarkable flavors, the type that you want to linger over. We’re looking forward to taking every opportunity to return.