Explorers Club: My First Expeditions
Posted by cmh gourmand on October 23, 2011
I am pleased. I am happy. Darn it, I might even use the word ecstatic! I have waited ten years and two months for this sign.
So what is the big deal? The Explorer’s Club is open. Yes, it is a restaurant. Ricky Barnes is cooking in the kitchen and Tracy Studer is guiding the front of the house. If you don’t recognize these names then you probably did not dine out in Columbus from the early 1990′s to 2001 (The Galaxy Cafe, Lost Planet Pizza and Pasta, Ricky’s Galaxy). Ricky and Tracy describe the Explorer’s Club as the Galaxy grown up. A few of the dishes and all of the flavors of Galaxies past are on the menu. The menu, decor and focus on service reflect changes in Tracy, Ricky and the rest of us during the last decade.
So a blast from the past has returned. Many eaters from the Columbus dining scene of old have fond memories of Ricky’s culinary accomplishments. Another element adding to the bigness of the deal is the location. I have discussed growing downtown dining and why this is important to the city. A good restaurant can be a foundation or launching point for a community (for example Yellow Brick Pizza and Angry Baker in Olde Town East). The Explorer’s Club is located on South High in Merion Village. The plucky neighborhood has limited eating options within their community, so a successful restaurant with good food can be a vibrant asset to the area. A past effort in the space, Coyote Jane’s, was a horrible disappointment (Did I just write something negative? Yes, and readers know I never do that. I will say the food, service and, well, everything was memorable, but not because it was good).
So with all of this good karma swelling up I must admit I had some trepidation. This was like revisiting an old flame. Are things ever as good as we remember them? I changed, they changed. Was the awesomeness of the Galaxy just a fond memory I had built up over the years. What if I did not like it? More importantly, what if you don’t like it. I don’t know if I can deal with
the Galaxy imploding again the Explorer’s Club closing it’s doors.
I visited during a dry run night and ate for free. I went the next two days for brunch and was happy to pay for meals just as good at a good value. The verdict: YES! wonderful, near perfect, exciting, tasty. The menu may have an aspect of nostalgia but the flavor is there and a explorers spirit of pushing the limits. Considering the Explorer’s Club was open just to test drive the menu, train new servers and cooks and for experimenting with a few ideas, the end result was spectacular. I typically don’t try out a new restaurant for at least a month after opening so they can work out any kinks and I can walk through the door with reasonable expectations. On paper the Explorer’s Club should not have had much of a chance to blow me away based on my fervent loyalty of the past. I am looking forward to what the Explorer’s Club can do with a more seasoned staff and a few weeks of menu enhancements. Changes are already in the works. A bar menu is in the process of development as well as a limited selection of cocktails.
The food and the music is impressively sourced locally when possible. Here is a list of some of the local purveyors used:
Used Kids Records (the genres of music mix well with the menu)
Growers First / Crimson Cup (Coffee and Tea)
Shagbark Seed and Mill Company (from my food first favorite Athens, Ohio)
Gerber cage free, organic vegetarian fed chicken
OSU Agricultural egg hormone and antibiotic free pork
Stutzman Farms (grains/flour)
Not local, but definitely reflective of the restaurant, is where the artwork is sourced from. Most of the prints are by Jeb Loy Nichols, Wales UK.
Nichol’s portraits of famous or infamous names you may have heard include: John Coltrane, Amelia Earhart, Hank Aaron, Wendell Berry, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Harvey Milk and Woody Gutherie. All were pioneers in their fields and times. The tagline of the Explorers Club is Simple – Pioneering – Flavor. The Galaxy was a pioneer in Columbus dining in the day and today, Explorers Club has taken that spirit and refined it. Staking a claim in Merion Village could be pioneering as well, I hope others will follow to add to the spice of this neighborhood.
So after all of this historical and philosophic foreplay, it is time to focus on the food.
Dinner was my first experience (note a few menu items may change of get tweaked by the time you travel to the Explorer’s Club. The item I hoped to see the most was black bean hummus. It is on the menu and is now served with garlic citrus pizza bread (looks and tastes like the best pita bread I have ever had). The hummus is great. I do miss the giant pool of garlic sauce that topped the 1993 – 2001 version but since that causes significant “personal space” issues for me, I figure it was omitted for the safety of the general public.
I also ordered the chicken quesadilla with charred salsa and sour cream. The salsa packed some significant heat but paired with the cool sour cream accentuated the flavors of everything on the plate.
The winner of the dinner entrees selected was the beef brisket (with black beans, redskin potatoes and jalapeno slaw). The brisket fell apart with very light pressure from my fork. It has a complimentary mix of flavors in the broth to spice things up. My dining companion is not a fan of the jalapeno but she found the proportion of pepper to slaw to be perfect balance of heat and cool.
For dessert there was only one choice I could allow, another blast from my past, Mrs. Barnes Pumpkin Dessert (I recalled this being called Surpise). Oh, yes. This is no pumpkin pie. It is served with cream and fresh berries. It might best be described as a fusion of cake, pie and cheesecake. It is good, that is all that matters.
I woke up the following day and got some of the old gang together to go back from brunch (after college a group of six to ten of us were there almost every Saturday for one or two meals). Longtime readers know I have little interest in breakfast with very few exceptions, Explorers Club is on the short list. I liked my group meal so much I went back the next day solo to sample the only item I did not try the day before.
Another menu item I was
passionately, desperately, pathetically hoping for was museli. This simple dish was the hallmark for all other museli experiences in my life, with the exception of a serving I had in Zug, Switzerland every subsequent museli left me wanting and musing about why Ricky would create something so good and take it away. The 2011 version is as good as any and quite photogenic.
Next was the Sophie’s Choice of toast: Cuban French Toast with fruit vs. Grilled Cinnamon Bread with fruit and cream. The Gourmand approach to problem solving goes something like this, “when in doubt, get both”. It was the right choice. Both get “best of show” in their classes. I can not advise you to pick one over the other. The crunchy, funnel cake like batter on the French Toast is borderline addictive. French or not, Cuban bread is the finest way to experience this dish. As for the Cinnamon Bread, the cream was great – I would love to see more on teh side next time.
(I mean really, how could you choose?)
All the breads are made in-house at Explorers Club. The bread is fresh, hearty and serves as a great base for many of the dishes or a compliment for dipping sauces on the side. One their best uses of bread is the Fried Egg sandwich served on Ciabatta with Muenster Cheese and Jalapeno slaw with redskin potatoes on the side. This is a bit messy to eat but who cares, it might be the best breakfast sandwich (non-traditional category) in town.
Love at first bite? In my case, they had me at OPEN. Trying to be objective, would I feel the same way about Explorers Club without the prior history? Yes. If anything my expectations and hopes may have made impressing me more difficult. Considering that more additions and improvements are in the works for the coming weeks, it is easy to believe their grade of A going to A+. The Explorer’s Club is worth exploring. I would suggest going for both a dinner and brunch to gauge the potential that is here.
I will be writing about the Explorers Club more for sure. I am interested in what the bar menu will have to offer as well as the variety of cocktails appearing behind the bar. Did I mention I was really happy?
The Explorer’s Club opens the doors to the world on October 28th, 2011.