Chef and owner Ben Bebenroth may be the man in charge at Spice Kitchen & Bar, but it's really Mother Nature that decides what goes on the menu. No other restaurant in town surpasses his commitment to working with what's sustainably raised and available locally and seasonally.
In January, shortly after opening, the restaurant served a risotto made with squash that had been preserved from the previous summer's harvest. Later in the year, the dish was replaced by hand-cut pappardelle noodles tossed with oyster mushrooms, veggies and Parmesan cream. In early April, a seared airline chicken breast was accompanied by spaetzle, root vegetables and a hickory sherry pan sauce. The next month I had it with fluffy little potato gnocchi, asparagus and a wonderful green garlic soubise, the creamy béchamel made from spring ramps and garlic scapes providing a burst of leafy color.
That's how they do it here, switching things up every time the Ohio earth offers something new to use. Surprise is part of the Spice experience. By the time you read this, baby fennel, leeks and little golden zucchini — not available when I visited — will be on the cutting board and in the pan. The thin, hand-shaped flatbread topped with a fried egg, bacon, caramelized onions and cheddar ($7) that I enjoyed so much in May could be just a memory, but something equally delicious is sure to take its place. Guests visit Spice not so much to get their favorites, but because they buy in to the philosophy that defines every plate and because the food is very good — the result of skill, creative flair and exceptional ingredients.
A 6-inch round of hot cornbread, flecked with jalapenos and bits of smoky bacon ($6), is baked in a cast-iron skillet. A slice of the stuff slathered with green tomato jam was pure satisfaction. A salad of mixed greens ($8) was anything but ordinary thanks to pickled ramps, toasted hazelnuts, a light snowfall of chevre and a fines herbes vinaigrette.
The ribeye ($25) had the distinctive taste and texture of grass fed beef and was set off by an outstanding red wine reduction. A wedge of grilled romaine, a pile of pickled onions and crumbled feta completed the dish, adding excitement to every forkful.
There are at least 17 menu items from which to choose: five starters (called "snacks"); a soup and two salads; six "substantials" (or entrees), which always include a vegan and vegetarian option; three desserts; and a couple of specials. Each highlights the exceptional quality of the meat, poultry, cheeses and produce sourced from area farmers.
Bebenroth is one of those growers, too. These days he's more likely to be digging in the dirt than sautéing onions. He leaves the cooking in the capable hands of executive chef Brandon Walukas and has chef Andy Strizak oversee day-to-day operations.
This frees Bebenroth to cultivate planting beds behind the restaurant's parking lot, a rooftop garden and a 10,000-square-foot plot at his home, collectively dubbed Spice Acres. Of course, that's when he's not supervising all the other Spice of Life projects: a catering company, the Plated Landscape dinner events held in meadows and barns, and multiple farmers market food stands.
The people at Spice are passionate but not rigid, so there are exceptions to the locavore ethos. A halibut taco special ($17) was fantastic: four tortillas filled with battered fish, plus sides of scallion creme fraiche and chili sauce. When soft-shell crabs made their seasonal appearance in mid-May, Walukus put them between slabs of house-baked focaccia with green chile aioli and snow pea cucumber slaw.
Spice even bends its own rule about change. The mushroom beignets ($6) have been on the menu from the start, as management fears removing them would spark a customer revolt. These amazing rounds of fried pastry dough are flavored with rosemary, garlic, parsley and porcini powder.
The place also gets points for a relaxed atmosphere featuring exposed brick, warm earthy tones, a rotating display of original artwork on the walls and brown paper atop white tablecloths. A handsome bar stocks a terrific lineup of craft beers, plus a small but interesting selection of wines.
In the past few years, this Gordon Square corner spot with the big storefront windows has housed a succession of restaurants, most recently La Boca and Roseangel. But Spice has now sunk its roots, and happily appears here to stay.
When You Go
Spice Kitchen & Bar
Tue-Sat 5-11 p.m.