Tag Archives: USA

Where to eat in Columbus, Ohio: Northstar Cafe

There was no shortage of excellent food during my recent trip to Ohio. Some dishes–like my Dad’s blueberry pancakes, my mom’s Italian-style lentils, and my aunt’s buckeye candies–were served up at home, while others came from the various restaurants we visited in both Athens and Columbus. We are a family that enjoys life’s little edible pleasures, so we made sure to fit in one last meal out before Sasha and I had to hop our flight back to London.

Although we’d spent the night at a hotel that was so close to the airport we could see a runway out our window–and despite the fact that breakfast there was free–we packed up the car and drove over to the Easton Town Center in order to visit the Northstar Cafe. I’ve been there a couple times before, for lunch and for dinner, but I’d never started the day there. We were all very efficient at getting ready that morning and actually arrived at the restaurant before they were even open; we ended up being some of the very first customers through the door.

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My mom started the day with hot cider

Northstar has an unusual arrangement that is kind of a cross between cafeteria and sit-down restaurant–not unlike a Subway or a Costa. When you walk in, you grab a menu from a container on the wall and decide what you want while you wait in line (the place is so popular that there is almost always a line). You place your order at the register and are given a little table marker so the waitstaff can find you once you’ve sat down. If you want a baked good (they have huge cookies, decadent scones, and sumptuous muffins/cupcakes), you can pick it out at the front of the store; likewise, you can help yourself to any soft drinks you might have ordered. Even with a queue, all of this tends to happen rather rapidly, so I always feel as though I’m rushing to decide what I want to eat and drink–all while trying to spy an open table that I can claim once I’m ready to sit down. That’s not really a complaint; I just find it kind of weird because the food at Northstar is such good quality that it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you should be getting from a place where you aren’t ordering at your table and paying at the end. (Or maybe I just have a silly obsession with familiar routines…)

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My breakfast: homemade granola with cherry compote, apples, pistachio brittle, and Greek yogurt
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Also, a side of bacon.

During this particular visit, I decided to eat fairly heartily so that I wouldn’t be hungry before our late post-landing lunch at JFK Airport. In addition to the inevitable cup of breakfast tea, I had a bowl of homemade granola with a side of bacon (because American bacon is the best). Sasha had the “cloud nine pancakes,” which are made from ricotta and are served with bananas and maple syrup:

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Sasha’s second helping of American pancakes. Someone has an obsession (says the person who ate bacon almost every day for a week).

My parents went in a more savory direction. My mom chose the winter vegetable strata, which contained kale, gouda, ham, and butternut squash, with an arugula side salad. Whereas I used bacon to offset the healthiness of my breakfast, my mom opted for a cup of hot cider with maple syrup whipped cream.

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My mom’s strata, which was so generously sized that she could only eat half.

My dad ordered what must be one of his all-time favorite dishes: hash. The Northstar version is made with sweet potatoes and turkey, and is topped by two sunny-side-up eggs:

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It was such a delicious breakfast that I ate too much and found myself wanting to go crawl back in bed for a couple more hours of sleep and digestion. Unfortunately, that option was not on the menu, and we had to head to the airport for check-in instead.

I’m glad that we had such a good final meal with my parents because Sasha’s and my lunch in New York was pretty awful. Not only was the service slow (and grumpy), but my salad was so wilty that I had to send it back to the kitchen, and my “medium” burger was basically raw in the middle. All in all, not the most satisfying of culinary adventures–and definitely not worth the $60 that we had to pay for it. I’d already started off feeling positive about Northstar Cafe, but found it even more appealing after comparing it to the Palm Bar and Grill.

There are, of course, many other dining options at Easton besides Northstar. If you want a more upscale sit-down meal, you might opt for Mitchell’s Ocean Club or McCormick & Schmick’s; perhaps you’d like an Italian meal at Brio, sushi at Kona, or a wine flight at Cooper’s Hawk. If you’re pressed for time, you might just want to grab a drink at Planet Smoothie, or a cup of soup at Panera. I could go on, but you get the drift. The point is that, despite being surrounded by all these other venues, Northstar holds its own, and is a valid option no matter what style of fare you’re used to or what sort of experience you’re after. Having now eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner there, I can honestly recommend the cafe for any and all meals–but no matter when you head over, don’t be surprised if there’s a bit of a crowd; I’m not the only one who knows how good the food is!

Northstar Cafe can be found at 4015 Townsfair Way, Columbus, Ohio, 43219.

Where to eat in Columbus, Ohio: Spagio

Spagio Restaurant, an establishment that serves “European and Pacific Rim cuisine” was opened by Chef Hubert Seifert and his wife Helga thirty years ago in scenic Grandview Heights, Ohio. It began as a delicatessen and then morphed into a restaurant and wine bar; its name reflects a philosophy of serving healthy food (“spa-“) from around the world (“-gio”).

Nearly as old as I am, the restaurant has been patronized by my parents pretty much from its beginnings. Even though their culinary tastes have expanded and matured over the years, my parents continue to return to Spagio–a true reflection of the restaurant’s quality, given that these are people who visit Michelin-starred eateries and take cooking-themed holidays.

All of this is to say that Spagio has a history of quality and reliability, even if these traits weren’t consistently on display during our recent visit.

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My mom’s appetizer: stuffed dates

Things started off all right. My mom enjoyed an order of Medjool dates, stuffed with bleu cheese, wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, and drizzled with Ohio maple syrup. My dad had a chopped salad, and I ordered the Spagio salad–topped with almonds, triangles of Manchebo cheese, and a sherry vinaigrette.

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My dad’s appetizer: chopped salad
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My appetizer: the Spagio salad

The problem was the main course–to be specific, my dad’s wiener schnitzel.

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The traditional wiener schnitzel, served with creamy peas and fries. This is not to be confused with the Jaeger schnitzel, which is accompanied by a mushroom and bacon cream sauce.

The sides were all right, but my dad and mom both agreed that something was “off” about the schnitzel. Both of my parents have eaten proper schnitzel in Austria, among other places, so they have enough experience to know that they’ve been served a wonky version. My dad actually ended up sending his dish back to the kitchen, which is something I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed. Considering that this is a man who will eat leftovers long past the time when I’d have tossed them out (sorry, Dad, but it’s true!), this was a serious indictment of the meal. The waiter very kindly ensured that we didn’t have to pay for the schnitzel at the end of the night, but I had been hoping for a more satisfying conclusion to the episode. Mostly, I just wanted some assurance that someone in the kitchen had tasted the dish, identified what was wrong, and taken steps to ensure that the problem wouldn’t be repeated. I didn’t like the idea that the chefs might have thought that my dad was merely being entitled and troublesome.

In any case, the schnitzel shenanigans ended up being a blessing in disguise, because both Sasha and I had excellent meals that were too big for us to handle; we both gave my dad portions to ensure that he didn’t leave the restaurant hungry. I ordered the wood-fired gorgonzola pasta, which was served in an adorable ceramic dish with wee handles:

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The pasta was delicious, but I was disappointed that it only came with two pieces of broccoli. The description on the menu somehow left me with the feeling that there would be more greenery; a mere two pieces is effectively just a garnish. At least the rest of the dish was tasty.

Sasha also ordered pasta–the veal meatball rigatoni, which both he and my dad raved about:

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My mom, having already nibbled on an appetizer while she and my dad waited for Sasha and me to finish watching Interstellar prior to our dinner date, chose to have a lighter meal. She opted for the salad Niçoise, which came topped with seared ahi tuna:

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The salad was huge and provided some nice leftovers, as did my bowtie mac and cheese. One or both of my parents must have had an excellent lunch the day after our visit to Spagio!

Although the rest of us were full after completing our savory courses, Sasha managed to save room for dessert. Spagio doesn’t have a sweets menu, per se; instead, they have a dessert case that you can peruse in order to pick out what looks most appealing. Sasha selected one of the mini Key Lime pies, which had a very unusual air-hockey-puck sort of shape:

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As you might have guessed, given its appearance, the pie had a nice velvety texture, and a refreshing citrus flavor. We didn’t try any of the other desserts, but we did eyeball them as we walked past on our way out of the restaurant. There was quite a large selection and they all looked intriguing.

If I had to rate our Spagio experience on a scale of five, I’d maybe give it a 3–not perfect but not terrible, with clear hints of what the restaurant is actually capable of. If the cooks could just be more generous with the broccoli, and more careful with the schnitzel, I think a 4 or even a 4.5 would be doable. It’s worth noting that, though there were some issues with the food, the staff were consistently friendly and helpful; they didn’t mind the fact that we were a few minutes late for our reservation, and our waiter didn’t make us feel awkward about the fact that my dad complained about his meal. It’s that kind of customer service that inspires you to give people the benefit of the doubt, and return for a second attempt at some point in the future. I’m sure my parents’ long history with Spagio wasn’t ended on the evening of December 27th.

Spagio can be found at 1295 Grandview Avenue, Columbus, Ohio, 42312.

 

 

An afternoon at the asylum

Inevitably, when people go home for the holidays, they make jokes about how insane their families are, or how they’ll go mad if they have to spend too much time hanging out in their hometown. This year, my family took all the crazy talk seriously and literally went to the asylum–the Athens Lunatic Asylum, or, as it’s now known, The Ridges.

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The main building, which now houses Ohio University’s Kennedy Museum of Art

 

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Another view of the main building, which was built according to the recommendations of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who felt that mental health facilities should give patients an opportunity to live calm, fulfilling lives.

The Ridges is one of my favorite places in town. It’s got beautiful old buildings, peaceful grounds, and lots of interesting history–which I recently read about in The Asylum on the Hill. Prior to that, I’d also had the privilege of getting a guided tour of the main building (now home to the Kennedy Museum) shortly after the facility was taken over by Ohio University. Of course, I’ve also heard many stories over the years from people who were probably more interested in drama than in accuracy–especially in relation to the story of “The Stain”, which was caused by decomposition of the body of an escaped patient who hid away, and died in, the asylum’s attic.

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To counteract bad and inaccurate press, and also to give visitors a chance to hear about the asylum from an experienced insider, the Athens Historical Society now runs tours led by George Eberts–a mental health expert who was based at the facility for nearly 20 years before being relocated to the new Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare building across the river.

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Our tour guide, George Eberts, can be seen in the black jacket and khaki trousers in the front right of the photo.

Ebert told us about the construction of the facilities, which were built from blueprints crafted by the architect Levi Scofield shortly after he left the army. The asylum was the first building designed by Scofield, who went on to create numerous other structures around Ohio.

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In addition to hearing about the architecture at the Ridges, we also found out about mental health treatment over the years. When the Athens Lunatic Asylum first opened, patients who were able led very “normal” lives there–they tilled fields, harvested crops, took care of livestock, went on walks, held picnics, and generally enjoyed as peaceful an existence as the caretakers could create for them.

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Black vultures seemed to be very attracted to the Kennedy Museum’s roof…
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…especially on the sunny side of the building.
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The vultures also enjoyed the roof of the energy station.

Eberts said that the system worked well for a couple of decades, but then began to experience difficulties as patient numbers exceeded the capacity of the building. Later on, there were also some issues associated with more unsavory treatment practices, such as electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Interestingly, Eberts reported that both of these techniques were sometimes successful (and, in fact, the former is still used today), but are now viewed negatively at least partly because they were employed somewhat indiscriminately–and not always with sufficient permission from the patients.

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I like windows.
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A lot. 
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(Though they aren’t quite as attractive when boarded up.)

We also got to hear about some of the things that George experienced first-hand, including finding secret spots where patients relaxed and partied out of the view of their caretakers. He also told us about a time when some orderlies accidentally locked themselves in a room with one patient, leaving the rest of the residents on their floor to run wild; he also had a story about a caretaker who outwitted the authorities who came to bust him for taking a woman back to his room.

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The old grand ballroom is at the bottom left of the photo. We could see the relatively new brickwork joining the upper and lower windows of the two-story hall; when the ballroom was first in use, the windows used to stretch the entirety of the two storeys.
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The only thing better than windows is windows and vultures.
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…or you could just have windows. 

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Or doors. I just like portals, generally.

While working at the asylum, Eberts often came face-to-face with its history. He got the opportunity to explore many of its nooks and crannies, including the creepy basement. (However, asbestos prevented him from checking out the women’s wing, which he described as the atmospheric part of the building that everyone would visit if only they could.) He told us how he was once called out to help move a heavy stone staircase (shown below). Historical photos later revealed that it had been used by visitors who needed help gracefully descending from their carriages. On another occasion, he was sent into town to retrieve the decorative fountain that used to sit out front and had been sent off for repairs. The metal angel couldn’t be salvaged, but the stone base was returned and is now located in the asylum’s back “yard”–where it is overrun by weeds and is no longer home to the two alligators that used to lounge in its waters during the warmer months.

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Graffiti left by former asylum residents. It’s hard to read here, but it says something about how cheap locks can’t keep him in. This is some of the only “window graffiti” that can still be seen by visitors; most of the other examples are in areas that are now off limits.
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The old weighing house, in front of which trucks used to drive, first empty and then full, so that harvested crops could be weighed.

Although we spent the majority of the time focused on the main building, we also wandered around other portions of the grounds. We passed several of the “cottages” where later patients could live together in small groups, and we took in the one remaining greenhouse and root cellar. We also headed up the hill to visit one of the asylum’s three cemeteries; we saw the two graves where former Civil War soldiers–one white man from the Confederate side, and one black man from the Union side–are buried in close proximity.

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In the near future, OU is going to build an observatory on the hill behind these trees. George and his colleague Tom O’Grady–who teach astronomy together at the university–are lobbying for it to include a planetarium as well as a telescope.

At the end of the tour, George gave us permission (though I’m not exactly sure he was empowered to do so!) to head up the fire escape and peek through the windows into the abandoned women’s wing. You couldn’t see much except for some photogenically peely paint on the walls of empty rooms.

 

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The creepiest thing wasn’t the haunted house atmosphere so much as the vertigo caused by looking between the slats of the three-storey fire escape.
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A look inside the abandoned wing of the building.

Perhaps the best part of George’s presentation was the calm and humanizing way that he spoke about mental health issues, which left me with a greater sense of empathy and gave me a real appreciation for the work that he and his colleagues have done over the years at both the old and new incarnations of the asylum.

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Evening falls over The Ridges

I’m sure most people would raise an eyebrow if invited to visit an old mental asylum for the holidays, but, in our case at least, it was well worth the trip. We got to spend time outdoors on a beautiful sunny afternoon and hear about some fascinating local history. Hats off to George and the Athens Historical Society for hosting such an educational and generally pleasant event–their last one of the year, and a novel way to celebrate the winter solstice and my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, which happened to fall on the same day. [Feel free to mentally insert your own joke about marriage and mental institutions.]  Thanks to the addition of an atmospheric flock of vultures and a prowling Cooper’s hawk, there was really nothing else I could ask for. Now we just have to figure out what kind of outing we can do next year in order to top this one!

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Updates: My dad did a newspaper story about George’s tours earlier this year. You can read it here. He also took some photos during our tour:

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My mom checks out the facade of the Kennedy Museum
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Sasha and I listen to George’s fascinating history of the asylum.