The signature mural of a woman in a lifeboat amid choppy waves had been altered on my recent visits to Strongwater Food & Spirits.
In late February, I noticed that the face in the mural – a reproduction of an old portrait of Grace Darling (she famously helped shipwrecked people in the 1800s) – was wearing a pandemic-added mask. When I came back in mid-March, Grace’s covering had been eradicated.
Amusing variations like that demonstrate Strongwater’s considerable appeal: It can embrace change while also commemorating the past.
Occupying a fashionably old-fashioned structure erected in 1910 in a neighborhood with a flooding history of “strong waters,” this hip and arty Franklinton establishment is built upon the vintage bones of a well-preserved former industrial and office space. Seating in the moderate-sized casual eatery is even available in semi-private old office rooms.
The cuisine of chef Catie Randazzo – a former owner at Ambrose & Eve, she took over Strongwater’s kitchen earlier this year – likewise embraces rejuvenation. And dishes added by Randazzo (the basis for this review) have steered the kitchen in delicious new directions.
(Note: Strongwater is in a period of transition and plans to retool its menu again, so the following items may soon be unavailable.)
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A friendly server informed me that the three slabs of terrific toast presented with creamy, honey-drizzled house-made cheese in the comforting ricotta and house bread small plate ($ 10) emanated from a sourdough starter dating back to 1946.
Healthful if potentially boring green vegetables were essentially reborn as vegan dan dan noodles in the inspired charred broccoli ($ 13). The smoky, spicy and fragrant appetizer achieved its brilliant transformation via Sichuan-style chile crisp sauce, ginger, garlic and crunchy fried peanuts playing off a faintly sweet “cashew crema.” I only wish my broccoli had been cooked through.
The smoked pastrami chicken wings ($ 15) were cooked perfectly. Served atop warm and tart house kraut, these old favorites resurrected from the menu of Randazzo’s Challah Food Truck tasted better than ever.
You could say the same thing about a reworked, once-discontinued Taco Bell item: the crowd-pleasing fiesta potatoes. This irresistible nightly special ($ 7) was four chile-dusted, crispy skin-on, whole spuds enriched with sour cream and a serious cheese sauce.
The menu listed “Franks and Beans” ($ 21) inside quotes for a reason: The large plate featured pork meatballs (mine were great-tasting but a little stiff) rather than frankfurters. Instead of a barbecue-style sauce, this delicious pasta-style dish reimagined with cannellini beans in place of noodles had a zippy fennel cream sauce enhanced by garlic and wine notes.
More quotes and fine flavors came with the vegan hot “chicken” sandwich ($ 15), one of several meat-free dishes. A large block of deep-fried house-made seitan received considerable assistance from tongue-threatening chile, an impressive vegan aioli, pickles, onions, a toasted good seeded roll and a side of addictive, flour-dusted fries.
To quell its spicy bite, plenty of Ohio beers were offered. There was also a nice little wine list, with most bottles priced below $ 40. And don’t sleep on Strongwater’s creative and affordable cocktails.
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Here, George Dickel rye, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, mole bitters and a mezcal rinse added up to the Mexican Manhattan ($ 9.50), a spicy, smoky, cinnamon-scented good spin on the classic.
OYO stone fruit vodka, orgeat, Angostura bitters and Fernet Branca combined for the unusual but compelling, smooth and berry-evoking Sweater Weather ($ 10).
The Bloody Barron ($ 10.50), made with cinnamon-infused tequila, mezcal, Kahlua, blood orange puree, cloves and a singed cinnamon stick tasted like something an adventurous bartender came up with after visiting Mexico.
Cinnamon and creativity coalesced beautifully in a dessert that seemed on-course for Strongwater: the chicken-and-waffle ice-cream sundae ($ 7).
If not exactly perfect – I wanted the nut-replacing, salted chicken-skin nubbins to be crunchier – its fantastic house-made cinnamon ice cream, excellent house-made warm waffle and playful nuances of reinvention made it a distinct, fun and delicious treat .
Strongwater Food & Spirits
Where: 401 W. Town St., Franklinton
Contact: 614-928-3170, www.strongwatercolumbus.com
Hours: 4 pm to 9 pm Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 4 pm to 10 pm Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Price range: $ 7 is $ 26
Ambience: casual and hip, moderate-sized eatery with personable service, located in a well-preserved old building with a small patio and semi-private tables in former office rooms
Children’s menu: no
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Liquor license: full bar
Quick click: Creative yet crowd-pleasing seasonal dishes have injected extra pizazz into a perennially fun and arty eatery and bar with good and affordable cocktails.