520 S. Front St. Columbus, OH 43215 (614) 621-2500
One expects Columbus to be home to award-winning fried bologna sandwiches, coney dogs and even pizza. Those all sound right coming out of a town nestled in the heart of the heartland. We tend to love our lunchmeats and food you can eat with one hand while driving. We love cheese and processed cheese food product. And, if it is huge and fried, odds are we are going to give it an award eventually.
What we don’t expect to find here are awards with long, virtually un-pronouncable French names, lauding the culinary aptitude of master chefs. There are only 75 certified master chefs in the whole country, so we may tend to assume that we don’t have any here, especially not any who have won accolades such as the Auguste Escoffier USA Grand Prix and the Bocuse d'Or. Well, we should have learned years ago what happens when we assume…
Not only is Hartmut Handke one of the 75 Master Chefs in the United States, he has also competed in over 50 national and international competitions, won 38 gold medals, was a member of the 1984 and 1988 American Culinary Federation’s Culinary Team USA and managed the team in 1998. Chef Handke won the Escoffier prize and went on to represent the entire country in the Grand Prix Culinaire International Auguste Escoffier in Nice, France, where he placed second overall. An exhaustive list of his accomplishments would require more territory than we have in this entire magazine.
The good news for us is that Chef Handke lives and works here in Columbus. Handke’s Cuisine is a diminutive basement place on Front Street in the Brewery District that we have all passed a gagillion times before. Inside, some of the finest fare on the face of the planet is available to us at the same price point as pretty much every other joint in town with white linen on the table.
The rough-hewn stone walls of the dining room somehow make it seem somewhat wine-cellary, and although the ceiling isn’t particularly low, it does feel it. It makes us feel like sitting down is a good idea and readying ourselves for a gastronomic adventure with a glass of Champagne or Martini is an even better one.
You don’t win anything with Escoffier’s name on it by fusing Brazilian Churrasco or Ethiopian Kitfo with anything pan-Asian or by serving Tapas, so don’t expect Chef Handke to be pushing for a nouvelle paradigm shift. Expect him to be just what his title says: a Master Chef. Expect him to know the foods that have been enjoyed by aristocracies for centuries. And, absolutely expect that he knows exactly what to drink with it.
Handke’s menu has the goods: foie gras, white truffle, Morels, crème fraiche, confit, mousselline and all manner of other ingredients with superfluous consonants and accent marks, so choosing can be difficult. We recommend at least three courses. Ask them to split everything and have more. Or, if you really want to live it up for a couple of hours, ask Chef to put together a menu for you. Call ahead if you are going to do that, it will give Chef Handke the opportunity to make some extraordinary food and wine pairings for you. Rest assured it will be worth every fraction of every cent of the premium.
You could start with a foie gras. Chef prepares a red wine poached terrine thereof that slays with the kumquat marmalade he serves it with, and actually seems to lift a diner into a sublime state when followed with Far Niente’s Dolce. Actually, no matter what the manifestation of foies gras, Dolce is the way to go, unless there’s D’Quem handy. If you are ecumenical enough, you could have the opportunity to try a somewhat workmanlike sounding Tio Pepe Sherry as it confronts creamy, savory Porcini Cappuccino. That may be exactly what dry sherry is for.
The exact number of courses you have is between you and the chef, but at least one should include an enormous diver scallop. Chef Handke pan-sears one, which he serves on cauliflower mousseline, and pairs it with the light, slightly grassy acid of Matanzas Creek’s Sauvignon Blanc. A sip between each bite leaves a clean palate anxiously awaiting the sweet whiteness of scallop and the savory funk of cauliflower. Another sip when the scallop is gone readies the tongue for the next round. What Chef Handke does with game birds is not to be missed. So, either pencil one in as part of the meal or pencil in another visit to Handke’s Cuisine. Take, for example, the Roasted Mashed Potato and Foie Gras Stuffed Quail with Cranberry Citrus Compote and Spring Greens. The slightly gamey quail and cranberry-citrus combination alone are terrific, but (as per usual) the addition of the foie gras pushes this dish over the edge. One might immediately think Pinot Noir when picturing this, but Chef’s suggestion of an aggressive Napa Chardonnay from Stag’s Leap is most assuredly worth the rethinking.
For a smaller intermezzo, see if you can get Chef Handke to barbeque an oyster and serve it with a blue cheese cream and a glass of Rhone wine, like Capoutier’s “Belleruche”. It’s one or two bites that you will wish could go on forever. Then a small scoop of handmade sorbet will clear things up for the main course.
If Morels have yet to be included in the menus, now is the perfect juncture. Chef makes a demi glace with Pinot Noir and Morels that could easily double as the richest and most delicious soup in the entire world, but is even better expressed on buffalo tenderloin and gorgonzola bread pudding. A huge California Cabernet is almost essential for this course, and Chef Handke agrees. He paired Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ “Artemis” with it. It’s a huge crescendo that leaves a diner wondering if anything could possibly follow with any sort of aplomb.
By way of answer, we have only twenty words: Chef Handke’s Dessert Symphony Featuring Brown Sugar Crème Brulee, White & Dark Chocolate Terrine and Seasonal Berries in Almond Tuile Shell. Oh yeah, four more (and some numbers): 1999 Royal Tokaji Red Label.