649 High St. Worthington, OH (614) 885-2600
In the first couple of decades of the 19th century, a toll road was constructed through a budding little village right smack in the middle of Ohio. An entrepreneurial young Connecticut gentleman named R.W. Cowles built a stagecoach stand on some land he bought there for two hundred fifty dollars. It was a good place to grab a hot meal and rest a weary head.
That stagecoach stand soon grew into a full-sized inn. Then, in the ensuing decades, it changed hands dozens of times, changed its name almost as many times, came close to burning down, expanded even further, was left to decay, listed on the historic register of places, was completely refurbished, then allowed to atrophy a little more.
Now, the joint is called the Worthington Inn and an entirely new reconstruction project is just beginning. The inn part of the Worthington Inn is going to be converted to condos, which will drastically steer the concept of the restaurant within away from its upscale bed-and-breakfast roots to a more modern haute cuisine thing. The pastel folk-art that hangs on the walls next to antique credenzas is history; the faux finish on the bar’s ceiling will be replaced with pressed copper; the bistro chairs will split to make way for overstuffed, wingback armchairs; and chef Thomas Smith ultimately will have an appropriate venue for his innovative and extraordinarily well executed food.
Chef Smith started cooking when he was in the service. His ravenous appetite for the finer foods that the world had to offer commingled well with his government-mandated sense of adventure, and the consequence was a keen awareness of the manifold ingredients and methods that the world uses to produce dinner. To this day he travels every chance he gets to experience new surroundings and their accompanying culinary traditions. A recent trip to Hawaii netted the inspiration to create his version of poke, a raw tuna dish that Chef Tom serves as an amuse bouche, and it gave him some fantastic ideas about what to do with the cooked version of fish as well.
His seared bacon-spiked diver scallop, saffron risotto, Athens county micro greens and citrus butter, when deconstructed, indicates that Smith is a hearty, meat-loving American from somewhere between the coasts who is pointedly aware of the trends on the banks of the Atlantic and Pacific and who is concerned enough about ecological and socio-economic issues to make a concerted effort to use local, organic product. Not only that, but the thick meaty lardon that pierces the alabaster flesh of an enormous, fresh diver scallop leaks smoky goodness all over the inside of this already succulent bivalve, which helps to balance the floral creaminess of a precisely al-dente saffron risotto. It’s an appetizer-sized polemic on global interconnectedness and the grass-roots-level responsibility we have to our communities that just melts in your mouth; plus it kills with a glass of Domaine Miguel’s Viognier.
Speaking of killing… The Worthington Inn is haunted. Many of the rooms are possessed of supernatural occurrences, from mysterious handprints on mirrors to pastel-clad specters to the unmistakable aroma of cigar smoke – despite the fact that the inn has been smoke-free since last year’s controversial ban on indoor inhalation. Perhaps one of the many former proprietors, fat cat clientele or colonial moguls that once frequented the building in any of its previous manifestations heard that chef Smith was grilling a Tolenas ranch quail and serving it with a polenta griddle cake and chanterelle mushroom jus. And, since the undead have access to the full repository of collective human knowledge, they know better than the living that the slight gamey-ness of quail and the piquant mustiness of mushroom are the perfect combination to follow a Cuban-seed Churchill. Of course, in the afterworld there is no Cuban embargo, so the ghost in the main dining room, who sits or stands on the staircase to nowhere may be smoking an actual Cuban – and not one that was stuffed into a shoe the last time he came back from Windsor. One wonders if he’s been dead too long to have had a chance to experience how lovely American Pinot Noirs have become in the last couple of decades. We, the living, have the opportunity at the Worthington Inn to try something like the 2003 Crosspoint, which drinks extremely well with grilled quail, even after a maduro-wrapped stogie, which we should smoke on the front porch.
It may not be otherworldly powers that provoke the ethereal sorbets that are made on-premise at the Inn; it may just be the manifest talent of the chef. Whatever the impetus, the creatively-flavored ices make the perfect intermezzo. Nothing unsullies a palate like apple and Jaegermeister sorbet, and Tom Smith’s entrées deserve a palate unhaunted by any of the many previous courses, no matter how delectable those courses may have been.
The Beef Worthington is signature at the Inn. It has everything the aficionado carnivore wants on the plate: hand-cut meat, aged cheese, gratin potatoes, wilted spinach and sauce. The Shitake veal demi’s rich robustness just coats every bite of the seared meat, which in turn mellows the pungent organic blue cheese, creating bite after bite of hearty balance that seems like the pinnacle of the impossibly loud crescendo that the meal has now become. Then, the cork comes out of the 2000 Grgich Hills Cabernet and the hapless diner is deafened by a wild blend of tannin, sweetness, sour, creamy, chewy and umami (one of the basic tastes that Western cultures haven’t recognized until recently – it’s that irony, meaty taste). It’s less like a symphony and more like a Philharmonic sitting in with Motorhead. Yum.
Of course, it could haunt a person forever if they took the time to dine at Worthington Inn and didn’t stay for a glass of port, or an icewine or something with a crème brulee or red-wine-poached pear. That just tastes like relaxation. In fact, it could be that there is so much paranormal activity at the Worthington Inn these days because the spooks, specters, spirits, apparitions and phantoms are excited by what chef Smith is doing and can’t wait to try it in this most-modern, hip, atmosphere that it will become early next year. Neither can we.