COLUMBUS, Ohio — Bartender Cris Dehlavi is making a mint julep at Mouton, a Short North arts district hot spot that specializes in Prohibition-era cocktails.
Across the street, people are milling around a White Castle, one of the fast-food dives that for decades have helped define this city's affection for greasy grub.
The burger joint seems a world away from the pristine interior of Mouton, which offers well-crafted drinks, select European wines and charcuterie fare.
Dehlavi pours simple syrup and bourbon into a tumbler and carefully uses a mallet to break some ice. She slaps a fresh mint sprig between her hands before she delicately places it into the icy concoction.
"Columbus is just like spanked mint," Dehlavi tells me. "It's fresh, and it's waking up."
The birthplace of Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and once one of the nation's top test markets for consumable goods, the Columbus area has become a vibrant dining destination.
An influx of immigrants has peppered the region with a potpourri of bold cuisine, including micro-regional flavors of Africa and Asia, and food trucks offering Mexican fare. This adventuresome food scene has been propelled by food bloggers, social media shout-outs and, most important, talented chefs.
Though excellent restaurants have dotted Columbus' neighborhoods and suburbs for many years (the French-inspired Refectory and the American bistro Lindey's, to name two), Columbus' Short North district, just north of downtown and south of the Ohio State University campus, embodies the evolution of the city's culinary climate.
What was a seedy neighborhood 30 years ago has transformed into a lively entertainment destination. Its main drag, High Street, is lined with art galleries, eclectic shops, gay-friendly bars and nightclubs and, of course, quality restaurants.
"Columbus is arguably one of the flavor capitals of the Midwest," said Brady Konya, co-owner of Middle West Spirits, an impressive, new Short North distillery. "We love ice cream with lots of butterfat and vodka that tastes like something. All these pieces kind of create an unapologetic flavor center."
Bethia Woolf operates Columbus Food Adventures, the city's first food-tour company. Whether on foot or by van, Woolf guides visitors and curious residents on intriguing food journeys ranging from ethnic eats to desserts to roving taco trucks.
Woolf led my husband, Mike, and me on a walking tour that included seven stops in the Short North, including gourmet standouts Rigsby's Kitchen, run by James Beard regional semifinalist Kent Rigsby, and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, founded by Columbus' dairy queen, Jeni Britton Bauer.
The tour fittingly began at the North Market, the city's longtime gastronomic energy center. The three dozen vendors offer a cornucopia of meats, fish, cheeses and produce for home chefs, and the market also has a large number of prepared-food vendors of many ethnic varieties.
Stop by for lunch, and you can join workers on break in a bowl of pho noodles at Lan Viet Market, a vegan corn bread slice at Clever Crow Pizza or a plate of hearty cassoulet at North Market Poultry and Game.
And then there's Jeni's.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams is gaining a national reputation for producing superior desserts made of milk sourced from a family farm in Ohio's Appalachian region. Bauer is one of the most celebrated food entrepreneurs in the city, having expanded from a lone market stall to nine store locations and a successful catering and mail-order business.
She still has a commanding presence in the North Market, offering surprising flavors such as goat cheese with cognac fig sauce, strawberry rose petal, and rhubarb and lime cardamom. Her chocolate-and-cayenne combination was featured on the Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate."
Bauer says the sweet corn and black raspberry flavor captures the essence of Columbus.
"People immediately think Columbus is a cow town," Bauer said. "It's corn, but it's also very creative."
Stepping outside the market and heading north along High Street, we entered Rigsby's Kitchen, an upscale yet breezy eatery featuring dishes that hark back to Italy.
"I have a real love affair with Italy," said Rigsby, who helped blaze the Short North trail in the mid-'80s. "I can embrace a lot of themes of Italian cooking through our Ohio products."
That creativity has been adopted by Middle West Spirits, the artisan distillery tucked away in a onetime taxicab hub just off High Street. This is no microbrewery. Middle West makes a signature vodka called OYO (named after the Iroquois handle for the Ohio River Valley); a smooth, honey-vanilla vodka; and a whiskey that Bauer employs in one of her ice cream flavors.
Using red winter wheat grown in northwestern Ohio, Konya and business partner Ryan Lang work their magic to produce a dram that, unlike most vodkas, isn't odorless and tasteless.
"It tastes like Ohio," Konya said.
We followed late-afternoon cocktails at Mouton by strolling to adjacent Victorian Village, where we discovered a restaurant called Basi Italia tucked quietly amid the historic homes. Chef John Dornback, a Cleveland native who worked for years in New York, does wonders with simple ingredients such as plum tomatoes, garlic, basil, spinach and strawberries.
"If there is a revolution that's taking hold here, it's that small is good, simple is fantastic, and consistency and familiarity are what really counts," Dornback said. "It feels like somewhere you've been.
"It tastes like home."
If you go
Alt Eats Columbus: Visit alteatscolumbus.com to learn about offbeat, ethnic restaurants in the Columbus area.
Columbus Food Adventures: Columbus' first food touring company. Visit columbusfoodadventures.com, or call 800-838-3006.
Dine Originals Columbus: A group of more than 50 independently owned and operated restaurants in central Ohio, including Basi Italia and Rigsby's Kitchen. Visit dineoriginalscolumbus.com.