When we got a note from the publishers of Douglas Gayeton’s new book Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town telling us that they were planning a nationwide dinner in conjunction with Slow Food USA to celebrate the release of the book, which describes slow living and the slow life, and asking us which restaurants in Columbus would be appropriate, we had no hesitation in responding. “Italian?” we said. “You want to talk to John Dornback at Basi and Kent Rigsby at Rigsby’s Kitchen.” We didn’t know, at the time, that Kent’s son and sous chef Forbes had broken his ankle; fortunately John and his crew remained intact, and before long we were being cc:ed on messages about organizing the dinner.
John, of course, rose to the occasion with élan. The first course on his $39 prix fixe menu was a savory chestnut custard with rosemary and sea salt. I have to confess, I’ve never been a huge fan of chestnuts: hearing people wax musical about them roasting over an open fire from my childhood home in California made them sound far better than the reality ever could have been, or in the end turned out to be. But make them into a custard with sea salt and rosemary, and their subtle dusty bitterness plays beautifully off of the richness of the custard and the salty crust. A definite win.
Next came the glory—the surprising (to me), unmitigated pleasure—of the pancetta-wrapped radicchio with candied onion and balsamic vinegar. I never would have anticipated it, but I thought this was hands-down the best dish of the night, and one of the more inspired I’ve had in a long time. Again, it was a tutorial in how the elements of a dish play well together: bitterness from the radicchio was dominant, supported by sweetness from the balsamic and smoky salty umami from the pancetta, all bound together with a satisfying textural crunch and heft. I could have eaten it all night; in fact, when one of my tablemates offered me the second half of one of hers, I fear that I made a bare minimum of effort in offering it to everyone else before accepting.
The main course was the only place where diners had a choice of dishes. I chose the wild boar ragu with housemade potato gnocchi and was rewarded with gnocchi whose sweetness nicely balanced the acidity of the tomato and the pronounced gaminess of the boar. When John’s wife Trish asked us which of the mains was better, I thought it’d be a tough call—until I tried a forkful of the chicken dish. Normally chicken is, well, chicken; but as Trish pointed out, it’s a good test of a restaurant’s quality, because in the right hands it can be done amazingly well… and this was. Meltingly tender, with sweet fingerlings, garlic, and delicious savory chorizo, it was simply delicious. Tinged with sage and cinnamon accents, it just enveloped you with a warm autumnal glow.
The dessert, an arborio rice pudding with fig caramel, topped off a delicious evening. I remember enjoying it, though I fear it was the victim of its predecessors’ success: so far gone was I in my happy food coma that I neglected to write down a single note about it.
All in all, Basi ended up with something like 90 people on what would otherwise have been a quiet night, and we ended up with a fabulous four-course dinner at a very reasonable price—a win all around. Our thanks to the publishers for a delicious idea!