Another week, another restaurant review from the Columbus Underground list of “Best New Restaurants of 2011”. Explorers Club landed in second place on our list, showcasing a very strong fan base for a restaurant that has only been open since October. And rightfully so.
Chef Ricky Barnes makes up half of the team at Explorers Club (along with partner Tracy Studer), who built a reputation in Columbus through former ventures including The Galaxy Cafe, Lost Planet Pizza and Pasta, and Ricky’s Galaxy. CMH Gourmand has an indepth blog devoted to the local history of these restaurants and their spinoffs, so I’ll just direct you there for more information about the past.
Now, onto the present. Explorers Club opened up their doors in Merion Village to a neighborhood with few dining nearby dining options, and that’s reflected in the busy nature of the restaurant. Half of the space is bar seating while the other half is for restaurant seating. The decor and music — much like the food — is comfortably American-but-not-Americanized with a jazzy-latin spin. My recent visit was during weekend brunch, though the restaurant offers different menus for lunch and dinner service.
There are three breakfast burritos on the brunch menu, and I sampled the one that includes scrambled eggs, refried beans, spinach, roasted tomatoes and muenster cheese ($8). Overall, I found the refried beans to dominate the flavor profile of this dish, and barely noticed the tomato and spinach. I found the chipotle sauce on top of the burrito to be a bit on the spicy side as well. It would be nice to have a milder option, or at least a warning on the menu about the heat level if you’re not into something this hot. The redskin potatoes that came as a side were well prepared, but lacked character. I would love to see them re-purposed into a hash of some sort, or even turned into some salty home fries.
Next up is the Chilequiles con Chorizo ($9), a traditional Mexican dish that includes a bed of tortilla chips topped with a salsa-based mixture that contains scrambled egg, bell peppers and yellow squash in addition to chorizo. In essence, this is the quintessential hangover food. The flavors of the sauce tasted as if they had been slow cooked since the night before, and the sausage-and-egg combo gave it a perfect breakfast balance without feeling greasy or heavy. If there’s only one minor nit to pick with this dish, it’s that the tortilla chips used are paper thin, so they don’t work well for makeshift spoons, even prior to them softening. Aside from that personal technical quibble, I really truly fell in love with this dish and will be back for it again and again, as long as it stays on the menu.
On a slightly healthier note, the Cuban French Toast with Fruit ($7.25) was a nice surprise. I was expecting traditional sliced bread served with unique latin spices, but instead these bite-size breadlings were individually battered and fried (maybe deep fried) to resemble something more like a beignet. Topped with powered sugar and a splash of table-side syrup, this was a very enjoyable update on this brunch menu staple.
I also tried a side order of plantains ($4) which are sliced, coated and cooked to a deep brown. The sugary exterior coating caramelized into a nice brule-style shell while the insides remained soft and warm. A nice side dish to accompany any menu item, but it could have used some sort of sauce to either drizzle over top or to dip with on the side. The house-made cilantro sauce at El Arepazo comes to mind.
Overall, there’s a lot to like on the brunch menu at Explorers Club. There were a few minor stumbling blocks, but I’m more than willing to give them time to tweak things, having only been in business for less than three months. Service is friendly, the environment is welcoming, and the price points are affordable for the level of quality that goes into the menu.
Explorers Club is located at 1586 South High Street in Merion Village. Their hours are Monday to Friday 11am to 9pm, Saturday 9am to 9pm and Sunday 9am to 2pm. More information can be found online at their Facebook page.