Restaurant review: Understory mixes 'reimagined' cocktails with imaginative cuisine

G.A. Benton
Special to The Columbus Dispatch
Highball, gin martini, paloma and paper plane cocktails at Understory, a lounge and restaurant located in the Open Air building on Neil Avenue.

Understory is actually three stories. And each constitutes a new chapter in the skillfully crafted Wolf’s Ridge Brewing book of food and drink. 

An expansion into the wonderfully renovated Open Air building in Old North Columbus by Wolf’s Ridge Brewing — a celebrated Downtown restaurant and brewery — Understory comprises three separate entities: a cocktail lounge, the “Commons” (a de facto brewpub) and a private-event space ripe for spring weddings. 

I’m unlikely to attend any weddings soon (fingers crossed) and the recently opened Commons isn’t yet brewing its own beer, so the Understory you’ll be reading about here is the super-popular cocktail lounge, aka Columbus’ current “It” place.

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Occupying a former classroom — Open Air is literally an old school — the lounge blends a casual-yet-refined aesthetic with vintage-yet-contemporary accents into a metaphorical ambience “cocktail” consistent with the terrific drinks the bar features.

Note: The dean of Columbus mixed drinks — Travis Owens, formerly of Curio at Harvest — oversees Understory’s liquor-laced beverages.   

Ahi tuna and paloma cocktail at Understory in the University District

Decor-wise, exposed bricks, wood, distinctly large old windows and a chalkboard bearing the definition of this nature-trail-adjacent place’s name (understory is “vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest”) mix with a stylish bar, mod soundtrack and fashionably mismatched furniture. 

The latter includes sleek sofas, blue armchairs and stout wooden tables. If less eye-catching, the stout tables are the most practical, as you risk being served on tree-stump-evoking, tiny round end tables otherwise.

About a half-dozen “reimagined classic” cocktails are fashioned with about a half-dozen ingredients each. Some components might sound exotic  — aromatics and sweeteners such as kokuto, neroli and vetiver are used — but the libations are eminently approachable.

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The highball ($12) is boosted by Japanese boozes, but it conjured a green-apple-tinged spin on scotch and soda. Floral and earthy notes distinguished the vibrant gin martini ($13). Smoky, orange and salty tones brought crispness to the delightful paloma ($13). 

Pickled vegetables and a paper plane cocktail at Understory in the University District

While named paper plane ($12) and presented with an eponymous-shaped lemon garnish, Understory’s bourbon-fueled, foam-capped variation on the Last Word cocktail had Ferrari style (as in the Fernet-Branca-with-Campari Ferrari cocktail). 

Such libations have been offered since Understory opened in January, but the food menu has undergone rewrites. This pivot means that items such as an ambitious escargot pie ($20) have been eighty-sixed along with two striking dishes I tried in late February — a pretty citrus salad ($12) and the smoky grilled broccoli rabe with tangy romesco, spicy togarashi and crispy almonds ($13) that I hope Understory brings back.

In the meantime, I’ll placate myself with the lovely ahi tuna ($22), a menu holdover. Essentially a tiny-but-mighty sashimi plate, it was edge-seared, sesame seed-crusted rosy fish presented with sweet-tart pickled cucumber, daikon matchsticks, mild wasabi aioli, wakame and ponzu.

Other current offerings include pork rinds ($12), chips and salsas ($13) plus a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup ($15). These might sound less interesting than those discontinued dishes, but the “hot” rinds come with pimento cheese, and one of the salsas advertises chapulines (dried grasshoppers). 

Grilled cheese and tomato soup at Understory in the University District

And the grilled cheese is made with stellar cave-aged cheddar. Balancing a bright tanginess with uncommon depth, the accompanying tomato bisque was among the best around. I only wish it had arrived hot.

That dynamic-tasting duo can be a light supper for two if shared with the bean salad ($10). Assembled with chickpeas, black beans, corn, cilantro, citrus, sour cream and mostly crisp tortilla-chip strips, this lively dish channeled a dressed-up seven-layer dip.

The bold, appealingly firm pickled vegetables medley ($11) — which stars curried cauliflower — is a can’t-miss snack that channeled the earliest days of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing where I first sampled it.  

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The s’mores-channeling, scorched-marshmallow-capped chocolate pudding ($10) tasted great but was curiously stiff and hard to spoon out of its far-too-small bowl.

Hopefully it — and the sometimes slow but always friendly service — will be smoothed out with minor revisions to the buzzy and generally terrific Understory lounge. 



Where: 2571 Neil Ave., University District

Contact: 614-429-3936, www.understorycbus.com

Hours: 3 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 3 p.m. to 12 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sunday through Tuesdays. (Kitchen closes one hour earlier)

Price range: $10 to $22

Ambience: generally bustling, chic new cocktail lounge in a refurbished old school room with friendly if inconsistent service, den-appropriate furniture plus plenty of tall windows, vintage bricks and wood  

Children's menu: no

Reservations: no

Accessible: yes

Liquor license: full bar

Quick click: Sophisticated cocktails are supplemented with a food menu with upscale takes on bar snacks at this Wolf’s Ridge Brewing spinoff.