Does this country have it all, or what?
The first rule when talking about the way things are now in Columbus, Ohio, is to not feel like you have to explain which Columbus you are talking about. According to the people who live here, their Columbus—one of the fastest growing cities in the country, to be fair, and one of the most dynamic, forward-looking cities in the Midwest—is the best, biggest, most interesting Columbus, with absolutely zero apologies to any of the other Columbuses.
The second rule of Ohio's capital city, these days, is that anything is possible. From government to education to the apparel industry and cars and everything else that's going on now, all kinds of people are showing up here, from all over the world, and very often, they are doing interesting things, and very often, these things are food-related. Consider the fact that one of the most talked-about restaurants in town is a momo parlor in a Korean-owned supermarket that also has a panaderia, or that one of the most interesting chefs in the city right now holds dual science degrees, sitting in his kitchen-lab scheming ways to recreate and elevate the fast food favorites he grew up with, here in one of America’s premier fast food capitals. Columbus isn’t weird, but it does seem to breed and attract some very interesting people, from all over the world, and by now I know not to act surprised, when I run across something I was not expecting to find, which last weekend was one of the best Japanese bakeries in the United States, something I do not say lightly, having spent years immersed in the absolutely booming Asian bakery culture of the West Coast.
Tucked into the back of a shopping center in an inner-ring suburb, Belle’s Bread is full to the rafters on a sunny Sunday, its modest footprint not nearly enough to handle the crush of shoppers with their trays, making the rounds for cream-filled brioche and curry donuts, melon rolls, spectacular-looking danish filled artfully with seasonal fruits, and some of the most perfect-looking loaves of sliced white bread you have ever seen. There is an entire case filled with the requisite pastry works of art—rolls, cakes, cream puffs, and the like, along with Japan’s own contribution to cheesecake, the lighter, fluffier (so you can eat more of it, obviously) kind.
Clearly, Belle’s is a destination, for all ages, many of the customers speaking Japanese, but also plenty who are not; the seating area is packed out, and they have opened an attached community room with three times the seating, where Japanese cartoons play on a projection screen. This isn’t just a place to stop by for a bun and a coffee—this is cultural immersion, not just Japan, but modern-day Columbus, too.
Belle’s isn’t the only lure to the shopping center, with its Staples, Kim’s Korean Martial Arts, the DMV office and the other things you expect to find in an aging strip mall in an average suburb; a corner of the complex has in recent years been transformed and rebranded as the Japan Marketplace, a small collection of shops, restaurants and the best Japanese market for miles, all centered along a carefully-manicured (but of course) garden courtyard.
The Tensuke Market has the vibe of a classic neighborhood grocery store, except it’s all Japanese, cramming much of what you might find at your average Mitsuwa into a Trader Joe’s-sized space, maybe even smaller. J Avenue is an airy, nicely programmed concept shop—a mini-department store, we'll say—filled with the usual dishes and stuffed characters and knick-knacks.
Akai Hana is a popular Japanese restaurant, serving the greatest hits, while Sushi Ten—attached to the market—is an accessible, counter-service joint for some of the best affordable sushi in town. Need noodles? Tensuke Express is a real-deal ramen joint with affordably priced bowls and—quite often—a line out the door. Nearly all of the businesses share a pleasingly authentic, modern Japanese aesthetic, and while you’ll see all ages here, the demographic vibes relatively young. This isn’t San Francisco’s Japantown, or at least not its relic heart—this is all very current, very now.
Why? How? In a word—Honda. The Japanese car concern retains a massive presence in nearby Marysville, and has done for many years; then you add in the massive, diverse student body at Ohio State University, plus the assortment of other lures to the quickly-growing region, and you’ve got a pretty solid customer base, one that keeps a place like Belle’s working so hard, they can barely keep up with the demand, at least on the day I dropped by to snap up all the pastries I could carry. (Prices are modest—it’s difficult to keep from getting carried away.)
The marketplace shouldn’t be your only destination in Columbus, if you’re hungry for a hit of authenticity—the city is also home to Kihachi, one of the best Japanese restaurants between the two coasts, a deceptively humble destination for omakase dinners that has attracted its share of national attention, over the years. Best to head there soon, however—owner Mike Kimura, who moved to Columbus in 1985, is looking to sell. Running one of the most popular restaurants in town, particularly one so personal, can be pretty hard work.