Old school

New concoctions at Arcanum’s The Old Arcana

By Paula Johnson

The buzz about Chef Jeff Besecker and The Old Arcana has been pretty strong lately, with Ohio Magazine declaring their Bourbon Praline French Toast the best in the entire state. Lots of media coverage followed, and the restaurant’s Sunday Brunch has been mobbed ever since. However, I am happy to say that I had Chef Jeff on my radar way back in November when I interviewed him for a piece on pop up dining in Dayton. He put together an excellent five-course dinner along with two other chefs that was one of my favorite dining experiences of 2015. So when it was time to pay a visit, my friend Chef Maria and I decided that, although tempted by the French Toast, we would do lunch instead of breakfast. The restaurant is open for breakfast 7-11 a.m. and lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. everyday. Recently a Saturday Night Supper Club has been added, with a changing themed four-course menu every month.

Old school 

The drive from Dayton to the little town of Arcanum is less than an hour, and winds up in a quaint little place with a one pump full service gas station. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re looking for some old time charm, Arcanum and The Old Arcana’s got it. The restored building, listed on the Ohio Register of Historical Sites, once housed The John Smith Co. General Store, which was in business from 1851-1985—the longest family held business in Ohio. Smith Merchants, an antiques store, is in the adjacent space, perfect for continuing your trip back in time.

The restaurant definitely has that vintage feel to it, with its lofty high pressed tin ceilings, exposed brick walls and wood plank floors. Along one wall sits a grand old upright piano, and along another there’s a fire place. Near the center of the dining space is a dessert case and counter with a few bar stools reminiscent of an old soda fountain.

While the building and its interior space is of a bygone era, what’s going on in Chef Jeff’s kitchen is distinctly modern. There are some throwback notes, however, such as making traditional favorites using produce and meats from the local farm community whenever possible. The modern part is when Chef Jeff decides to throw some gochujang pepper or a little kimchi into a dish. Also a little modern is the menu’s inclusion of appetizers and small plates to share at lunch, something that allowed Maria and I to try a variety of offerings.

We began with two starters: Fried Green Tomatoes ($9) and Spinach Artichoke Dip ($7). The tomatoes were crusted in a crunchy cornmeal and topped with a confetti of corn, peppers and cojita cheese, resting on a bed of tangy sauce. We both agreed we wanted more sauce to dip and drizzle over top, and the Chef happily obliged. We also agreed while tasty, this dish will only get better as fresh corn season is upon us, and I look forward to eating it again this summer.

Hot mess

Gooey and cheesy seemed to be the day’s theme as we sampled the Arcana Hot Brown ($11) and Macaroni and Cheese ($7). The mornay sauce topping the open-faced sandwich was the star element of the dish, enrobing the pile of turkey, bacon and tomato. Mingling with the runny yolk of the sunny side up egg that crowned the bubbling mound, it was a hearty and satisfying mess of a sandwich. Speaking of bubbling, the skillet of macaroni and cheese is not to be missed. Havarti, extra sharp white cheddar, parmigiana reggiano and smoked gouda combine to make an incredibly smooth creamy sauce just filled with savory flavor, not to mention the aroma. Chef Jeff tops it with a generous crumble of Nueske’s bacon, and pops it under the broiler so it arrives at the table still bubbling.

I couldn’t pass up trying one of the Old Arcana burgers. The Wild Mushroom Brisket Burger ($14) is topped with caramelized onions, wild mushrooms, Swiss cheese and house mustard and served on a brioche bun. The 10 oz. burgers are hand ground daily, spiced and seared with garlic oil in a cast iron skillet, creating a surface crunch and juicy interior, according to the menu description, and I have to agree. The burgers come with parmesan fries, but I substituted a side of Brussels sprouts to at least try to make up for all the cheese and bread and pasta. The Old Arcana offers several vegetable sides with interesting preparations, something which both Maria and I found noteworthy. The grilled sprouts, finished with a maple glaze and tossed with toasted pecans, were outstanding.

Sweet song

As if we hadn’t had enough to eat, the siren song of the dessert case in plain view from our table proved too much to resist. We tried the Buttermilk Chess Pie ($5.25) and the Strawberry Rhubarb Parfait ($7). The parfait featured tangy house made Greek-style yogurt and granola with lots of fresh red strawberries, and was the clear table favorite, but the pie’s crust was not quite as tender as we would have liked. Next time I will try one of the truly impressive-looking three-tier cakes on display. Next time. And there will be a next time soon. The siren call of The Old Arcana is calling out to me all the way here in Dayton, and I must respond. Can you hear it too? Great, I’ll save you a seat!

The Old Arcana is located at 109 W. George St. in Arcanum. For more information, please call 937.692.0068 or visit oldarcana.com.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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