No Passport Needed – Explorers Club monthly special menus offer a world of taste
November 2012 – 614 Magazine
By Kimberly Stolz
Traveling the menu at Explorers Club, hungry patrons let their fingers do the walking through the culinary cultures of Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Puerto Rico and China. As if that wasn’t enough armchair taste bud traveling, the Merion Village destination spot has even more culinary contortions up its sleeve. Introduced over the summer, each month will feature a special menu highlighting a global cuisine. The tastes of Spain, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Germany have already had their day in chef Dan Varga’s kitchen.
On this quiet Monday, Varga and owner Tracy Studer sit at the bar of their little slice of world cookery heaven, trading kitchen stories.
“I’ve eaten stuff from Dan that I’ve never eaten in my life – he can do anything, he’s really talented,” said Studer. “We just let him do his thing, give him creative license.”
It all started with a monthly Hungarian Night that honors both chef’s heritage and the restaurant’s location on the edge of Hungarian Village. “It gives me a chance to go back to my roots and explore,” said Varga. “I use old family recipes from my mom, my grandma.” Varga, however, isn’t married to the recipes and changes things up according to customer feedback, as he did when he added a red sauce to his grandma’s cabbage rolls.
“It’s getting busier every month,” said Studer. “People come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t had this since my grandma made it.’” Older women have even been known to bring in dog-eared recipes for Varga to add to his Hungarian portfolio. Featured dishes have included everything from the aforementioned cabbage rolls to chicken paprikash to vadash, a rabbit stew.
With that success, Varga pitched this around-the-world-in-80-plates idea of the monthly spotlight.
“I hate monotony,” the Columbus native admitted. “I might be a little bit ADD, but I’ve never been able to do the same thing over and over.” When Varga and Studer decide on a country or a cuisine, the chef spends months researching the ingredients, history, and flavor profiles, and then experimenting in the kitchen.
“I’m really interested in researching African food, exploring India … I can’t wait ’til we go to France!”
This month, Explorers Club, already known as vegan and veg-friendly, will be offering myriad meatless wonders. Varga says tastemakers can look forward to vegan desserts, vegan sushi, warming soups such as pumpkin-roasted chili and vegetable curried poblano, sausage dishes made with local street cart Inner Circle’s links, and more.
“I’m working on a quinoa burger – it’s the super grain of the future,” added Varga.
Chilly December will usher in the spice – in the form of Cajun specialties. This one holds a special place in the hearts of both men, as each worked at the gone-but-not-forgotten Gloria Café under the tutelage of the late, mercurial, chef Harold Smith. “He took me under his wing,” reminisced Varga. “I’m the only one that knows his recipes well enough to do them right … I remember getting my ass kicked by Harold; I was fired six times.”
“I was fired three times,” chimed in Studer and adds, affecting a gruff voice, “Son, when you’re done with your shift, you’re fired.”
“But every time he hired you back, you got a raise,” said Varga, shaking his head at the memories. “He was the best and worst boss ever … it was so chaotic, it was memorable.”
Having just celebrated its first year, Studer feels Explorers Club is hitting its stride. “The first year was a bit of a rollercoaster, but now we’re on a steady path,” he said, “Being a first-time owner, you want everyone to love you, but it’s impossible … you learn as you go.”
Meanwhile, Varga is constantly cooking up new ideas in his verdant imagination.
“I’d love to do a menu based on music – find a composer and ask him to create music to go with each course,” he said, like a kid contemplating a new toy. “This stuff gets my juices flowing; I love telling people about new things.”
Hungarian Night takes place every second Tuesday at Explorers Club. “Friend” the restaurant on Facebook to get updates about the monthly food theme or look it up online for the latest news, www.explorersclubmv.com. Check out Explorers Club in person at 1586 N High St.
Varga joins Food & Wine as Contributing Chef
Wednesday September 26, 2012
Dan Varga said his culinary style goes well with the Explorers Club.
Varga, who took over as chef of the Merion Village restaurant several months ago, said he likes to expand cuisine beyond the ordinary.
The menu still has a broad appeal to vegetarians with dishes such as the ratatouille lasagna, one of Varga’s creations and a top seller at the restaurant. Meat-lovers also have plenty of options, such as the jerk chicken, which is brined for 24 hours and marinated a full day before it’s roasted; and brisket and pork platter, smoked on the premises.
“It’s simple food, but we take the time to do it right every day,” said Varga, now a contributor to Food & Wine.
The Explorers Club was founded just shy of a year ago by Tracey Studer and Ricky Barnes. Barnes, who helped get the restaurant up and running, left to pursue other interests. Varga was working at a chain restaurant when the opportunity arrived at Explorers Club, 1586 S. High St.
He’s kept the Caribbean flair on which the restaurant was founded but widened the menu’s appeal. For example, the third Wednesday of each month is Hungarian night, which celebrates Varga’s heritage and current residence, in Hungarian Village, just south of Merion Village. Previous, three-course menus – $18 each – have included chicken paprikash, homemade sausages, cabbage rolls and apple strudel.
“Whatever I think of, I can do,” he said. “I love to explore aspects of other cultures. So this place fits with what I like to do.”