I really hadn’t given Indianapolis much thought, particularly on the food and drink front. Growing up in Michigan, I had visited Indy, and a few of its ‘burbs, a handful of times throughout high school and college. The downtown space, with its steakhouses and sports bars, wasn’t much more than a conference-friendly corridor, and certainly not a place where someone wanting a craft cocktail or a bite of less-than-fried food could find respite. I may have even scoffed a little when I was invited out for a ‘Tour de Indianapolis.’
However, in the ramp up to host this year’s Super Bowl celebration, the capitol city had, in fact, put quite a lot of time and effort into developing its central area. Higher-level bars and restaurants, the installation of new artwork (thanks to its “46 for XLVI” initiative featuring murals by forty-six artists), and a polished city greeted me upon my arrival. To say that I was pleasantly surprised by my visit would be an understatement. To be honest, I may have blurted out a number of notable quips while venturing through the Circle City…
“I’m just going to set up a tent right here.”
I heart the Libertine, and that’s all there is to it. The starting point on Day One, I admittedly didn’t want to leave once I had a look at the menu of drinks and bites offered at the downtown spot. The cocktail list read like any craft bar in Portland, with all my favorites from mezcal to absinthe available. I started the evening with an Aviation – my go-to tipple, when it’s available and done right. And it was done oh-so-right. My host for the weekend, Evan Strange of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, recommended a choice of savory, well-executed small plates to start the evening, which included a wild mushroom crostinis, artichoke fritters, and a chicken pate on waffles – a standout on the chicken-and-waffles craze. Chef and owner Neal Brown was on hand as well, eager to have me taste a mastic cocktail he had been working with, and much like everything else at Libertine, its caipirinha-plus-pine flavor made me never want to leave my seat.
I made my way back to the Libertine after a stellar dinner at St. Elmo Steak House, a local historic eatery recently recognized as one of America’s Classics by this year’s James Beard Foundation (take heed when folks tell you to prepare yourself for the spicy cocktail sauce, by the way). Securing a spot at the bar on my second visit, I snagged myself a second Aviation and a shot of Fernet Branca, chatting with bartenders Michael Gray and Doug Strodtman about the burgeoning cocktail scene, though both lamented that as a leader in craft cocktails, it certainly made it difficult to find a great drink elsewhere post-shift. Bartender-world problems.
“I’ll have the shrub.”
Despite the loud, wall-to-wall, family-friendly bustle of Café Patachou, a South Broad Ripple – or SoBro – breakfast destination, my Saturday morning started off well, with a build-your-own omelet and Udi’s gluten-free bread. Coffee in hand, I gallivanted to the Indianapolis Art Museum for an afternoon of pausing and perusing.
Hunger set in mid-afternoon, before our next food adventure was to start, and we made a stop at Black Market on Mass Ave., Indy’s strip-o-fun for shopping, eating, and imbibery just off the main downtown area. Proprietor Ed Rudisell was happy to talk rum, scotch, and cocktail inspiration during our brief stop, and we ordered the daily pickle plate, a smattering of pickled seasonal vegetables – that day, we enjoyed turnips, shallots, and a poblano pepper – curiously paired with housemade peanut butter. I also went with prickly pear shrub, made in-house as well, with the sweet and sour of the vinegar drink making the perfect complement to my escarole, apple, and cheddar salad.
“Hipsters give me hives.”
From Black Market, we went for a tour of Smoking Goose Meatery, a meat smoking shop conveniently located across the street from a brewery. Chef and owner Christopher Eley opened the meat shop nearly a year ago, piggybacking on the success of his Goose The Market location. Stopping by during a quiet day, Eley noted that with sixty percent of his product headed for restaurants across the Midwest, the production facility went through daily USDA inspections five times a week to ensure health safety. Through the amazing use of technology as well, Eley manages to even control the smoking process through the use of a phone application, resulting in tasty meats that are in high demand.
Our destination for dinner, Recess, featured the dishes of 2012 James Beard Foundation Award long-list nominee, Greg Hardesty. Rumor had it that Recess included a number of fantastic fish offerings, and despite my hesitation to order fish in a landlocked state, I was again pleasantly surprised, with the evening’s prix fixe meal including a stellar Alaskan halibut. Each plate was spectacular, with all three courses paired pleasantly with carefully considered wines.
Post-dinner cocktails offered the choice of a local hipster bar or an age-old dive bar down the block. I chose the dive bar. The Red Key Tavern, it turns out, is a local favorite, managed for years by owner Russ Settle, a World War II bomber pilot and P.O.W. who opened the SoBro location nearly sixty years ago before passing away in 2010. A place where writer Kurt Vonnegut had often held post, the bar has been the subject of a Ben Affleck movie, and comes with house rules, from taking off your hat to keeping your conversations clean. With airplane models of every shape and size hanging from the ceiling, worn linoleum floors, and a jukebox still chock full of Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, the Manhattans were just the right price, and I settled in with the neighborhood regulars to wrap up the evening.
“But they have new pigs!”
Cheese, cheese, and more cheese greeted me on Sunday morning before I departed from my 48-hour adventure. Along rural routes, among ranches and homes dotting the outskirts of downtown, sits the idyllic farm setting of Traders Point Creamery – and the Loft restaurant. Touting the ever popular farm-to-table cuisine – while actually being in the center of the farm – the brunch menu was to die for, with scrambles, waffles, French toast, and chicken and potato fritters. I finally ordered a spicy Hoosier Momma’s Bloody Mary – a favorite of both mine and the city of Indianapolis – to kick off the morning, and ate my way to an afternoon food coma, complete with a tasting plate of cheeses made fresh at the Creamery. The dining room was packed – with an Indianapolis Colts tight end holding down the fort to boot – and a freshly made coffee and chocolate milkshake was ordered before we headed to the airport. While I’m not sure a Bloody Mary and milkshake combo was the best decision before boarding a plane, it was certainly the best way to end what was a most memorable visit to Indianapolis.
*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender
**Many, many thanks to my brother from another mother, Evan Strange, and the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association for inviting me into town; to the Conrad Indianapolis for taking such great care of me; and to all of the courteous chefs and bartenders for chatting with me!