Delicia presents a dilemma

Dinner last night at Delicia with a lovely friend. After hearing great things about this place for months now, my expectations were high from the get-go. Maybe a little too high. After our meal, I find myself scratching my head and trying to figure out if I really liked it. I didn’t not like it. It wasn’t a bad experience in any aspect. It just didn’t blow me away to the degree of, say, Seviche a couple months ago.

Delicia exterior

It would be quite easy to miss Delicia entirely were it not for one small sign in front of the otherwise nondescript SoBro building it calls home. (This structure used to be a video store in its most recent former life.) There’s a tight little parking lot in front of the restaurant, but you’re probably better off to skip it and scope out a space on College Avenue instead.

Delicia interior

Once you get inside, though, the sleek and chic decor totally belies the ho-hum exterior with a massive mirror-backed bar, retro hanging light fixtures, a long white banquette running the length of the restaurant, airy beamed ceilings and subdued colors. The place was pretty hopping for a Sunday night with a diverse range of diners in attendance. No kids though. I’d have to check to confirm, but pretty sure Delicia is 21 and up only. And even if it isn’t, this is not the kind of place you want to bring the little guys.

caiparinhna

caipirinha

So we ordered drinks and then turned our attention to the menu. I’d never had a caipirinha, and figured I’d try one for something new. (How fun is caipirinha to say, by the way? Go ahead. Try it a few times.) Caipirinhas are traditionally made with sugar cane liqueur, lime and sugar. This would lead one to believe it would be sweet, but not here. To be fair, our server warned me that the Delicia version wasn’t at all sweet, but is instead more light and refreshing. Since it was damn near 90 degrees outside, this was ok by me. And the cocktail was perfectly refreshing for a sultry summer night, but for some reason, it was a little too gin and tonic-ish for my taste (although it doesn’t contain any gin). I’m not a gin fan — see previous posts extolling my love for bourbon. Still, I drank it and it was fine.

mojito

mojito

My friend enjoyed a glass of sangria. Again, the server accurately described it as being very wine-forward. Fruity? Not so much. Later in the meal, I switched to a mojito. Also refreshing and tasty (and served in a big wide-mouthed water glass – yikes!), but I was a little bummed that the bar here uses a mint syrup as opposed to fresh muddled mint leaves, which look so pretty in the glass. The spearmint flavor came through loud and clear, but halfway through, it suddenly got a little too cloying for me to finish.

beet

spicy beet salad

While not terribly extensive, the Delicia menu offers plenty of intriguing dishes. This is not your run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant. If you’re looking for basic crunchy tacos and burritos, keep on driving. Delicia is upscale new-wave Latin cuisine. After debating appetizers for a short while, we agreed to share a spicy beet salad to get things underway. The kitchen thoughtfully split the serving for us, giving us each a beautifully arranged mini-plate version. This might have been my favorite part of the meal. Spicy was an understatement, so much so that it caught me off guard at first bite. These beets will kick you in the throat if you’re not ready, thanks to a bold jalapeno/sour orange mash-up. Elsewhere on the plate were a little mound of salad greens, pretty julienned red radish, crumbles of queso fresco and sweet-salty candied pumpkin seeds. A tasty blend of flavors, and the initial rush of heat quickly smoothes out into something sophisticated and delicious.

Our server had promised us each a little amuse bouche or something of broth redolent with the Latin flavors to follow, but somehow, this item was forgotten until my friend thought to ask for it halfway through our salads. Delivered in a little sake-style cup, I’m having a hard time pinpointing just what this was, apart from an earthy broth with a umami-mushroom flavor. Not quite sure what the point of it was, but it didn’t hurt anything.

I considered several different entrees, namely the pork carnita tacos, the carne chimichurri, and the duck enchiladas I’ve heard several raves about. In the end, I selected the tamal corn cakes (partially because of our server’s strong recommendation), and my friend ordered something called tapou — trigger fish in a coconut milk stew with rice and sweet potatoes. Our eyes nearly popped when the entrées appeared; the portions here are ginormous. We easily could have split one and saved room for dessert.

tamal corn cake

Tamal corn cakes with barbacoa beef

I thought the food was good, but not great. My plate arrived lukewarm and so heaped with shredded barbacoa beef that I could barely make out the two small, but thick corn cakes beneath. The whole thing was drizzled with a cilantro lime crema and topped with a light sprinkling of pico de gallo. The meat was tender, and there was a ton of it, but I felt a little misled. As it’s advertised, it seems like the cornbread-like corn cakes should be the star of the show here. To that end, I had to scrape off some of the beef just to get to them. And I wished there had been more crema and pico de gallo (then again, I tend toward a heavy hand when it comes to sauces and condiments). The plate was mostly meat, and could have used a little more seasoning. In fact, now that I think about it, I felt like everything I tasted needed a dash more salt to really make it sing.

tapou

Tapou fish dish

I think my friend liked the fish. I had a bite, and it tasted good, but the texture was strangely chewy. I was expecting it to be much lighter and flakier. The coconut milk broth was yummy and the sweet potato chunks were well cooked. However, I couldn’t help thinking that this curry-style dish would have seemed much more at home in a Thai or Indian restaurant than a Latin eatery.

We made as much of a dent in our dinners as we could, but still called it quits around the halfway point. The short list of Delicia desserts includes flan, tres leches cake, churros and a plantain bake with ice cream that sounded sorta like a cobbler. Alas, our stomachs had reached capacity and we had to pass.

Props where props are due — to our server. While she wasn’t particularly warm or smiley, she did know the menu inside and out, capably answered our questions and offered intelligent comments about the food and drinks throughout our meal.

While Delicia is a breath of fresh air on the Indianapolis dining scene and I’m glad I finally got there, I don’t think I’ll be rushing right back. I know several people who absolutely love, love, love this place, but for now, I’m firmly on the fence about it.

Delicia doesn’t have a web site, but you can locate its Facebook page (including a complete menu) with a quick search.
Delicia on Urbanspoon

Twist, and shout, and let it all out

Wait, it would appear I’m mixing up not only my songs, but my musical genres… oops. My bad.

photo-48

Last night, a girlfriend and I paid a visit to the new Twist Lounge, an offshoot of the ever-popular Zest! Exciting Food Creations in SoBro. (One of my brunch go tos — crème brulee French toast and bacon. Need I say more?)

This place is swanky with super fun décor. You enter the lounge through a swinging chain curtain that immediately made me think of the Brady Bunch episodes where Greg had his own groovy room in the attic with the beaded curtain over the door. Am I showing my age, here? Anyway, Twist is very dimly lit, which prompts me to preemptively apologize for the quality of my phone pics.

photo-49

There’s a whole array of seating to choose from including tall stools along the bar, a private-ish room full of plush couches by the front windows, a couple of booth/tables with padded leather seat backs and funky clear plastic chairs, and even hanging swings. Oh, and a disco ball. !!!! There should be more disco balls in the world, if you ask me. How can anybody hate a disco ball? Fun fact – did you know that 90 percent of the world’s disco balls are made in Louisville. True dat. But I digress…

photo-50

I’d heard a rumor that Twist does a mean house Manhattan made with an Indiana-produced rye, so that’s what I ordered without even first looking at the menu. This baby arrived in a large water tumbler-size glass garnished with a skewer of those great gourmet cherries (not those artificially red grocery store numbers). They are not messing around here. Jess, our friendly bartender, really seemed to know what she was doing, and this was a damn fine drink. Once I did scan the menu and saw the list of other craft cocktail offerings, I was almost sorry I hadn’t branched out and tried something called a Blood and Sand or a Spicy Little Tart, but I am a bourbon girl, first and foremost. You stick with what works, ya know? My friend ordered a mojito and seemed quite pleased with her selection; Jess told us she’d personally picked the fresh mint that evening. One of those small details that makes a big difference.

At 7:30 p.m., we were the first patrons to arrive for the night, and although several other drinkers slowly rolled in, the place never did really fill up. I get the feeling this is more of a weekend or late-night hang. We did see a couple here on a date night, but it’s more the kind of hotspot you hit with a group of gals. I can’t imagine many single guys stopping by for a post-work scotch of their own accord.

After sucking down our first round of cocktails probably faster than we should have, we knew we needed food. The full dinner menu is available both in Twist and in the flagship restaurant attached. I’ve eaten dinner at Zest before, and love, love, love their three-napkin burger, but they’ve added some new temptations to the menu since the last time I was here. After strongly considering the chicken and waffles, I instead opted for the chile rellenos, and was quite glad I did.

photo-51

These were no ordinary chile rellenos. For starters, I only found one small pepper on the whole plate, but no matter. With rice, penne pasta, black beans, sauce and a showering of crunchy tortilla strips on top, there was plenty going on here to fill me up and keep my mouth entertained.

photo-52

My friend ordered some sort of grilled romaine wedge salad that looked beautiful and delicious. We also each got a pint of local beer to go with our dinners; there’s a solid selection here to choose from.

I really liked Twist, and would definitely put it near the top of my destination considerations for a girls’ night out. (As a side note, I don’t know what they put in that chile relleno, but I had the craziest dreams last night…)

For more info:
www.zestexcitingfood.com.

Twist Lounge on Urbanspoon

Rook's worth a look

I was excited to check out Ed Rudisell’s new Rook venture yesterday for lunch with an old friend. I like what Ed’s got going on at Black Market, and had high hopes for his new Vietnamese banh mi sandwich shop.

R

The little eatery’s located directly on the Cultural Trail as it leads to Fountain Square from downtown via Virginia Avenue. Definitely a smart move, location-wise. Rook’s on the south side of the street just down a block from Bluebeard and in the same building with some sort of shared co-op space for creative types. Customers enter in the same entrance as the co-op, and as I sat in the front of the restaurant, I’d say more than half of the people who came in tried to go in the co-op first before realizing it wasn’t the door into Rook. No biggie, but might be something worth addressing?

interior

Rook’s fun and funky interior

Rook is small and industrial-chic with concrete floors, white walls and tables, strings of bare-bulb lights, and these awesome distressed yellow metal chairs. The vibe kinda felt like hanging out on a really trendy patio in someone’s backyard.

Ed was chatting about the food with another customer when I came in, and I overheard him saying that this was the kind of stuff chefs like to eat when they get off work. I don’t blame them. You can’t beat a good sandwich with a can of soda and something crunchy on the side.

The menu here is fairly short, but offers a nice range of options. For the uninitiated, Vietnamese banh mi is a long, flat sandwich made on soft bread and filled with yummy things like pork, steak, and sausage and topped with pickled vegetables. Not really all that different than a sub or hoagie when it comes right down to it. Rook offers nine varieties to choose from with whimsical bird-themed names like the Raven, the Nighthawk and the Magpie.

The Rook with bites of crack. I mean, pork cracklings.

The Rook with bites of crack. I mean, pork cracklings.

My friend ordered the Rook, stuffed with Vietnamese pork roll and chicken liver terrine; I went with the Crow’s Nest with Chinese BBQ pork. Both were garnished with a light smear of mayo, cilantro, thin slivers of jalapeno and a bit of shredded pickled radish/carrot slaw. We jazzed things up with some spicy sriracha – it’s the only condiment here, but available in mass quantities via a shelf full of bottles for help-yourself service.

The Crow's Nest with shrimp chips

The Crow’s Nest with shrimp chips

The sandwiches (all $8) were good and the ingredients were very fresh. A few pieces of my pork were a little chewy, but it had good flavor, and I loved the fresh garnishes. The pickled radish and cilantro really brightened up the whole concoction. My friend seemed pleased with his banh mi as well, polishing it off in short order.

The only sides here are pork cracklings and shrimp chips (although on my visit, the chalkboard menu included lotus chips as well). For fried food fans and pork rind enthusiasts, the cracklings were like little bites of crack. Seriously, I could have easily downed a couple bags of these with a nice light summer beer and called it a meal. The shrimp chips were fine, but the crunchy still-warm (!!!!) pork cracklings were definitely the winner.

For dessert, Rook carries several Circle City Sweets macarons in Asian-themed flavors like black sesame, green matcha and lemongrass.

Overall, Rook was a great little lunch stop. Nothing fancy, just distinctive, fresh, reasonably priced sandwiches and chips in a fun atmosphere. Banh mi is something unique for Indianapolis, and I hope it catches on. Check it out.

For more info, www.rookindy.com.

 

Rook on Urbanspoon

Rook’s worth a look

I was excited to check out Ed Rudisell’s new Rook venture yesterday for lunch with an old friend. I like what Ed’s got going on at Black Market, and had high hopes for his new Vietnamese banh mi sandwich shop.

R

The little eatery’s located directly on the Cultural Trail as it leads to Fountain Square from downtown via Virginia Avenue. Definitely a smart move, location-wise. Rook’s on the south side of the street just down a block from Bluebeard and in the same building with some sort of shared co-op space for creative types. Customers enter in the same entrance as the co-op, and as I sat in the front of the restaurant, I’d say more than half of the people who came in tried to go in the co-op first before realizing it wasn’t the door into Rook. No biggie, but might be something worth addressing?

interior

Rook’s fun and funky interior

Rook is small and industrial-chic with concrete floors, white walls and tables, strings of bare-bulb lights, and these awesome distressed yellow metal chairs. The vibe kinda felt like hanging out on a really trendy patio in someone’s backyard.

Ed was chatting about the food with another customer when I came in, and I overheard him saying that this was the kind of stuff chefs like to eat when they get off work. I don’t blame them. You can’t beat a good sandwich with a can of soda and something crunchy on the side.

The menu here is fairly short, but offers a nice range of options. For the uninitiated, Vietnamese banh mi is a long, flat sandwich made on soft bread and filled with yummy things like pork, steak, and sausage and topped with pickled vegetables. Not really all that different than a sub or hoagie when it comes right down to it. Rook offers nine varieties to choose from with whimsical bird-themed names like the Raven, the Nighthawk and the Magpie.

The Rook with bites of crack. I mean, pork cracklings.

The Rook with bites of crack. I mean, pork cracklings.

My friend ordered the Rook, stuffed with Vietnamese pork roll and chicken liver terrine; I went with the Crow’s Nest with Chinese BBQ pork. Both were garnished with a light smear of mayo, cilantro, thin slivers of jalapeno and a bit of shredded pickled radish/carrot slaw. We jazzed things up with some spicy sriracha – it’s the only condiment here, but available in mass quantities via a shelf full of bottles for help-yourself service.

The Crow's Nest with shrimp chips

The Crow’s Nest with shrimp chips

The sandwiches (all $8) were good and the ingredients were very fresh. A few pieces of my pork were a little chewy, but it had good flavor, and I loved the fresh garnishes. The pickled radish and cilantro really brightened up the whole concoction. My friend seemed pleased with his banh mi as well, polishing it off in short order.

The only sides here are pork cracklings and shrimp chips (although on my visit, the chalkboard menu included lotus chips as well). For fried food fans and pork rind enthusiasts, the cracklings were like little bites of crack. Seriously, I could have easily downed a couple bags of these with a nice light summer beer and called it a meal. The shrimp chips were fine, but the crunchy still-warm (!!!!) pork cracklings were definitely the winner.

For dessert, Rook carries several Circle City Sweets macarons in Asian-themed flavors like black sesame, green matcha and lemongrass.

Overall, Rook was a great little lunch stop. Nothing fancy, just distinctive, fresh, reasonably priced sandwiches and chips in a fun atmosphere. Banh mi is something unique for Indianapolis, and I hope it catches on. Check it out.

For more info, www.rookindy.com.

 

Rook on Urbanspoon

Latin love at Seviche

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for being so remiss in tending to my blog in recent months…. But I just had a meal so truly transcendent, I feel inspired to share. Immediately.

I think I may have mentioned my love for all things Louisville a time or two? Well, I’ve had the privilege of spending the past few days here for the Midwest Travel Writers Association conference, and dinner at Seviche for last night’s dine-around has just taken our relationship to a whole new level.

Image

Seviche entrance

Chef Anthony Lamas has been bringing Latin flavors with Southern flair to Louisville since he opened Seviche in the hip and trendy Highlands neighborhood in 2005. I met him on a trip here last year for another travel conference (see earlier post about the show taping for “Secrets of Louisville Chefs” and Chef Lamas’ fabulous chorizo with grits and orange bourbon barbecue sauce demo). We’re now Facebook friends, so I get to stay up to date on Chef Lamas’ doings and dishes. In 2011, he won the title of Food Network’s “Extreme Chef,” a Survivor-meets-Top Chef-style show in which chefs are dumped in the middle of the desert or jungle with, like, a can of tuna and told to prepare a gourmet meal for 50 people. That should tell you something about how bad-ass this guy is.

We arrived last night ready to be wowed, and were ushered to a semi-private dining room in the back of the restaurant (created, along with a new lounge area, in a recent expansion). The interior is sleek, done up in rich neutral shades, and I loved the jars of pickled fruit and veg lining the shelves that served as decor. Chef Lamas kept a sweet 80s soundtrack playing in the background, which we later found out was his own iPod. This, of course, only made me like him even more.

mojito

My mojito

We started with drinks, as you do, and I ordered a mojito. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with this libation, usually sticking instead to wine, beer and bourbon, but I figured this place probably knows how to do ‘em up right. My suspicions proved correct. The drink arrived in a tall glass, loaded with muddled lime and mint. Sweet, but not too sweet. Tart, but not too tart. Totally fresh and refreshing with a big spike of sugarcane to gnaw on in lieu of a swizzle stick. So far, so good.

Chef Lamas had pre-planned a multi-course tasting menu for us, a smart move because so many things on the menu sounded delicious, we might have been there all night just deciding what to order. An avalanche of small plates soon started arriving, all beautifully presented and each tasting even better than the last. Seriously, I felt like a Top Chef judge, and found myself wondering how Padma does this all the time and still maintains such a hot bod.

First up, the starters. We received sharable family-style dishes here — a plate of grilled shishito peppers with ponzu sauce and a little sesame, and fried bison-filled empanadas with an avocado-jalapeno puree and pico de gallo.

shishito peppers

blistered shishito peppers with ponzu and sesame

Our server Daylon (I apologize if I’m butchering the spelling of your name here, dude), who ROCKED by the way, described these peppers as a Russian roulette of heat. Some are mild, some will blister your sinuses, and like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get until you bite in. My pepper was mild, and I liked the texture – sort of like a banana pepper or giardinera. It had a little toothsome bite left, and the sesame ponzu was a nice touch.

bison empanadas

bison empanadas with pico de gallo and avocado-jalapeno puree

I like making empanadas at home every now and then, although I bake mine instead of frying, and I’ve never had them filled with bison. Both great ideas. These cute buffalo meat hot pockets had good flavor, but what made the dish for me was the avocado jalapeno puree. I’m an avocado junkie anyway, and the tingly heat from the jalapeno provided a much-appreciated kick. Think spicy pureed smooth guacamole. Only way better.

tuna ceviche

tuna ceviche “Old Fashioned”

Next up was a little glass of tuna ceviche “Old Fashioned.” This was my favorite item of the evening; and a day later, it’s the one I’m still daydreaming about. Sushi fans take note, this was AWESOME. Gorgeous colors and a perfect balance of flavors – chunks of buttery soft tuna, sweet tiny diced pineapple and an orange supreme, a wee splash of bourbon, sesame, salty soy sauce, verdant cilantro, and something addictively spicy that left my lips tingling after I’d dug out every bit with my chopsticks. I very nearly tipped the glass up to drink the few precious last drops of juice in the bottom. I can’t tell you how much I loved this. I wanted to make out with this food.

halibut ceviche

wild halibut ceviche

For comparison, the next dish was a wild halibut ceviche. This fish was chunkier, soft and mild, with a little corn, onion, microgreens and garnishing sauce I couldn’t quite place. Good, but didn’t nearly blow me away to the same degree the tuna ceviche did.

swordfish risotto

grilled swordfish over mushroom risotto with crispy leeks

One member of our group had requested the swordfish, and that’s what showed up next – a small square of perfectly grilled fish over a spoonful of mushroom risotto with crispy almost onion-ringy leeks and a lobster truffle sauce ladled around the plate. This fish was so tender, it practically melted in my mouth, and the risotto was a luscious earthy complement.

scallop fideos

seared scallop over fideos with goat cheese, artichoke and asparagus

As much as I liked the swordfish, I went crazy over the grilled scallop that we received afterward. I’ve been hit or miss with scallops in the past, some too rubbery, gritty or just plain meh. This one was stellar, nicely browned and tender enough to cut with my fork. It sat atop fideos – a nutty tasting, Spanish-style pasta that looks like short strands of angel hair spaghetti — with pine nuts, goat cheese, an asparagus spear and a chunk of artichoke heart. I think the sauce had truffle in it, but I was so distracted by this sexy scallop, I didn’t care.

churrascuro

Churrascos and chimichurri, oh my.

My tummy was starting to reach capacity at this point, but there were still more good things to come. Such as a Churrascos-style bite of grilled skirt steak with garlic mashed potatoes, a dab of demi-glace, and a bold herby chimichurri sauce I had trouble not licking straight off the plate.

desserts

sweet finales

A dessert trio platter ended things on another high note. Liquid nitrogen frozen caramel corn lent a unique crunch factor. The housemade macadamia nut ice cream was rich, creamy and perfect. The bourbon butterscotch pudding smooth and decadent. But I couldn’t get enough of the avocado ice cream, another Chef Lamas trademark dish. Imagine, if you will, avocado flavored ice cream (don’t hate – it is DELICIOUS) that’s prepped to look exactly like an avocado. See the pic below – the ice cream is scooped into a thin chocolate shell with a bourbon ball truffle nestled into the middle just like a real avocado pit. All edible. What else is there to say about this, really? Genius.

avocado ice cream

Seviche’s signature avocado ice cream

Thus, our feast came to a reluctant end. Not a misstep in the whole shebang. Chef Lamas even graciously came out and spoke with us after the meal, politely answering our questions and submitting to our endless photo requests even though I’m sure the kitchen must have been completely slammed behind the scenes.

Chef Lamas

Chef Anthony Lamas himself. Rock. Star.

To stay on our event schedule, we only had about 90 minutes or so to spend at Seviche in total, so everything felt a little rushed. This was the kind of meal I would have liked to savor over three hours or so. Still, I was grateful we got to taste as much as we did, and I have a pretty good idea what I’d order again on my next visit. And bank money on it, there WILL be a next visit. Soon, I hope. I’d drive two hours to Louisville again just to eat here. So should you.

For more information about Seviche, check out www.sevicherestaurant.com.

Seviche on Urbanspoon

Nick's still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Nick’s still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Proof is in the pudding

Each fall, for as many years back as I can remember, my mom made persimmon pudding. This was no small undertaking. First, you have to find a source for the persimmons. My mom had the hook up; always managing to know someone with a persimmon tree. Every October or so, when the dusky orange plum-like fruit would fall to the ground, my mom was right there, poaching. She swore you had to wait until the messy persimmons ripened, turned squishy and fell off the tree, otherwise they’d be tart enough to make you pucker if you made the mistake of biting into one too soon.

A full day of processing then ensued, washing the persimmons and straining them through a food-mill contraption mom reserved solely for this once-a-year purpose. After that came the ceremonial baking of the persimmon pudding, a recipe my mom gleaned from her mother, and very likely, her mother before that. You get the idea. Persimmon pudding was a fall tradition in my house, and one I’m ashamed to say I eschewed. I never ate the stuff. For some reason, I decided to turn up my nose at it when I was little, and stubborn as I am, I never tried it again.

Spring Mill Inn at Indiana’s Spring Mill State Park

So it was with no small amount of irony that I attended the opening Candlelight Tour that kicked off the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival last night at Spring Mill State Park. Part of the package was a stay at the lovely Spring Mill Inn, and dinner at the on-site Millstone Dining Room, a buffet packed with all the good old-fashioned comfort foods you most likely grew up on, if you grew up in Indiana during the 1970s like I did. Think roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans stewed with chunks of ham… And the piece de resistance — while it’s typically just a seasonal fall dessert for many, persimmon pudding stays on the menu here year-round. They don’t always have it out on the buffet, which puzzles me, but all you have to do to score a piece is ask.

persimmon pudding at Spring Mill Inn’s Millstone Dining Room

In keeping with tradition, my pudding arrived in a cute little square topped with a generous dollop of Cool Whip. Grabbing a fork, I scooped up a big bite, toasted my mom and tucked it into my mouth. Tasty, I must say. If I didn’t know otherwise, I would have guessed it to be pumpkin – the consistency and flavor were exactly like a mild, creamy pumpkin pie filling. My friend Janet liked it, too, even in spite of harboring a pumpkin pie grudge of her own that went way back. We both cleaned our little plates, pleasantly surprised, and vowed never to judge a dessert by its cover again.

The Spring Mill Inn persimmon pudding is nothing like I remember my mom making, though. Mom’s was much more spongy and cake-like, nearly like a very moist gingerbread.

Sadly, the elaborate persimmon pudding-making process I never took part in was abandoned when my dear mom passed away ten years ago. I know I still have the family recipe somewhere, and I’m thinking I might just have to bring it out of hiding this year for old times sake. (Fortunately, it’s not hard to find pints of already-processed persimmon pulp for sale around Indy, if you know where to look.) Here’s hoping I’ll make my mama proud.

For more info about Spring Mill Inn (which is every bit as nice as the Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County, if not nicer, IMHO), visit http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/inns/springmill/

For info on the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival, go to http://persimmonfestival.org/

Round 'em up

Another fun place I visited as part of my Fox River Valley tour earlier this summer was Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

This character-rich brewpub is an offshoot of the original brewing operation in Warrenville, owned by — you guessed it — two brothers. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Aurora roundhouse is a really cool historic site and the oldest existing limestone facility of its kind in the U.S., once a bustling 40-bay servicing operation for various locomotives.

Two Brothers Roundhouse dining room

These days, the massive circular structure encloses a lovely courtyard area, brewing operations, unique banquet/event spaces, bars and a darn tasty restaurant. The owners have wisely preserved much of the original décor to give the whole joint a rustic casual feel, the perfect backdrop for some delicious pub grub.

Cheddar goat cheese dip

Our group stopped in for lunch and beer tasting on a sunny weekday. We kicked things off with a round of sharable appetizers — a smoked cheddar and goat cheese dip with toasted bread, tempura-battered green beans with a ranch dipping sauce, and soft pretzels served with a stone-ground beer-spiked mustard. All very respectable and done well.

soft pretzels with beer mustard and cheese

The cheese dip was rich and creamy with a good smoky depth of flavor, and the mustard with the soft pretzel was seriously addictive. The green beans might have been my favorite, though, nicely crispy without being greasy.

Tempura green beans with ranch dipping sauce

Honestly, I’d eaten so much on this trip, I filled myself up just sampling the appetizers and left it at that. Everything else the group ordered around the table looked delish, though… particularly the skirt steak taco small plate with ancho chili sauce, the Dover Sole fish tacos (a house specialty), and the grilled veggie sandwich. I did nibble a couple of the housemade potato chips off my neighbor’s plate. Yummy.

Dover sole fish tacos

Looking back now, I’m not sure if the beer serves as the perfect foil to the food, or if it’s the other way around. In either case, the two components play very nicely together. Our server brought out first one six-beer flight for us to share and sample. Then another. For lunch. Yikes. I picked a few I specifically wanted to taste and politely declined the rest. I did have a four-hour drive home ahead of me, after all. Otherwise, I could have happily sipped away, and perhaps grabbed a little catnap in the sunny courtyard afterward as I slowly sobered up.

Two Brothers beer samples

Between the house brews and a collection of bottled brands, there’s a big selection of beer here. I can’t even remember everything that was included in our tasting, but the flagship brew seems to be the Domaine DuPage, a French country-style ale. Very drinkable and refreshing. The porter was good, too, with the suggestion of chocolate and coffee flavors. I’m not so hip on IPAs or bitters, so I shied away from those and stuck to the more German strains of pilsners and lagers. All in all, solid beer. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even pick up bottles and growlers on the way out at a fill station near the entrance.

I’ve seen Two Brothers beer, particularly the Domaine DuPage, making a few guest appearances on several taps around Indy. Look for it and give it a try. And if you happen to find yourself near Aurora, stop in the roundhouse for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.

For more info:
www.twobrosbrew.com

Two Brothers Roundhouse on Urbanspoon

Round ’em up

Another fun place I visited as part of my Fox River Valley tour earlier this summer was Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill.

This character-rich brewpub is an offshoot of the original brewing operation in Warrenville, owned by — you guessed it — two brothers. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the Aurora roundhouse is a really cool historic site and the oldest existing limestone facility of its kind in the U.S., once a bustling 40-bay servicing operation for various locomotives.

Two Brothers Roundhouse dining room

These days, the massive circular structure encloses a lovely courtyard area, brewing operations, unique banquet/event spaces, bars and a darn tasty restaurant. The owners have wisely preserved much of the original décor to give the whole joint a rustic casual feel, the perfect backdrop for some delicious pub grub.

Cheddar goat cheese dip

Our group stopped in for lunch and beer tasting on a sunny weekday. We kicked things off with a round of sharable appetizers — a smoked cheddar and goat cheese dip with toasted bread, tempura-battered green beans with a ranch dipping sauce, and soft pretzels served with a stone-ground beer-spiked mustard. All very respectable and done well.

soft pretzels with beer mustard and cheese

The cheese dip was rich and creamy with a good smoky depth of flavor, and the mustard with the soft pretzel was seriously addictive. The green beans might have been my favorite, though, nicely crispy without being greasy.

Tempura green beans with ranch dipping sauce

Honestly, I’d eaten so much on this trip, I filled myself up just sampling the appetizers and left it at that. Everything else the group ordered around the table looked delish, though… particularly the skirt steak taco small plate with ancho chili sauce, the Dover Sole fish tacos (a house specialty), and the grilled veggie sandwich. I did nibble a couple of the housemade potato chips off my neighbor’s plate. Yummy.

Dover sole fish tacos

Looking back now, I’m not sure if the beer serves as the perfect foil to the food, or if it’s the other way around. In either case, the two components play very nicely together. Our server brought out first one six-beer flight for us to share and sample. Then another. For lunch. Yikes. I picked a few I specifically wanted to taste and politely declined the rest. I did have a four-hour drive home ahead of me, after all. Otherwise, I could have happily sipped away, and perhaps grabbed a little catnap in the sunny courtyard afterward as I slowly sobered up.

Two Brothers beer samples

Between the house brews and a collection of bottled brands, there’s a big selection of beer here. I can’t even remember everything that was included in our tasting, but the flagship brew seems to be the Domaine DuPage, a French country-style ale. Very drinkable and refreshing. The porter was good, too, with the suggestion of chocolate and coffee flavors. I’m not so hip on IPAs or bitters, so I shied away from those and stuck to the more German strains of pilsners and lagers. All in all, solid beer. If you like what you’ve tried, you can even pick up bottles and growlers on the way out at a fill station near the entrance.

I’ve seen Two Brothers beer, particularly the Domaine DuPage, making a few guest appearances on several taps around Indy. Look for it and give it a try. And if you happen to find yourself near Aurora, stop in the roundhouse for lunch. You won’t be disappointed.

For more info:
www.twobrosbrew.com

Two Brothers Roundhouse on Urbanspoon