Al fresco dining a la JW Marriott

This week has served as an eye-opening reminder of just how much cool stuff there is to see, do and experience right here in our own Indianapolis backyard. I, for one, am guilty of taking for granted the many attractions and scenic features our fair city has to offer. Well, let me tell you, I’ve spent the past several days trying to cram in quick visits to all the destination stops within White River State Park downtown, and I am worn out.

For those of you looking for a fun and affordable summer staycation, you seriously might want to consider booking into any of the diverse hotel options within Marriott Place. With a handful of Marriott-branded lodging options to consider and accommodations ranging from the budget-friendly Fairfield Inn to the super-luxe JW Marriott, you’re guaranteed a nice room at any price point. And best of all, you can walk across the street to everything in White River State Park, from museums, the canal and Victory Field to the Lawn and the Zoo — the gang’s all here! (And if you decide you need a lift, you can grab a $5 cab ride to just about anywhere you want to go downtown.)

JW Marriott Indianapolis

Because everyone knows I’m a foodie, let’s talk about food. More specifically, dinner at JW’s swanky Tavern on the Plaza. My group of 12 or so was seated among what seemed to be a high-profile, see-and-be-seen crowd. This place was hopping with young, trendy beautiful people sipping fancy martinis and acai drinks, many I’m assuming were on en route to the Ray LaMontagne concert just down the street at the Lawn. I wondered for a minute if I wasn’t too old to be hanging out here.

From what I can gather, the al fresco dining-only Tavern shares some of its short-list menu items with the indoor Osteria Pronto, but there are also selections exclusive to this eatery along the lines of gourmet sandwiches, a few flatbreads and grilled entrees. It’s a solid blend of Italian and American themed plates.

Tavern on the Plaza bruschetta

To kick off the meal, we shared several starters — a simple but beautifully presented bruschetta, an antipasti platter of sliced cured meats (with a delicious grilled artichoke that I selfishly bogarted before anyone else could lay claim to it), pizza margherita, and a mountain of crispy calamari. This isn’t your average calamari, though… the little pieces of squid were interspersed with deep-fried paper-thin slices of carrot and zucchini. I’m not a calamari fan, but I loved nibbling the veggie “chips.”

Tavern on the Plaza calamari

Then came the dinners. We’d preordered our entrees earlier in the day to speed things along. For hubby, I’d selected half of a roasted chicken with Asiago mashed potatoes, baby carrots and jus. (It was supposed to be served with roasted onions, which I wisely headed off at the pass.) Judging by the way he polished it off, it must have been good.

roasted chicken with Asiago mashed potatoes

My penne primavera proved a smart choice, and I like that you can order pasta here in either small or large serving sizes. Some of those pasta bowls restaurants bring out nowadays are big enough to swim in; the small portion (pictured here) was enough to fill me up without being ridiculous. The penne itself was nicely al dente with a flavorful pesto and studded with roasted veggies and peas. Just my speed.

pesto pasta primavera

Elsewhere around the table, the grilled salmon and fish of the day entrees looked tasty, as did the veggie skewers with meat, shrimp and chicken add-on possibilities.

shrimp and veggie skewers

Everyone was feeling pretty sated by this point, but we still somehow managed to find room for dessert. The mini molten chocolate cakes with a custard sauce and vanilla ice cream were good, but the tortelli is the dessert diners are really going to remember. The description’s a little misleading; the menu paints a mental picture of tortelli as an old-fashioned donut. I don’t know about you, but when you say “old-fashioned donut,” I tend to think of the yeasty glazed variety with a hole in the middle. These are more like Italian-style beignets; huge, deceptively light, puffy baseballs of deep-fried dough buried in a snowdrift of powdered sugar and squiggled with chocolate and raspberry sauces.

the tortelli

You HAVE to order these if you come here. That’s all there is to it.

For more info:

Tavern on the Plaza (JW Marriott) on Urbanspoon

Fort Wayne = foodie heaven

I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to attend a media tour of Fort Wayne, which took place last Friday. Hubby and the toddler tagged along, happy to swim at the hotel pool and do their own thing while I was off doing mine. It was just a quick overnight trip, but man, did we cram in a lot of good eating.

The sheer number and diversity of restaurants in Fort Wayne is somewhat astounding. It is the second largest city in Indiana with a population of around 300,000, so I guess I shouldn’t be as surprised as I was to discover this.

I’ll write more about the other attractions we saw in later entries; for now, I’ll focus on what was perhaps my favorite part of the day. As part of the tour, my small group got to enjoy a progressive dinner at three of the best eateries in the downtown area. On top of a great lunch and sampling at DeBrand Chocolates, mind you. I’m not sure how everyone managed to keep going, but somehow, we persevered.

Our first stop for appetizers? The Oyster Bar. Those who know Fort Wayne are familiar, I’m sure. This old-school eatery has been around and operating in the form of a tavern since 1888. Today, it’s an upscale seafood joint. As a point of reference for Indianapolis folks – imagine a much smaller St. Elmo’s, but with seafood instead of steaks and kitschier decor. They do serve steaks and pasta and such at Oyster Bar, but ordering them here seems silly with fish of this caliber.

To sample all we could, we shared half a dozen or so apps around the table. Crab cakes, mussels, oysters, Louisiana shrimp, calamari strips… Oh. My. Grouper.

Oysters Rockefeller

My eyes nearly glazed over when the dishes just kept coming. All fabulous, mind you. The shrimp was spicy but not overpoweringly so, and the mussels fragrant and flavorful.

Louisiana shrimp

Now, I should point out that I don’t really care for calamari under normal circumstances, but I like it here, where it’s more like a tenderized fish stick than those nasty tentacly bits.

Oyster Bar’s signature calamari

I could have easily filled up at Oyster Bar, downed a glass of wine and called it a night, but there were still two restaurants to go. I paced myself with a few bites and held back.

Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Next up for entrees — Don Hall’s Old Gas House. Don Hall is a big name on the Fort Wayne restaurant scene with a handful of restaurants scattered around town, each with its own distinctive spin. One is a diner, one is upscale fine dining, one is a Japanese steakhouse (yes, seriously), and so on. There’s even a Hall’s Grill in Castleton for Indy peeps who need a fix. The Gas House is located along the river in, you guessed it, an old gas plant facility, and has been serving there for half a century.

My first meal at the Gas House was about 15 years ago when I was in town for a Barry Manilow concert at the Embassy Theater. (Those of you who know me personally are shaking your heads right now. For those of you who don’t — Hello. My name is Amy. I’m a Fanilow.) The ticket was a birthday gift from my parents and we met some of their friends at the Gas House for dinner prior to the show. Can’t remember much about that meal, except that I ordered prime rib and it was delicious. Barry was awesome, of course.

The Gas House has been renovated in recent years and the décor looks beautiful, very romantic and upscale. A perfect date night destination. During the summer, they also open a deck for al fresco riverside dining, which I imagine is pretty spectacular.

Our meal on Friday night was pre-ordered, so I didn’t get a look at the menu, although I would have liked to. Soon after we sat down, our plates arrived — sliced beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, corn/bacon hash, asparagus and Hollandaise sauce. Yummy.

our entree at Don Hall’s Gas House

The meat was a little more rare than I would have ordered, but it was super tender and tasted great. I cleaned my plate.

Hall's Old Gas House on Urbanspoon

For dessert, we drove across the parking lot (it was raining, cut me some slack) to Club Soda. Love the name of this place. It’s also located in an old renovated building, but inside, it’s totally trendy with swanky martinis and contemporary cuisine.

Our desserts were already plated and waiting for us when we arrived — three big platters, each bearing a selection of gorgeous sweet treats. Strawberry shortcake layered into a martini glass, key lime pie, chocolate bourbon cake, crème brulee, a house specialty Snickers ice cream pie, and a couple of chocolate truffles. I nearly went into sugar shock just looking at it.

dessert overload at Club Soda

By that point in the evening, my stomach was reaching capacity, so I just nibbled a taste of the Snickers pie and the chocolate cake before tossing in my napkin and calling it quits.

Snickers Pie

Club Soda on Urbanspoon

With that, I returned to the hotel to regroup with my guys and beached myself on the bed for the rest of the evening. With a smile on my face.

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