Claim your steaks

Another contender has just muscled its way onto my personal favorite-steak-in-Indiana list… St. Elmo’s in Indy remains the sentimental choice, and Joseph Decuis in Roanoke certainly satisfies with hospitality and top-shelf Wagyu beef, but Chop’s Steak and Seafood in Fort Wayne has just blazed onto my scene with a sizzling debut.

Chops Steaks and Seafood in Fort Wayne

This locally owned strip mall steakhouse on the western side of town has actually been around since 2003, but only recently came to my attention thanks to a fellow freelancer friend in Fort Wayne. I had opportunity to visit for dinner last week, and was seriously impressed with what I saw and what I ate.

Be forewarned if you’re expecting a quiet evening of intimate conversation — the restaurant is on the loud side. And the signature chopped salad could have used a little more dressing (I like my salads fairly saucy), but the tender 7 oz. filet mignon I received was outstanding. It arrived atop bacon cheddar mashed potatoes with some veggies on the side, cooked to a perfectly pink-but-not-bloody medium degree of doneness just as requested. Lesson learned. I will never order steak in a restaurant anything other than medium ever again. This meat was perfection. Did I mention the big pat of horseradish butter on top, melting slowly into the beef? Aw. Yeah. My friend also was very pleased with her ginormous black and blue ribeye, giving it her best shot before crying uncle halfway through. She said the leftovers made a fabulous lunch the next day.

filet with horseradish butter

To sample the seafood, my dining companion and I shared five plump grilled shrimp, which we dunked into a cocktail glass full of cocktail sauce nearly spicy enough to rival St. E’s. One bite of this stuff made my nose tingle and my eyes water, in a good way. I was hooked.

grilled shrimp

Also worth noting — Chop’s features not one, but TEN house wines by the glass for $5.50, and what a glass it is. If it had been any more full, I would have had to slurp some off the top before being able to safely raise my glass without sloshing. The Malbec I enjoyed was light and lovely. If you’re a wine drinker, I daresay this has got to be one of the best deals in town.

To that end, Chop’s also operates an adjoining wine bar next door that serves its own highly tempting menu of trendy plates both small and large. The CWB burger on pretzel bread, pork belly sliders, Latin-spiced lamb riblets, and an Asian-inspired chicken and waffles with Korean chili-garlic glaze and a cashew slaw make me want to look at my calendar to see how quickly I can get back up to Fort Wayne again.

Our bill for two very full glasses of wine (which honestly was more like four glasses) and two entrees was right at $70, which seemed plenty fair for food and drink of this quality. If you covet red meat done right, definitely check into Chop’s on your next trip to the Fort.

For more info, visit

Chop's Steak & Seafood on Urbanspoon

Vera, Vera, Vera

This entry isn’t going to be about food, but forgive me. The material is just too good to pass up. As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last Friday touring some very cool stuff in Fort Wayne. Just some of the cool stuff, mind you, there’s way too much to see and do in a single day. For many in our group, the main attraction was a stop at the Vera Bradley outlet sale.

I’d never really explored Fort Wayne until I was sent up on a freelance assignment last year specifically to cover the Vera Bradley outlet sale, and to check out a few other attractions and restaurants as well. I didn’t do a whole lot of research ahead of time — I went in cold, and came out with the warm fuzzies. Fort Wayne is super clean, easy to navigate and holds lots of pretty green space. The city has a vibrant downtown area, tons of kid-friendly stuff to do and an awesome array of restaurants. I was seriously impressed, and all too happy to accept the invite to come up and tour again this year (thanks, Kristen!).

The Vera Bradley sale was the first scheduled stop on our day-long itinerary. After convening at the Holiday Inn up north, we hopped in vans and motored across the street to the Coliseum. Let’s chat about Vera for a minute. Here’s the skinny – the Fort Wayne-headquartered Vera Bradley company manufactures quilted bags of all shapes, sizes and patterns. (They also make accessories, stationery and some other stuff, but the bags are really their bread and butter.) Even if you don’t know the name, I’m sure you’d quickly recognize a Vera Bradley bag if you saw one. They’re EVERYWHERE. College campuses, airports, walking down the street.

My friend Theresa also insists I mention that the Vera Bradley Foundation has donated more than $10 million to breast cancer research, a worthy point.

When it comes to Vera, you’re either a fan or you aren’t. The women who are fans get absolutely hysterical about this stuff. You remember the footage of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show from way back when? Women tearing their hair out, screaming, fainting… ok, maybe it’s not quite that extreme. But these women do love their bags. I was not really a fan, until last year. I’d always thought the bags were cute, but not really my style. Little did I know about the sheer range of additional inventory to be considered. Coin purses, pretty little desk sets and notecards, grocery shopping totes, garment bags, curling iron covers, lipstick cases, aprons, pajamas, sunglasses… the list goes on and on. And, of course, the sale present a great opportunity to stock up on items to give as gifts throughout the year. We just sent my mother-in-law in Ireland a birthday bag for the second year in a row, and I’m now the proud owner of two large totes that are perfect for carrying my laptop in when I travel.

The outlet sale takes place each year in April in Fort Wayne, and the day after it ends, women start planning ahead for next year’s event. Over the course of four days, the whole shebang attracts something like 60,000 attendees from 49 states and a handful of foreign countries, pumping several million dollars into the local economy. I believe VB discounts start at 40 percent off the first day and go down incrementally throughout the sale. By Sunday, they’re practically giving the stuff away. Here’s what it looked like last year when I visited on the second day:

Vera Bradley sale 2010, birds eye view

Now lest you think you’re going to come in here and snag all the just-released new styles and patterns at half price, you’re not. (Although there was a tent out front selling some of the new lines.) The sale is meant to move products that have been discontinued or have very minor flaws, but don’t dismay. There’s still PLENTY here to choose from. You enter the expo hall, grab your pink trash bag and off you go. Shoppers troll the aisles, grabbing a wristlet here, a hipster there.

shopping in action, 2011

When you’ve gathered your stash, you retire to the perimeter of the room to sort, discarding anything you don’t want into a waiting bin which, when full, is rolled behind the scenes to be sorted and restocked.

sorting and discarding, 2010

I’d been to the sale in 2010, so I knew what to expect, and found this year’s event much calmer. Last year, I was seriously surprised not to see some catfights break out. This year, shoppers registered ahead for timed slots, keeping the lines down and the hall not quite as chaotic. However, many of these women are still on a mission and trust me, you don’t want to get in their way. They muscle down the aisles armed with shopping lists, on their cell phones taking orders as if they’re in the midst of a bidding war at an auction. God forbid you happen to try to grab the last large duffel bag just as they’re reaching for it at the same time.

I am not what you’d call a power-shopper. I like to get in and get out, so the one-hour we were allotted at the sale was perfect for me. Just enough time to make my way through everything, assemble the items I was after and pay. I still can’t see bringing myself to stand around for hours to get in and check out, but I’d certainly come back again if I can avoid the lines.

some VB loot from 2010 and 2011

One woman in my group posed a serious and thoughtful question about Vera Bradley etiquette — should one be married to the same pattern all the time and required to devote herself to amassing a full collection of items in said pattern, or is it acceptable to mix and match? Some women seem to find a pattern they like and that’s all they buy. I, on the other hand, just wing it by grabbing things here and there as the mood strikes me. I figure I can get away with it by saying I’m just a Vera Bradley beginner and don’t know any better. Vera fans, I’m counting on you to weigh in here and enlighten us as to the proper course of action.

If you’re into Vera, you should definitely try to get here for the sale. Like the Indy 500 or Mardi Gras, it’s the kind of thing everyone should see and experience at least once. Bring your sister, your mom or a couple of friends along for the ride and make a weekend of it — there is tons of stuff to do in Fort Wayne besides the sale to round out your visit. Just book early or you won’t be able to get a hotel room.

There’s an interesting camaraderie that happens among the VB followers. You see women all over town proudly toting their purchases (automatic conversation starters) and swapping war stories about the sale. A couple gals stopped me in the elevator at my hotel to admire one of my new totes, asking questions about the pattern that I’m afraid I couldn’t answer. As I exited and the doors closed behind me, I could hear them snickering to themselves “Rookie!”

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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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