Digging the scene

Quick. Complete this sentence. “Life’s a…”

My standard answer is “Life’s a garden. Dig it.” But after my inaugural visit to Indiana’s premiere food festival yesterday at White River State Park, I’m changing my answer to “Life’s a garden. Dig IN.”

The roots for Dig IN date back to 2008, when an Alice Waters event at the IMA inspired local Ivy Tech instructor Thom England and local celebri-chef Neal Brown (Libertine, Pizzology, L’Explorateur) to dream up the Taste of Indiana farm-to-fork festival to promote Indiana’s Slow Food scene and its constituents. The name transitioned to Dig IN in 2009, and the rest is history.

The 2012 roster yesterday took in some 30 chefs, several dozen producers, a handful of food trucks, microbreweries, wineries, artisan vendors and live entertainment. This was one big par-TAY for foodies.

Dig In at White River State Park in full swing, Aug. 26, 2012

My pal Laura and I met up in White River State Park about an hour after go time, and I’m glad we didn’t wait any longer than that to arrive. The place was PACKED, which was awesome. So great to see so many Hoosiers embracing the local/regional food industry in all its varied forms. (Plus, I hear some vendors actually ran out of samples even before the halfway point.)

Here’s how it works: when you enter, you get a food “passport” that basically gives you the lay of the land — who’s in what tent, what they’re serving, where to find the beer and wine, food truck row, Indiana food artisans, etc. You figure out what you want to taste based on the item descriptions, or the chef’s reputation, and hop in line to score your sample. The lines were a little intimidating at first, but we were reassured to see them moving quickly, and I don’t think we had to stand anywhere for longer than a few minutes waiting for food.

Between the two of us, we made our way through nearly a dozen lines. Overall impressions, there was a lot of corn to be had here, and a lot of pork. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but made for some overlap among the offerings. Also, although there were several fruit-based soups, I didn’t see a whole lot of dessert options. Would have loved a tiny bite of cake, brownie, pie, whatever to finish things off. I suppose in retrospect I could have just stocked up on 240Sweet marshmallows and Frittle’s Candy.

Laura and I ran into quite a few people we knew wandering around, and it was fun to compare notes on what we’d tried. Got a few great recommendations that way. So here’s what we ate:

mini bison brat from 18 on the Square, Shelbyville

First up, we jumped in the 18 on the Square line for a mini bison bratwurst with handcrafted mustard and a pickled corn/squash relish. It was a nice-sized sample and a great way to kick things off. The brat had good flavor, and the relish was a tangy vinegary counterpoint to cut the richness. I don’t know anything about Chef Joseph Martin, but I’m going to put this restaurant on my radar if I’m ever down around Shelbyville.

ricotta with peach corn puree and popcorn from Zest! and Just Pop In!

A line or two over, we tried the housemade ricotta with peach and white corn puree topped with Twisted Sistaz Popcorn. This one was a team effort between Zest! Exciting Food Creations and Just Pop In!, (perhaps they joined forces because both feature exclamation marks in their names?) It pains me to say this, because I love Zest and the eatery is one of my brunch go-tos, but I did not like this dish. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making ricotta at home, and was hoping to get some indication of how it might turn out, but I couldn’t taste it at all underneath the puree. There was also a little splash of something green (arugula?) that just didn’t do anything for me. The popcorn was good, but seemed a strange garnish, and with all the other flavors going on, I couldn’t discern the spices and curry in it.

Sun King Sunlight Cream Ale. Ahhhhh….

It being a near-90-degree day and all, we decided a cold beer was definitely in order. Options abound; you can load up on small free samples, or purchase a take-home pint glass for $6 that includes one fill (additional refills are $5 a pop). $6 for a souvenir glass and a beer is a good deal in my book. I suppose I could have tried something new, but I decided to support my buddies Clay and Dave and beelined straight to the Sun King line for a pint of Sunlight Cream Ale. You really can’t go wrong with this beer on a hot summer day.

R Bistro’s peach soup with smoked duck

Thirst quenched and ready for more food, Laura snagged a taste of chilled peach soup with a scattering of shredded duck and a radish slice on top from R Bistro and pronounced it tangy, fresh and delicious.

corn salad with pancetta from Late Harvest Kitchen

Combining the themes-of-the-day corn and pork, and doing it extremely well, Ryan Nelson and Late Harvest Kitchen offered a corn, walnut, goat cheese and pancetta salad. Fresh, crispy, creamy and flavorful. The pancetta really made this dish. Then again, bacon makes everything better if you ask me. Still can’t believe I haven’t been to eat at Late Harvest Kitchen yet. MUST get there. Soon.

Fermenti Artisan’s garden kraut with Capriole Farms cheese

Laura wanted to say hi to her friend Mark Cox at Fermenti Artisan, who served a small scoop of fermented garden kraut with Capriole Farms Old Kentucky Tomme cheese. Laura loves her some sauerkraut, and said this was an especially good one.

Oakley’s lamb adobo lettuce wrap

My personal favorite dish of the day came from Oakley’s Bistro – a lamb adobo lettuce wrap. O.M.G. was it good. The tender spicy, braised lamb with a little creamy grain underneath (still trying to figure out what this was – polenta? Cous cous?) and the fresh, crunchy lettuce was a perfect flavor/texture combination. I could have eaten several of these and called it a day. I’m ashamed to say I have never been to Oakley’s Bistro for a meal despite several strong word-of-mouth recommendations, and I must rectify this wrong. A ridiculous lapse of attention on my part.

Neal Brown rocking the scene

At this point, Laura and I took a little breather to sit down and drink some water, which brings me to another cool feature of Dig IN. The organizers and volunteers kept the free bottles of water coming the entire afternoon, dropping off cases to the entertainment tents and passing them out via golf carts. We even spied Neal Brown himself playing water boy, cruising through the crowds on his golf cart like a rock star. I’m surprised people didn’t stop him to get his autograph.

Scratchtruck’s corn panna cotta with dulce de leche

Refreshed, we took a wander up to food truck row on the bridge over the White River. I wanted to try the sweet corn panna cotta with dulce de leche from Scratchtruck. Sadly, this one let me down. It could have been much better if it had been really icy cold and much firmer in texture. As it was, the temperature was on the warmish side, and the consistency was way too loose, almost like yogurt. I didn’t care for this at all, but I’m more than willing to give Scratchtruck another shot for a burger sometime, which I hear is stellar.

My Dad’s sweet corn chowder from Circle City Soups

Husband and wife Roger and Cindy Hawkins operated their respective Circle City Soups and Circle City Sweets booths side by side, just as they do their stands in City Market. (All together now…. awwwwww.) I love these folks. I actually had the pleasure of working with Roger when I was doing some temp catering several years ago at Puck’s at the IMA, and I recently interviewed Cindy for an article in the current issue of Edible Indy, so I’m thrilled to see them both doing well. Roger is the soup master; for Dig IN, he ladled up his signature My Dad’s Sweet Corn Chowder. I don’t even want to know how much cream and butter go into this recipe, but if you’re looking for an insanely rich, delicious soup, Roger’s the man. I could take a bath in this stuff. It’s that good. If you happen to be in City Market, or catch him at a farmer’s market, do yourself a favor and pick up a pint or two.

candy trio from Circle City Sweets

Likewise, Cindy’s sweets and pastries are top shelf. For Dig IN, she served a very interesting, and perfect for the occasion, trio of candies — a peach pate de fruit that was like a melt-in-your-mouth gumdrop, a creamy French nougat studded with nuts and dried fruit, and a soft caramel so good it nearly made our eyes roll back in our heads. I’ve decided I want to take a weeklong culinary vacation at Roger and Cindy’s house, and wonder what I might need to do to get invited to their next dinner party…

cantaloupe cucumber soup with creme fraiche from Meridian

Laura wanted to keep going, but I was really hitting the wall and had to call it quits. She went on to try the cantaloupe cucumber soup with basil crème fraiche and watercress pistou from Meridian, and said it was like a light, refreshing sweet/savory smoothie; and the signature Reuben from Black Swan Brewpub, which she loved. With full tummies and happy hearts, we decided to call it a day and head home.

My only suggestion on how to improve on Dig IN would be to extend it to two days, or even a full day. I don’t know if that’s even logistically possible, but there was just too much to see and sample here to cram into a couple hours without going into total gustatory overload. I really would have liked to eat more, but after so many samples, a pint of beer and a bottle of water, my belly felt like it was going to bust. In a good way.

I loved, loved, fricking LOVED this event, and I’m already looking forward to coming back next year. I suggest you do the same.

For more information,
www.digindiana.org

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Get your chicken on

If you ask me, the title of best fried chicken EVER— ok, technically, it was the best broasted chicken EVER — goes to the sadly now-defunct Miller’s Cafeteria in my hometown of Richmond, Ind. I have fond memories of family dinners in those hallowed dining rooms as I grew up in the 1970s. There was never a question about what I would order as I came through the line. White meat chicken, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, and a yeast roll. Maybe a scoop of chocolate ice cream in a little metal dish if I was feeling extra saucy.

To this day, I have never found anywhere that serves chicken as good as Miller’s, but I must give credit where credit is due. The Kopper Kettle Inn in the tiny town of Morristown, Ind. made a very respectable showing last weekend.

Morristown’s historic Kopper Kettle

I have a strong feeling Hollyhock Hill in Indianapolis strikes a very similar chord, but for old-fashioned, family-style chicken dinners with all the trimmings, the Kopper Kettle really delivers the goods. This is top-notch Hoosier comfort food fare from another era, the likes of which you’d probably find on your grandma’s table on a Sunday afternoon. If, that is, your grandma was a kick-ass cook with no concern about calories or fat intake.

We hit up Kopper Kettle on the way back to Indy from Richmond after a weekend spent exploring yard sales along the Old National Road/US 40. The place was a little hard to find, and we took a few detours down some very remote country roads (thank God for GPS), but once we arrived in Morristown, the place was impossible to miss.

one of Kopper Kettle’s many dining rooms

This place is awesome in a ladies-who-lunch kind of way. It’s housed in a former railroad-era tavern, later an inn, that still holds many original furnishings, including one owner’s collection of… you guessed it. Copper kettles.

There’s also a lovely patio leading out into gorgeous, meticulously tended gardens, and a fancy Victorian-style interior with fussy table settings and flowery murals on the walls. I was a little nervous bringing my four-year-old son into this restaurant, but he did me proud by behaving fairly well for the duration of our meal. As in most Indiana dining establishments, anything goes here by way of dress code. We saw everything from women in church finery to guys in shorts and jeans.

So. You can peruse the menu if you wish and consider stuff like broiled steak, chicken and noodles, or French-fried shrimp, but what you really want here is the fried chicken dinner. Repeat after me. “Fried chicken dinner, please.” You can thank me later.

Also, you might want to consider skipping lunch before a meal at Kopper Kettle. All dinners start off with your choice of chicken noodle or creamy onion soup, tomato juice or cottage cheese; followed by a bowl of tossed salad. (Tip — the bleu cheese dressing made in-house is FABULOUS.) Really, though, you should try to restrain yourself somewhat during these warm-up courses, because you really want to have enough room to appreciate the main event.

the fried chicken spread at Kopper Kettle

The chicken comes three pieces to a serving, fried to crispy, crunchy perfection in a cast-iron skillet. Probably using old-school lard. I don’t care. It is delicious. That’s all you need to know. In addition, each table receives sharable bowls of creamy, dreamy mashed potatoes sitting beneath a pool of melted butter, green beans with a surprising touch of sweetness, and good old Indiana sweet corn. Also drenched in butter. Don’t ask questions. Just enjoy. Pour yourself a big, healthy dollop of the creamy home-style gravy while you’re at it. It’s worth the splurge.

mmmmmmm… chicken!

If you possibly have any room left in your stomach at the end of this veritable food orgy, a scoop of ice cream with your choice of topping is included in the prix fixe. Stuffed as we were by that point, we sadly had to pass it up. In fact, we took home enough leftovers to compose another complete meal. At $16.95 a head, I daresay this may be one of the best dinner values in the state.

By the way, the servers here are outstanding, from keeping the food coming and the drinks filled to catering to the wee ones at the table and even bringing out hot moist washcloths prior to the check. They are on the ball and do not miss a trick.

All in all, if you want to feast on some straightforward classic Hoosier fare, drive the extra mileage and pay the Kopper Kettle Inn a visit. I guarantee you won’t go away hungry or disappointed.

For more information,
www.kopperkettle.com

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Hit this Bonge

Another day, another outstanding dinner. I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I’m really on a roll when it comes to great meals. Last night, two girlfriends and I enjoyed a fabulous supper at Bonge’s Tavern in Perkinsville.

Located essentially in the middle of nowhere just west of Anderson, we feared we might have gotten lost in the dark on the way up. It takes awhile to make the drive from Indy, but as it turned out, the food and ambiance were WELL worth the 40-minute or so trip.

Bonge’s Tavern on a quiet weeknight

Bonge’s (pronounced with a hard “e” – like BONG-ee) makes its home in an old barn building amid a scattering of residential houses. Festooned as it is with a huge sign and Christmas lights, you can’t miss it.

Customers come from miles around to eat here. Since the dining room isn’t large and they only take reservations for parties of 10 or more, people often find themselves cooling their heels in the gravel parking lots. During the summer months, tailgating makes the wait much more interesting.

As it was, our visit took place on a chilly winter Tuesday night, so there was no one hanging around playing cornhole outside. We didn’t have to wait for a table, but the place was still fairly busy. The décor is cozy, borderline country-kitschy, the kind of place you might expect to receive a good solid serving of barbecue or fried chicken. But no. While still familiar and accessible to most central Indiana palates, this food is upscale and top-shelf when it comes to quality. Think fine dining food without the stuffy, fine dining atmosphere.

Bonge’s Tavern menu on the night of our visit

We settled in and warmed up with a spicy, fruity bottle of Australian Shiraz as we considered our options. There are no hard copy menus; the give-or-take half dozen entree choices are simply scrawled on a chalkboard above the bar — a short list of meat, poultry and fish. No vegetarian options to speak of, although you could easily make a meal out of soup, salad, bread and dessert and be quite happy about it.

Our server ran down the menu with us and described the preparations of each item, which made decision-making even more difficult because everything sounded wonderful. Finally, I went for the Perkinsville pork, and my friends ordered the Harger duck and the scallops. The beer-braised brisket also sounded tempting, as did the NY strip with whiskey peppercorn sauce. So did the chicken breast topped with crab. Heck, it all made my mouth water!

All dinners start with a cup of Bonge’s famous creamy tomato soup or a wedge salad with housemade blue cheese or raspberry vinaigrette dressing. I’m a blue cheese junkie, so I got the salad and my like-minded friends both followed suit. We regretted not at least tasting the soup, though, so Laura asked our server if we could just have a little sample to try. Lo and behold, they brought us each a tiny ramekin, and it was delicious. Topped with croutons, it tasted like a great homemade chunky but creamy tomato soup with a little bit of chili seasoning.

Bonge’s wedge salad

Our salads arrived — massive wedges of iceberg lettuce drenched in awesome blue cheese dressing. I gnawed my way through half or so, trying to save room for the entrée still to come.

the Perkinsville pork

So on to the meat… excuse me. I must take a moment as I remember this food. It was that good. My Perkinsville pork was a tender and flavorful pounded-thin cutlet topped with a lemon slice to squeeze over, on par with the authentic schnitzels I’ve enjoyed in Germany.

the Hargar duck

Laura’s Harger duck was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or tasted. The breast was rolled and stuffed with a jalapeno-laced cream cheese filling; then wrapped with bacon, cooked and topped with a spicy plum barbecue sauce. It sounds strange on paper, but oh. So. Good.

scallops with caper butter

Michelle’s plump scallops were delectably fresh, perfectly cooked and topped with her choice of flavored butter. She went for the caper butter, a perfect complement to the meaty shellfish.

All our entrees were served with a few roasted potatoes and a couple of asparagus spears, which were all fine and dandy, but really took a back seat to the proteins. And you can forget the boring old baguette, the breadbasket here contains squares of super-moist and yummy jalapeno cornbread.

As we were finishing up, a couple of obvious regulars leaving from the next table had seen me taking photos and stopped by to rave about this place. Not that I needed any convincing. Hand on heart, everything we ate was spectacular. The only downside was that we were too stuffed to order a dessert. I can’t wait to come back again.

Bonge’s Tavern is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and admittance is 21 and up only, so plan your visit accordingly.

For more information, www.bongestavern.com.

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Destination dining at its best

I know what you’re thinking. “Roanoke? Where the heck is Roanoke? I don’t want to drive nearly two hours from Indianapolis just to have dinner at some little place out in the middle of nowhere!”

Trust me. Yes. You do. Because this little tiny town is home to Joseph Decuis, master of fine dining, accommodations and all things hospitable. This enterprise encompasses a lovely B&B, restaurant, culinary classes and events, and a cafe-style emporium/gourmet market.

Joseph Decuis in Roanoke

I stayed at the Joseph Decuis Inn in two summers ago when I was in nearby Huntington for a freelance gig, and regretted not having a chance to eat at the restaurant then. So when I knew I’d be coming back to the area this week, a dinner reservation here was the first plan I made.

As I write this, I’m once again relaxing in the cozy confines of the inn (I’m actually the only guest this evening and have the whole place to myself! Winning!), rubbing my contently full belly and dreamily smiling as I think of the meal I’ve just consumed at the Joseph Decuis restaurant down the street.

the dining room view from my table

I could wax on all night about the cozy ambiance, the attentive service,and the adorable setting of Roanoke itself. But instead, I’ll let the food speak for itself.

roasted beets starter

My meal started off with an absolutely gorgeous chef-chosen appetizer of roasted baby beets with frisee lettuce, local honey, slices of Capriole Farms’ Old Kentucky Tomme cheese and a scattering of crunchy pistachios. Perhaps I should mention, I don’t like beets. This dish made me a believer. I could not stop eating it.

Wagyu beef filet

My entrée was the house specialty Wagyu beef, raised specifically for Joseph Decuis at the nearby Heritage Farms. If the quality of this meat is any indication, those cows are living the life of Donald Trump. My filet was incredibly flavorful and so tender, I barely needed to chew it. It was served atop perhaps the richest potato puree I’ve ever tasted with a beany succotash of sorts and a splash of red wine Bordelaise sauce. Amazing.

chocolate pecan bourbon bliss

I knew what I wanted for dessert before I even sat down. I spied a crazy delicious-looking pecan-dressed chocolate cake on the counter while I was taking some preliminary photos, and nothing could sway me. Not even the mocha pumpkin crème brulee or caramel pot de crème, which both also sounded terribly decadent. Nope. It was chocolate bourbon pecan cake all day, served with a quenelle of nearly pudding-like vanilla bean whipped cream and a bourbon sauce. This dessert was so good, it should have been illegal.

Fair warning – this is fine dining and these eats aren’t cheap, but the quality and overall experience make Joseph Decuis a splurge everyone who loves food should find a way to experience.

For more information, visit www.josephdecuis.com.

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Sweet spot

If you live in east central Indiana, you’re probably already acquainted with the exquisite chocolates of Ghyslain Chocolatier, but if you haven’t yet made time to stop in for a meal at Ghyslain’s Richmond Bistro, you need to. Soon.

Ghyslain (pronounced JEEZ-lay, as best I can tell) Maurais is a renowned French-Canadian pastry chef who met and married a Hoosier gal named Susan; the couple relocated to her hometown of Union City, Ind., where they established Ghyslain Chocolatier in 1998. The company has since grown to include satellite shops and eateries in Richmond and Zionsville, and opened a fourth location in Louisville last spring.

Ghyslain Bistro in Richmond

I visited the Richmond bistro on Saturday night with two girlfriends as part of a “Just Us Girls” overnight trip to Wayne County. Located in the up-and-coming Historic Depot District, Ghyslain makes its home in an old rehabbed industrial building. The open, airy dining room looks almost chocolaty, all done up in an elegant shade of deep, rich brown with baby blue accents.

The confectionary cases are front and center as soon as you walk in the door, a smart move. You’re already whetting your appetite for dessert before you even order your meal, and trust me, there’s no way you want to miss dessert here.

The dinner menu changes seasonally and offers just a small handful of well-conceived and expertly executed starters. Four entrees cover all the bases with fish, chicken, beef and vegetarian options.

We began our meal with glasses of wine from a very respectable list of choices, a basket of fresh bread with whipped butter, and a shared charcuterie platter that may have been my favorite part of the meal. Between the three of us, we each managed to sample a bite or two of all the delectable items on the plate, and there were plenty to enjoy.

Ghyslain’s sharable charcuterie

Most of the bits and bobs on the charcuterie plate were self-explanatory, but we did ask our server to give us a quick rundown of the meats. Thinking back now, I can’t even remember exactly what was included, I just know that everything was delicious. The memory of a small disk of duck salami brings a smile to my face, not to mention a great proscuitto and a couple other cured delicacies. I’m curious whether the meats are made in house or sourced from somewhere else.

Cheesewise, we received a small hunk of cheddar, a little wedge of brie, a slice of goat cheese and a few crumbles of blue. The goat cheese was my favorite, especially when I smeared a little on a slice of bread and topped it off with a dollop of sweet-but-not-too-sweet fig jam. Blueberries, blackberries, gherkins and candied pecans rounded out the platter. Seriously, with a glass of wine and a dessert, this could easily be a meal in and of itself. For me, anyway.

Ghyslain’s take on salad

My friend Eileen ordered an interesting composed salad, sort of like a deconstructed Caesar, although it wasn’t a Caesar. The lightly dressed lettuce took center stage, arranged in a diagonal mound across the plate and topped with freshly made croutons. A few spears of asparagus filled out one corner, several slices of crispy bacon the other. Very attractive, although it could have used just a little bit more dressing.

I must also mention the adorable white ceramic salt cellars on each table, filled with three kinds of salt and a little informational card to explain the origins of each — black Hawaiian sea salt, fleur de sel and a pretty pink Himalayan salt. A cute and thoughtful detail, and I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the flavors of each salt.

To spread the love around, we each ordered a different protein for our entrees. The plate presentations were elegant, but fairly simple, complemented by nicely cooked carrots and roasted potatoes. (Our server said they’d run out of the asparagus that should have completed the plate, but offered to make up the difference to us in more of either the carrots or potatoes.)

the morel chicken

My choice was advertised as “morel chicken.” As it turned out, morel referred to the rich mushroom sauce spooned over the sliced breast as opposed to actual pieces of morel mushrooms that you could really sink your teeth into. That was a bit of a letdown, although the chicken was certainly juicy and the sauce tasted very good. I am the daughter and sister of a pair of serious local mushroom hunters, so when you promise me morels, I get excited about it. Mushroom season is in May, though, not in December, so I guess I should have known better than to expect fresh morels this time of year.

steak and shrimp entree

My friends seemed very happy with their respective selections of mahi mahi with rice and veggies, and a beautiful surf-and-turf dish of steak and shrimp. My friend Laura said it was one of the best steaks she’d had in a long time. Portion sizes are reasonable, but definitely not gigantic. We cleaned our plates.

After we’d finished our dinners, our server invited us to walk up and take a gander at the dessert counter. You simply order what you want on the spot, they hand it over and add it to your bill. We probably spent a good ten minutes just considering the choices before deciding on two to share. These desserts, like the signature chocolates in the next counter over, are GORGEOUS works of art. We asked the woman behind the counter what she’d recommend, and she proceeded to give us a detailed description of just about everything in the case. Some of these beauties are so labor-intensive, they require three days just to produce and assemble the various components. They are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

the key lime tart

We finally settled on a key lime tart, a sweet-tart creation that looked like an art deco building you’d find in South Beach, and a Charlemagne made of chocolate cake and mousse surrounded by small tiles of white and dark chocolate and topped with a mountain of chocolate shavings on top. It goes without saying that both were ridiculously good.

the Charlemagne

Don’t come here if you’re in a hurry; the pace at Ghyslain is leisurely. This is a genuine dining experience, not fast food. The dining room was pretty full and there was a party of 15 or so seated next to us, so service might have been slightly slower than normal. No matter, we weren’t in any hurry. We arrived for our reservation at 7 p.m., lingered and were the last customers to leave when they closed at 10 p.m.

With choices like pecan chicken salad croissants, Caprese salad, a Mediterranean platter, muffaletta and a croque monsieur panini, the lunch menu is more extensive, less expensive, and sounds more my speed than the dinner offerings. I’ll come back mid-day next time.

Ghyslain Bistro is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, and only offers dinner on Friday and Saturday night, so plan your visit accordingly. Of course, you can also stop in and satisfy your sweet tooth with those insanely creative and delicious chocolates and desserts any old time.

For more information: www.ghyslain.com

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Get outta town!

Girls just want to have fun, and a “Just Us Girls” packaged trip in Richmond, Ind. and Wayne County offered two of my best gal pals and me the perfect opportunity to do just that over the weekend.

In addition to the fabulous food, great shopping venues, and array of discount coupons and freebies we enjoyed as part of the package, the highlight of our trip was an overnight stay at the Historic Lantz House Inn, a beguiling bed and breakfast in Centerville.

the lovely Lantz House Inn

Daniel Lantz, a wagon maker, originally constructed the handsome brick Federal-style home along the Old National Road (now U.S. 40) in the early 1800s. The property takes in three separate buildings connected by a graceful arch, a distinctive architectural detail common to Centerville during that era.

These days, the Lantz House is owned and operated by Marcia Hoyt, a Richmond native who returned to the area in 1992 after a period of time living in Oregon. Marcia spent two years lovingly restoring the historic property before opening its doors to the public as an inn in 1994. Since then, Marcia’s dedicated efforts have garnered plenty of attention and media recognition, including an appearance on the cover of Midwest Living magazine in December 1996.

the cozy Lantz House Inn sitting room

From the moment we stepped through the door, we felt comfortable and comforted. A cozy fire burned in the sitting room, beckoning us to sit down and relax. It couldn’t have been more charming right off the bat, and neither could Marcia. After a little get-to-know-you chat, she showed us to our rooms. Throughout the home, the furnishings are an eclectic but tasteful mix of antique, traditional and contemporary items.

Upstairs are four spacious bedrooms (rates run from $103 to $136 per night plus tax), along with a common area where guests can kick back to read or watch TV. The sleeping spaces are outfitted in simple and elegant Shaker-style beds, and each includes its own en-suite bathroom.

We felt so at home here, we passed on the chance to stay out late drinking so we could come back to the inn and watch Saturday Night Live in our pajamas. Heaven for three busy moms like us!

fresh fruit first course

After a very restful night’s sleep in our peaceful surroundings (I’m embarrassed to say one of my friends actually had to knock on my door and wake me up at 10 a.m.), we feasted on the sumptuous breakfast Marcia prepared – fresh fruit with a tangy orange yogurt sauce, her signature soufflé-like lemon ricotta pancakes with sausage links, and all the coffee we could drink.

Marcia’s signature lemon ricotta pancakes

After our leisurely meal, we had to reluctantly admit it was time to pack up, check out, and get on with the rest of our Just Us Girls getaway, although we all agreed we could easily have spent the entire weekend just relaxing at the Lantz House and been perfectly happy about it.

This time of year, Centerville’s charming holiday decorations make for a lovely stroll up and down Main Street. In the spring and summer, the gardens alone are worth a visit to the Lantz House. Full of native bushes, trees and perennials, the verdant green space is home to hostas, wildflowers and a majestic century-old gingko tree — all provide a beautiful backdrop for weddings, events or just a quiet afternoon in the sun. I guess we’ll just have to plan to make a return trip…

For more information:

www.lantzhouseinn.com

www.visitrichmond.org

A Story worth repeating

Hubby and I enjoyed, sort of, what could have been a very romantic evening last weekend in Brown County. Read on and I’ll explain later…

Last Friday saw us spending the night at the adorable Story Inn, about 10 miles south of Nashville, Ind. in the miniscule village of Story. Calling Story a village is something of a stretch. As far as I can tell, the whole shebang consists of the inn, a farm or two, and a stop sign. It is, however, a supremely peaceful, idyllic little escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday bigger city life. Don’t expect to find wi-fi, televisions or even alarm clocks in the rooms at Story Inn. You’ll be lucky if you get cell phone reception. There’s really no choice here but to relax. This is not a bad thing. It’s perfectly ok to switch off and be inaccessible every once in a while.

the charming Story Inn

We basically spent our evening at Story chilling out in our rustic cabin digs, and meandering down a big gravel hill in the moonlight to enjoy dinner at the inn. The on-site restaurant is the only food option for miles, unless you fancy making the 20-minute-or-so drive into Nashville up a series of twisty country roads guaranteed to make you carsick.

When all is said and done, the Story Inn food and ambiance are worth the trip. The farmhouse-style décor in the restaurant is cozy and intimate, but totally casual. In keeping with the rest of the whole Story Inn experience, meals are a leisurely affair. So much so that the web site suggests allowing at least two hours for dinner.

For such an out-of-the-way location and small-town vibe, the Story Inn cranks out some impressively high-quality food. The menu is small, but servings are generous and ingredients are familiar, yet still fancy enough to be upscale. Locavore to the core, the menu graciously recognizes an array of local producers and suppliers.

the Story salad

To start, we quickly scarfed down warm slices of sourdough-esque table bread along with a Story salad consisting of mixed greens, goat cheese, apples and pecans.

chicken dinner Story Inn-style

Hubby liked his chicken breast with gingered peaches, corn pudding and roasted vegetables, and even tolerated the onions sprinkled in here and there. Now THAT’s saying something.

spicy tomato vegetable risotto

My vegetarian entrée of delectable roasted baby artichokes, tomatoes, olives and feta over lemon risotto was beautiful and delicious as well, with a surprisingly spicy tomato broth that really brought it all together. For dessert, we shared a sinfully rich chocolate pot de crème buried under a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

chocolate pot de creme

Did I mention the Story Inn offers a top-shelf wine and beer selection, along with full bar service? The Manhattan(s) I sipped were perfectly mixed, and hubby enjoyed his Upland Wheat beer served as it was in a Mason jar. All told, we agreed that Story Inn was an out-of-the-way find worth discovering, and we slowly made our way back up the hill to our settle into our charming accommodations for the night.

So, yes, it could have been a wonderfully romantic evening if it weren’t for two hiccups — No. 1 being the fact that we had our two boys along for the ride (our three-year-old son and my seven-year-old stepson). And No. 2 being that said seven-year-old stepson woke up barfing his brains out at 3 a.m., poor little dude. Eight words you never want to hear in the middle of the night: “My tummy hurts. I need a trash can.”

Next time, I think we’ll arrange to leave the kiddos at home.

For more information,

www.storyinn.com

Story Inn on Urbanspoon