Say cheese

I believe I mentioned in a post awhile back my penchant for pretty platters laden with cheese, bread, crackers, fruit, nuts, what have you… Hubby and I recently found ourselves amid a veritable jackpot of newly launched Ludwig Farmstead Creamery artisan cheeses and were all too happy to assemble a dinnertime cheese board to sample the wares, rounding out our spread with a baguette, hard salami, kalamata olives and some sliced cucumbers. An ideal summertime meal when it’s scorching hot outside and you don’t feel like firing up the stove.

Ludwig Farmstead Creamery cheeses

Under the capable direction of Zionsville-based cheesemaster Fons Smits (formerly of Traders Point Creamery and an international dairy consultant), Ludwig is turning out some damn fine specimens.

Now, let me preface this review by saying that I am not by any means a cheese expert, nor have I ever played one on TV. I just know what I like when I taste it. So without further ado, let me bring you along on a little virtual Ludwig cheesetasting tour:

Feather Ridge is the company’s bestseller, inspired by hearty European cheeses like Fontina, Vacherin and Mobier. This firm number eats smooth with a little tweak of sharpness on the finish. I couldn’t help but think it would taste fantastic grated over some pasta or maybe on a pizza.

Feather Ridge

The Jake’s Wheel havarti has a mild, mellow nature that lends itself to experimentation, but its semi-soft texture and buttery flavor is plenty delicious on its own merits. Perfect sliced on a crunchy little cracker with perhaps a smear of mustard underneath.

The talented Mr. Smits is having fun infusing this cheese with ingredients as the mood strikes him to produce variations that include, say, bits of Moody Meats bacon (a guaranteed hit with most Midwesterners); fenugreek, a love-it-or-hate-it herb/spice that vaguely calls to mind Indian cuisine; spicy habanero peppers (Fons says this cheese has a small but very enthusiastic fan base); Dutch garden herbs; Italian herbs; and Asian spices. I like the Dutch garden herb with its bright, pretty blend of mixed green herbs. It looks gorgeous, and tastes delicious – do I detect a little bit of dill here? I love dill.

Jake’s Wheel, Dutch garden variety

The Kickapoo, named in honor of a state park near the Indiana-Illinois border not far from where the Ludwig Farm is located, is creamy in texture with a fresh flavor and a tiny hint of sweetness. My three-year-old loved this cheese, gobbling up each bite I gave him and asking for more. I plan to try to melt some on toast or use it for a grilled cheese and see how it goes over.

Kickapoo

Blue cheese fans, sit up and take notice. Fons is toying around with a Kickapoo that includes a stripe of blue cheese culture running through the middle. If you like an extra-bold blue cheese that really brings the funk, this probably won’t pack enough pungent punch for you. However, if you’re looking for just a subtle hint of flavor that won’t overpower — a good starter blue cheese, if you will — this baby should be right up your alley.

Kickapoo blue

Traditional Dutch Farmstead Gouda is perhaps closest to Fons’ own heart, being a native Dutchman and all. A good, solid all-around cheese for sandwiches, salads, whatever.

You can currently find the lovely Ludwig cheeses for sale (and free sampling!) at the Zionsville Farmers Market on Saturday mornings; check the web site for updated product news and a list of other retail outlets. The cheeses are also available to order online.

For more information:

http://ludwigfarmsteadcreamery.com/

Nashville nosh

I graduated from Indiana University in the early 1990s, and Bloomington will always hold a special place in my heart, but I never really spent any time in nearby Nashville or Brown County except for an occasional drive-through on trips back home when I felt like taking the country route. When you consider how crazy scenic and charming the whole area is, this seems downright disrespectful. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to right my wrong.

beautiful Brown County State Park

Between stints of walking through the adorable shops of Nashville proper, horseback riding, journeying the annual artist studio and gardens tour through some of the most outerlying rural terrain, and an overnight stay at Abe Martin Lodge on the grounds of gorgeous Brown County State Park, I enjoyed some tasty meals.

Words that come to mind when I think of Nashville and Brown County: cute, small-town, old-fashioned, country, charming. Cutting-edge cuisine? Nope. But that’s perfectly ok. If you’re looking for fancy four-star meals full of frills and garnishes, keep on driving. If you’re in the mood for the kind of nostalgic, old-school eats you’ve probably grown up on (if you were born and raised in Indiana, that is), you’ve come to the right place.

Case in point — Hob Nob Corner is about as old-school as you can get in this neck of the woods. Literally. It’s housed in the Taggart Building at the corner of Main and Van Buren, the oldest commercial building in town and dating back to 1873 (the restaurant’s been operating here since 1973).

Hob Nob Corner Restaurant

These days, visitors flock for down-home breakfasts along the lines of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash, oatmeal and French toast. (I was surprised to see huevos rancheros on the menu, it was the only nod to ethnic food I noticed anywhere the entire weekend.) And of course, you can’t call yourself a real-deal breakfast joint in Indiana without serving classic biscuits and gravy. I’ll bet it’s good here, although I opted for the pancakes with bacon on the side.

Hob Nob pancakes

Hubby filled up on the basic breakfast of two eggs, toast and bacon, and added on a slice of country ham to boot cause that’s how he rolls.  (Hubby wants me to mention that he had just biked 70 miles from Indy to Nashville the day prior, and that’s why he needed the extra protein…) Everything was down-home delicious.

hubby’s Hob Nob brekkie

Hobnob Corner on Urbanspoon

For dinner, we visited Brown County’s hometown microbrewery, Big Woods Brewing Company. If we lived down here, I have a feeling this place would claim a lot of our time and money. Like most places in Nashville, the décor is all rustic wood lodge with high beamed ceilings. Big Woods is newer than most, open just since November 2009. The vibe feels a little like Thr3e Wise Men here in Indy, except Big Woods isn’t kid-friendly. The clientele is strictly 21 and up.

The food at Big Woods is probably the most new-fangled of any I saw in town. On the menu — a half dozen or so housemade microbrews (the refreshing Six-Foot Blonde was just our speed), along with a selection of pizzas, sandwiches and apps.

Big Woods Six Foot Blonde Ale

The spinach artichoke dip and Emily’s Garden veggie pizza we shared both arrived piping hot and loaded with super-fresh ingredients. Highly recommend.

Emily’s Garden pizza at Big Woods Brewing Company

Big Woods Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

As an IU grad, several people told me I HAD to make sure I visited that sandwich place… I thought they were speaking non-specifically, but no. The name of the restaurant is actually That Sandwich Place, and anyone with any amount of interest in IU basketball needs to put lunch or breakfast here on their Brown County itinerary.

Visiting this eatery is like worshipping at the church of Bobby Knight. The walls, counters, columns, ceilings — every possible surface is covered with memorabilia, some items ranging back as far as the early 1970s. Seems the restaurant opened around the same time Knight arrived in Bloomington and the owner remains a personal friend. Love him or hate him, Knight is an undeniably charismatic figure that demands attention. An oversized General doll in a glass case holds court (get it???) over the restaurant from its post by the register.

all hail, the General

Down a short flight of stairs, subterranean That Sandwich Place serves simple greasy-spoon breakfast and lunch fare. There’s not a ton of stuff to choose from, just a handful of sandwiches complemented by fries, cole slaw and deviled eggs, and a hi-calorie salad laden with ham, cheese and sunflower seeds. No joke, that’s what it’s called. They are not messing around with any diet food here. At least they’re upfront about it.

tenderloin platter at That Sandwich Place

Hubby and I split a Piggy Wiggy tenderloin platter. The thin crispy pork patty was obviously pre-formed, and reminded me of the kind of sandwich I grew up eating at the local drive-ins in Richmond. Good fries, too.

We ate with wide-eyed wonder, taking in the ambiance. Indiana, oh Indiana, we ARE all for you.

That Sandwich Place on Urbanspoon

Bon appetit, Brown County!

For more info:

http://www.browncounty.com/

http://www.browncounty.com/listing/hobnob-corner-restaurant

http://www.bigwoodsbeer.com/

(Can’t find a web site for That Sandwich Place. Guess you’ll just have to go there and see it for yourself.)

Blazing the Chocolate Trail

Last week, I had the delicious pleasure of daytripping down the Chocolate Trail of Wayne County. CVB leisure marketing director (and fellow Richmond native) Nancy Sartain proved a great host for this undertaking. Really, who isn’t on the lookout for an excuse to justify eating more chocolate?

I grew up in Richmond, but the trail promotion is a relatively recent addition to the local tourism scene, and one I wasn’t familiar with until just a few months ago. While I have randomly visited a couple of the Chocolate Trail businesses on prior occasions, many of the stops were brand-new experiences for me.

Here’s how the Chocolate Trail works – you swing into the (very nicely organized) visitors center on the east side of town near the intersection of U.S. 40 and I-70. There, you pick up a list of participating Chocolate Trail businesses, a chocolate passport and discount coupons. Then you get your sweet tooth on and set off to hit the trail in any order you choose. Best of all, the promotion is totally free to take part in, no purchase necessary.

At each of the nearly dozen stops on the trail, all you have to do is present your passport to receive free samples and chocolate-related giveways. It’s like Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one!

The businesses that make up the trail are quite a diverse collection, and not strictly just chocolate shops and candy stores. Amid the stops, you’ll encounter J&J Winery, Warm Glow Candle Outlet, Maria Mitrone’s Italian Market, the SOS Craft Shop and a couple of antique dealers in Cambridge City.

On the chocolate side of things, you’ll find yourself stopping in the swanky Ghyslain Chocolatier, hometown favorite Olympian Candies, and Hagerstown’s answer to the best caramels ever, Abbott’s Candy Factory.

This is a lot of territory to cover in a single day, but you can do like I did and ask if it’s ok to take your samples with you. Even for a chocoholic like me, ingesting that much sugar in one day just isn’t a good idea. There are a few freebies you do have to enjoy on site, like the scoop of chocolate ice cream you’ll receive at Maria Mitrione’s and a glass of chocolate wine at J&J. Be aware and plan your visits accordingly.

When my personal chocolate trail trip was all said and done, I had amassed chocolate samples from Ghyslain, Olympian and Abbott’s; a little box of fudge from Pour House Antiques and Sweets; chocolate jelly beans and a single chocolate pearl from Building 125 antiques in Cambridge City; an oversized Grandma’s Brownie-scented votive from Warm Glow; and a chocolate brown potscrubber from SOS Craft Shop. (Did I mention, I got all this stuff for FREE???) You should have seen hubby’s and son’s eyes light up as I unwrapped all my loot to show off. I had to hide the chocolates and treats in the back of the fridge behind a bag of arugula to prevent them from scarfing it all down in one sitting.

A few edible impressions:

Ghyslain’s gorgeous handpainted chocolates

• Ghyslain Chocolatier’s products are beautiful and tasty works of art. Accordingly, they are also the priciest of the bunch. The hand-painted signature items come in adorable shapes like butterflies (my favorite), turtles, fans and horseshoes.

Olympian Candies on the Promenade

• The soft Greek-recipe cream fillings at Olympian Candies are ooey-gooey heaven, try the dark chocolate lemon cream for an interesting and delicious combination.

• The old-fashioned flavor of the Smith Dairy chocolate ice cream you’ll get at the Maria Mitrione’s soda fountain took me right back to my childhood with just one lick. (Can’t wait to come back here for lunch sometime at the Italian market deli.)

Pour House fudge varieties

• It’s nearly impossible to choose just one flavor of fudge to sample at the Pour House counter. Peanut butter, rocky road, amaretto swirl, maple nut, plain old chocolate – whatever you select, rest assured it will be fabulous.

Abbott’s chocolate counter

Abbott’s Candy Factory‘s buttery soft caramels can’t be beat, but their chocolates are darn good, too. The coconut cream I sampled held real bits of chewy coconut encased in dark chocolate. Mmm.

I made a few additional purchases throughout the day to take advantage of my Chocolate Bucks discounts, and was all too happy to do so. This is a great grouping of local businesses that deserve support, and the trail is a fun way to explore some of the best tastes Wayne County has to offer.

It’s fun to learn something new about a place you thought you already knew everything about.

For more information, go to:

http://www.visitrichmond.org/files/Chocolate%20Trail%20Brochure.pdf

Read all about it

Research for this assignment took me on a very enjoyable trip through Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati back in March for Indianapolis Monthly. My Lexington adventure is covered in the current issue of the magazine on stands now, along with an article I wrote about the Indiana Wine Trail.

The Louisville and Cincinnati coverage is available for your viewing pleasure at the newly revamped Indianapolis Monthly web site:

http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/features/Story.aspx?ID=1423515

Check it out if you’re in the market for a long weekend getaway this summer, or even just some armchair traveling!

Morel of the story

My dad, a native Hoosier from Vincennes, and my brother, born and raised in Richmond, are avid outdoorsmen. This time of year, this can only mean one thing. Mushrooms.

Around the second or third week in April when the weather alternates between rain and 70-degree sunny days, they start getting the itch. All it takes is one rumor of sightings to make their eyes light up in anticipation. The next thing you know, they’re spending every spare second tromping through the woods in hot pursuit of these fickle beauties.

Indiana wild mushrooms are only available for a very short window each spring, a few weeks between late April and mid-May, depending on the weather. That’s what makes them so coveted; you have to wait all year to enjoy them. By the time they finally arrive, you’ve whetted your appetite for 11 months. Of course they’re going to taste good!

Each mushroom aficionado has his or her own sacred hunting territory, and good luck getting any hint as to the location of these favored secret spots. Some folks are even lucky enough to find the elusive little fungi boldly popping up in their own back yards, although I think those stories are nothing more than urban legend.

My dad likes to tell a tale about taking me along on a mushroom hunting expedition when I was about four years old. After an hours-long romp through the woods turned up nothing, I was tired and whiny. As dad slung me up into his arms and turned to carry me back to the car, he glimpsed a mushroom. Then another. And another. Jackpot. Forced to choose between an exhausted little girl bucking to go home and a veritable grove of mushroom bounty right in front of him, ripe for the picking. I’m sure he had tears in his eyes as he reluctantly toted me out of there.

If you like mushrooms, you NEED to taste an Indiana morel. Fresh, their flavor isn’t like any kind you find in the grocery store; it’s wilder, gamier and meatier. It’s a shroom you can really sink your teeth into, not like those bland little white button deals or those overhyped exotic varieties. I enjoy those as well, but I find you really have to season the heck out of them to give them any sort of personality.

And speaking of the supermarket, don’t you dare spend $20 or $30 a pound for the pathetic measly dried morels you find there. Befriend a mushroom hunter and start sucking up pronto. Lots of people have a mushroom source, just ask around and you might be surprised to find out that your unassuming office mate is actually a mushroom superman in disguise. These folks are more popular than crack dealers this time of year; bribes might be in order if you hope to find yourself on the receiving end of a batch of mushrooms.

Besides the pretty, spongy, yellow morels — the most prized of the bunch — you can also eat a kind of mushrooms my dad calls spikes (I’ve also heard these referred to as “peckerheads,” which I find much funnier). Make sure you’re getting your mushrooms from a trusted source so you know you’re eating the safe variety. Don’t go picking any old toadstool you find in your yard and tossing it into a deep fryer. You do NOT want to mess around here — nearly everything but morels and spikes is poisonous and can cause serious and potentially fatal health consequences if ingested.

When you can get your hands on the right mushrooms, however, it’s culinary bliss. Just as everyone has a spot for hunting, everyone has a favorite method when it comes to preparation. Morels are usually best battered and fried, although I’ve also seen them simply sautéed and sometimes making appearances in sauces at upscale restaurants. I prefer them fried. I’m an Indiana girl, after all…

Many people rely on a simple egg/flour dip before tossing the shrooms in a frying pan, but my dad swears by a seasoning mix called Drake’s. That’s what I used last night when I tried my hand at frying them for the first time. My dad and brother are the resident experts when it comes to fixing mushrooms at our house, so I’ve always just enjoyed up to this point without ever having to do anything to earn the honor. My dad came over for Easter weekend and brought with him a big batch of spikes that he left to me to take care of. Around suppertime, I got out all my frying accoutrement, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As the vegetable oil heated up on my trusty old Chambers gas cooktop, I measured out the Drake’s and mixed it in a solution of half water and half beer (Thr3e Wise Men Snow Bunny Blonde, to be exact). I set aside a small stack of mushrooms for my test batch. A quick dip in the batter and then into the oil they went. I made the rookie mistake of trying to fry too many mushrooms at once and my first effort fused into a big doughy mass that I had to flip over like a giant pancake. Still, I was able to break them up once I took them out of the pan without affecting the taste. Grease splattered everywhere. When it was all said and done, the stovetop looked like a war zone and I was covered head to toe with a thin film of oil that still hasn’t come out even after a thorough hair washing.

Tentatively, I took a first bite. Greasy, salty, meaty goodness! Hallelujah – I am my father’s daughter! Mushrooms are deliciously addictive straight up and outrageously good in an omelet, but I piled a stack of the crunchy little morsels onto a piece of Miracle Whip-slathered bread for a heavenly sandwich. And, I was thrilled when my stepson and son tied into the platter like they hadn’t seen food all day. (I guess they hadn’t really, stuffing themselves instead on the contents of their Easter baskets.)

my little mushroom eaters

Feeling much more confident, I fried up the remaining mushrooms and took them down to our neighbors, where they were equally well received and eaten on sandwiches with mustard (note to self — must try). My husband refused to even taste a single mushroom. He did, however, clean up the massive mess I’d made of the kitchen while I was down the street visiting. Thanks for having my back, babe.

France can keep its snobby truffles. I’ll take my Indiana morels any day.

The talented Mr. Tallent

Hubby and I escaped for a brief overnight visit to Bloomington this weekend in honor of my pending 40th (gulp) birthday in two days. This is not how things were supposed to play out.

The trip was originally meant to be a surprise jaunt to Montreal, courtesy of hubby’s ingenuity and massive frequent flyer miles. He selected a lovely boutique hotel and polled my friends to cover childcare for the toddler, although he did unintentionally let the location slip a few weeks ago. We had a series of babysitters all lined up, our bags were packed, and we were good to go. Or so we thought. You know what they say about the best-laid plans…

We were scheduled to leave for the airport Friday morning around 8 a.m. Unfortunately, the toddler kept us up a good part of Thursday night coughing his little head off. He wasn’t sick exactly, but he wasn’t right, either. When the alarm went off at 7 a.m. after a fitful couple hours of sleep, we debated about the best course of action. As my friend Christina so aptly summarized the Murphy’s Law of parenting: if you stay, he’ll be fine. If you leave, he’ll come down with pneumonia.

Hubby thought we should move forward with the trip as planned, but left the final decision up to me. Being the slightly neurotic, often over-reactive mom that I am and knowing I’d spent the whole weekend worrying about the little man, I finally caved and said that I didn’t think we should go. So all bets were off. Hubby got on the phone to cancel the flights and hotel reservation. We did recoup some of the expense and wrote off the rest with a hard swallow and a “c’est la vie.”

Disappointed and pissed off, we went about our usual business for the day, doing yard work and spring cleaning. Not how I’d hoped to be spending what should have been a romantic birthday weekend with my hubby. The toddler, of course, was fine. He did keep coughing, but seemed to feel just dandy. Fortunately, our friends who were lined up to babysit kept their offers open, so we dropped the little man to Laura and Colin’s house for a few hours Friday night and headed downtown to do a little beertasting at Sun King Brewery.

I just wrote a profile about Sun King for an upcoming issue of Indianapolis Dine, so I’ll make you wait for the full scale of my observations in that publication. Suffice it to say, if you live in Indianapolis and you like beer, you need to check this place out. Open since last July, the owners are a couple of characters, and they make a damn good product. They offer tastings Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and the place was hopping when we were there. (No pun intended.) We sampled a handful of beers, my favorite being the Wee Mac Scottish Ale, a sweetish malty brown brew with hints of toffee and caramel. Yum.

For dinner, we ended up at the Rathskeller, site of my second date with hubby nearly six years ago. The past few times I’ve eaten at the Rat, it’s been nothing special, but I’m pleased to report the food has come up in stature somewhat since my last visit. A warm soft pretzel comes standard in their breadbaskets – nice touch – along with some blow-your-head-off horseradish mustard. Hubby enjoyed a huge plate of pasta with chicken, feta, veggies and herbs, and I went the traditional route with a steamed brat and warm German potato salad with vinegary hot bacon dressing. The food was good, but servings were WAY too big. Both of us left half of our dinners behind.

The toddler continued to seem ok through Friday night, so hubby and I decided to venture an overnight trip to Bloomington. Our friends Kellie and Theresa offered to stay at our house with the kiddo, making our lives that much easier, bless them. We booked a room at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, which turned out to be a great location just half a block off the town square. We parked the car and didn’t think of it again until this morning.

After we checked in and dumped the bags, a pre-dinner drink was in order. This being the tail end of I.U.’s spring break, everything was pleasantly deserted, no lines or traffic. Crazy Horse served as our first stop, where we enjoyed unwinding at the copper-countered bar over a cheap beer.

At the suggestion of several friends and thanks to some great word-of-mouth, I’d zeroed in on a place called Restaurant Tallent for dinner. The chef, Dave Tallent, has been getting some great buzz and is a repeat James Beard award nominee, one of the highest honors any American chef can receive.

The menu posted by the door sounded pretty ambitious, and a little out of my comfort food zone, to be honest, but we were intrigued enough to give it a try. I’m soooooo glad we did.

Now, the problem with places like Restaurant Tallent is that they come so highly recommended that you get your hopes up for a stellar dining experience before you ever set foot in the door. Expectations are terribly high, and so is the possibility that it might not turn out to be as good as you hope for, then you wind up disappointed. Just like our Valentine’s Day dinner at 14 West (see previous blog entry). Well. I’m thrilled to report that Restaurant Tallent delivered everything we were hoping for, and then some.

The place smelled amazing from the second we walked in. Décor was low-key, warm and romantic – low lighting, funky modern light fixtures and a rich, understated brown and green color palette. It seemed fairly dead for a Saturday night, but I was grateful to get seated immediately and wrote off the lack of customers to spring break. Our server, Dustin, struck just the right note of being friendly and helpful without ever seeming intrusive or pretentious. That’s something to be said with the caliber of food being served here.

As I said, the menu was a little intimidating – we don’t usually eat at restaurants that serve foie gras, caviar and tartare. The short list of starters and entrees changes according to the season and the chef’s inspiration. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible, and everything is as absolutely fresh as can be.

Hubby and I decided to share a starter. Although the arugula salad with goat cheese beignets was plenty tempting, we have a hard time passing up anything that includes pancetta. And so we opted for the black truffle tagliatelle pasta with pancetta, mushrooms, spinach and parmesan.

As we waited for the pasta, Dustin delivered a basket full of warm slices of the most melt-in-your-mouth tender rosemary-dusted peasant bread and a ramekin of fresh butter. We also got a freebie amuse bouche — a little ceramic Asian spoon containing a chilled quarter-sized scallop mold of butternut squash panna cotta skewered with a crunchy parmesan crisp and topped with a drizzle of sweet sauce. It was a scrumptious little mouthful, almost like pumpkin pie filling, and the parmesan crisp was just salty enough to offset the creamy sweetness. We were off to a good start.

Our starter arrived, looking and smelling unbelievably good. When we laid eyes on the small dish set in front of us, we worried it wouldn’t be big enough to satisfy both of us. We were wrong.

This pasta serving was small, but mighty. There were just a few thick noodles, really, cooked to toothsome al dente perfection. The flavors were ridiculously intense and expertly combined, the best of which was the tiny cubes of crispy-chewy pancetta. For the uninitiated, pancetta is a cured Italian meat, like bacon but with more primal pig flavor oomph. My only criticism of the dish, and I’m struggling to even mention one, was that I couldn’t distinguish the taste of the truffles amid all the other vibrant flavors. Having never had truffles before, I was looking forward to tasting one, but no matter. The dish was insanely good irregardless, and several bites were more than enough to make both of us happy.

We were still raving about the pasta (and proceeded to for the rest of the night) when our entrees showed up.

I’ve tried scallops a few times in the past, including my own so-so attempt at grilling the little suckers, but I knew that I’d never really tasted them they way they SHOULD be enjoyed. Tonight, I decided, was a good opportunity to do so. I received three beautifully browned scallops atop a mushroom risotto cake and a small mound of collard greens. A country ham consommé was the finishing touch. Gordon Ramsay would have been proud.

First of all, my plate was absolutely gorgeous. The chef and kitchen staff obviously take great pains in appearance, believers in the mantra that you eat first with your eyes. There were no fancy garnishes or unnecessary schwack on the plate, just a healthy serving size of highly flavorful, fragrant, beautiful food. The succulent scallops were sweet and tender with a lovely caramelized crust, and the mushroom risotto was delicious. Collard greens seemed an unlikely accompaniment on paper, but were just bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the scallops, and the salty ham jus pulled the whole thing together.

As good as my entrée was, I must admit, I think hubby’s might have been even better. Sliced duck breast (prepared well done at hubby’s request without a bat of the eye), mounted on spicy red rice with duck confit and steamed bok choy. Oh. My. Goodness. My mouth is watering just remembering it now. We both all but licked our plates clean.

I wanted to order dessert so badly, but knew I just didn’t have room left to enjoy it to its maximum potential, and so we refrained. We seriously thought about taking a leisurely walk and then coming back a little later to order some. In lieu of a sweet finale, hubby asked for an espresso, encouraged by the coffee machinery behind the bar. Sadly, this proved the only flaw in an otherwise perfect meal. To be fair, the vast majority of Midwesterners could order an espresso here and think it wonderful. But, being the worldly, well-traveled man that he is, hubby has shot back enough real-deal authentic espressos in Europe to know the difference. He has even invested in a machine of his own to make them just the way he likes.

Having seen hubby proudly display his own creations at home, I knew enough to cringe when I saw the espresso arrive at the table without any sort of creamy foam on top. Hubby was happy that the barista/bartender heated the cup, but pronounced the coffee itself not good. Which is so sad! At a restaurant that pays such close and careful attention to every food detail, the coffee fell short.

Even though we had politely refused dessert, Dustin delivered us a tiny plate containing two chocolate sandwich cookies glued together with raspberry cream filling “to fortify us for our walk.” We each took a tiny nibble, intending on just a taste, and proceeded to polish off every crumb. Our total bill for one starter, two entrees, and two beers for hubby (plus the bonus amuse bouche and cookies) came to just under $80. Completely good value, we felt, for the quality of food, service and atmosphere.

The espresso disappointment aside, and it wasn’t a serious transgression, our overall Restaurant Tallent dining experience was fabulous. The food itself was nothing short of incredible. The pacing of the food was perfect, slow enough to build anticipation, but quick enough to be efficient. Another interesting note, there are no condiments on the tables. Dustin came over after we’d had our first taste of each course to see if we wanted salt or pepper. The mark of a true chef is in the seasoning, and Dave Tallent passes that test with flying colors. I can’t wait to go back. I just heard someone say that Restaurant Tallent offers half-priced entrees on Monday nights… that could be very dangerous information for me to know. I would be completely willing to drive to Bloomington and back in an evening for a 50 percent-off dinner.

Hubby and I pleasantly passed the rest of the evening walking around Kirkwood and the I.U. campus, stopping into Nick’s for another beer and a pool hall where I was promptly shamed by the decline of my shooting abilities. I was AMAZED at the number of ethnic eateries presently housed along 4th Street. This stretch has come a long way since I was a student, now housing Ethiopian, Thai, Korean, Tibetan, Italian, Turkish, Moroccan and I can’t even remember what else. Very, very impressive. Every restaurant looked better than the one we’d just passed, and I found myself wishing we had about a week to get acquainted with all of them.

After a leisurely sleep-in this morning, hubby and I were ready to venture out for more food. The other restaurant I’d been wanting to try was FARMBloomington, and although a walk-by last night revealed it wasn’t as upscale and romantic as Restaurant Tallent for an honorary 40th birthday dinner, it was just the ticket for brunch.

FARMBloomington manages to be down-home yet still trendy at the same time. The décor is bright and cheery with homey, cozy details like hanging quilts and a somehow charming wall display of bedpans indicating the restrooms. Like Tallent, FARMBloomington focuses on farm-fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The brunch menu is full of egg dishes, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and other standard breakfast fare with modern gourmet spins.

We started by toasting the trip with mimosas. Hubby ordered a basic breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and oven-roasted tomatoes sprinkled with savory herbs. It was nothing fancy; just solid, hearty, super-fresh, good food. The tomatoes made the plate, and I vowed to attempt something similar at home to serve over pasta or alongside a roast.

My breakfast was French toast, made with day-old Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse brioche soaked overnight in custard batter, then cooked and topped with a dazzling orange syrup and dollop of tangy crème fraiche. Mmmmmmm. I can’t even begin to describe how good it was. A lady at the table next to ours leaned over to ask me what it was and said she planned to order it on her next visit.

Again, the serving sizes were just right and the prices were extremely fair considering the quality of the food. We left completely sated and happy with our food decisions for the weekend.

So, although it wasn’t Montreal, hubby and I had a fantastic visit to Bloomington and vowed to come back again soon. And I got a chance to reconnect and spent a little downtime with the man I love, which is exactly what I wanted for my birthday.

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