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

Bravo Bazbeaux

Dear readers,

Before delving into a new post, I must apologize for being missing in action so much this summer. Suffice it to say the past few months have been pretty tumultuous for personal reasons, but I pledge to do better in the future and not let weeks lapse between blogs!

With that said, let’s talk pizza. Everyone’s got their personal fave, and once it’s been established, it’s hard to sway opinion. I was raised on Pizza King in Richmond, and I’m sure my former classmates and childhood compadres will agree it still holds a special place in the palate for nostalgic reasons. It’s pretty much a given that we’ll end up ordering a Royal Feast at some point during any visit to dear old dad’s. The pizza itself is distinctive, even if it’s not anything gourmet, or really even spectacular. Flat, fairly cardboard-ish crust slathered with sweetish tomato paste then generously dusted with tiny cubes of chopped pepperoni, sausage crumbles, onions and peppers diced so small you have to really look for them, cheese and a few mushroom slices, broiled quickly and sliced into squares. That’s it. Nothing fancy, but dependably good.

Once I moved to Indy and started working downtown a ahem, er number of years ago, I was introduced to the beauty of Bazbeaux. And although there have been minor flirtations with other pizzas and pizzerias since (primarily Some Guys and Bacino’s in Chicago), Bazbeaux still tops my list when I’m in the mood for a steamy, cheesy slice of deliciousness.

Bazbeauz Broad Ripple location

Bazbeaux throws off a slightly circa-1980s Seattle grunge vibe. The atmosphere is fairly bohemian with a funky edge. Cooks and servers are usually tattooed and/or pierced and don’t smile much. They do, however, know their stuff when it comes to rocking some good ‘za.

good ole pepperoni

Beyond the build-your-own options with all the usual toppings (and some not-so-usual toppings), Bazbeaux’s menu details a bunch of really great specialty pizzas to please both carnivores and vegetarians. There’s all manner of accoutrement here — the Tchoupitoulas pizza offers a Cajun twist with blackened shrimp, andouille, roasted red pepper and fresh garlic. The Cubano elevates with black bean salsa and capicolla, ham and salami sourced from the Smoking Goose. There also are several interesting seafood pies that arrive adorned with crab, shrimp and albacore tuna. The only other place I’ve ever seen tuna on a pizza was in Provence… I’ve never had a sandwich here, but I hear the spinach melt is worth a try.

Pizza Alla Quattro Formaggio – bellissimo!!!

I really like the B.O.T. (bacon, onion and tomato) and the Garden, laden as it is with artichoke hearts, spinach, olives and other veggies, but my Bazbeaux go-to is the Quattro Formaggio. It all starts with a cracker-thin crispy crust and then heaps on Romano, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone and dollops of ricotta. Wait a sec, that’s really five cheeses, isn’t it? Huh. Anyway, as if all that isn’t ooey, gooey goodness enough, they take it over the top by tossing on mushrooms and bacon. See what I mean? You really can’t go wrong. Tack on a nicely assembled side salad with bite-sized shavings of Parmesan scattered across the top (the creamy basil dressing is what I always ask for), and you’ve got all the makings of a fantastic meal.

the standard side salad with creamy basil dressing

For dinner, the deck overlooking the canal at the Broad Ripple location is a chilled-out spot for al fresco dining. And if you’re downtown for lunch, Bazbeaux offers one of the best deals in town — a mere $5 or so scores you a large slice of pizza, side salad and a fountain drink.

For more info, check out www.bazbeaux.com.

Bazbeaux Pizza (Broad Ripple) on Urbanspoon

Chow, bella!

Checked out Lino’s Coffee this morning after a sneak peek tour of the new Dallara Automobili factory, and found this nifty little café worth the drive to Speedway.

Lino’s hails from Parma, Italy, part of a franchised family that includes around 60 international locations; Indy is the company’s first venture into the U.S. Having actually been to Parma and visited several cafes in Italy for basis of comparison, let me assure you. Lino’s is the real deal. This is about as close as you can come to an honest-to-God Italian café without buying airfare.

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The café sits at the northwest corner of the bright and shiny new Dallara building on Main Street in Speedway, and is easily a stand-alone destination on its on merits. If there’s anything Italians love more than fast cars, it’s good food and coffee. Everywhere you look, this place screams “VIVA ITALIA!” from the espresso machines (imported from Italy, of course. Duh.) and the coffee menu placards in Italian to the sparsely filled panini sandwiches and the gelato. Mamma mia, I was excited about my lunch.

Traditional Italian food thinking dictates keeping it simple. Use high-quality, mostly unadorned ingredients and let the true flavors shine through. No burying stuff under pools of ketchup. Forget super-sizing and all the extraneous add-ons. In Italy, you don’t need them. When you’ve got building blocks this good to work with, why would you want to muck things up?

Customers here have their pick of paninis, pastas and salads — all kind of unbelievably priced under $10 and many items less than $6. Or, you can assemble a light continental breakfast from a small but carefully vetted selection of flaky fresh pastries from a mouthwatering display case.

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The Parma panini

My two lunch companions both ordered the Parma… a long, skinny panini with paper-thin shavings of Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, stunning tomato slices (take that, Subway!) and a scattering of lettuce.

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the Milano panini

My Milano sandwich held slices of the same salty ham with Fontina cheese and a little shaved artichoke on a square of chewy, toothsome rustic Ciabatta bread. The only condiments in sight are olive oil and balsamic vinegar at the counter. That’s all you need. Simple, and simply delicious.

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Then there’s the coffee… ah. The coffee. I’ll need to make a return trip soon to test-drive a cappuccino or a regular Americano, along with one of those sexy baked goods perhaps. This being a hot day and all, we went for a round of iced coffees, and quickly discovered that this is not your average iced coffee.

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Lino’s iced coffee

I have never had, tasted or seen an iced coffee like this before. Forget all about your fancy Frappuccinos and the usual milky mixture poured over melting ice that only serves to water it down. Now, imagine a rocks glass filled with the most insanely smooth-blended coffee concoction you’ve ever slurped into your mouth. It wasn’t a drinkable coffee at all, really, but more like a rich, sweet, creamy coffee-flavored Wendy’s Frosty. Or maybe a half-frozen chocolate/coffee pudding? But better. Waaaay better. It’s so thick, you have no choice but to eat it with the accompanying demitasse spoon.

Ok, maybe the iced coffee isn’t exactly traditional Italian. Then again, I’ve never ordered an iced coffee in Italy. So who knows, maybe it is. Who cares. It rocked. I want another one right now. Who’s with me?

For more information:
www.linoscoffee.com

Lino’S Coffee on Urbanspoon

Prime time

I received a sneak peek invitation for a preview dinner this week at the new Ocean Prime prior to the restaurant’s grand opening Thursday. Once again, I must say, my work does not suck.

Ocean Prime exterior

Ocean Prime resides near Keystone at the Crossing next to that funky split-personality bridge that crosses over into the Clearwater area. It’s in front of the Old Navy strip near Distinctive Diamonds and on the same side of the road as Maggiano’s. Valet parking is available if you need it.

Part of the Cameron Mitchell restaurant empire, the original Ocean Prime opened in Columbus, Ohio in 2006, and a handful of others followed soon after.

The first thing that occurred to me when I walked in was that perhaps I was a tad underdressed in my cotton sundress. Hubby was fine in his button-down shirt and dress slacks; most of the other folks in attendance were in suits and flashier attire. I was feeling a little conspicuous until I saw some young gal walk through in cut-off shorts and a beach top. Seriously. Can we possibly dumb down our already dismal fashion image any further, people?

one of the Ocean Prime dining rooms

Ocean Prime brings the swank with rich cherry furniture, classy textured stone walls and nifty boxed light fixtures. Servers (all men, from what I could tell) wear white jackets and black pants, and swarmed like bees. I know it was a dress rehearsal of sorts, but I’d venture to guess the floor staff might have outnumbered the customers.

We were seated on one of the main traffic aisles, which was fine because it allowed us to check out the food coming and going as we made our choices. Our server was a friendly chap who walked us through the intricacies of the menu with ease and authority. First things first. Drinks. There’s a fairly extensive wine selection here (bottles take up an entire wall in the Prime Room) and full bar service showcasing a dozen or so specialty cocktails. All handcrafted, of course. This seems to be the buzzword du jour when it comes to adult beverages. Oddly, we didn’t see any beer selections on the drink menu, although our server managed to rustle up a Sun King Osiris pronto when hubby asked if they carried any local beers.

the delectable Whiskey Clover

I was all set to ask for a glass of Shiraz when something called the Whiskey Clover caught my attention… Gentleman Jack, Hennessey, honey, fresh orange and lemon juice. Yes, please. Not my usual Maker’s Mark, but still damn tasty. Served in a martini glass, it kinda reminded me of the Seelbach Cocktail at Libertine. I spied a few other cocktails passing us by, including something called a “Berries and Bubbles” with actual bubbles frothing up over the rim of the glass. Not sure I’d want to drink something that looks like a bubble bath, but with Belvedere citrus, marinated blackberries, sour mix and a splash of brut, I could be persuaded without much protest.

Ocean Prime’s wedge salad

We skipped over the appetizers and split a wedge salad to start. This is one of my favorite summertime dishes. You really can’t go wrong with a wedge as long as the ingredients are good, and these were. Everything was snapping fresh and crunchy, and the dressing was nicely tangy. With slices of warm crusty sourdough from the breadbasket, it was a respectable prelude for what followed.

(We didn’t order any, but I should note that Ocean Prime offers some appealing raw bar selections, and the shrimp cocktails and seafood platters we saw flying out of the kitchen waft contrails thanks to a little dry ice in the dish. Great visual appeal.)

blue cheese-crusted KC strip

Hubby doesn’t like seafood, so I knew he’d opt for steak. And what a steak this was — a whopping 16-oz. Kansas City strip crusted with Maytag bleu cheese. This thing was massive, served with a half-head of roasted garlic and a sprig of rosemary as garnish. Hubby had asked for it medium/medium-well; this was more like medium-rare/medium and a little bloody for my personal taste, but he scarfed it down with no complaint. The meat was very tender (wet-aged, I believe the server said?) and I loved the bleu cheese crust on top.

OP crab cakes

Lots of things sounded great among the seafood options, but I finally settled on the jumbo lump crab cakes from the Chef’s Compositions (also available in a starter portion). They were gorgeous, two big broiled (not fried – yay!) mounds of meaty crab with very little filler, and a splash of sweet corn cream underneath. I also received a few stalks of asparagus that were basically unnecessary, and a little ramekin of tartar saucy concoction studded with fresh corn kernels. The corn and crab played nicely together, and it made for a tasty combination.

Parmesan truffle fries

On the side, we shared an order of Parmesan truffle fries that were perfectly crispy and delish. Hubby said he still thinks the pomme frites at Taste are better, but I’m not so sure. These spuds made a pretty impressive showing. The jalapeno au gratin potatoes are on my radar for a follow-up visit.

We couldn’t leave without dessert, a list heavy with time-tested traditional steakhouse crowd-pleasers like blueberry cheesecake, crème brulee and chocolate cake with handspun ice cream. Having never tasted baked Alaska before, I figured this was a good opportunity to give it a whirl.

Baked Alaska

The portion size was intimidating, a ginormous frozen slab of pound cake, ice cream, raspberries and marshmallowy meringue. Wow. The chocolate syrup underneath was just ok, but the fresh raspberry coulis really sang. There was no way we were finishing this puppy, though. After a few bites, we groaned and conceded defeat.

Service was attentive down to the tiniest detail. I know it was a training night, but it was almost too much at times. At one point, I think three different people stopped by our table within five minutes to ask how everything was.

Ocean Prime is a high-end dining destination, and prices are on the steep side, as you’d expect. We enjoyed our meal very much, but I have to wonder just how many upscale steak-and-seafood establishments Indianapolis can feasibly support. OP faces some stiff competition right in the neighborhood from Sullivan’s, Fleming’s and Ruth’s Chris, not to mention Peterson’s just up I-69 and all the downtown heavy hitters. For me, St. Elmo’s is still going to be the sentimental favorite when I’m in the mood for a good steak and shrimp cocktail, but I have a feeling Ocean Prime is definitely poised to make some waves here in Indy.

For more info:

www.oceanprimeindy.com

Ocean Prime on Urbanspoon

Divvy is divine

I’d read some mixed feedback about Divvy prior to last night’s visit with the hubs, but tried to keep an open mind going in. I’m traditionally not a big tapas fan; I’d usually rather enjoy a full-sized serving of one entrée that I can keep all to myself. Divvy, however,  is making me rethink my stance.

Divvy exterior

Located in the high-falutin’ Carmel City Center alongside Eggshell Bistro and an soon-to-emerge Hubbard and Cravens, we encountered a little trouble just getting in the Divvy door. Literally. From its corner location, there are what appear to be several entrances, and for the life of us, we couldn’t seem to choose the correct one. A kind gentleman, who I assumed to be the owner, finally opened the locked door we were trying to wangle our way into like a couple of idiots and directed us to the hostess station.

We stopped in around 8 p.m. hoping to miss the dinner rush, but the place was still quite busy. Décor is pretty nifty with what looks like reclaimed wood floors, two-top booths with tall backs that offer privacy while still looking modern, and a really cool wall in the dining room composed of little squares of wood in different tones and varying heights. Visually interesting, and a nice departure from the chalkboard walls that everyone else seems to be featuring these days.

Divvy’s cool wall o’ wood

The menu is presented in a neat wallet-like leather binder that stays at the table to revisit as you make continued small-plate selections throughout the meal. However, once I opened it and started flipping through, my palms started to sweat a little. There is a LOT of stuff to choose from here, starting with drinks through a half dozen or so categories of tapas, and then desserts. It all started to blur together. Making decisions here requires some time and consideration. Fortunately, my ahead-of-time research predetermined a few things I knew I wanted to try going in.

Once the text stopped swimming before my eyes, I found it easier to zero in on some choices by process of elimination. Due to hubby’s predilections, anything with onions or leeks was automatically out, as was seafood. This made reaching decisions slightly easier.

First up, drinks… in keeping with the “Sip. Share. Savor.” concept, Divvy offers sampler flights of wine and beer. I might have gone for the “Maple Manhattan” or the “Bubbles Taster Tour” for $10 had I not already consumed a glass and a half of pinot grigio before we arrived. Instead, we simply opted for a single glass of wine for me and a nice draft Anchor Steam for hubby.

Back to the menu we went, finally agreeing to order something from the spreadable “Toppers” and the “ooey-gooey goodness cheese” selections to get the ball rolling. I’d heard mention of the bacon jam in another blogger’s review, and it piqued my interest. Sold.

jam on it

I LOVED this stuff and spent my precious bites trying desperately to decode the recipe. The jam arrived in a little ramekin with several halved pretzel buns to spread it on, and another ramekin of horseradish mustard that hubby avoided but I adored. Between us, we scraped out every last trace of the salty-sweet deliciousness.

gorgonzola cheese balls

The gorgonzola balls weren’t quite what I expected – I had in mind that they’d be some kind of deep-fried hush puppie sort of thing, when they were really just whipped blobs of creamy cheese served with crackery slices of toasted focaccia, sliced red grapes and more sunflower seeds. All fine and dandy, but somehow lacking the wow factor of the bacon jam.

After inhaling the first two plates, we went back again to the menu. Or, I should say, I did. Hubby left all the ordering in my hands. The other item I knew I wanted to try was the corn crème brulee, having read raves about it on every review I’d seen. I toyed with ordering the andouille sausage with maple bourbon gastrique (you know how I feel about all things bourbon these days) and the chili-glazed duck drumsticks, but red meat won out in the end. I went for the Worchestershire-seared steak bites.

corn creme brulee

The crème brulee… O.M.G. Think of the creamiest, richest, most indulgent mac and cheese you’ve ever tasted, swap out the pasta for sweet corn and brulee some sugar on top. Sooooo yummy. A trace of jalapeno gave it a nice kick. Hubby doesn’t usually like rich creamy saucy things like this, and I had to wrestle the spoon away from him to get my share. The brulee portion on top was more sticky than crunchy, but whatever. We didn’t care.

Worchestershire steak bites

The steak bites looked more like medium than the medium-rare as advertised and came with some halved roasted red potatoes. I would have liked a spoon to dish out the jus-like sauce in the bottom of the plate. I think hubby liked this more than I did. Again, it was tasty, but didn’t blow me away to the degree that the jam or the corn pudding did.

We debated ordering one more small plate, but fearing overkill, turned our attention to the desserts, available in larger two-person sizes as well as the smaller mini-morsel portions. I was tempted by the Krazy Krispies, a sharable Rice Krispie treat with peanut butter glaze and chocolate chips, but went instead for the first two items among the small-sized offerings.

butterscotch blondie

Both were cute as can be in presentation, each with its own tiny demitasse spoon. The Blondie Bite with butterscotch bourbon glaze, banana and whipped cream was delish, but I preferred the Dreamsicle cake, a tres-leches sort of thing but with blood orange juice instead of milk. I really liked the unexpected fruity, juicy burst of flavor, and the white chocolate shavings on top.

Dreamsicle cake

I must give props to our server — I don’t think he ever formally introduced himself, but the receipt says his name is Lewis. This guy was warm and courteous without a hint of condescension or insincerity, and his pacing throughout the meal was absolutely perfect. Excellent, excellent service. Good job, Lewis.

I could easily return here and happily order a completely new spread of items to try, but I’d have a hard time passing up the bacon jam and corn crème brulee again. All told, we left contently full and very satisfied, pledging a return Divvy visit soon. Go here. Now.

For more info:
www.divvycarmel.com

Divvy on Urbanspoon

Watch and learn

The breakfast quest continues… Hubby’s been going into work at noon on Wednesdays, a schedule that lends itself nicely to a weekly breakfast date. This morning’s destination? First Watch, a newly opened breakfast/brunch/lunch joint on 86th Street just across from Keystone at the Crossing.

First Watch exterior

Part of a Florida-based franchise, First Watch roosts in the corner spot of the strip mall, on the end near Shanghai Lil. This is the company’s first foray into Indiana, and plans for several additional locations are in the works around town.

We arrived mid-morning mid-week, and the place was doing a fairly brisk business. It’s bigger than I expected with tall ceilings, a black chalkboard on the wall for specials, semi-retro booths and table seating including a tall eight-top with tall stools in the corner, and cheery details like colorful albeit generic art of coffee cups. Imagine a cross between Denny’s and Panera and you’re on the right track. The orange tulip-ish light fixtures and the rectangular vases filled with tall grasses anchored in beds of coffee beans were interesting touches.

The menu covers the usual breakfast bases — eggs, omelets, several varieties of hash, pancakes, some healthy items, and variations on something called a “crepegg.” Quite a few ingredients and recipes, though, are a step up from ordinary bacon, eggs and cheese. For instance, omelet selections include any number of elevated fillings along the lines of chorizo, avocado, spicy chicken, crimini mushrooms and roasted zucchini. First Watch seem to hit a lot of Americanized international flavors; I counted Mexican, Cajun, Greek, French and Italian themed choices among the omelets alone. There are also nods to First Watch’s Florida roots in names like the Floridian French Toast and the Siesta Key Cocktail yogurt parfait.

We started off with coffee, which was your meh standard drip served in a carafe. Hubby drinks his black with a little sugar, but I need some dairy to mellow mine out. Alas, I had to resort to the single-serving non-refrigerated creamers from a small bowl on the table. I’m sure they’re cost-efficient for restaurants, but these things should be outlawed in my opinion. Dairy that doesn’t need refrigeration is disturbing, and it tastes like crap. This is without a doubt my biggest dining-out-for-breakfast pet peeve. I suppose I could have asked for some fresh milk or Half and Half, but I hate having to. Restaurants that sweat the small details should just automatically serve it, or at least ask diners if they’d like fresh creamer.

Via Veneto omelet

Anyhoo, hubby ordered the Via Veneto omelet. Curious, I asked for a Key West Crepegg. The food arrived hot and promptly. Serving sizes were good, not ginormous but certainly generous. Hubby loved the flavorful Italian sausage in his omelet, and the roasted red peppers, tomatoes, herbs and cheese all played very nicely together in their egg wrapper. A complaint, though — hubby HATES onions. (I believe I might have mentioned this once or twice?) When he ordered his omelet, he specifically asked whether or not it contained onions, and the server said no. We’ve learned the hard way it’s always good to double-check. However, when his plate arrived, the accompanying cubed potatoes were peppered through with — you guessed it — onions. You’d think maybe the server might have picked up on this and said something when he was ordering??? Sigh. This happens to us a lot. You wouldn’t believe how often. Why reassure him there are no onions in the main dish if you’re only going to stealth-bomb him with the little suckers in a side or on a salad? He doesn’t like onions, people. I don’t know why this is so hard to understand and get right.

My Key West Crepegg (pronounced “crepe egg” FYI) was tasty. Honestly, I’d forgotten it was a crepe at all. It arrived at the table looking like a flat omelet, and it wasn’t until I dug in that I remembered it was a crepe. A thick, eggy, slightly sweet crepe that made a good foil for the turkey, avocado, bacon, cheese and tomato housed within. It was also topped with sour cream and served with a little ramekin of housemade salsa that I loved. There’s really nothing about this omelet that screams “Key West,” though. When you say Florida Keys, I automatically think of key limes, coconuts, seafood and rum runners. I also got a side of the same cubed potatoes with onions, as well as a basic English muffin.

Key West crepegg

Other than the onion hiccup, service was attentive and friendly. Almost too much so. I can appreciate that this is a new restaurant and the staff is working hard to make a good impression, but at a couple points, I felt like we were being watched like a hawk for any opportunity to swoop in and ask if we needed anything. Still, I suppose this is much better than being ignored and having to flag someone down.

So, while we had a decent meal at First Watch, I can’t say there was anything about it that really knocked my socks off. I may go back and try it again for lunch sometime. Prices are pretty much in line with Denny’s or IHOP; our bill for two was right under $30. Always nice to have another breakfast option in town, but Café Patachou and Taste are still holding rank at the top of my list.

For more information:
www.firstwatch.com.

First Watch on Urbanspoon

Wise cracks

Indy seems to be experiencing an influx of new breakfast/brunch joints. To do our part in supporting this morning meal movement, hubby and I ventured north today to Carmel to scope out Eggshell Bistro.

I could probably go vegetarian without much fuss, but eggs are something I simply cannot live without. I actually tend to eat eggs more for lunch and dinner than for breakfast; egg salad sandwiches and microwave-poached eggs atop a salad are typical lunchtime fare in my house, and omelets loaded with cheese and veggies are a standard dinner go-to. So when I first caught wind of a bistro that focused pretty much entirely on elevating the humble egg, I immediately put it on my radar.

Eggshell Bistro in Carmel City Center

I’d read a couple of enticing reviews beforehand, but Eggshell Bistro was still surprising in quite a few ways. First of all, it’s much smaller than I expected, tucked away on the north side of Carmel City Center under an awning that could be considered subtle if it weren’t for the “Eggshell” emblazoned across it.

Eggshell Bistro interior

Inside, the décor is charming as can be, calling to mind a tiny upscale French-themed café with interesting antiques, funky metal chairs that look like they came from a quaint porch but I’m sure cost a mint, and nicely restrained jazz wafting through the background. I was impressed right off the bat with the handsome we-mean-business Gaggia espresso apparatus adorning the counter. After sampling top-shelf coffees all over Europe, hubby can be something of a coffee snob when it comes to watery American drip, and who can blame him? I’m thrilled to say Eggshell Bistro really delivers on the a.m. beverages with SerendipiTeas, tisanes, Blue Bottle Coffee in a variety of blends, and a Kyoto cold drip set-up that looks like a mad science experiment. (Like the absinthe at Libertine, I was itching for someone to order one just so I could see how it worked. Alas, the place was pretty empty during our Tuesday morning visit, and the customers that were there didn’t look overly adventurous when it comes to their java.)

whole latte love

Hubby pronounced his Americano spot-on and my latte was nothing short of a work of art, each cup accompanied by a couple of chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds in our demitasse spoons. Sugars and sweeteners are delivered to each table in metal coffee tins. Enchanted, we were off to a good start.

Like the place itself, the menu isn’t large, and pretty much every dish highlights eggs in some shape or fashion. It’s a little on the fussy side, though, and our server spent a LOT of time detailing each item for us. I usually like my fare more straightforward, but some of these items do beg for further explanation. Which is fine, I suppose, but seems like a lot of unnecessary pomp and circumstance to me. Our server was obviously well trained and well versed in the menu, and that’s always reassuring to see.

The half dozen or so main breakfast offerings range from open-faced crostini and brioche layered with sous vide-poached eggs, cheese, pancetta and asparagus to a decadent-sounding brioche French toast with blueberry fig chutney and toasted pecans. Heartier options take in quiche, frittata and a sweet potato hash. You could also easily assemble an a la carte meal from the side items — more eggs, toast, grits and a selection of Smoking Goose bacons and sausages. For diners who want something more continental, a tempting display window of housemade scones and baked items greets customers as they walk in the door.

the Chinese herbal tea egg

Based on the reviews I’d read, I knew I wanted to taste the Chinese herbal tea egg, and ordered that first as a “starter,” if you will. I love hard-boiled eggs, and this one looked and sounded particularly intriguing. After boiling, the eggshell is cracked and the whole thing pickles overnight in an herbal tea infused with cinnamon, cloves and star anise. It arrives at the table in a glass egg cup with a beautiful marbled surface and a heady scent. Lovely to look at, for sure, but when I cut into it, I realized it suffered the fatal flaw of overcooking. The white carried the spiced tea flavor nicely, but the yolk had an unpleasant dark ring. Although it was perfectly fine to eat, I just couldn’t get past the yolk’s appearance and left it behind.

For such a small menu, it took us a long time to make our selections. In the end, hubby ordered the mixed heirloom potato frittata with garlic, spinach and Capriole Farms goat cheese (anything with poached eggs or onions was automatically out of the question for him and helped narrow down his choices more quickly than mine). I seriously considered the truffled egg brioche with fontina cheese and asparagus as well as the Parisian toast, but ultimately opted for the daily special — a strata with roasted tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil.

mixed heirloom potato frittata

The presentation on both our “entrees” was fantastic, although at first glance, we wondered if the servings weren’t a little on the small side. Admittedly, this is the unfortunate effect of eating at places like IHOP and Waffle House that have brainwashed us into thinking more is more and too much is never enough with their over-the-top, super-sized servings that leave you feeling like a beached whale for the rest of the day. When we dug in, we found both plates deceptively filling (especially the strata), and realized we definitely didn’t need the servings to be any bigger than they were. I’d much rather have a smaller but still plenty satisfying portion of something like this made with high-quality gourmet ingredients than load up on a huge plate of something that’s just meh.

A couple very small criticisms — hubby likes his potatoes soft, and the few pieces in his frittata were fairly al dente, but he loved the goat cheese and the applewood- smoked bacon he’d ordered on the side was perfectly cooked and full of flavor.

roasted tomato strata

My strata was rich and delicious, but could have used a tiny sprinkling of crunchy salt and there is none offered on the tables here. Hubby thinks I’m a salt-aholic, so this probably wouldn’t even be an issue for most people. The roasted tomatoes were a great ingredient, but I would have liked more basil in the mix or even a little pesto; I think I detected two small leaves and that was it. No matter. We still cleaned our plates. My strata also came with a small fruit cup of fresh berries and Satsuma orange sections that hubby made short work of.

Food here isn’t cheap – with tip, our breakfast bill came to just shy of $45. Still, for a special occasion or a once-in-awhile splurge, we’d definitely revisit. Hubby says he’d bike back up just for the coffee alone.

If you come by after 11 a.m., Eggshell Bistro serves several sandwiches, salads and soups by way of lunch options. Our server said dinner service in the works, but they’re still mastering the art of breakfast, lunch and brunch before branching out.

The web site could use a little updating, but for basic info:
www.eggshellbistro.com

Eggshell Bistro on Urbanspoon

A very bueno breakfast

From what I can tell, Biscuits flies somewhat under the local dining radar, tucked away as it is at the end of the Broad Ripple Station strip mall behind the much larger, much flashier Thr3e Wise Men. After an inaugural breakfast visit with the hubby, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve been overlooking this little gem for way too long.

Biscuits in Broad Ripple

The name is something of a misnomer; you wouldn’t expect an authentic Mexican eatery to disguise itself under a name like “Biscuits.” At least, I wouldn’t. Don’t be fooled. This is some yummy, rustic south-of-the-border food.

The décor isn’t anything fancy, just blue booths and tables and a couple televisions. Wasn’t very busy mid-morning on a Wednesday, but the customers we did see were a pleasantly diverse group — business folks, Broad Ripple youngsters, an older couple. The gang’s all here.

I was a little intimidated when I got a peek at the size of the plates. Normally, I’m not a big breakfast eater. A bowl of cereal or a muffin and some coffee usually does me just fine for the a.m. These breakfasts are not messing around. This is a seriously gut-busting amount of food for a morning meal.

Choices include a range of standard short-order fare along the lines of eggs, bacon, toast, B&G (natch) and the like, but I figure you can get that stuff anywhere. Instead, we set our sights on the Mexican offerings – huevos rancheros, quesadillas, chilaquiles, and such. Hubby ordered a breakfast burrito and I opted for the chorizo scramble.

Biscuits massive breakfast burrito

The food was cooked fresh at the grill, and arrived on piping-hot plates. Hubby’s burrito was stuffed with sausage, eggs, cheese and potatoes, served with refried beans (not sure how smart this is first thing in the morning), rice and some shredded lettuce. Not an onion in sight, thank God. He also got a small dish of what I thought was salsa, but was actually more like a spicy blended sauce accompaniment served hot.

Biscuits chorizo scramble

Likewise, my chorizo scramble was darn tasty — a skillet of eggs scrambled with copious amounts of chorizo sausage, potatoes and tons of cheese. I also got a couple of warm very fresh tortillas, a welcome alternative to boring old buttered toast. For garnish, I received a little plastic cup of some sort of chili sauce, but it had obviously come straight from the fridge and concealed into a strange Jell-o consistency. I skipped it and went for a few splashes of Cholula instead.

Our server wasn’t terribly chipper, and the coffee was your basic drip variety served with those terrifying little non-dairy creamers that don’t require refrigeration (my biggest pet peeve when dining out for breakfast), but all in all, Biscuits is a great discovery I was happy to make. Our total bill was $19 for two pre-tip. Not exactly cheap, but certainly a fair price for this amount of food.

Adios for now, amigos. We’ll be back.

Biscuits Cafe on Urbanspoon

All hands on deck

When the sun re-emerges after the long dark days of winter and the temperatures start to soar, there’s one place on Indy’s west side that begs for a visit. Rick’s Cafe Boatyard features perhaps the best deck scene in the city with gorgeous views of Eagle Creek Reservoir. However, since Rick’s is on the polar opposite end of town from where I live, I don’t get there very often. Maybe a couple of times a season, usually alongside hubby as he wines and dines with fellow racing cohorts. Last night, I grabbed my girlfriend Laura and we descended for drinks and some dinner.

Rick’s Boatyard Cafe pre-summer deck scene

The weather in central Indiana has been unseasonably beautiful this month, so Rick’s has busted opened the deck for action earlier than usual this year. And the deck is where you want to be here. The old thermometer was hovering right around 80 degrees yesterday, and the place was jammed when we arrived around 6:45 p.m. The crowd here can best be described as Ike and Jonesy’s West. Everywhere I looked, there were cougars on the prowl, and lots of men hoping to become their prey.

We worried about a wait and contemplated indoor seating, but luck was on our side and Laura was able to quickly snag us an outdoor perch next to the railing. We settled into our spot and waited. And waited. And waited… As I mentioned, the place was slammed, and so was our server. She finally arrived to clear the beer bottles left by the former occupants, and seemed to take her time bringing us our drinks and food, although some kind gentlemen a few tables over seemed to think we were getting much speedier service than they were. This was ok; we weren’t in a hurry and were plenty content to just enjoy a leisurely hang in the warm evening air. Just be forewarned, if you’re really hungry or thirsty and don’t like to wait, an indoor table might be a better idea.

Rick’s claim to fame is its seafood. I recall eating some kind of insanely good dish there a few years ago that included deep-fried lobster, but didn’t see whatever it was on the menu this time around. Dang. We ordered an appetizer of crab-stuffed mushrooms and turned out attention to the mains. The mushrooms took awhile to make their appearance (shocker), and the waitress told us that their preparation takes longer than some of the other starters. Not sure why, but ok. Whatever. They finally showed up — a half dozen or so mushroom caps brimming with crab filling with mornay sauce and melted cheese on top. Didn’t blow me away with flavor, but they were fine.

crab-stuffed ‘shroom

Laura was in the mood for shrimp, and the server told her she could add on “huge” jumbo shrimp to any salad for $4. Per shrimp. Um, hello!? For $4 a pop, those shrimp had better be the size of my foot!

Mahi mahi sandwich with chili fried onions

In the end, Laura changed gears and ordered the Islamorada Mahi-Mahi sandwich. I went with a blackened catfish sandwich, and wasn’t overly impressed with either choice. For supposedly having been coated with spices, my fish was really bland and nearly got lost amid two vast slabs of bread. This sandwich needed a more substantial piece of fish or a much smaller bun, and the whole thing could have used a hearty dose of Tabasco or sriracha (Laura’s Bloody Mary also needed a wake-up call, come to think of it).

blackened catfish sandwich

The fries I seem to remember ordering were conspicuously absent from the plate; instead, I got a little ramekin of cole slaw and another of tartar sauce. Laura fared somewhat better. Her Mahi-Mahi was much meatier with more flavor thanks to the addition of some crunchy chili fried onions.

sunset over Eagle Creek Reservoir

All in all, it was great hanging out on the deck and watching the lovely sunset while sipping a few beers, but I won’t be rushing back to Rick’s anytime soon for the food.

For more information, visit www.rickscafeboatyard.

Rick's Café Boatyard on Urbanspoon

Cups of Christmas cheer

Forget about the wine – local microbreweries are turning out some fabulous flavored beers perfect for seasonal sipping and pairing with special holiday meals.

Here’s what’s on tap:

Bier Brewery – Brewmaster Darren Conner is cranking through a whole bunch of enticing seasonal quaffs including a pumpkin ale — or as Darren calls it, “liquid pumpkin pie” — brewing now through December; a chocolate stout; and a winter porter spiced with star anise, juniper berries and sweet orange. Check out his web site for availability and get ‘em while you can. This nanobrewery only concocts small batches and when they run out, so does your luck.

Triton Brewing Company – Seek out the new Gingerbread Brown, redolent with all the spice of this classic holiday treat and tapping this Wednesday just in time for Thanksgiving. Also noteworthy, Mike DeWeese says Triton’s Magnificent Amber and Deadeye Stout are both aged in bourbon barrels and spiced with the season-appropriate flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Sun King Brewing Company — Dave Colt and Clay Robinson are cooking up Malus Pi, a tart and tangy wheat beer infused with crabapple juice. Late frost is making it difficult to pin down a definite release date, but the beer should be out sometime during the holiday season.

Das Bier Big Dawg Brew Haus — Richmond’s newest brewing operation has plans for a delicious-sounding dark chocolate peppermint stout to release on or around December 10. With beer this scrumptious, who needs dessert?

Flat 12 Bierwerks — Last year, these porter hounds introduced a glazed ham variation that I’m hoping will make a return engagement this season. Yes, I said glazed ham. Flat 12’s drinkable incarnation conjures hints of allspice, coriander and brown sugar. Keep your eyes peeled…

Upland Brewing Company — This SoBro tasting room is pouring some interesting brews, including Winter Warmer barleywine, a dark and malty English quaff perfect for chasing the chill out of cold snowy nights. Upland has also aged a little bit of last year’s Winter Warmer in three-year-old barrels from Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery to re-release as Bourbon Barrel Warmer. There’s also Teddy Bear Kisses to consider, a soon-to-be-released velvety Imperial Russian stout with roasty bittersweet chocolate notes.

I’m sure there are plenty more local seasonal beers out there worthy of a holiday dinner. Feel free to add a comment with additional suggestions. This Thanksgiving, I’m toasting to you, fair readers!