Say (mac and) cheese

Everyone loves mac and cheese. Well, everyone I know, anyway… It’s one of those time-tested, kid-friendly comfort foods that work for any occasion.

To celebrate the holy marriage of pasta and cheese, Return of the Mac part III took over Noblesville’s Federal Hill Commons on Saturday afternoon for several hours of feasting (the first two events took place earlier this year in Indianapolis and Bloomington). Entrance times were staggered at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., although the line already snaking down the block when I arrived around 1:45. Fortunately, things moved quickly along once they started letting folks in. A gal who was directing traffic and seemed to be in the know said 1,600 attendees were expected.

I’d brought my 9-year-old son along as my plus one, which was probably not the best idea in retrospect. He does like mac and cheese (mostly in the form of Velveeta shells), but didn’t seem to grasp the concept that this was a festival dedicated solely to the aforementioned food group. While waiting in line to get in, he kept asking me if there would be burgers, fries or ice cream. However, he did seem happy to take advantage of a photo op with the coveted “Golden Noodle” trophy.

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Once through the gate, we grabbed paper plates and forks, then it. Was. On. With more than two dozen participating restaurants vying for bragging rights, the amount of tasting to be done was somewhat intimidating. Booths lined up in one long row and the competition was fierce. Most of the vendors toward the entrance boasted longer lines — thinking we’d be smart, my kiddo and I hightailed it to the opposite end to work our way backwards. We also had the foresight to snag a pink lemonade Nicey Treat pop for my son from the cart’s strategically stationed perch on the far side.

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Mac and cheese entrants ranged from newer spots like Joella’s Hot Chicken (which I’d sampled and enjoyed at the Indianapolis Monthly Best Restaurants party a month or so ago), LouVino and Four Day Ray Brewing to beloved Hoosier haunts like MCL, Clancy’s and Arni’s. You simply approach any booth you want in any order you want and grab a little 2-oz. cup of what each has to offer. About two bites worth per sample. Recipes ranged from traditional classic to newfangled modern interpretations garnished with yummy add-ons.

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I’d purposely skipped lunch, and was glad I did. I managed to work my way through a half dozen or so samples in short shift. Note to event organizers — some sort of scoring card or passport-style brochure detailing who’s serving what would have been nice to help patrons plan their attack and keep track of what they’ve tasted. I saw quite a few folks walking by with their plates loaded up with 7, 8 or 9 samples. After a couple bites, everything started to blur together for me and I had a hard time remembering exactly what I ate and where it came from. I did NOT envy the judges for having to sample every single offering to select a winner. Great googly moogly.

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The DJed 80s music was fun (and right in my wheelhouse). The kiddo beelined straight for the giant inflatable human hamster balls. After 15 minutes or so, I reminded him that we needed to get back to the mac and cheese.

In spite of the staggered admission, the whole scene was very crowded. And, it being a hot day with temps pushing 90, my little man started whining after 30 minutes or so. The line for water and soft drinks was long, and while I would have very much enjoyed a cold Sun King beer, it wouldn’t have helped my son’s thirst situation. I wished there would have been more beverage stations and drink options on hand.

I didn’t end up being able to taste as many of the mac and cheese offerings as I would have liked, but after the fact, was excited to see that two I specifically remembered enjoying had snagged top honors — The Local Eatery’s Creole mac and cheese with blue cheese, cheddar and mozzarella topped with a couple of Cajun-spiced shrimp was the judges’ top pick, while new-kid-on-the-block LouVino won People’s Choice with a Louisville Hot Brown-inspired recipe with creamy Mornay sauce, smoked chicken, tomato relish and bacon (and as a bonus, handed out $5 coupon to visit the restaurant for brunch). District Tap’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese was on point as well…

The heat and the kiddo’s complaining got the best of us both 45 minutes in. I must mention a note on the parking situation. We’d parked in the Kroger lot across the street — as the event organizers had said we could do, but while walking back to our car, a guy driving by made a snide comment to me about taking a spot away from paying Kroger customers. I wasn’t sure how to respond nicely, so I didn’t. But I seethed about it halfway home.

I’m not sure a hot summer day provides the best conditions to load up on this kind of decadent fare. Then again, there’s never a bad time to eat mac and cheese IMO.

I will be shocked if Return of the Mac doesn’t return next year. For more information, head on over to returnofthemacfest.com.

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Craft drafts

A friend brought Twenty Tap to my attention last week in a mass email when she announced she’s now hostessing there one night a week and we should all stop by and check it out. I was happy to get the chance to do so.

Twenty Tap in SoBro

Twenty Tap is the brainchild of Kevin Matalucci, of Broad Ripple Brewpub brewing fame, nesting down in the former home of Northside News at 54th and College. The guy has obviously put a lot of effort into putting a new face on the business via tall wood booths, spherical hanging light fixtures and walls dressed in earthy hues.

A girlfriend and I stopped in for dinner last night. My first impression was that Twenty Tap has a bit of a split personality— half restaurant and half pub. To the left is an open bar area with electronic darts; to the right, a family-friendly dining room. Everything looks fresh and clean, but I couldn’t help but think the place feels somehow unfinished. Perhaps some more art on the walls would help. Maybe, like a new apartment, it just needs a little time to develop a more lived-in feel. The dining room was fairly empty when we arrived just after 6 p.m., but steadily filled to capacity during the course of our stay.

In a nod to terroir, Twenty Tap distinguishes itself by serving 20 craft beers, all made within Indiana (like Tomlinson Tap Room). Always nice to see locavoracity in action. Beer choices are listed on a blackboard wall (this trend seems to be everywhere these days). I settled on a pint of Fort Wayne-based Mad Anthony kolsch, and my friend (a non-beer drinker) seemed happy with her Sun King Wee Mac. Our young server seemed pretty up to speed when we asked him for recommendations.

Twenty Tap beer list during our visit

The menu details gastropub-ish grub, with a few surprises. From what I keep hearing, the pressed Cuban sandwich (a tribute to the version formerly served at Northside News, I assume) is the thing to order, but I passed it up to try the mushroom Reuben instead. Saying she wasn’t all that hungry, my friend asked for the pimento mac and cheese, a $5 appetizer offering with optional bacon for an extra buck fifty. There’s also a handful of burgers, a few salads and a soup du jour. Three-bean salad sounded like an interesting side alternative to standard fries.

We settled in to enjoy our beers and everything was going fine until our server apparently fell off the face of the earth. People sitting next to us (who’d ordered long after we did) received their food, and my pint glass sat empty for long enough that we started to wonder where the heck our guy had disappeared to. Finally, our dinners arrived (reassuringly hot, thank goodness) and I was able to get a refill on my kolsch, so all’s well that ends well.

The macaroni was nicely cooked to al dente and the sauce had a subtly spicy pimento tang.

Twenty Tap’s pimento mac and cheese

My sandwich was ok, subbing strips of sliced mushroom for corned beef with all the other traditional Reuben accoutrement, but I must admit, I found myself wishing I’d gone with the word of mouth buzz and ordered the Cuban instead. The fries were crispy and lightly dusted with black pepper.

the mushroom reuben

Halfway through my meal, the server dropped off a tiny ramekin of house-made pickles. The cucumbers were sliced paper thin and the pickling liquid had a flavor note I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Cinnamon, perhaps?

Our house is situated east of Broad Ripple, so Twenty Tap probably won’t become a regular haunt for us, but if we lived in the neighborhood, I can see how it might be a steady stop. Especially since it’s kid-friendly. My husband often takes our three-year-old out to the “pub” to enjoy some daddy-son bonding time over a pint of beer and a glass of lemonade. (My son drinks the lemonade, just in case you were wondering…)

I can’t seem to find a Twenty Tap web site up and running yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Watch this space…

Twenty Tap on Urbanspoon

Baby steps

It appears, much to my chagrin, that I am raising a picky eater.

As a self-professed gourmet cook, I’ve always harbored visions of raising appreciative little diners who would boast great palates from an early age and happily slurp up whatever I put down on the plate in front of them. I pledged I would never be one of those moms who make two separate dinners a night – one for the grown-ups and one for the kids. Then I had a baby and realized that, as with every other facet of life after you have a child, I am no longer the one calling the shots.

I read an article in (the sadly, now defunct) Gourmet magazine awhile back about the dumbing down of children’s cuisine and how it’s up to the parents not to always cop-out with a Happy Meal. The writer referenced a young boy who loved Chinese food and got upset when, assuming he was finished, a waitress once took his plate away before he could enjoy his duck tongues or some such delicacy. Like most two-year-olds, I’m afraid mine seems destined for a life of mac and cheese.

My two eldest nieces in Ireland are championship eaters, the kind I hope my own child will one day become. When they came to visit us about two months after my son was born (ages 5 and 7 at the time, if memory holds), they scarfed down mussels marinara at the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, and Bazbeaux pizza topped with shrimp and snow peas. During a more recent visit in Ireland, I noted that they partook of a cheese platter with the same gusto as the adults did, preferring the pungent blue to the milder Brie. I’m telling ya, these girls know good food. I pity the poor guys who are going to come calling in about ten years – they’d better pick their dinner date destinations carefully if they hope to impress.

This side of the pond, we are stuck in something of a culinary rut. Every day, I find myself preparing the same menus for Michael with only the slightest variations. Breakfast – Dora the Explorer yogurt (and ONLY the pink Dora yogurt will do), milk and perhaps a few bites of a muffin or a pancake. For lunch, he eats fruit, crackers or pretzels, and maybe some peanut butter. Snacks consist of animal crackers, a Nutri-grain bar or Gummi-bearish juice treats. Dinner is whatever I can get down his little gullet. Veggies and dip, pizza, French fries, a cheese stick, toast, maybe a scrambled egg if he’s feeling really edgy. Surely, Michael’s getting as bored with these meals as I am. I suppose he figures if it isn’t broken, then why taste it?

I don’t pretend to understand what goes on with a toddler’s taste buds during these formative years. How can Michael love kalamata olives, for God’s sake, but soundly refuse to put even a sliver of roast chicken in his mouth? Are we raising a vegetarian? The only meat he will deign to ingest is the occasional tiniest bit of crispy bacon. Cheeseburgers? Nope. Chicken nuggets? Uh uh. He even turned down peppermint stick ice cream the other night — what kid DOES that?

Even more mind-boggling, how can the little guy be sooooo into something one week, and then completely shun it the next? I really thought we were onto something with the pasta. Over the holidays, both he and his stepbrother made short work of my homemade angel hair pasta pomodoro like nobody’s business, but last week when I dished up a serving of fettuccine alfredo? No dice. Not even a taste. Just a sniff of the nose and a resoundingly whiny “No, mommy, I don’t WIKE that!”

I know I’m probably expecting too much too soon. After all, I seem to recall my own Cocoa Krispies breakfast habit that lasted well into junior high, and I didn’t really start digging fresh vegetables until college. Heck, I still sometimes eat a sleeve of Pop Tarts with a spoonful or two of peanut butter and call it dinner.

And things have improved some since the dark stretch last year that I refer to as the Ritz-cracker-and-Cheerio period. My son is perfectly healthy. He eats fruit like a champ. He gets enough protein and plenty of whole grains. He only receives fast food once in a great while. I’ll just have to persevere, giving him tastes of entrees, sides and sauces from my plate before resorting to the old standbys. With luck, one day a sense of dining diversity will catch on. He has recently started requesting “sparkling water with orange juice and a slice of lemon, please,” so maybe there’s still hope for him yet.