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

Life, Libertine, and the pursuit of happiness

I wonder if Neal Brown’s mom ever admonished him to stop playing with his food when he was a kid. If she did, she must be eating her words right about now. As chef-owner of L’Explorateur (closed. boo.), Pizzology and now the Libertine, creative doesn’t even begin to describe the things this guy can do with food and drink.

 

Brown’s Indy fans have been anxiously awaiting the opening of his new speakeasy-ish downtown cocktail bar for what seems like ages. And finally, the wait is over. The Libertine opened about a month ago in a little storefront on Washington Street and has been racking up the raves ever since. I went last night with a small group of girlfriends to test the waters. I must admit to being a little nervous, because I’d been looking forward to it so much. My hopes were high and I reeeeeeaally didn’t want to be disappointed. Happily, I wasn’t. The Libertine more than lived up to my expectations, and I can personally attest that all the accolades are well deserved.

We arrived around 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. It was busy, but not absolutely crammed as I’d feared it might be. The Libertine doesn’t take reservations, and we were told the wait for a table would be around 45 minutes. Fortunately, the restaurant provides cocktail service at a couple of tall standing-room-only tables near the front where you can wait. As it turned out, we were seated within 15 minutes, before the first round of drinks even arrived.

The Libertine isn’t large; basically, it’s just one long narrow dining room. The bar runs the length of the space, fronting a wall of cubbyholes that’s been partially filled with bottles, food products, cookbooks and bric-a-brac. A row of four-top tables fills the other side separated from the bar by a long aisle. The décor is dark, sleek and sophisticated, heavy on IKEA-style touches like groovy hanging light fixtures over the tables and what looks like white tree branches growing through the wall at the back by the restrooms.

The menu isn’t big, either, but it requires some serious consideration just because everything sounds so unusual. I mean this in the best possible way. At the Libertine, cocktails deserve equal (if not greater) billing to the food, commandeering more than the top half of the one-page bill of fare. And what cocktails they are… Brown has taken the same innovative approach he uses with food and applied it to alcohol to turn out some really distinctive combinations. Even the names are clever. “Yes, I’d like a Dirty Little Whirlwind, please.” Or, “Could you bring me another Truth and Reconciliation when you get a minute?” You can get beer and wine here as well, but you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try at least one mixed drink.

the Seelbach Cocktail

I’m trying to train for an upcoming bourbon-tasting media tour in Kentucky, so I ordered a little number called the Seelbach Cocktail, named for the fancy historic hotel in Louisville. Served in a sexy curvy stemmed glass, the drink consists of vintage bourbon with orange juice, lemon juice, a splash of fizzy Prosecco and a strip of orange peel. I enjoyed it so much, I ordered a second. Icy cold, sweet but not too sweet, and much more palatable than the Manhattans I’ve been drinking elsewhere lately.

Other beverage choices around the table included a Dark and Stormy made with rum, ginger beer and lime; a lovely floral St. Germain cocktail; and the Paloma Smash — a crush of La Cava Blanco, grapefruit and mint. I thought the Dark and Stormy tasted like a Coke with a bit of ginger after-kick.

My friend Gillian insists I mention the ice. The Dark and Stormy and the later Pimm’s Cup she ordered (a fresh punch of sorts comprised of gin, cucumber, lemon and ginger beer) held big oversized cubes that kept the drinks cold but melted slowly enough that they didn’t dilute the flavors. A small detail that makes a big difference.

If you like absinthe, you can find it here, although the stuff scares the crap out of me. The real-deal French variety is hallucinogenic and causes some really trippy reactions from what I’ve heard. Our waitress assured us the version they serve at the Libertine is toned down and “as legal as it can be in the U.S.” She said you really have to love the flavor of black licorice to enjoy it, and I don’t. No one at our table ordered any, but I would have liked to see someone at another table ask for some just so we could see the elaborate preparation process.

I’m curious which concept came first at the Libertine, the cocktails or the food. The small selection of a dozen and a half small plates is ideally suited to complement the drinks. You can certainly make a dinner out of the choices, but don’t expect full meal plates of oversized portions here. Each offering is a perfectly sized and packed-with-flavor appetizer. For our repast, we picked two items to share amongst the group and then each ordered another individual small plate or two of our own choosing.

The first thing I sought out on the menu was the bacon flight, something I’d caught prior wind of in a review I’d read. Not just an urban legend, there it was. We agreed to share that, along with the Manchego crostini. (I lobbied for the daily selection of deviled eggs, am putting that front and center for my next visit.)

Libertine’s bacon flight

But back to the bacon… this is NOT your grandpa’s greasy Jimmy Dean breakfast special. The Libertine bacon commands immediate respect, arriving in a silver goblet. The five or six strips come with a series of three garnish accompaniments — a pesto, tiny cubes of brunoised pickled carrot, and a spicy goat cheese spread. I can’t remember exactly what kind of bacon we got. I do recall the server saying something about a lamb variation and a double-smoked strip, but after that, it all blends into a deliciously salty haze. (There’s a very real possibility that my Seelbach Cocktail could have been kicking in here.) The crunchy carrots were my favorite adornment; the acidity was a great flavor component to balance out some of the fatty richness of the meat. One gal in our group who hates goat cheese kept going back for more of it on this dish, if that tells you anything about how good it was.

The crostini were ok, little toasts topped with artichoke and pine nuts buried under an avalanche of shredded Manchego cheese, but didn’t stand out as much as some of the other stuff we ate.

chicken pate and waffles

For my solo plate, I opted for the Gunthorp Farms chicken liver pate over waffles – Brown’s whimsical spin on the more traditional chicken and waffles you find at soul food eateries like my beloved Roscoe’s in Los Angeles. This was another dish I’d read about online and was intrigued by. The presentation was pretty awesome: two disks of pate on top of two small stacked waffles with a little bit of hot sauce on the bottom of the plate and a drizzle of bourbon syrup poured over tableside. Did I mention there was a little piece of crispy fried chicken skin on top? Oh yes, there was. I’ll fess up — I don’t have much experience with pate, and I can’t say in all honesty that this dish made me a fan. It was interesting to be sure, and I have no doubt the pate was top-notch, but I guess my palate just isn’t accustomed to the texture.

What else was there? Let’s see… the roasted mushroom salad with cauliflower puree and chickpeas looked and tasted delish.

duck meatballs over gnocchi

One member of our group ordered a duck meatballs over crispy potato gnocchi dish that she was very happy with, saying it was something meat-and-potato lovers would definitely like.

The beef tataki dish was sort of a seared carpaccio over arugula with fennel. It looked a lot like tuna, but was a little too rare for my taste. I wussed out and just nibbled an edge of the meat to taste it. The Proper Ham and Cheese sandwich was one of the more fairly straightforward choices. Gruyere and mornay sauce took the whole thing over the top into the realm of decadence, and the Smoking Goose Meatery-sourced ham was melt-in-your-mouth tender.

the one-eyed Jack

One of the biggest hits at the table was something called “One-Eyed Jack,” a toad-in-the-hole kind of thing with a egg nestled into a thick slice of grilled bread. It was served with fig butter and garlic confit, which sounds a little weird on paper, but was a fantastic combination when all put together. You’ve gotta really like garlic to enjoy this one, though. I only had one bite and the first thing hubby said to me when I got home was, “Wow. Garlic, huh?”

Small plate prices run anywhere from $6 for the radish plate to $15 for the oyster selection du jour. Many items hover in the $8 or $9 range, which seems totally fair for the quality and creativity involved.

The Libertine doesn’t offer any desserts, which is too bad. I would love to see what Brown would do here in this capacity. But whatever. I can’t wait to go back.

living it up at Libertine with the gals

For more information, visit:

http://www.libertineindy.com/

Libertine on Urbanspoon