Get your chicken on

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

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

Morristown’s historic Kopper Kettle

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

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

one of Kopper Kettle’s many dining rooms

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

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

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

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

the fried chicken spread at Kopper Kettle

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

mmmmmmm… chicken!

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

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

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

For more information,
www.kopperkettle.com

Kopper Kettle 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

Here’s my beef

Maybe I’m in a bit of a foul mood, but a few things have been bothering me that I’d like to get off my chest. It seems when I dine out, I repeatedly encounter several situations and circumstances that always serve to irk me like fingernails down a chalkboard or Paris Hilton’s voice. Therefore, if you dear readers don’t mind indulging me, I’d like to run down several of my biggest restaurant pet peeves:

• My No. 1 offender is geared toward breakfast/brunch eateries. Sorry to single you out, but there’s nothing I loathe like saying “why yes, kind server, I would indeed like cream with my coffee,” and then having a small dish of those scary little single-serving tubs of non-dairy product deposited on the table. It boggles my mind when this happens in borderline upscale restaurants that bill themselves as trendy gourmet, like the cafe that shall remain unnamed where hubby and I went for breakfast earlier this week.

These non-dairy packets should be outlawed in my opinion. They are not natural, they taste like crap, and I don’t trust anything resembling dairy that doesn’t require refrigeration. I’m sure they’re cost-effective and all that, blah, blah, blah. Seriously. I know it’s easier to plop down the non-dairy creamers, but would it kill ya to bring me a tiny pour of Half and Half, or even milk would be better? I guess I could be more specific when agreeing to the proffered “cream,” but I always get the feeling if I start making detailed requests right off the bat, I’ll immediately be pegged one of “those” customers.

• Second biggest pet peeve is servers who drop off your check before you’re done eating. I know you work on tips, and I can appreciate that if the place is packed with people waiting for seats, it behooves you to turn the tables as quickly as possible. But when the place is only half-full to begin with and your shift isn’t over for another two hours, there is no excuse for slapping down my bill when I’m not even halfway through my food. And softening the blow with a “no rush, just whenever you’re ready…” does not make it any better. You might as well say “Chew a little faster, grandma, and don’t let the door hit you on the ass.”

• For hubby’s sake, I must bring up the big O. That would be onions. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times he has specifically asked a server if a dish contains onions and is told no, only to have said dish arrive teeming with the things. Or, he clarifies that a certain item on the plate will not contain onions and then discovers that some other side dish or accompaniment contains them. (We were recently in a breakfast place that promised there would be no onions in his omelet, only to serve him country potatoes laced with ‘em.) God forbid, the server takes the onion-laden dish to the kitchen to remedy the problem, simply removes the slice or ring and then returns the already tainted plate as is. He will still smell them and taste them. For people with heavy-duty food allergies, this could be a very serious matter. While onions will not cause an anaphylactic reaction or any life-threatening condition for my husband, their mere presence will usually put a serious damper on the meal for the both of us.

In the nearly seven years we’ve been married, I must shamefully admit to trying to pull one over on him a time or two, and he’s busted me every time. No matter how finely the onions are grated, no matter how many other spices are competing in the recipe, no matter how clever I think I’ve been about disguising them. He ALWAYS knows. And once he’s been wronged, it takes a recovery period for me to regain his trust, during which time I will have to reassure him time and again that no, I haven’t put any onions into whatever I’m dishing up for dinner. Just tonight, in fact, he asked me if I’d put onions in something, even though it’s been several years since my last attempt to sneak some by. I’ve learned my lesson. I personally enjoy onions, but now I save them for meals I’m cooking solo or for other audiences.

• Servers who say “No problem.” Me: “Excuse me, this fork is dirty. Could I get another one, please?” Server: “Sure, no problem.” Um… hold the phone. Yes, Houston we DO have a problem! If there were no problem, I wouldn’t be asking you to replace it. Or… Me: “Thanks.” Server: “No problem.” The correct response is “You’re welcome.” Perhaps this is the nitpicky English major/grammar snob/editorial drill sergeant in me rearing its ugly head, but still. It bugs.

• Restaurants without web sites. In this day, age and economy, my dining-out dollars are somewhat precious. If I’m considering checking out a place I’ve never been before, I’d like to have a general idea of what I’ll be getting for my money. I don’t need a 360-degree interactive view of your dining room and a virtual meal experience. However, I would like to be able to check out your menu ahead of time. With prices, please. It doesn’t have to be anything super flashy, just take the time to make sure your online presence is up to date. If your Yelp or Urbanspoon listing links to a web address that’s a dead end or if the menu you’ve posted is ten years old, it makes me suspicious and you risk me going somewhere else.

• Suggested gratuity amounts at the bottom of the bill. You make think you’re conveniently making the math easier for the customer, but in fact, you’re being presumptuous as hell. Last time I checked, tips were still not compulsory. If my server is going to arrive at the table with a surly attitude and act like I’m doing him/her a favor, perhaps he/she should consider a new vocation. I must justify this remark by saying that I pride myself on being a respectful customer and a consistently good tipper, at least 20 percent for problem-free service, and often more like 25 or 30 in places I visit regularly. I assume diners with half a brain know how to calculate a decent tip for decent service. I could be wrong. If so, I will stand corrected by issuing a hearty apology.

Whew. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better now. I promise to lighten up on the bitching and make my next post much more chipper.

Lest restaurant owners and servers think I’m trying to pick on them, I’d love to turn the tables and hear some of YOUR biggest customer pet peeves about customers! (Feel free to post anonymously if necessary.)

Here's my beef

Maybe I’m in a bit of a foul mood, but a few things have been bothering me that I’d like to get off my chest. It seems when I dine out, I repeatedly encounter several situations and circumstances that always serve to irk me like fingernails down a chalkboard or Paris Hilton’s voice. Therefore, if you dear readers don’t mind indulging me, I’d like to run down several of my biggest restaurant pet peeves:

• My No. 1 offender is geared toward breakfast/brunch eateries. Sorry to single you out, but there’s nothing I loathe like saying “why yes, kind server, I would indeed like cream with my coffee,” and then having a small dish of those scary little single-serving tubs of non-dairy product deposited on the table. It boggles my mind when this happens in borderline upscale restaurants that bill themselves as trendy gourmet, like the cafe that shall remain unnamed where hubby and I went for breakfast earlier this week.

These non-dairy packets should be outlawed in my opinion. They are not natural, they taste like crap, and I don’t trust anything resembling dairy that doesn’t require refrigeration. I’m sure they’re cost-effective and all that, blah, blah, blah. Seriously. I know it’s easier to plop down the non-dairy creamers, but would it kill ya to bring me a tiny pour of Half and Half, or even milk would be better? I guess I could be more specific when agreeing to the proffered “cream,” but I always get the feeling if I start making detailed requests right off the bat, I’ll immediately be pegged one of “those” customers.

• Second biggest pet peeve is servers who drop off your check before you’re done eating. I know you work on tips, and I can appreciate that if the place is packed with people waiting for seats, it behooves you to turn the tables as quickly as possible. But when the place is only half-full to begin with and your shift isn’t over for another two hours, there is no excuse for slapping down my bill when I’m not even halfway through my food. And softening the blow with a “no rush, just whenever you’re ready…” does not make it any better. You might as well say “Chew a little faster, grandma, and don’t let the door hit you on the ass.”

• For hubby’s sake, I must bring up the big O. That would be onions. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times he has specifically asked a server if a dish contains onions and is told no, only to have said dish arrive teeming with the things. Or, he clarifies that a certain item on the plate will not contain onions and then discovers that some other side dish or accompaniment contains them. (We were recently in a breakfast place that promised there would be no onions in his omelet, only to serve him country potatoes laced with ‘em.) God forbid, the server takes the onion-laden dish to the kitchen to remedy the problem, simply removes the slice or ring and then returns the already tainted plate as is. He will still smell them and taste them. For people with heavy-duty food allergies, this could be a very serious matter. While onions will not cause an anaphylactic reaction or any life-threatening condition for my husband, their mere presence will usually put a serious damper on the meal for the both of us.

In the nearly seven years we’ve been married, I must shamefully admit to trying to pull one over on him a time or two, and he’s busted me every time. No matter how finely the onions are grated, no matter how many other spices are competing in the recipe, no matter how clever I think I’ve been about disguising them. He ALWAYS knows. And once he’s been wronged, it takes a recovery period for me to regain his trust, during which time I will have to reassure him time and again that no, I haven’t put any onions into whatever I’m dishing up for dinner. Just tonight, in fact, he asked me if I’d put onions in something, even though it’s been several years since my last attempt to sneak some by. I’ve learned my lesson. I personally enjoy onions, but now I save them for meals I’m cooking solo or for other audiences.

• Servers who say “No problem.” Me: “Excuse me, this fork is dirty. Could I get another one, please?” Server: “Sure, no problem.” Um… hold the phone. Yes, Houston we DO have a problem! If there were no problem, I wouldn’t be asking you to replace it. Or… Me: “Thanks.” Server: “No problem.” The correct response is “You’re welcome.” Perhaps this is the nitpicky English major/grammar snob/editorial drill sergeant in me rearing its ugly head, but still. It bugs.

• Restaurants without web sites. In this day, age and economy, my dining-out dollars are somewhat precious. If I’m considering checking out a place I’ve never been before, I’d like to have a general idea of what I’ll be getting for my money. I don’t need a 360-degree interactive view of your dining room and a virtual meal experience. However, I would like to be able to check out your menu ahead of time. With prices, please. It doesn’t have to be anything super flashy, just take the time to make sure your online presence is up to date. If your Yelp or Urbanspoon listing links to a web address that’s a dead end or if the menu you’ve posted is ten years old, it makes me suspicious and you risk me going somewhere else.

• Suggested gratuity amounts at the bottom of the bill. You make think you’re conveniently making the math easier for the customer, but in fact, you’re being presumptuous as hell. Last time I checked, tips were still not compulsory. If my server is going to arrive at the table with a surly attitude and act like I’m doing him/her a favor, perhaps he/she should consider a new vocation. I must justify this remark by saying that I pride myself on being a respectful customer and a consistently good tipper, at least 20 percent for problem-free service, and often more like 25 or 30 in places I visit regularly. I assume diners with half a brain know how to calculate a decent tip for decent service. I could be wrong. If so, I will stand corrected by issuing a hearty apology.

Whew. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better now. I promise to lighten up on the bitching and make my next post much more chipper.

Lest restaurant owners and servers think I’m trying to pick on them, I’d love to turn the tables and hear some of YOUR biggest customer pet peeves about customers! (Feel free to post anonymously if necessary.)

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

Hit this Bonge

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

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

Bonge’s Tavern on a quiet weeknight

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

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

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

Bonge’s Tavern menu on the night of our visit

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

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

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

Bonge’s wedge salad

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

the Perkinsville pork

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

the Hargar duck

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

scallops with caper butter

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

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

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

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

For more information, www.bongestavern.com.

Bonge's Tavern Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Destination dining at its best

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

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

Joseph Decuis in Roanoke

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

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

the dining room view from my table

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

roasted beets starter

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

Wagyu beef filet

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

chocolate pecan bourbon bliss

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

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

For more information, visit www.josephdecuis.com.

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Sweet spot

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

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

Ghyslain Bistro in Richmond

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

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

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

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

Ghyslain’s sharable charcuterie

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

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

Ghyslain’s take on salad

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

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

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

the morel chicken

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

steak and shrimp entree

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

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

the key lime tart

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

the Charlemagne

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

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

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

For more information: www.ghyslain.com

Ghyslain on Urbanspoon

Local anesthetic

Nothing around these parts really holds a candle to the authentic Irish pub. Americanized wannabe versions? Forget it. The closest thing I’ve found to the real deal here in Indianapolis would probably have to be the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, but the owner there is English, not Irish, and the two nationalities tend to get a little bent out of shape when you mistake one for the other.

In Ireland, stopping by the pub is the next best thing to parking your butt in your favorite recliner with a nice cold beer at the end of a long day. Maybe even better. The goal of the pub, short for “public house” FYI, is to provide a comfortable, cozy atmosphere not unlike an extension of your own living room where patrons can swing in for a pint, some food, and a chat with friends and neighbors. My Irish in-laws often speak of their “locals” with pride and affection, but it’s hard to find establishments that serve the same purpose stateside in the land of nameless, faceless fast food and soulless chain restaurants. Places where everybody knows your name are few and far between.

After countless visits, meals and drinks, I think hubby and I have established our own local here in Indy. It actually used to be the Broad Ripple Brew Pub; we had our first date there years ago and congregated with friends nearly every Sunday night (and usually at least one additional night each week). Proximity and fondness have since led us to Sahm’s Place, just east of Broad Ripple and within quick walking distance from our home.

Can’t remember exactly when we started to hang out at Sahm’s Place on a regular basis, but it had to have been several years ago when I was pregnant with our son. I was on bed rest for a good three months, and hubby started frequenting the joint. This arrangement worked well — hubby could get out for a break, still be right around the corner if needed, and grab a take-out for me on the way home. Once I was finally mobile again, I recall walking to Sahm’s when the weather broke in April. Heavily pregnant and trying desperately to kick-start my labor, I sat at the bar panting, trying to catch my breath and jealously watching hubby enjoy a beer.

Since those days, one or the other of us has visited Sahm’s probably once a week. It’s become hubby’s regular Wednesday night hang with the guys, we often take our three-year-old in for meals, and I have been known to stop in solo on occasion for dinner. It’s our go-to. They know us there. Heck, they seem to know everybody there. Last night, hardly a soul came in without receiving a personal greeting and hearty handshake. The servers are impressed by the toddler’s ordering abilities. How many little boys do you know can stop in somewhere and ask for “the usual,” knowing he’ll promptly receive a glass of sparkling water with a slice of cucumber? I love that.

Sahm’s Place is one of a handful of Sahm’s locations scattered around town. My cousin Jenny, who lives in Fishers, first turned me on to the franchise way back when. We would stop in the eatery at Allisonville and 116th, and it quickly became “our place.” She even ordered chicken salad sandwiches from there for my baby shower buffet. Sahm’s is cool like that. There’s something about it that feels very homey — definitely the food, but also the fact that it’s family-owned. It’s just the kind of all-around place you can hang out in to watch the game, bring your family for dinner, or meet a girlfriend for lunch or a glass of wine.

Sited in a small strip just in front of Kroger at 65th and Keystone, I almost feel like Sahm’s Place flies a little under the radar, although maybe that’s not accurate to say because it’s usually quite busy whenever we stop in. When you say Sahm’s, most Indy folks probably think of the original flagship Fishers location or the downtown spot, but Sahm’s Place more than holds its own.

view from the end of the bar at Sahm's Place

There is a full-service restaurant section, but we always sit on the bar side. The bar itself is partitioned off by half-walls, so we can still bring the little guy in with us to sit at one of the tables along the far wall. Although there are plenty of good old familiar domestic beer options, I like that Sahm’s puts an emphasis on local and regional craft beers as well. It’s one of the few places that hubby goes in and just asks for whatever they think he’ll like.

Foodwise, the wide-ranging Sahm’s menu covers all the bases for lunch and dinner. If you can’t find something to eat here, you’re just not trying. There’s a good selection of salads, each served with a slice of Sahm’s signature coffeecake for a little sweet treat bonus on the side. I often order the Southwest chicken salad, a huge bowl of fresh lettuce, tomato, cheese, olives and tortilla strips with a spicy grilled chicken breast atop. The double whammy of salsa ranch and creamy lime dressings on the side really make it, though. I could drink both of these out of the ramekins.

buffalo chicken sandwich with carrot curls and a Sun King Wee Mac

The hefty sandwich selections are more than filling, and that’s what we went for last night. I particularly like the buffalo chicken, the breaded tenderloin (this is Indiana, after all), and the spinach melt. On the side? Skip the fries and go for the carrot curls. Think potato chips made from carrot. Yum. Yum. Yum.

the ubiquitous Indiana pork tenderloin

There’s also pasta, stir fry and a handful of entrée items to consider. Sahm’s does a very respectable steak dinner at a good price — ask for your New York strip served Pittsburgh-style on a sizzling platter, and watch the heads turn as the meat wafts its way through the dining room to your table.

Sahm’s offers a number of specials and a Tuesday night pub quiz that’s worth checking out, best to show up early to grab a seat. Hold the phone — Sahm’s serves breakfast, too??? This is definitely something I need to explore…

For more information: 

Sahm’s Place

http://www.sahms.com/index.php?cID=71

Sahm’s Place on Urbanspoon

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/

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