Dishing it out

When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. When in Columbus, Ind., you go to Zaharakos.

the illustrious Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor

This isn’t any old Dairy Queen. Stepping in the door of Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor is like traveling back in time. The place is jam-packed with period furnishings that date back to the turn of the century (1900, not 2000). I’m talking everything from original soda fountains to orchestrions that might make you think you’d stepped inside a circus tent, Tiffany-style lamps, exquisitely carved oak detailing and gorgeous marble countertops. There’s not a blemish, stain or scratch to be seen anywhere; everything is in such good shape, you’d swear Zaharakos just opened their doors for business yesterday and not more than 100 years ago.

front row seats at Zaharakos’ marble counter

This Columbus institution — it’s a registered historic landmark — serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but no matter what time of day you visit, you’ll definitely want to tack some ice cream onto your order. They make everything in house, from the eight flavors of ice cream to the syrups, sauces and even the fresh waffle cones.

Serving sizes are generous, too. A single scoop fills up a sundae glass and is actually more like the two scoops you get elsewhere for twice the price (ahem, cough, Baskin Robbins).

the quintessential hot fudge sundae

After much consideration, I opted for a straight-up hot fudge sundae with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and a cherry on top. It was perfect from the first spoonful to the last. Zaharakos puts the syrup in the bottom of the glass so it doesn’t melt all the ice cream before you’re ready. And if that’s not enough chocolatey goodness for you, you can ask for a small additional sauceboat on the side.

caramel sundae with butter pecan

My friend ordered a sundae with butter pecan ice cream and caramel sauce, which looked equally as tasty. As we sat at the bar, we got to see all sorts of other yummy concoctions taking shape; the neon yellow lemon cream sodas were especially eye-catching.

lemon cream sodas

I only wished someone would have ordered a house specialty Green River Float. I was a little too scared to try one, but wanted to get a look at it. Elsewhere on the menu, you’ll find old-fashioned malts, milkshakes, fountain sodas and that tried-and-true classic, the banana split.

Trust me on this. If you’re in Columbus, you owe it to yourself to stop in Zaharakos.

For more information:

Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum on Urbanspoon

Boogie wonderland

I’m a big proponent of healthy eating, but I also believe in enjoying all foods in moderation and sometimes I just want to sink my teeth into some meat. I start daydreaming about a big, drippy, beefy cheeseburger and nothing else will do. Finding a favorite burger can be a fickle undertaking, though. I’m hopelessly devoted to In ‘N Out and praying fervently to the gods of all things ground beef that they will someday open an Indianapolis outpost. In the meantime, I have encountered several local sandwiches that deliver a solid burger fix.

I’ve recently been turned on to Five Guys Burger and Fries, and Zest! Exciting Food Creations knocks out a gourmet knife-and-fork burger worthy of a romantic date night. But for my money, Boogie Burger is the destination of choice these days.

Having recently relocated from its Westfield Boulevard spot in the heart of Broad Ripple to the former Tin Star Café building just a short distance east on 62nd Street, Boogie Burger seems to be settling into its new digs nicely. The space is bigger and brighter, although the old, more cramped place did have a certain charm in my opinion. Happily, the food remains the same. Good.

Boogie Burger’s new digs

The menu offers all the standard burger configurations, and a few unexpected ones like the Maui Wowee, topped with ham, Swiss, teriyaki sauce and a slice of grilled pineapple. Or perhaps you’re in the mood for a Disco Inferno, gussied up with pepperjack cheese and grilled Serrano chili peppers. If you’re really feeling decadent (or slightly insane), you can order a Cluck and Moo, a monstrosity of a sandwich that marries a beef patty and a chicken breast all on the same bun. You can even choose to slather your burger with peanut butter if you so desire. I know some people really like this (yes, Lafayette Triple XXX fans, I’m talking to you), but the thought of it makes me shudder.

I’m more of a purist when it comes to burgers, although I can occasionally get down with the addition of blue cheese (i.e. the Blue Moon), or a Wild Wild West with cheddar, bacon, onion rings and barbecue sauce. More likely than not, though, you’ll find me ordering a straight-up Boogie Burger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard (hold the raw onion and mayo, thank you very much).

a classic Boogie burger with cheese, lettuce and tomato

These manly chargrilled burgers are 1/3-pound Angus beef beauties — big enough to satisfy, but not so big that you feel sick with regret after snarfing down the whole thing. At $4.50 for a basic cheeseburger with the usual adornments, Boogie is a little pricier than fast food, but totally worth it for a much better quality sandwich.

the Blue Moon with bacon

The fries are yummy, too, but be forewarned, the one-size-fits-all serving ($2.10) is ginormous. Between hubby, the toddler and I, we still can’t finish a single order. (If you want to scare off vampires, get your fries tossed with fresh garlic and cheese.) Hubby once made the mistake of ordering two servings of fries and we ended up with tons leftover. Don’t ever throw these babies away! I looked like a rockstar the following night when I brought them back to life by throwing them onto a baking sheet, sprinkling on some herbes de provence, and re-baking them until hot and crispy.

Boogie’s single order of fries. Told ya.

Boogie Burger does have a handful of other sandwiches and a few salads you can order, but why would you? Trust me. A burger is what you want here, and a great burger is exactly what you’re going to get.

 For more info:

Boogie Burger on Urbanspoon

To Market, to Market…

Shhh…. have you heard about this new restaurant called Black Market? Indy’s newest gastropub is sneaking onto the local scene with a whisper and not a roar, but with the kind of buzz it’s generating, this secret won’t be kept hush-hush very long.

After hearing great word of mouth from a couple of people whose food opinions I respect, I mentally put it on my radar. And when last night presented an opportunity to enjoy a nice dinner downtown with hubby, we sought it out.

Situated on the far eastern end of Mass Ave, you would easily miss Black Market if you weren’t looking for it. We WERE looking for it and still almost missed it. There’s no sign or any indication whatsoever that this nondescript brick building is a restaurant except for the glimpse of some folks eating at tables in the window. And there’s a cool old bike parked out front. If they’re going for the speakeasy vibe, they’ve definitely nailed it.

Black Market on Mass Ave

As far as restaurants go, Black Market is definitely trendier than the kinds of places I usually frequent, but still friendly and casual enough to make anyone (i.e. hopelessly untrendy types like myself) feel welcome. Inside, the décor is right in keeping with all that semi-industrial modern stuff that’s so popular right now — dark wood, sleek fixtures, exposed brick, a chalkboard wall when you first walk in.

The lighting over the bar is pretty cool, consisting of one long wood beam suspended from the ceiling with little spotlights drilled in down the length. Black Market isn’t big, just a couple of long communal tables down the middle and a few other small tables scattered around. I’d say it was slightly more than half full during our visit. Not really surprising, considering that it’s only been open a few weeks and hasn’t had any sort of big splashy kickoff. I expect crowds will be picking up steadily as word gets out.

The imaginative menu is cleanly presented on a clipboard, detailing small plates, entrees, a handful of sides and a couple desserts. There’s also a well-chosen beer and wine list, but having just come from Tomlinson Tap for a couple of pints, I stuck to water. Our service throughout the meal was impeccable and unpretentious, and the pacing perfect.

On to the food… lots of things sounded good on paper. The housemade pickle plate appetizer and the Fischer Farms beef tongue cocktail with beets, cottage cheese and horseradish both came highly recommended, but we veered off course to sample some other stuff.

Hubby used to live in Wales years ago, so he immediately perked up to see Welsh rarebit among the small plate offerings. Welsh rarebit sounds fancy, but basically it’s an open-faced grilled cheese. This is a good rustic one, with tangy aged cheddar atop a manly slice of toasted barley bread. Did I detect a hint of béchamel beneath the blanket of melty cheese? There was also a sneaky flash of something blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spicy. We devoured this starter with knives and forks and looked forward to more.

Welsh rarebit

For an entrée, we’d decided to share the pork schnitzel with a side of fries. Now, we’ve spent some time in Germany and are well versed in authentic schnitzels that are so big, they arrive hanging off the plate. This is an updated, yet fairly traditional version. The serving size is smaller (although still plenty large) and the breading is lighter, unlike the classic Hoosier tenderloin where half the attraction is pulling off crunchy fried bits of batter to nibble on their own merits. The pork itself was extremely tender and had great flavor; I’m assuming it was locally sourced. We squeezed the slice of lemon over the top and had at it.

schnitzel and slaw

The slaw that accompanied the schnitzel was a great fresh counterpoint – lacy fronds of red and green cabbage with paper thin green apple slices, all in a light tangy dressing. Yum.

The pomme frites-style fries were good too, thin, hot and crisp. No ketchup here, they’re served with a tart lemony housemade mayo spiked with herbs, almost like a really good fresh tartar sauce.

Fearing we would still be hungry (this was ridiculous, as it turned out), we also put in an order for the Gunthorp Farms-sourced pork belly appetizer, advertised on the menu with a sweet and sour glaze and three-bean salad. Our server let us know that they had changed up the preparation for the evening, instead offering the pork belly as a hash with root veggies, duck cracklings and a fried egg. Still sounded totally ok by me.

pork belly hash

In retrospect, we probably should have nixed the pork belly and ordered a dessert to share instead. The hash was good, but the pork was used more as a flavoring ingredient and didn’t really stand out like I’d hope it would. The egg was nicely cooked with a rich, runny yolk (hubby prefers his eggs hard scrambled and stayed away from that side of the plate after I’d cut into it). Between the pork, the duck and the sautéed veg, the whole dish was the tiniest bit greasy and just way too heavy after we’d already eaten cheese bread, schnitzel and fries. I’m not sure what we were thinking. There was also some broccoli fried into the hash, and after a bite of it, that was all I could taste. I was glad we’d eaten this dish last. (Couldn’t help but think this would be awesome hangover food.)

Alas, we were too full for dessert. Boo. The campfire shortbread with chocolate ganache and bourbon marshmallow sounded like a sexy X-rated  s’more.

All in all, our dinner at Black Market was a good experience. The small crowd seemed to be having a jolly time — it gets a little loud in the narrow dining room — and the other plates we spied coming out of the kitchen looked and smelled delicious. Especially the burger and the lamb sausage Scotch egg. Great googly moogly. The menu also gives shout-outs to lots of local suppliers, which I always like to see. It’s reassuring to know exactly where your dinner is coming from (see previous Slow Food post).

We did think the food was on the heavy side, though, especially considering the season. There are a couple of salads on the menu, so it was probably our own fault for making the selections we did. I’d like to revisit in cold weather; I can already picture myself wearing a sweater and being very happy with these meaty meals, a glass of red wine and snow falling gently outside.

Black Market scores. Go now if you want to catch a rising star.

For more information:

Black Market on Urbanspoon

Nashville nosh

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

beautiful Brown County State Park

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

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

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

Hob Nob Corner Restaurant

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

Hob Nob pancakes

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

hubby’s Hob Nob brekkie

Hobnob Corner on Urbanspoon

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

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

Big Woods Six Foot Blonde Ale

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

Emily’s Garden pizza at Big Woods Brewing Company

Big Woods Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

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

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

all hail, the General

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

tenderloin platter at That Sandwich Place

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

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

That Sandwich Place on Urbanspoon

Bon appetit, Brown County!

For more info:

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

Slow down, you eat too fast

During my White River State Park tour a couple weeks ago, I had one of those I-had-no-idea-this-was-here epiphanies, which was the discovery of the Wishard Slow Food Garden. This nifty urban community garden is situated just along the southwest bend in the downtown canal by the WRSP visitors center, and it is definitely worth paying some attention to.

Wishard Slow Food Garden in White River State Park

So what exactly is Slow Food, you might be wondering? In simplest terms, imagine the polar opposite of fast food — soul-satisfying, heartwarming dishes prepared using wholesome fresh (often organic and locally sourced) ingredients, prepared with love and respect for the origins from which they came. Slow Food doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cooked slowly, although sometimes it is, or that it takes a long time to serve and eat, although sometimes it does. The whole movement started in Italy several decades ago (where Slow Food isn’t a new or shocking concept, just an everyday way of life). Chefs, culinary bigwigs, food industry experts and people who just plain appreciate good quality meals have jumped on board with enthusiasm. Myself included.

Right here in Indianapolis, the 6,000-square-foot Slow Food Garden consists of five big plots, each planted with some of the most gorgeous produce I’ve seen anywhere in town. Now in its second year, the project is sponsored by Wishard Health (nice move!) and supported by a state grant. Laura Henderson, the brains and beauty behind the Indy Winter Farmer’s Market as well as founder of the Growing Places Indy organization, directs the operations of the garden from planting to harvest.

Duos food truck in White River State Park

Duos Food Truck is just one of the recipients that benefits from the Slow Food Garden, along with Pogue’s Run Green Grocer, Veggie Share and other local businesses. Duos co-owner and chef Becky Hostetter, a major Slow Food proponent, utilizes weekly yields from the garden as inspiration for the recipes she serves at Duos. Think deliciously fresh and healthy gourmet vegetable soups, salads, sandwiches and the like… today marked the third time I’ve eaten lunch at Duos, and food that was great to start with just keeps getting better with every visit. (Perhaps because Becky’s got so many great building blocks currently peaking at the Slow Food garden?)

For lunch today, I received a lovely sampler plate with tastes of Gunthorp Farms chicken salad, panzanella salad and a little slice of roasted portobello mushroom sandwich.

Duos lovely lunch sampler plate

In the chicken salad, Becky replaced the usual mayo with a pickly giardiniera dressing and small pieces of marinated veggies, a genius move considering temps are hovering around 90 degrees at the moment and I’m not sure how well mayonnaise would have held up. The dressing had a little spicy kick of some flavor I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

For the uninitiated, panzanella salad consists of toasty white bread cubes mixed with chopped vegetables, herbs and a tangy vinaigrette. Yummy. The chopped tomato and peppers tasted like Becky had literally just picked them out of the garden, cut them up and tossed them into the mix. Which I imagine is exactly what she did.

The portobello mushroom sandwich was great, too, a meaty roasted bite of mushroom atop more of that same crusty bread with a little bit of cheese and a roasted red pepper jam on top. I could have easily eaten a whole sandwich of this stuff; as it was served, I couldn’t help but think that it would have worked perfectly as an awesome hors d’oeuvre.

An intriguingly named Ligurian vegetable soup turned out to be a light brothy cup full of fresh vegetables, chopped roughly to maintain plenty of bite and texture. I spied potato, kale, fennel, onion and I’m not sure what else amid a sprinkling of melty cheese and a scattering of chopped basil that lent a bright summery note to the whole dish.

Ligurian vegetable soup

I finished my meal with a little dulce de leche cheesecake square, a luxuriously creamy filling with a hint of cinnamon, draped with a thick caramel sauce that oozed slowly down the sides. Heavenly. I was so excited, I literally inhaled this dessert as I was eating it and got a little choked. It was totally worth it.

dulce de leche cheesecake bar

Thanks to a newly announced collaboration between the Wishard Slow Food Garden, Duos and White River State Park, Slow Foodies can count on finding Becky and company serving lunch each Thursday from a parking spot right beside the garden. This is an ideal location that allows you to enjoy your lunch al fresco along the rock wall in the shade, or stroll down the steps to eat alongside the canal. And because Duos changes up its menu each week, it’s always a new experience. The only downside to this much variety is that now I’m going to be bugging Becky about when she’s planning to make those cheesecake bars again…

If you want to find out more about the Slow Food Garden, stop by on Wednesdays from 4 to 6 p.m. for community work-and-learn sessions each week now through August. I might just see you there.

For more info:

Reach for the Sky City Café

For a Hoosierized taste of the Southwest within the gorgeous confines of the Eiteljorg Museum, Sky City Café makes a delicious and distinctive lunch destination. Especially during the summer when you can sit outside on the terrace to enjoy spectacular views of the canal and the Indianapolis skyline along with your soup and sandwich. (Is it just me, or does everything taste better when you can eat outside?)

the Eiteljorg Museum in White River State Park

Lunch at the café kicked off my recent three-day tour of White River State Park, and the meal got things off to a great start. I’d never eaten here before and was intrigued by the menu, heavy on Southwest-oriented offerings and even a few American Indian-influenced items to consider. This eatery’s got a unique foothold in the local market — if there’s another restaurant in town that features American Indian cuisine, I’m not familiar with it.

The casual bill of fare details a fairly vast list of cold and hot sandwiches, soups, salads, tacos and nachos highlighting Southwestern themed flavors and ingredients. If you’re craving salsa, chili peppers, guacamole and cilantro, Sky City Café’s got you covered.

Many in our group opted for the soup/half salad/half sandwich combo — your choice of two for $8.75. I was advised that the signature corn chowder was definitely worth a try, so I asked for a cup of that and half of a “Desert Gobbler,” a roasted turkey sandwich with pico de gallo, smoky gouda cheese and cilantro pesto on a sourdough boule.

My dad also ordered the soup and half of a chipotle shrimp po’ boy. Everything was delivered to our table freshly made and looking appetizing.

The soup had a nice corn essence, but I thought it could have used a little punch of something to really kick it up… chili powder? Jalapeno? I dunno. Can’t quite put my finger on what it needed to really take it over the top for me. My sandwich was hearty and savory. I’m a sucker for a good pesto, and the cilantro used here lends an unexpected but quite successful taste twist. (Note to self – might have to try to recreate this at home…)

Desert Gobbler with corn chowder

My dad’s sandwich was full of tender little fried shrimp topped with shredded lettuce and a drizzle of kicky chipotle lime mayo.

shrimp po boy with corn chowder

With our sandwich-soup combos, we also each received a big corn muffin, which seemed like a little overkill on the bread, but was certainly tasty. I didn’t finish the muffin, but crumbled some of it to float in my chowder for some texture and a nice double-hit of corn flavor.

Other Sky City Cafe temptations I’d like to try: the daily quesadilla special; the Sonoma vegetarian sandwich of fried red and green tomatoes with fresh cilantro and pepperjack cheese; the Tatanka buffalo burger with guacamole and pico de gallo on a toasted onion bun; and the Oregon Trail salad of chipotle molasses grilled chicken with dried cranberries and a quince vinaigrette. Excuse me while I grab a napkin; my mouth is watering.

I love the colorful interior décor of cafe – rich green walls with dark wood trim, and the tiny flowering cactus centerpieces were appropriate and adorable.

Sky City Cafe table decor

If you have time during your lunch hour, the Eiteljorg’s provocative Red/Black exhibit is definitely worth a walk through. (So is the rest of the museum, but you really need a full morning or afternoon to see it properly). The Red/Black display explores the shared history, interactions and cultural traditions of Native Americans and African Americans, and introduces some thought-provoking issues of race and identity. Don’t wait too long to see it; the exhibit only runs through August 7.

Sky City Café is open for lunch daily. For more information:

I wonder what the American Indian equivalent of “bon appetit” is…

Sky City Cafe on Urbanspoon

Everything old is new again

I didn’t grow up in Indianapolis, so I’m always at a loss when people talk about the sentimental joys of dining in the old L.S. Ayres Tea Room. In my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, I don’t recall my mom taking me to any restaurants that required donning my Sunday-best dress, white gloves and black patent leather shoes. The closest we got to fine dining was our weekly trip to the longtime defunct Miller’s Cafeteria for the best broasted chicken EVER.

So although I missed the opportunity to appreciate the original tea room in its heyday (it operated from 1905 until 1990 in the former L.S. Ayres department store), the painstakingly recreated eatery at the Indiana State Museum provides a nostalgic chance to enjoy some of the dishes that made it famous.

Indiana State Museum in White River State Park

The first thing that hit me when I walked in was, wow, this place is old school. Then again, that’s the vibe they’re going for with ornate chandeliers, white columns and curtained room partitions. It’s all very elegant and refined; I could very clearly picture the ladies who’ve lunched here through the years and what a big deal it must have been. Things are a little more relaxed now. White gloves are no longer de rigeur and the dress code is more forgiving. Still, this is obviously a restaurant that strives to uphold tradition. I’ll bet it’s probably packed to the gills on Mother’s Day.

L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum

In keeping with the décor, the menu is seriously retro, full of fun throwback recipes like ham loaf, Hawaiian chicken salad served in a hollowed out pineapple, Monte Cristo sandwiches and chicken pot pie.

My group’s menu was preselected; we had the option to sub out other items if we wanted, but I figured whoever was doing the choosing knew best. I trusted that judgment, and was happy to do so.

To start, everyone at our table slurped down cups of the signature chicken velvet soup. If you like creamy soups, this stuff should be right up your alley. Rich doesn’t even begin to cover it — this was so thick, it was nearly a gravy with chunky tender chicken bites buried within. The cup was the perfect amount; I can’t imagine eating an entire bowl, unless that’s the only thing you plan on having.

the signature chicken velvet soup

There were a couple of choices for our second course – I went for the “small” Monte Cristo, which actually wasn’t small at all, but a full sandwich. (For the uninitiated, a Monte Cristo is like a French toast sandwich filled with ham, turkey and cheese.) The whole concoction is assembled, dunked into an egg batter, grilled and served with a little cup of fruity jammy dipping sauce. Not for the faint of heart, but certainly delicious.

the Monte Cristo

Dessert was something called a pecan ball — a scoop of vanilla ice cream that’s been rolled in a thick coating of chopped nuts, refrozen and then served with fudge sauce and whipped cream. Old-fashioned, indulgent and the ideal way to end this kind of meal. Don’t worry about the calories, just dig in and go for it.

the decadent pecan ball

A couple quick facts I betcha didn’t know about the Indiana State Museum:  the exterior of the limestone building includes a small sculpture and/or block representing each of the 92 counties within the state. And the IMAX theater snack bar features Indiana-made products like popcorn, Hubbard & Cravens coffee, and Gummi bears from Vincennes. Cool.

The L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum is open for lunch only, and is closed Mondays. The restaurant isn’t large, so reservations are a good idea, especially around any holidays. My mom would have loved this place.

For more information, visit:

L.S. Ayres Tea Room on Urbanspoon

Al fresco dining a la JW Marriott

This week has served as an eye-opening reminder of just how much cool stuff there is to see, do and experience right here in our own Indianapolis backyard. I, for one, am guilty of taking for granted the many attractions and scenic features our fair city has to offer. Well, let me tell you, I’ve spent the past several days trying to cram in quick visits to all the destination stops within White River State Park downtown, and I am worn out.

For those of you looking for a fun and affordable summer staycation, you seriously might want to consider booking into any of the diverse hotel options within Marriott Place. With a handful of Marriott-branded lodging options to consider and accommodations ranging from the budget-friendly Fairfield Inn to the super-luxe JW Marriott, you’re guaranteed a nice room at any price point. And best of all, you can walk across the street to everything in White River State Park, from museums, the canal and Victory Field to the Lawn and the Zoo — the gang’s all here! (And if you decide you need a lift, you can grab a $5 cab ride to just about anywhere you want to go downtown.)

JW Marriott Indianapolis

Because everyone knows I’m a foodie, let’s talk about food. More specifically, dinner at JW’s swanky Tavern on the Plaza. My group of 12 or so was seated among what seemed to be a high-profile, see-and-be-seen crowd. This place was hopping with young, trendy beautiful people sipping fancy martinis and acai drinks, many I’m assuming were on en route to the Ray LaMontagne concert just down the street at the Lawn. I wondered for a minute if I wasn’t too old to be hanging out here.

From what I can gather, the al fresco dining-only Tavern shares some of its short-list menu items with the indoor Osteria Pronto, but there are also selections exclusive to this eatery along the lines of gourmet sandwiches, a few flatbreads and grilled entrees. It’s a solid blend of Italian and American themed plates.

Tavern on the Plaza bruschetta

To kick off the meal, we shared several starters — a simple but beautifully presented bruschetta, an antipasti platter of sliced cured meats (with a delicious grilled artichoke that I selfishly bogarted before anyone else could lay claim to it), pizza margherita, and a mountain of crispy calamari. This isn’t your average calamari, though… the little pieces of squid were interspersed with deep-fried paper-thin slices of carrot and zucchini. I’m not a calamari fan, but I loved nibbling the veggie “chips.”

Tavern on the Plaza calamari

Then came the dinners. We’d preordered our entrees earlier in the day to speed things along. For hubby, I’d selected half of a roasted chicken with Asiago mashed potatoes, baby carrots and jus. (It was supposed to be served with roasted onions, which I wisely headed off at the pass.) Judging by the way he polished it off, it must have been good.

roasted chicken with Asiago mashed potatoes

My penne primavera proved a smart choice, and I like that you can order pasta here in either small or large serving sizes. Some of those pasta bowls restaurants bring out nowadays are big enough to swim in; the small portion (pictured here) was enough to fill me up without being ridiculous. The penne itself was nicely al dente with a flavorful pesto and studded with roasted veggies and peas. Just my speed.

pesto pasta primavera

Elsewhere around the table, the grilled salmon and fish of the day entrees looked tasty, as did the veggie skewers with meat, shrimp and chicken add-on possibilities.

shrimp and veggie skewers

Everyone was feeling pretty sated by this point, but we still somehow managed to find room for dessert. The mini molten chocolate cakes with a custard sauce and vanilla ice cream were good, but the tortelli is the dessert diners are really going to remember. The description’s a little misleading; the menu paints a mental picture of tortelli as an old-fashioned donut. I don’t know about you, but when you say “old-fashioned donut,” I tend to think of the yeasty glazed variety with a hole in the middle. These are more like Italian-style beignets; huge, deceptively light, puffy baseballs of deep-fried dough buried in a snowdrift of powdered sugar and squiggled with chocolate and raspberry sauces.

the tortelli

You HAVE to order these if you come here. That’s all there is to it.

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Tavern on the Plaza (JW Marriott) on Urbanspoon

Something fishy

I must sheepishly admit, I’m a fairly new arrival to the sushi party. I’ve always been intrigued by sushi in theory, and the creations I’ve seen in person have been nothing short of gorgeous. But, like many folks of the Midwestern persuasion, the thought of putting a slab of raw fish in my mouth, chewing and swallowing it kinda grosses me out. I usually prefer my fish cooked through and well done, thank you very much. I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to really give sushi a fair shake.

You’d have thought I’d learn to love sushi after spending nearly two years in Los Angeles. My La-La Land sushi introduction took place at an all-you-can-eat buffet and, sadly, it was not a very happy one. As I might have mentioned a time or two before, I’m not really a buffet gal. I’d much rather order a plate of something I know I’ll enjoy than sample a dozen or so different things and come away wishing I would have just gotten a full serving of the one or two items I liked best. Such was the case here.

My uncle, with whom I shared many great dinners during my LA days, took me to a sushi buffet place he liked. Imagine a Golden Corral serving sushi with a Korean barbecue section thrown in for good measure and you’ve pretty much got the idea. Instead of savoring the meal, we basically rushed through the line with my uncle loading me up with a roll here, a bite there… by the time we sat down, I had no idea what was on my plate. I ate tentatively; none of it struck me as particularly fresh or memorable, and I came away feeling disappointing.

I mean no disrespect to my uncle; I certainly appreciated his generosity in including me for dinner, as he did on a regular basis, and I hope he’s not offended if he reads this.  I guess I was just hoping for more of a leisurely, sit-down experience at a high-quality sushi bar where I could just trust that the chef would serve us whatever he’d cut and rolled fresh on the spot. On this night, though, it was not to be.

I’ve always been open to trying sushi again, but the only fish my husband will consider eating comes battered, fried and served with chips, so I’ve been dangling out here on my own for years, waiting for someone to come to my sushi rescue. It wasn’t until a few months ago that a couple of my sushiphile friends took me under their generous wings and eased me into giving it another shot.

These two lovely ladies and I convened at Sakura here in Indianapolis for dinner and I put myself in their capable hands. I was a little nervous about the idea of diving right into the deep end of the pool; little did I know about the sheer number of sushi options that don’t involve raw fish. I was pleasantly surprised (and a little relieved) to discover shrimp tempura roll, asparagus roll and the item that would deliver a powerful punch of love at first bite – the spicy soft shell crab roll. Rounded out with a bowl of edamame and a plate of light-as-a-feather crispy tempura vegetables for sharing, it was an unexpectedly filling repast. I loved the ritual of pouring the soy sauce and mixing in the wasabi with your chopstick, and the delicate skill required to use chopsticks in first place. There’s something sort of mad-science, techy cool about it.

I did taste the (raw) spicy tuna roll, but it wasn’t my favorite of the choices. The raw concept is still going to take some getting used to for my palate, but I’m off to a good start. Honestly, it’s really just a mental hangup and has nothing to do with taste or texture. I’ll get there. Someday. Until then, I’m happy to play the field.

I’ve been back to Sakura a few times since, mainly for lunch, although I’m perfectly open to trying other sushi restaurants on for size as well. Every now and then, I’ll even think to myself “Mm, sushi sounds really good right now.” Actually, I’ve been nursing a soft-shell crab roll craving for about a week now, but just haven’t had a chance to indulge it. I was thrilled beyond belief when my friend Christina sent me a text late this morning telling me not to eat lunch, that she was bringing over some Sakura take-out. What a thoughtful pal! (Thanks, girlfriend!!!!)

Sakura’s California roll and soft-shell crab roll

Would love to hear recommendations for other entry-level sushi rolls I should try — sound off at will, fair readers!

Oh sushi. I think this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Fort Wayne = foodie heaven

I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to attend a media tour of Fort Wayne, which took place last Friday. Hubby and the toddler tagged along, happy to swim at the hotel pool and do their own thing while I was off doing mine. It was just a quick overnight trip, but man, did we cram in a lot of good eating.

The sheer number and diversity of restaurants in Fort Wayne is somewhat astounding. It is the second largest city in Indiana with a population of around 300,000, so I guess I shouldn’t be as surprised as I was to discover this.

I’ll write more about the other attractions we saw in later entries; for now, I’ll focus on what was perhaps my favorite part of the day. As part of the tour, my small group got to enjoy a progressive dinner at three of the best eateries in the downtown area. On top of a great lunch and sampling at DeBrand Chocolates, mind you. I’m not sure how everyone managed to keep going, but somehow, we persevered.

Our first stop for appetizers? The Oyster Bar. Those who know Fort Wayne are familiar, I’m sure. This old-school eatery has been around and operating in the form of a tavern since 1888. Today, it’s an upscale seafood joint. As a point of reference for Indianapolis folks – imagine a much smaller St. Elmo’s, but with seafood instead of steaks and kitschier decor. They do serve steaks and pasta and such at Oyster Bar, but ordering them here seems silly with fish of this caliber.

To sample all we could, we shared half a dozen or so apps around the table. Crab cakes, mussels, oysters, Louisiana shrimp, calamari strips… Oh. My. Grouper.

Oysters Rockefeller

My eyes nearly glazed over when the dishes just kept coming. All fabulous, mind you. The shrimp was spicy but not overpoweringly so, and the mussels fragrant and flavorful.

Louisiana shrimp

Now, I should point out that I don’t really care for calamari under normal circumstances, but I like it here, where it’s more like a tenderized fish stick than those nasty tentacly bits.

Oyster Bar’s signature calamari

I could have easily filled up at Oyster Bar, downed a glass of wine and called it a night, but there were still two restaurants to go. I paced myself with a few bites and held back.

Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Next up for entrees — Don Hall’s Old Gas House. Don Hall is a big name on the Fort Wayne restaurant scene with a handful of restaurants scattered around town, each with its own distinctive spin. One is a diner, one is upscale fine dining, one is a Japanese steakhouse (yes, seriously), and so on. There’s even a Hall’s Grill in Castleton for Indy peeps who need a fix. The Gas House is located along the river in, you guessed it, an old gas plant facility, and has been serving there for half a century.

My first meal at the Gas House was about 15 years ago when I was in town for a Barry Manilow concert at the Embassy Theater. (Those of you who know me personally are shaking your heads right now. For those of you who don’t — Hello. My name is Amy. I’m a Fanilow.) The ticket was a birthday gift from my parents and we met some of their friends at the Gas House for dinner prior to the show. Can’t remember much about that meal, except that I ordered prime rib and it was delicious. Barry was awesome, of course.

The Gas House has been renovated in recent years and the décor looks beautiful, very romantic and upscale. A perfect date night destination. During the summer, they also open a deck for al fresco riverside dining, which I imagine is pretty spectacular.

Our meal on Friday night was pre-ordered, so I didn’t get a look at the menu, although I would have liked to. Soon after we sat down, our plates arrived — sliced beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, corn/bacon hash, asparagus and Hollandaise sauce. Yummy.

our entree at Don Hall’s Gas House

The meat was a little more rare than I would have ordered, but it was super tender and tasted great. I cleaned my plate.

Hall's Old Gas House on Urbanspoon

For dessert, we drove across the parking lot (it was raining, cut me some slack) to Club Soda. Love the name of this place. It’s also located in an old renovated building, but inside, it’s totally trendy with swanky martinis and contemporary cuisine.

Our desserts were already plated and waiting for us when we arrived — three big platters, each bearing a selection of gorgeous sweet treats. Strawberry shortcake layered into a martini glass, key lime pie, chocolate bourbon cake, crème brulee, a house specialty Snickers ice cream pie, and a couple of chocolate truffles. I nearly went into sugar shock just looking at it.

dessert overload at Club Soda

By that point in the evening, my stomach was reaching capacity, so I just nibbled a taste of the Snickers pie and the chocolate cake before tossing in my napkin and calling it quits.

Snickers Pie

Club Soda on Urbanspoon

With that, I returned to the hotel to regroup with my guys and beached myself on the bed for the rest of the evening. With a smile on my face.

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