Cups of Christmas cheer

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

Here’s what’s on tap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony and Eric come to Indy

Last night, hubby and I had the pleasure of attending “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert” at Clowes Hall on the lovely campus of Butler University. I saw this event touted in Indianapolis Monthly a few months ago and immediately clipped the item and taped it to my desk at eye-level so I’d remember to buy tickets as soon as they went on sale. Good thing I did, too — the hall was PACKED. Having lost a lot of faith in the local food scene in light of the recent downtown cupcake controversy (a whole other blog entry to come), it was somehow heartening for me to see such a huge number of passionate fellow foodies turning out for this occasion.

I’ve been a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s ever since I got my hands on a copy of his opus, “Kitchen Confidential,” years ago. (I could kick myself for forgetting to bring it along; of course, there was a booksigning session after the show. Duh.) Anthony’s behind-the-scenes glimpse into the steamy, seedy underbelly of the New York restaurant world is a must-read for anyone considering a career in the culinary arts. Don’t be fooled by what you see on Food Network; for most, the life of a chef is a difficult, terribly unglamorous proposition literally full of blood, sweat and tears.

I must confess, I don’t watch Anthony’s Travel Channel show “No Reservations” religiously, but I make sure to set the DVR when he’s visiting a destination I’m interested in. Such as the recent 100th episode filmed in Paris with Eric Ripert — the dishes and restaurants featured made my mouth absolutely water.

In so much as Anthony Bourdain is a rock-and-roll chef, French born and bred Eric Ripert is a rock-star chef of another ilk – earning all kinds of accolades at his NYC-stationed Le Bernardin, easily regarded one of the best restaurants in the country, if not the world. While Ripert does have his own show on PBS called “Avec Eric,” he’s perhaps gaining the most recognition and popularity thanks to his frequent guest judging appearances on “Top Chef.” He’s cute, charming and got a killer French accent.

Hubby and I weren’t sure what to expect from this event format-wise, but were both plenty amped about it. There was a great buzz among the audience before our culinary idols even took the stage, and the excitement was palpable. I half expected to see some half-crazed women rushing the stage to throw their panties. I was tempted. Heck, I think even hubby was tempted.

The duo was introduced right on time and took the floor, set up living-room style with a couple comfy chairs flanked by ferns. A small table in between held an iced selection of local Sun King beers (awesome product placement on their part), which Anthony and Eric took turns cracking into as the evening rolled along.

Anthony Bourdain is one long, tall, lanky drink of water. He’s got to be 6’ 3”, but I doubt the guy weighs more than 175 soaking wet. He isn’t what you’d call classically handsome, but damn, he is ruggedly sexy. He came out dressed in jeans, white shirt, sport coat and his trademark dusty cowboy boots, looking like a renegade who’s decided to make an effort to clean up and look respectable, but not too much. Ripert, on the other hand, cut a dashing figure in a dark gray Armani suit and white shirt, but still managed to appear totally comfortable, casual and not at all the French chef with an attitude he has every right to be.

Together, Anthony and Eric have a terrific rapport and banter back and forth with plenty of well-meaning digs and teasing like good friends do. It’s all very amusing to observe, as if you’re eavesdropping on the two of them carrying on heated, philosophical discussions over pints at their favorite tavern.

The “discussion” started by Anthony interviewing his buddy Eric with a series of playfully skewering questions, even going so far as to touch upon Eric’s recent dressing down of Gordon Ramsay for his use of bullying tactics to instill fear and worship. Eric’s much more a believer in treating underlings with respect and earning their praise through inspiration, not intimidation. Well said, my man. I couldn’t agree more. In the small handful of professional kitchens I’ve had the privilege of working in, I’ve never seen an executive chef throw plates or call anyone a donkey.

Ripert then returned the favor with his own interrogation, looking every bit the prosecutor, asking Anthony to state his age for the record (54, btw) and asking him to define exactly what his job is. It was all in good fun, and the audience enjoyed plenty of laughs as a result.

Hot-seat questions completed, Anthony and Eric both took a chair and leapt into a lively conversation covering a variety of food-related topics including sustainable-fishing and snout-to-tail practices, the dumbing down of ethnic cuisines in America (particularly Olive Garden-variety Italian – Anthony’s wife is a native of Sardinia and this is obviously a hot-button topic for him), what country you’d like to die in, the movement toward localvore products, and the importance of honing a set of basic cooking skills (bring back home ec classes!!). Anthony is sure the world would be a better place if prior to having sex with a new partner, you also have the talent and the wherewithal to prepare a proper omelet for him or her in the morning.

The two play off each other like comedians with perfect timing. Charming Ripert comes across as thoughtful, intelligent and intense, while the abrasive Bourdain lightens the mood with his no-holds-barred-style delivery of opinions sprinkled with curses and bold assessments. He’s brutally honest in his views, but even so, he still comes across as a nice guy. A nice guy who’s not afraid to say exactly what’s on his mind, and doesn’t care who he pisses off. He loathes Rachael Ray, and don’t even get him started on poor Alice Waters.

Anthony and Eric each have a young child at home and their views on American fast food, McDonalds in particular, are hilarious. As you’d imagine, these fine chefs would rather die than feed their kids a Happy Meal, and Anthony admits he’s not above resorting to scare tactics to prevent his daughter from developing a taste for McFries, etc. For instance, Anthony and his wife will stand outside their daughter’s bedroom door loudly discussing Ronald McDonald’s alleged involvement in the mysterious disappearances of small children. He also suggests bundling a favorite doll’s head in a hamburger wrapper for the child to discover in hopes that the ensuing trauma will scar her into eschewing McDonalds forever.

After an hour or so of back-and-forth talk, Anthony and Eric opened up the floor to questions from the audience. With the number of events these guys do, you can be sure they’ve seen and heard it all before. I had been racking my brain all week, trying to come up with an utterly original query that would make the two of them fall back in amazement, compliment me on my insight and then invite hubby and I out to drinks after the show to continue our dazzling exchange. I came up with nada. I did mentally formulate a few mealy-mouthed questions that I thought were somewhat intellectual, but the two of them managed to cock-block me by hitting upon every item I was thinking of asking about within the framework of their conversation. Sigh. So I just sat back and listened, hoping some local yokel wouldn’t embarrass us all with some inanely stupid comment or request.

The questions were pretty much what you’d expect – people asking for NY restaurant suggestions, commentary on whether or not to go to culinary school, who’s your favorite blah, blah, blah. The best question, in my opinion, was the last one of the evening before time ran out, asked by a young lady who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old. She was curious about what each chef had wanted to be when he grew up. Anthony said he’d wanted to play bass for a funk band, but Eric, oddly enough, had visions of becoming a park ranger if his chef career didn’t work out.

Anthony expressed amazement that the young questioner was even in attendance (and so did I). Her mother then took the mike to ask whether Anthony used the f-word in front of his daughter. He proudly admitted that he did, both in English and Italian.

With that, the dynamic duo of Bourdain and Ripert rose to their feet, waved, and bid us all a fond farewell. I know they must be on the road doing these kinds of events quite frequently and answering the same questions over and over ad infinitum. It’s a testament that they still managed to make the discussion sound fresh and interesting. All in all, a great evening full of laughs and smart insight into all things food.

The talented Mr. Tallent

Hubby and I escaped for a brief overnight visit to Bloomington this weekend in honor of my pending 40th (gulp) birthday in two days. This is not how things were supposed to play out.

The trip was originally meant to be a surprise jaunt to Montreal, courtesy of hubby’s ingenuity and massive frequent flyer miles. He selected a lovely boutique hotel and polled my friends to cover childcare for the toddler, although he did unintentionally let the location slip a few weeks ago. We had a series of babysitters all lined up, our bags were packed, and we were good to go. Or so we thought. You know what they say about the best-laid plans…

We were scheduled to leave for the airport Friday morning around 8 a.m. Unfortunately, the toddler kept us up a good part of Thursday night coughing his little head off. He wasn’t sick exactly, but he wasn’t right, either. When the alarm went off at 7 a.m. after a fitful couple hours of sleep, we debated about the best course of action. As my friend Christina so aptly summarized the Murphy’s Law of parenting: if you stay, he’ll be fine. If you leave, he’ll come down with pneumonia.

Hubby thought we should move forward with the trip as planned, but left the final decision up to me. Being the slightly neurotic, often over-reactive mom that I am and knowing I’d spent the whole weekend worrying about the little man, I finally caved and said that I didn’t think we should go. So all bets were off. Hubby got on the phone to cancel the flights and hotel reservation. We did recoup some of the expense and wrote off the rest with a hard swallow and a “c’est la vie.”

Disappointed and pissed off, we went about our usual business for the day, doing yard work and spring cleaning. Not how I’d hoped to be spending what should have been a romantic birthday weekend with my hubby. The toddler, of course, was fine. He did keep coughing, but seemed to feel just dandy. Fortunately, our friends who were lined up to babysit kept their offers open, so we dropped the little man to Laura and Colin’s house for a few hours Friday night and headed downtown to do a little beertasting at Sun King Brewery.

I just wrote a profile about Sun King for an upcoming issue of Indianapolis Dine, so I’ll make you wait for the full scale of my observations in that publication. Suffice it to say, if you live in Indianapolis and you like beer, you need to check this place out. Open since last July, the owners are a couple of characters, and they make a damn good product. They offer tastings Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and the place was hopping when we were there. (No pun intended.) We sampled a handful of beers, my favorite being the Wee Mac Scottish Ale, a sweetish malty brown brew with hints of toffee and caramel. Yum.

For dinner, we ended up at the Rathskeller, site of my second date with hubby nearly six years ago. The past few times I’ve eaten at the Rat, it’s been nothing special, but I’m pleased to report the food has come up in stature somewhat since my last visit. A warm soft pretzel comes standard in their breadbaskets – nice touch – along with some blow-your-head-off horseradish mustard. Hubby enjoyed a huge plate of pasta with chicken, feta, veggies and herbs, and I went the traditional route with a steamed brat and warm German potato salad with vinegary hot bacon dressing. The food was good, but servings were WAY too big. Both of us left half of our dinners behind.

The toddler continued to seem ok through Friday night, so hubby and I decided to venture an overnight trip to Bloomington. Our friends Kellie and Theresa offered to stay at our house with the kiddo, making our lives that much easier, bless them. We booked a room at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, which turned out to be a great location just half a block off the town square. We parked the car and didn’t think of it again until this morning.

After we checked in and dumped the bags, a pre-dinner drink was in order. This being the tail end of I.U.’s spring break, everything was pleasantly deserted, no lines or traffic. Crazy Horse served as our first stop, where we enjoyed unwinding at the copper-countered bar over a cheap beer.

At the suggestion of several friends and thanks to some great word-of-mouth, I’d zeroed in on a place called Restaurant Tallent for dinner. The chef, Dave Tallent, has been getting some great buzz and is a repeat James Beard award nominee, one of the highest honors any American chef can receive.

The menu posted by the door sounded pretty ambitious, and a little out of my comfort food zone, to be honest, but we were intrigued enough to give it a try. I’m soooooo glad we did.

Now, the problem with places like Restaurant Tallent is that they come so highly recommended that you get your hopes up for a stellar dining experience before you ever set foot in the door. Expectations are terribly high, and so is the possibility that it might not turn out to be as good as you hope for, then you wind up disappointed. Just like our Valentine’s Day dinner at 14 West (see previous blog entry). Well. I’m thrilled to report that Restaurant Tallent delivered everything we were hoping for, and then some.

The place smelled amazing from the second we walked in. Décor was low-key, warm and romantic – low lighting, funky modern light fixtures and a rich, understated brown and green color palette. It seemed fairly dead for a Saturday night, but I was grateful to get seated immediately and wrote off the lack of customers to spring break. Our server, Dustin, struck just the right note of being friendly and helpful without ever seeming intrusive or pretentious. That’s something to be said with the caliber of food being served here.

As I said, the menu was a little intimidating – we don’t usually eat at restaurants that serve foie gras, caviar and tartare. The short list of starters and entrees changes according to the season and the chef’s inspiration. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible, and everything is as absolutely fresh as can be.

Hubby and I decided to share a starter. Although the arugula salad with goat cheese beignets was plenty tempting, we have a hard time passing up anything that includes pancetta. And so we opted for the black truffle tagliatelle pasta with pancetta, mushrooms, spinach and parmesan.

As we waited for the pasta, Dustin delivered a basket full of warm slices of the most melt-in-your-mouth tender rosemary-dusted peasant bread and a ramekin of fresh butter. We also got a freebie amuse bouche — a little ceramic Asian spoon containing a chilled quarter-sized scallop mold of butternut squash panna cotta skewered with a crunchy parmesan crisp and topped with a drizzle of sweet sauce. It was a scrumptious little mouthful, almost like pumpkin pie filling, and the parmesan crisp was just salty enough to offset the creamy sweetness. We were off to a good start.

Our starter arrived, looking and smelling unbelievably good. When we laid eyes on the small dish set in front of us, we worried it wouldn’t be big enough to satisfy both of us. We were wrong.

This pasta serving was small, but mighty. There were just a few thick noodles, really, cooked to toothsome al dente perfection. The flavors were ridiculously intense and expertly combined, the best of which was the tiny cubes of crispy-chewy pancetta. For the uninitiated, pancetta is a cured Italian meat, like bacon but with more primal pig flavor oomph. My only criticism of the dish, and I’m struggling to even mention one, was that I couldn’t distinguish the taste of the truffles amid all the other vibrant flavors. Having never had truffles before, I was looking forward to tasting one, but no matter. The dish was insanely good irregardless, and several bites were more than enough to make both of us happy.

We were still raving about the pasta (and proceeded to for the rest of the night) when our entrees showed up.

I’ve tried scallops a few times in the past, including my own so-so attempt at grilling the little suckers, but I knew that I’d never really tasted them they way they SHOULD be enjoyed. Tonight, I decided, was a good opportunity to do so. I received three beautifully browned scallops atop a mushroom risotto cake and a small mound of collard greens. A country ham consommé was the finishing touch. Gordon Ramsay would have been proud.

First of all, my plate was absolutely gorgeous. The chef and kitchen staff obviously take great pains in appearance, believers in the mantra that you eat first with your eyes. There were no fancy garnishes or unnecessary schwack on the plate, just a healthy serving size of highly flavorful, fragrant, beautiful food. The succulent scallops were sweet and tender with a lovely caramelized crust, and the mushroom risotto was delicious. Collard greens seemed an unlikely accompaniment on paper, but were just bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the scallops, and the salty ham jus pulled the whole thing together.

As good as my entrée was, I must admit, I think hubby’s might have been even better. Sliced duck breast (prepared well done at hubby’s request without a bat of the eye), mounted on spicy red rice with duck confit and steamed bok choy. Oh. My. Goodness. My mouth is watering just remembering it now. We both all but licked our plates clean.

I wanted to order dessert so badly, but knew I just didn’t have room left to enjoy it to its maximum potential, and so we refrained. We seriously thought about taking a leisurely walk and then coming back a little later to order some. In lieu of a sweet finale, hubby asked for an espresso, encouraged by the coffee machinery behind the bar. Sadly, this proved the only flaw in an otherwise perfect meal. To be fair, the vast majority of Midwesterners could order an espresso here and think it wonderful. But, being the worldly, well-traveled man that he is, hubby has shot back enough real-deal authentic espressos in Europe to know the difference. He has even invested in a machine of his own to make them just the way he likes.

Having seen hubby proudly display his own creations at home, I knew enough to cringe when I saw the espresso arrive at the table without any sort of creamy foam on top. Hubby was happy that the barista/bartender heated the cup, but pronounced the coffee itself not good. Which is so sad! At a restaurant that pays such close and careful attention to every food detail, the coffee fell short.

Even though we had politely refused dessert, Dustin delivered us a tiny plate containing two chocolate sandwich cookies glued together with raspberry cream filling “to fortify us for our walk.” We each took a tiny nibble, intending on just a taste, and proceeded to polish off every crumb. Our total bill for one starter, two entrees, and two beers for hubby (plus the bonus amuse bouche and cookies) came to just under $80. Completely good value, we felt, for the quality of food, service and atmosphere.

The espresso disappointment aside, and it wasn’t a serious transgression, our overall Restaurant Tallent dining experience was fabulous. The food itself was nothing short of incredible. The pacing of the food was perfect, slow enough to build anticipation, but quick enough to be efficient. Another interesting note, there are no condiments on the tables. Dustin came over after we’d had our first taste of each course to see if we wanted salt or pepper. The mark of a true chef is in the seasoning, and Dave Tallent passes that test with flying colors. I can’t wait to go back. I just heard someone say that Restaurant Tallent offers half-priced entrees on Monday nights… that could be very dangerous information for me to know. I would be completely willing to drive to Bloomington and back in an evening for a 50 percent-off dinner.

Hubby and I pleasantly passed the rest of the evening walking around Kirkwood and the I.U. campus, stopping into Nick’s for another beer and a pool hall where I was promptly shamed by the decline of my shooting abilities. I was AMAZED at the number of ethnic eateries presently housed along 4th Street. This stretch has come a long way since I was a student, now housing Ethiopian, Thai, Korean, Tibetan, Italian, Turkish, Moroccan and I can’t even remember what else. Very, very impressive. Every restaurant looked better than the one we’d just passed, and I found myself wishing we had about a week to get acquainted with all of them.

After a leisurely sleep-in this morning, hubby and I were ready to venture out for more food. The other restaurant I’d been wanting to try was FARMBloomington, and although a walk-by last night revealed it wasn’t as upscale and romantic as Restaurant Tallent for an honorary 40th birthday dinner, it was just the ticket for brunch.

FARMBloomington manages to be down-home yet still trendy at the same time. The décor is bright and cheery with homey, cozy details like hanging quilts and a somehow charming wall display of bedpans indicating the restrooms. Like Tallent, FARMBloomington focuses on farm-fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The brunch menu is full of egg dishes, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and other standard breakfast fare with modern gourmet spins.

We started by toasting the trip with mimosas. Hubby ordered a basic breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and oven-roasted tomatoes sprinkled with savory herbs. It was nothing fancy; just solid, hearty, super-fresh, good food. The tomatoes made the plate, and I vowed to attempt something similar at home to serve over pasta or alongside a roast.

My breakfast was French toast, made with day-old Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse brioche soaked overnight in custard batter, then cooked and topped with a dazzling orange syrup and dollop of tangy crème fraiche. Mmmmmmm. I can’t even begin to describe how good it was. A lady at the table next to ours leaned over to ask me what it was and said she planned to order it on her next visit.

Again, the serving sizes were just right and the prices were extremely fair considering the quality of the food. We left completely sated and happy with our food decisions for the weekend.

So, although it wasn’t Montreal, hubby and I had a fantastic visit to Bloomington and vowed to come back again soon. And I got a chance to reconnect and spent a little downtime with the man I love, which is exactly what I wanted for my birthday.

Restaurant Tallent on Urbanspoon