Digging the scene

Quick. Complete this sentence. “Life’s a…”

My standard answer is “Life’s a garden. Dig it.” But after my inaugural visit to Indiana’s premiere food festival yesterday at White River State Park, I’m changing my answer to “Life’s a garden. Dig IN.”

The roots for Dig IN date back to 2008, when an Alice Waters event at the IMA inspired local Ivy Tech instructor Thom England and local celebri-chef Neal Brown (Libertine, Pizzology, L’Explorateur) to dream up the Taste of Indiana farm-to-fork festival to promote Indiana’s Slow Food scene and its constituents. The name transitioned to Dig IN in 2009, and the rest is history.

The 2012 roster yesterday took in some 30 chefs, several dozen producers, a handful of food trucks, microbreweries, wineries, artisan vendors and live entertainment. This was one big par-TAY for foodies.

Dig In at White River State Park in full swing, Aug. 26, 2012

My pal Laura and I met up in White River State Park about an hour after go time, and I’m glad we didn’t wait any longer than that to arrive. The place was PACKED, which was awesome. So great to see so many Hoosiers embracing the local/regional food industry in all its varied forms. (Plus, I hear some vendors actually ran out of samples even before the halfway point.)

Here’s how it works: when you enter, you get a food “passport” that basically gives you the lay of the land — who’s in what tent, what they’re serving, where to find the beer and wine, food truck row, Indiana food artisans, etc. You figure out what you want to taste based on the item descriptions, or the chef’s reputation, and hop in line to score your sample. The lines were a little intimidating at first, but we were reassured to see them moving quickly, and I don’t think we had to stand anywhere for longer than a few minutes waiting for food.

Between the two of us, we made our way through nearly a dozen lines. Overall impressions, there was a lot of corn to be had here, and a lot of pork. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but made for some overlap among the offerings. Also, although there were several fruit-based soups, I didn’t see a whole lot of dessert options. Would have loved a tiny bite of cake, brownie, pie, whatever to finish things off. I suppose in retrospect I could have just stocked up on 240Sweet marshmallows and Frittle’s Candy.

Laura and I ran into quite a few people we knew wandering around, and it was fun to compare notes on what we’d tried. Got a few great recommendations that way. So here’s what we ate:

mini bison brat from 18 on the Square, Shelbyville

First up, we jumped in the 18 on the Square line for a mini bison bratwurst with handcrafted mustard and a pickled corn/squash relish. It was a nice-sized sample and a great way to kick things off. The brat had good flavor, and the relish was a tangy vinegary counterpoint to cut the richness. I don’t know anything about Chef Joseph Martin, but I’m going to put this restaurant on my radar if I’m ever down around Shelbyville.

ricotta with peach corn puree and popcorn from Zest! and Just Pop In!

A line or two over, we tried the housemade ricotta with peach and white corn puree topped with Twisted Sistaz Popcorn. This one was a team effort between Zest! Exciting Food Creations and Just Pop In!, (perhaps they joined forces because both feature exclamation marks in their names?) It pains me to say this, because I love Zest and the eatery is one of my brunch go-tos, but I did not like this dish. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making ricotta at home, and was hoping to get some indication of how it might turn out, but I couldn’t taste it at all underneath the puree. There was also a little splash of something green (arugula?) that just didn’t do anything for me. The popcorn was good, but seemed a strange garnish, and with all the other flavors going on, I couldn’t discern the spices and curry in it.

Sun King Sunlight Cream Ale. Ahhhhh….

It being a near-90-degree day and all, we decided a cold beer was definitely in order. Options abound; you can load up on small free samples, or purchase a take-home pint glass for $6 that includes one fill (additional refills are $5 a pop). $6 for a souvenir glass and a beer is a good deal in my book. I suppose I could have tried something new, but I decided to support my buddies Clay and Dave and beelined straight to the Sun King line for a pint of Sunlight Cream Ale. You really can’t go wrong with this beer on a hot summer day.

R Bistro’s peach soup with smoked duck

Thirst quenched and ready for more food, Laura snagged a taste of chilled peach soup with a scattering of shredded duck and a radish slice on top from R Bistro and pronounced it tangy, fresh and delicious.

corn salad with pancetta from Late Harvest Kitchen

Combining the themes-of-the-day corn and pork, and doing it extremely well, Ryan Nelson and Late Harvest Kitchen offered a corn, walnut, goat cheese and pancetta salad. Fresh, crispy, creamy and flavorful. The pancetta really made this dish. Then again, bacon makes everything better if you ask me. Still can’t believe I haven’t been to eat at Late Harvest Kitchen yet. MUST get there. Soon.

Fermenti Artisan’s garden kraut with Capriole Farms cheese

Laura wanted to say hi to her friend Mark Cox at Fermenti Artisan, who served a small scoop of fermented garden kraut with Capriole Farms Old Kentucky Tomme cheese. Laura loves her some sauerkraut, and said this was an especially good one.

Oakley’s lamb adobo lettuce wrap

My personal favorite dish of the day came from Oakley’s Bistro – a lamb adobo lettuce wrap. O.M.G. was it good. The tender spicy, braised lamb with a little creamy grain underneath (still trying to figure out what this was – polenta? Cous cous?) and the fresh, crunchy lettuce was a perfect flavor/texture combination. I could have eaten several of these and called it a day. I’m ashamed to say I have never been to Oakley’s Bistro for a meal despite several strong word-of-mouth recommendations, and I must rectify this wrong. A ridiculous lapse of attention on my part.

Neal Brown rocking the scene

At this point, Laura and I took a little breather to sit down and drink some water, which brings me to another cool feature of Dig IN. The organizers and volunteers kept the free bottles of water coming the entire afternoon, dropping off cases to the entertainment tents and passing them out via golf carts. We even spied Neal Brown himself playing water boy, cruising through the crowds on his golf cart like a rock star. I’m surprised people didn’t stop him to get his autograph.

Scratchtruck’s corn panna cotta with dulce de leche

Refreshed, we took a wander up to food truck row on the bridge over the White River. I wanted to try the sweet corn panna cotta with dulce de leche from Scratchtruck. Sadly, this one let me down. It could have been much better if it had been really icy cold and much firmer in texture. As it was, the temperature was on the warmish side, and the consistency was way too loose, almost like yogurt. I didn’t care for this at all, but I’m more than willing to give Scratchtruck another shot for a burger sometime, which I hear is stellar.

My Dad’s sweet corn chowder from Circle City Soups

Husband and wife Roger and Cindy Hawkins operated their respective Circle City Soups and Circle City Sweets booths side by side, just as they do their stands in City Market. (All together now…. awwwwww.) I love these folks. I actually had the pleasure of working with Roger when I was doing some temp catering several years ago at Puck’s at the IMA, and I recently interviewed Cindy for an article in the current issue of Edible Indy, so I’m thrilled to see them both doing well. Roger is the soup master; for Dig IN, he ladled up his signature My Dad’s Sweet Corn Chowder. I don’t even want to know how much cream and butter go into this recipe, but if you’re looking for an insanely rich, delicious soup, Roger’s the man. I could take a bath in this stuff. It’s that good. If you happen to be in City Market, or catch him at a farmer’s market, do yourself a favor and pick up a pint or two.

candy trio from Circle City Sweets

Likewise, Cindy’s sweets and pastries are top shelf. For Dig IN, she served a very interesting, and perfect for the occasion, trio of candies — a peach pate de fruit that was like a melt-in-your-mouth gumdrop, a creamy French nougat studded with nuts and dried fruit, and a soft caramel so good it nearly made our eyes roll back in our heads. I’ve decided I want to take a weeklong culinary vacation at Roger and Cindy’s house, and wonder what I might need to do to get invited to their next dinner party…

cantaloupe cucumber soup with creme fraiche from Meridian

Laura wanted to keep going, but I was really hitting the wall and had to call it quits. She went on to try the cantaloupe cucumber soup with basil crème fraiche and watercress pistou from Meridian, and said it was like a light, refreshing sweet/savory smoothie; and the signature Reuben from Black Swan Brewpub, which she loved. With full tummies and happy hearts, we decided to call it a day and head home.

My only suggestion on how to improve on Dig IN would be to extend it to two days, or even a full day. I don’t know if that’s even logistically possible, but there was just too much to see and sample here to cram into a couple hours without going into total gustatory overload. I really would have liked to eat more, but after so many samples, a pint of beer and a bottle of water, my belly felt like it was going to bust. In a good way.

I loved, loved, fricking LOVED this event, and I’m already looking forward to coming back next year. I suggest you do the same.

For more information,
www.digindiana.org

Advertisements

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:

http://www.wishard.edu/slowfoodgarden

http://www.growingplacesindy.org/

http://www.slowfoodindy.com/

http://www.duosindy.com/

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:

http://www.eiteljorg.org/ejm_planyourvisit/skycitycafe.asp

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

Sky City Cafe 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.

For more info:

http://www.jwindy.com/dining/tavern.php

Tavern on the Plaza (JW Marriott) on Urbanspoon