The buzz is back at 505 S. Main St., Elkhart.
The dining room has been full on weekends. The bar is busy in the back of the old brick building.
In the first three weeks of its existence, Artisan has been the place to be. It’s been the place people are talking about and asking about.
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I know this in part because I’ve been fielding questions and asking my own. And because I ate there four times in the first three weeks.
I usually have a 30-day rule. When a place opens, I give it a month or more to work out the wobbles before I visit.
At Elkhart’s fanciest restaurant, and one of the most anticipated, I wanted to see the opening days. I figured that Kurt Janowsky and his staff would handle it well.
How has it been?
From the beginning, the food has been stellar, the service attentive and the atmosphere different than anything else in Elkhart County.
505 S. Main St., Elkhart
Hours: 4:30 p.m. bar opening and 5 p.m. kitchen opening Tuesday to Saturday. Open until late.
Details: American fare, reservations recommended, business or business casual attire recommended, handicapped accessible, banquet room available, tasting menu doesn’t require advance notice, no smoking, full bar.
One customer has called it “underwhelming” on Yelp, but the overwhelming response has been surprise that you can get a big-city dining experience in Elkhart. Janowsky said what he hears most is, “I can’t believe I’m in Elkhart.”
He invested $700,000 in a building he doesn’t yet own on Main Street, because he believed a high-end restaurant would work in Elkhart. The opening weeks have only reinforced that belief. “We want this to be the alternative to getting in your car and driving to Chicago for dinner,” he said.
The opening days have gone as expected for Janowsky. The kitchen has been handling the tasks of plating around 100 different elements for the 20 salads, appetizers and entrees on the menu. Chef Matthew Jay and his staff are working hard and carefully and delivering great flavors.
They’re logging long hours making pates, stocks and even dehydrating beets for powder to garnish the plate on the Artisan salad. The bison is braised six hours. Nearly everything coming out of the small kitchen was made there or in the basement of the restaurant.
The servers understand how to replace silverware between courses and fill water glasses gracefully. The only wobbles have been small, such as not clearing plates simultaneously or bringing another course before someone was done with a salad.
The first week of the restaurant, Artisan offered a six-course tasting menu and a nine-course tasting menu. Now, it’s one seven-course menu for $60 that features smaller portions of seven dishes on the regular menu. It’s the only restaurant in the Elkhart/South Bend market offering a tasting menu. (Update – Mark McDonnell, owner of LaSalle Grill, said since this was published that restaurant has offered tasting menus in South Bend since 1999, but doesn’t use items on the regular menu.)
Most restaurants with the feature require an entire table to order the tasting menu. Artisan doesn’t. One diner can order from the menu and another can get a tasting with or without the wine pairing. “We want people to be able to have what they want,” Janowsky said.
The restaurant could manage two different tasting menus and a la carte ordering, but Janowsky made the smart change that simplifies ordering for both the guests and staff.
Artisan isn’t yet a place to get a quick bite to eat. The customers are treating the meal as an outing without a time limit. That gives the staff breathing space in which to learn rhythm. When there’s a show at the Lerner Theatre, the restaurant will need to be able to feed a crowd quickly, but that will come.
Chef Jay is cooking in his hometown. The 1998 graduate of the Elkhart Area Career Center’s culinary arts program and 2000 graduate of Culinary Institute of America is smiling as he cooks in the restaurant he’s been wanting for a long time.
He’s joined by sous chef Brendan Berry, who worked at Bouchon in New York City, and Ryan Wilson. The trio is talented.
The menu will change this week, Janowsky said. That will happen every several weeks. There will always be fresh seafood, duck, chicken and steaks, but the preparations will shift.
The first menu was great. The foie gras prepared with apple compote and cider reduction was one of the best bites I’ve had in a long time. You may not want to eat duck liver for any variety of reasons, but I have no qualms.
Janowsky’s staff, whether at Cafe Navarre or Artisan, understands how to cook seafood properly, so any of those dishes are remarkable. But aside from the foie gras, the best thing I’ve had is the bison, raised at Cook’s Bison Ranch. The braise makes it tender pot roast that’s then served with veal sweetbreads, creamy potatoes, roasted root vegetables and shallots roasted in syrah wine.
I fell in love with Berry’s “D’constructed S’more” dessert. It had chocolate mousse, graham cracker crumbs on the plate and in the ice cream, and a toasted marshmallow. It’s a delightful mix of flavors.
One of the delights of Artisan is Dan Demeester recommending wine. He’s managing the front of the house, but is also the sommelier. To have someone who can pair a flavor with food at the price you hope to pay adds to the dining experience.
He’ll field any question, which helps anyone but especially those who are less comfortable with ordering wine. Artisan’s cocktail list is also solid.
The average check so far has been $80 a person for food and beverage, said Janowsky. “You can dine here for $50 certainly,” he said.
Some wouldn’t spend that for a meal. Others can do it multiple times a week. He said he has been surprised at how often some customers have been back. One man was there half of the first 14 days the restaurant was open.
“They said they wanted quality. They said they were willing to pay what it takes for quality,” Janowsky said of what his customers had told him prior to opening.
Artisan will be a regular stop for some of those folks and a rare one for others, but it adds a fine-dining option that Elkhart County hasn’t had. Expanding the culinary range of what’s available here is good for the economy and may raise the game of other places. Most of all it’s good for those who want great food in an elegant setting.
“You can get a private club experience at Artisan,” he said. “We want to fawn over our guests.”
Being fawned over is fun, particularly when the forks are full of delicious food.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.