41 Degrees North is finding its way.
After months of nearly secret renovation, Austin Slabach opened his first restaurant April 1 at 104 S. Main St., Middlebury.
He’d worked in Colorado kitchens and came back home to give Middlebury a spot for local burgers and regional beer.
“We’re having a good time. The people have been very supportive,” he said.
The restaurant and bar has been busy. Slabach is training a young staff in a tight labor market to meet the demands of the modern diner.
- RELATED: 41 Degrees North will open next week in Middlebury, March 26, 2015
When I’ve been there, I’ve had good service and food, though it could be in part because the staff spotted me and put “Food blogger!!!!!!” on at least one of the tickets going to the kitchen.
I was there one night when Slabach was sick, and the word from employees was that some turnover in the kitchen created some disarray. People got served, but it took some time in a few instances.
104 S. Main St., Middlebury
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, 1 p.m. to midnight Saturday
This place is like a cake in the oven that’s getting closer to done as time passes. It’s already doing pretty well, but it’s not yet humming along without kinks. Slabach said they’re having fun and figuring out the kinks.
The concept of featuring local food in a renovated bar with cocktails or beer is taking hold in Middlebury, as it is elsewhere. “People like keeping money in the community around here and it’s really good to see,” Slabach said.
The tilapia in the fish tacos is from Stutzman Aquaculture, which is in Goshen but moving to Middlebury, he said. A guy with a greenhouse will soon be producing all the greens. Tomatoes and basil are starting to come in from nearby. Slabach said he’s working on a new menu that will feature even more local ingredients.
What’s coming out of the kitchen at one of Elkhart County’s newest restaurants isn’t what you’ll find across the street at Village Inn, one of Elkhart County’s oldest restaurants.
While Village Inn, which has been a waypoint for decades, has pie and diner food with Amish/Mennonite influence, 41 Degrees North is trying new things.
The burger special last Tuesday had feta and fresh basil for $9 with a side dish. It was juicy and delicious, though it didn’t need the olive oil, which essentially just dripped out on the plate. The side salad had a bit too much shredded cheese, but the greens were good and the basil vinaigrette is nice.
I don’t know if another Middlebury restaurant has ever served fish tacos, but these may be the first. They have that local tilapia, good salsa and goat cheese. Again, there’s that twist of trying something new. The funkiness of the goat cheese wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a surprise.
The onion rings made in-house are hefty. Cindy Sleppy, who used to run a coffee shop down the street, is helping make the desserts and the piece of chocolate cake I had was hefty and good.
The heat that’s giving the staff experience could get turned up as summer gets underway.
The tourists are starting to arrive in Middlebury and Shipshewana. They’ll be hungry and thirsty and will find Rise & Roll, Blue Gate and Essenhaus, but they’ll also be looking for the spots, like 41 Degrees North, where they can get a burger and beer.
The burgers are good. The ribeye I had was good, too, though it would have benefited from being cut a bit thicker so that it wouldn’t have cooked as quickly.
The little things that could become big things can get taken care of with an emphasis on customer service that goes beyond what people expect.
When I got the wrong soup, the right one appeared. But when a man taking food back to his office needed a plastic fork and the staff couldn’t find one, they could have saved a few minutes by sending him on his way with a metal one. Chances are he would have brought it back the next time he came in to eat.
After I sat down one day, it took a little time for staff members to put down cell phones and bring me a menu. Perhaps they were on break, but it made me wonder.
As Slabach said, he’s working to create a place that’s set up to succeed and he’s headed the right direction. This place is already decent and has great potential.
Having a native come back to open this kind of restaurant is great for any community, but particularly a small town best known for its Amish food.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.