INDIANAPOLIS — If you head to the center of the food scene in the center of Indiana, you’ll find more than pork tenderloin sandwiches these days.
You’ll find more than the steakhouses of downtown Indianapolis, more than the Hard Rock Cafes and other chains.
The locally owned, chef-driven restaurants are thriving, sending plates with locally grown vegetables and meat to tables with eager consumers.
In the last five years, the food scene in Indianapolis has popped. Places with names like Bluebeard, Union 50 and Tinker Street are hip and happening. The flavors are bright and surprising. This is not the Indy of old.
Peter George, co-owner with Tom Main, opened Tinker Street Restaurant & Wine Bar in January at 16th and New Jersey. George’s mother, Evelyn George, opened Carriage House in South Bend 40 years ago and he came to Indianapolis in 1985. Some credit him with starting the Indy fine dining scene.
402 E. 16th St., Indianapolis
620 N. East St., Indianapolis
He was out of the restaurant business for a time but returned with Tinker Street, where Chef Braedon Keller oversees a team that includes Darrell Gascho, formerly of Bread & Chocolate and Constant Spring in Goshen.
The menu includes stir-fried sugar snap peas with a spicy fermented bean sauce and garlic-flavored Rice Krispies. It’s a $7 bowl of goodness. Pad Thai is made with summer squash noodles, eggplant, cilantro and peanuts ($12).
Both dishes, by the way, are vegan and delicious. Much of the food at Tinker Street is light and healthy. “We want our guests to live a long life,” said George. “We want to have fun. This food livens you up.”
S’mores are trending right now, and the Tinker Street take on the campfire dessert has a chocolate pot de creme, served in a jelly jar and topped with scorched marshmallow and a graham cracker. But there’s a strip of ash on the plate. Yes, ash. Made with incinerated vegetable scraps and adding another note to the $6 dish. Somehow, it works and works well. George said Kellner calls it “crack in a jar.”
Gascho said he came to Indy to push himself in a culinary way. Chefs here are exploring the creative boundaries and supporting farmers.
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“I’m making candied kumquats — from Indiana,” he said of the small citrus fruit that wasn’t native like the persimmon. “It’s what’s in season.”
Indianapolis feels different than it used to. It’s more cosmopolitan and food is a key part of that. “The millennials invaded the food scene and we love ’em,” George said.
Posting of a selfie from the hottest new restaurant has become part of Indianapolis culture, he said. In addition to the generation and its love for social media, Food Network has helped educate people about flavors and fine food. That’s how you can put a spicy sauce made with fermented beans, a classic Asian flavor, on fresh vegetables in Indiana.
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Brewpubs and breweries have exploded. Outdoor patios and fancy cocktails are easy to find. Fresh seafood, other than the bluegill you can pull out of an Indiana lake, is common. At Union 50, in a renovated bricklayers union hall, the sea scallops are nestled with a nugget of buttermilk fried chicken and bacon on a bed of creamed kale and with corn relish and chili pepper honey ($26). The scallops were cooked perfectly, but so was the chicken and both worked with the greens and sauce.
You can go to St. Elmo’s or Ruth’s Chris downtown and pay a lot for a steak, but now you can go to any number of places and get a plate of nearly perfect food, vegetables or otherwise, for few dollars. You can order a bunch of small plates and share. Because of the competition, the prices are comparable or even slightly better than the fine dining places in South Bend, Elkhart and Goshen.
You can head to the chains you don’t find in northern Indiana, ranging from White Castle to P.F. Chang’s. You should go to Trader Joe’s on your way home to stock up. You may seek out the chicken and waffles at Maxine’s, a great diner known for its Southern food, or Shapiro’s, the Jewish deli.
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The new tools such as Yelp or tripadvisor.com can help find the places where talented chefs are working with local ingredients. Tinker Street is one of the top-rated places in both of those online systems.
The farm-to-fork movement has taken hold in this Midwestern city. Chefs are broadening and deepening the flavors that are added to the fresh Indiana duck, pork, chicken or beef, not to mention the seafood. There’s talent in the Indy dining scene. Chicago is a great food city and Indianapolis is becoming one.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.