It’s not like we all woke up this morning and Indianapolis suddenly has an amazing food scene. It does, but it didn’t happen overnight — even if it feels like it.
One of the best restaurants in the world, according to Conde Nast Traveler, is in the city they called Naptown. And it’s not St. Elmo’s Steakhouse. (You’ll find out which restaurant it is later).
Ed Rudisell, co-owner of Rook, Black Market and a handful of other places, said Hoosier diners keep getting more knowledgeable and demanding better food. “ It’s the same thing that’s happening all over the country,” he said.
A handful of Indianapolis chefs have gotten nominations from the James Beard Foundation, the most important U.S. culinary entity. So far, no chef has won a James Beard Award for being a best chef in the Midwest. Indianapolis restaurants are still awaiting what some call the Oscar of the food world.
When you’re trying to bring a James Beard Award to a city and its chefs, it doesn’t hurt to show off. Audra Sternberg of Cerulean organized a dinner with her husband, Cerulean Chef Alan Sternberg, who was a 2016 James Beard Rising Star semifinalist. Cerulean Pastry Chef Pete Schmutte got involved. So did chefs Kevin Ashworth of 610 Magnolia in Louisville and Ryan Santos of Please in Cincinnati. The $175, eight-course meal with pairings showcased Midwestern culinary talent. Serving 120 people at once is a huge task that involved securing donations of tableware, food and drink.
Diane Harris Brown, director of educational and community programming for James Beard Foundation, traveled from New York City for the event and admitted she wasn’t sure about traveling to the Midwest for the meal. After being overwhelmed by Hoosier hospitality and great dishes, she left impressed.
The meal is over, but the great meals that are possible in Indianapolis aren’t. Here are my five that you can walk to in or near downtown (and a whole other category to explore too):
Milktooth, 534 Virginia Ave. The first restaurant opened by Chef Jonathan Brooks and his wife Ashley has become the hottest spot in the city. Conde Nast Traveler recently put it on its list of 207 of the greatest places to eat on the globe. The Cooking Channel was there this week to film. Brooks was at Recess (also one of the city’s best, but I haven’t yet been there). Milktooth is best known for its unconventional but amazing breakfasts. The coffee and other ingredients are sourced locally and the talented staff turns them into magic.
Cerulean, 339 S. Delaware St. The owners of the Winona Lake location opened an outpost in 2012 and it quickly made a number of “ best of” lists for the Midwest and more locally. The restaurant and bar seats about 160 and has some amazing design features, including a “nest” that owner Caleb France and others constructed from small slabs of wood inside the restaurant. Chef Alan Sternberg uses a lot of Hoosier ingredients (and great stuff like Sitka salmon). Pastry Chef Pete Schmutte is both creative and a master of combining rich flavors.
Rook, 501 Virginia Avenue. Chef/co-owner Carlos Salazar is bringing it when it comes to Asian street food, particularly the Filipino dishes of his heritage. The pork belly steamed buns are a stellar mix of umami and soft and crisp textures. In the bar, Eli Sanchez keeps winning contests around the Midwest for his cocktails and being a character. Don’t confuse Rook with The Rook, a bar on 71st Street that would likely not know what to do if you ordered steamed buns.
Cafe Patachou, 225 W. Washington St. The downtown location is one of five in the city and they all serve a civilized breakfast. There’s a lot to be said for such a thing, particularly when it’s family-friendly. Self-serve coffee is actually a gift and the food is a remarkable collection of grains, vegetables and meat. Arugula salad is served as part of some entrees without a hint of pretension. Owner Martha Hoover started these in 1989 and has gotten a lot of acclaim, including being listed as one of the 10 best breakfast spots in the country by Bon Appetit magazine in 2002.
Punch Burger, 137 E. Ohio St. Take Indiana grass-fed beef, prepare it on a flattop grill, and serve it hot. Offer a bunch of interesting condiments and combinations. Serve draft beer and sweet potato tots. The concept of Punch Burger, which also has a location in Carmel, is brilliant and yet so simple. Oh, and the burgers are so good.
Lastly, but not least, the craft beer scene in Indianapolis is just exploding. From Bent Rail to Wabash Brewing, dozens of places are now offering their brews at tasting rooms and brewpubs. Sun King’s tasting room at 135 N. College Ave. is usually packed on Fridays because of cheap growler fills of its flagships.
No, all this goodness didn’t develop overnight, but the fact that is has come to be is a reason to celebrate. When it comes to good eating and drinking, Indianapolis has game.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.